Dear Mr. Obama, will you be my dad?

Corinne Gray
Jun 16 · 7 min read
I spent a life of pain searching for the perfect dad. Many other kids are too. Credit: Mike Orlov / Adobe Stock

Dear Mr. Obama, I know this is a weird request. Although, considering the life you’ve had, this may not be the weirdest one. But, I’d like to ask if you’d consider being my dad. Wait, let me explain.

My ‘dad’ died just before Christmas last year. The quotes are intentional because he really wasn’t in any shape or form a ‘dad’. In fact, when I’m feeling most bitter, I call him the ‘sperm donor with benefits’. He abandoned my mother, sister, and me when I was about 3 and pretty much never looked back after migrating to the U.S. from our native home of Trinidad and Tobago. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen him. On two hands I can count the number of actual conversations we’ve ever had.

He knew where we lived. He knew how to contact us. He just chose not to. And I’ve spent all of my 37 years trying to figure out why. The little girl in me always found a way to blame herself, because childhood logic works that way. And even though intellectually I know it doesn’t have anything to do with me, my little-girl heart will always feel broken and patently unlovable.

And it’s not like I didn’t try to have that ‘dad’ I always wanted. I would contact him a lot, write letters, do everything in my power to be on his radar — to get him to love me the way a dad should.

But he didn’t. Wouldn’t. Maybe, he couldn’t.

In all my 37 years he’s never contacted me on my birthday. I remember writing him at 21 to say I wish he would greet me on my birthday each year. I never gave up hope that one day he would send at least a two-word text with an emoji or something. But he’s dead now, so it’s never happening.

Which brings me to the matter at hand. I know I sound crazy. I’m pushing 40 and I’m recruiting for a dad. Not only that, I’m actually asking someone I’ve never met to take on that job (but only because I expect you’re less busy than when you were doing the whole POTUS thing).

I’ve never met you obviously. I don’t know you really, and I don’t agree with all of your policy choices (I’d be an honest but kind daughter). But, from the first moment I saw you on Oprah (before you were OBAMA), talking with your wife about your family and your two little girls, I instantly felt that if I could choose my own dad, it would be you.

I haven’t made this choice lightly. I’ve spent decades observing fathers. Ever since I was a little girl, they were a mystical creature to me — like unicorns. I’d watch my friends’ dads, and would spend hours imagining what it’s like to have a dad who loves you and is there for you. I hate to even admit this, but I would often whisper “I love you,” to myself, imagining it was coming from a mythological dad who existed only in my head. I’ll never know what it’s like to experience the real thing.

But, when I look at you interact with your daughters, or how you light up when you talk about them, I can’t help but wish that the lottery of birth would have been kinder to me dad-wise. I imagine you talk to them about their days, about boys, about their careers. I imagine they can call you up on the phone with a problem and you’d give them sage advice (in your oh so powerful baritone). I bet you always wish them happy birthday with tons of emojis.

I love that you stand for change. I admire what you’ve been able to accomplish. I love that you started a Foundation (that’s my dream job too!) AND you’re making a movie about Disability rights (that’s the work I do!). You’re a man about something — and that for me is the coolest thing ever. That, for me, makes you a prime candidate for the role of Corinne Gray’s dad.

Mr. Obama, I’m not one to toot my own horn. Believe me, parental abandonment cripples your self-esteem. But, what kind of proposal would this be if I didn’t list the potential benefits to you of being my dad? I’d be a great daughter. First of all, I’m 37 so I don’t need a whole lot in life right now. I’ve already got my own health insurance too (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one).

I’m really passionate about social change. As a teen, I volunteered at an orphanage every day after school, and my deep passion for social justice led me to a humanitarian career. I worked at the United Nations, working on refugee innovations before I became a fellow at MIT Sloan School of Management and then launched my own social enterprise for people living with chronic illness and disability.

I’m also a Fulbright Scholar who went to public policy school at Carnegie Mellon. If I were your daughter, you’d be #winning on Bring Your Kid to Work Day. I have the skills and experience to actually get things done at your office. As your daughter, you’d have all of my support for your philanthropic work — for free.

Oh! AND I can sing. And paint. I’m an artist at heart. Before I committed to humanitarianism, I was a professional jazz singer. Your Al Green rendition was nice, but Mr. Obama, I can really SANG. I imagine we’d have jam sessions over classic records. I might give you some singing tips too. I’d paint your portrait — with or without leaves.

I found out my father had a stroke and was on life support via email from a friend of his. All of a sudden, his fate rested in the hands of the two women he abandoned. I can’t begin to describe what those weeks were like: the pain, the trauma, and — most of all — the rage I felt that I was now responsible for the man who took no responsibility for me.

He’d burned so many people that not even his siblings cared to help or step in. All of a sudden, I was his daughter — not because he treated me as such, but biologically, my sister and I were now the only people who could actively participate in his health care. All of a sudden, my sister and I were daughters, now expected to take care of all the administrative work of a parent’s death. With no help. We couldn’t even answer questions about his medical history or insurance. We didn’t know him.

Mr. Obama, the saddest thing is there wasn’t even a funeral. We couldn’t afford it, and there was no other family who cared enough to plan one. He had a mass state burial. He’s in an unmarked grave in what I imagine to be a crudely built casket made of cheap pine. There is a plot and row number if we ever wanted to visit, but I can’t imagine ever going there. How do I even mourn his death? I don’t miss him, because I didn’t know him and he wasn’t part of my life. His death feels no different than his life: absent.

I don’t know what makes parents abandon their children, but it isn’t uncommon. In the U.S. alone, there are about 24.7 million children living without their biological father. It’s easy to think they’re just bad people. After all, what kind of person simply chooses not to contact or participate in their kids’ lives? And not because they weren’t allowed to, but because they simply chose not to.

But through my own mistakes I’ve come to know that this much is true: we must always explore someone’s decisions and actions with a measure of compassion and understanding. And this is the space I’ve chosen to exist in. I don’t hate my deadbeat dad. I understand he must have had his own demons and was probably just incapable of having a loving relationship with anyone. And when I’m not feeling angry at him, I mostly feel sorry for him.

The stats are hard to ignore though. As it turns out, children raised in fatherless homes are more likely to drop out of school, suffer behavioral problems or substance abuse, or turn to a life of crime. I haven’t come out unscathed either. I live with Depression and Social Anxiety Disorder, triggered by the trauma of being abandoned by a parent. In many ways, that pain never goes away; you just learn to live with it. I credit my mother and my faith in God as the reason I didn’t become a statistic, but that I’ve been able to use all my pain and hurt as fuel to do good in this world. Because, as you very well know, there is a lot of work to be done in this world. My own mental health struggles are what motivated me to do the work I do today: to fight for a more welcoming world for people who struggle with mental or physical illness.

Mr. Obama, it’s likely you’ll never read this. But I’m writing this for any parent right now who is not participating in their child’s life by choice. And I say by choice because I know there are situations where parental participation is sometimes limited by the parent who has primary custody as some kind of weird revenge game. I’m talking to those who simply choose not to be involved. Whatever the reason for your absence know this: things can be forgiven if you make the effort. Whatever demons you face that make you think you might be the worst parent in the world, know that they can be conquered. There’s a little boy or girl out there right now whose heart is broken, and whose life hangs in the balance because you’re not around. You’d be surprised to see how much they would light up when they see you. Cause kids are like that. They’re forgiving and they’re resilient. All they really need is for you to show up and show that you care.

Corinne Gray

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I started a revolution to change the way we talk about chronic illness & disability. Join me.

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