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Americans celebrate dads this weekend. Three tell us about being a father in 2023

Jorge and Susel Mata in the kitchen on "Steak Day" circa 2019.
Jorge Mata
Jorge and Susel Mata in the kitchen on "Steak Day" circa 2019.

It's been more than a century since Americans started celebrating Father's Day. And while some things have remained constant through the years (like hardware stores promoting deals on grills and drills for most of June) fatherhood has evolved.

Three very different dads — one who served in the military, one who navigated pregnancy, and one who moved to the U.S. to escape violence — talked about what it means to raise a family in the U.S. today ahead of this year's Father's Day.

Parenting between deployments — Duane Jolly

Duane and wife Patrice on a rare getaway in Hawaii this week, where <em>Morning Edition</em> producer Chad Campbell reached him.
/ Duane Jolly
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Duane Jolly
Duane and wife Patrice on a rare getaway in Hawaii this week, where Morning Edition producer Chad Campbell reached him.

Duane Jolly, 47, is a retired Army sergeant major. He was deployed to Afghanistan for three years, and spent one year in Iraq and about two in Qatar. Throughout, he missed milestones in his children's lives.

His longing for his kids became so acute that "while we were taking fire, I remember thinking, 'Please, God, Don't let me get shot in the back,' " he says.

"That's really what really went through my mind: my kids."

Jolly says he noticed that his oldest daughter's behavior and grades would dip when he was on deployment. His son would sign up for soccer or baseball, only to drop out once his dad deployed.

His wife, Patrice, is still on active duty in the army. Their daughters are 26 and 12, and their son is 21.

Missing out on his kids' childhoods

"I'd say my two oldest kids really caught the worst of it as far as missing out on things. One of the worst parts was my oldest daughter at the time when I left — I think she was nine. And so still a little girl, pigtails and such. And then the third time I came back, she had hit puberty. And that was a bit rough, you know, to leave your little girl and come back and she's becoming a young woman. I feel like I missed that transition period."

Re-adjusting to life at home

"You can't just come home and start expecting your kids to do everything that they did before you left. They've just spent a year without you, so it always became kind of a transition. You just can't come in the house and start, you know, laying down the law or yelling at everybody. You have to be patient. It takes a little bit of time and effort on both sides to basically get used to each other again."

What being a dad to his youngest daughter means for him now that he's retired

"I promised her I'll never miss another one of her birthdays. "The sacrifice isn't just what the soldier, sailor, or airman makes. It's also the family. Serving your country is a noble effort, and I think that the sacrifices that we made were worth it."

Navigating pregnancy as a dad — Kayden Coleman

Kayden Coleman, who was surprised to learn that he was pregnant, in 2020.
/ Kayden Coleman
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Kayden Coleman
Kayden Coleman, who was surprised to learn that he was pregnant, in 2020.

Kayden Coleman, 37, was surprised to learn he was pregnant.

In 2013, he had just had top surgery — a double mastectomy — and had temporarily stopped taking hormones for the procedure. Coleman, who is transgender, said doctors had told him he couldn't get pregnant. A few years later, assuming that he'd been taking hormones long enough to avoid another pregnancy, he found he was expecting again.

Today, he is raising two young daughters.

Coleman shares his experiences with fatherhood and pregnancy as a transmasculine person on social media, hoping to change perceptions and expectations.

"I experienced a lot of pushback and discrimination within the medical system based on preconceived ideas of what a pregnant person is supposed to look like," he says.

He thought that things would have changed by the time he had his second child, but "I still had to deal with people telling me that I didn't belong in certain spaces."

"I had to convince a lot of people that I was pregnant and that I wasn't just a strange man trying to infiltrate the OB-GYN's office," he says. "I got offered abortions an astronomical amount of times. I think that comes from the idea that people think that trans people either don't want to have kids or shouldn't have kids."

Both pregnancies were difficult because he "spent more time fighting for autonomy over myself to just get an equitable space comfortable enough for me to give birth" and didn't get a chance to "actually enjoy the process of being pregnant."

What people get wrong about trans dads

"One of the biggest things that people get wrong is that we hate our bodies, and thus, anything remotely feminine would be something that we will reject — including pregnancy. For those of us who identify more on the masculine spectrum, just because we identify as such does not take away our desire to have kids. If we have the body parts to do so, why not?"

"The other thing that a lot of people think is that because we gave birth, we suddenly become mothers. People are always shocked when they hear my children calling me 'Daddy.'"

Kayden Coleman with his two daughters in 2022.
/ Kayden Coleman
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Kayden Coleman
Kayden Coleman with his two daughters in 2022.

Parenting daughters as a trans dad

"Being a trans dad means I was assigned female at birth and I was essentially raised to adhere to societal standards of what a girl is supposed to be, how a girl is supposed to act. I think that because of that upbringing, I inherently have a kind of nurturing side. I also have insight into how women are perceived by society."

"I also just have certain experiences. I know how to do hair. I'll know how to navigate when the menstrual cycle starts and the bodies start changing. I know how to prepare them for what society is going to be expecting of them and teach them that they have autonomy over themselves."

What being a dad means to him

"I'm just here to provide a safe space for my kids to grow and flourish into amazing adults who know what healthy, genuine love feels like, so that they know to be able to project that out into the world and hopefully be some sort of shining light to others. I feel like as a dad, my job is to be an example of that for them."

Moving his family with two toddlers to the U.S. — Jorge Mata

Jorge Mata, 58, is an immigrant and father of two adult children — daughter Susel (28) and son Jorge Alejandro (26) — who lives in Salinas, California.

Jorge, Susel, Teresa and Jorge Alejandro Mata in Maine for Susel's graduation in May 2017.
/ Jorge Mata
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Jorge Mata
Jorge, Susel, Teresa and Jorge Alejandro Mata in Maine for Susel's graduation in May 2017.

He and his wife were working as doctors in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico in the 1990s when they decided to move with their two toddlers to the United States.

"In Mexico, as a doctor, you can have your office next to a pharmacy. Somebody came and robbed the pharmacy, and killed my friends," Mata says. "After that, we said, 'You know what? It's not safe.'"

None of them spoke English when they arrived.

Jorge Alejandro (1) and Susel Mata (3) during their family's first days in Salinas, CA in 1998.
/ Jorge Mata
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Jorge Mata
Jorge Alejandro (1) and Susel Mata (3) during their family's first days in Salinas, CA in 1998.

"I felt like, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do with two children, my wife, no home, no car?'" he says. "It was scary at that moment to think how we are going to survive here."

Despite this, Mata doesn't view the move to the United States as a sacrifice.

"I knew that I was losing control of my life for a while, but it was the necessary move to have my family safe."

Jorge Mata at work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
/ Jorge Mata
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Jorge Mata
Jorge Mata at work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jorge Mata is finally working in medicine again. After a string of entry-level jobs, he completed the physician assistant program at Stanford University and now works at Kaiser Permanente.

Helping his kids with the language barrier

"I remember taking my daughter, Susel, to a park here in the United States for the first time. When she tried to play with the children, she noticed that they were speaking English and she didn't understand. Then, [I remember] the face of my daughter, just like looking at them and not being able to understand and coming back to us to sit down there and be quiet. And I said, 'What happened Susel?', and she said, 'I don't know what they are talking about and I'm not going to be able to play with them.' Then I had to explain, 'No, it's going to be really fast for you to get the language. It's easy for babies to learn.' "

Drawn to working in a kitchen because he loves to cook for his family

"My first job was at the Outback Steakhouse. They said, 'What do you do?' And I said, 'I don't do anything because it's a new job for me.' I didn't mention I'm a doctor from Mexico, No, but I said, 'You know what? I like to cook,' and that's the only thing. 'Okay,' they say, 'Then you're going to start as a dishwasher.' And then I started moving on to different positions there — to the salads then to fried things. And then in eight months, I was doing almost all the positions in the kitchen."

"When I'm cooking, my children know that I'm in the kitchen because they hear mariachi music in the kitchen and they smell the tomatoes roasting for salsas."

"We have special meals for each one of them. My son likes to eat carne en su jugo, my daughter likes to eat posole and my wife likes carne asada and ceviche."

What this Father's Day means to him

"What I missed most from Mexico was having friends at the level of college. And let me tell you, now I have two friends here: my children. They have college degrees. We talk about everything, we go to museums, we talk about art, music, the medical field, philosophy."

"They are so interesting, so intelligent. It's amazing for me to see how they've transformed from the two babies that we brought here to two really interesting human beings — adults that are doing well in their lives."

Editor's note: Jolly's discussion of readjusting to life at home and Coleman's discussion of pregnancy and top surgery were not in the audio broadcast.

Our digital editor was Lisa Lambert with help from Majd Al-Waheidi. The broadcast stories were edited by Jacob Conrad and Lisa Weiner.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chad Campbell
Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.