How Bini Ewnetu navigates the grief of losing a child as he bridges two cultures of fathering.
Tell us about your family.
I married Martha in 2005. We have three kids: Hanna is 10, Josh is 8, Caleb was born in October 2013, but passed away when he was 4 days old. He’s in heaven now. Mercy is 8 months old. We live in Washington, DC. Most of our married life has been in the United States.
How have you navigated the parenting culture of your childhood in Ethiopia and the parenting culture of the United States?
There is no question there are differences. In Ethiopia, it is not only your family that raises you, but it is also the “village” as they say–your neighborhood. You’re not only shaped by the value of your family, but by the value of your neighborhood. In the US, it’s very much a culture where kids are raised by their parents almost exclusively.
Perhaps that’s connected to where I live in the US, but here we’re very much about our own house and our own children. Now, that’s changing in Ethiopia today too, though. The culture of individualism is expanding there as well.
The other big difference is how kids are disciplined. It’s very different. I’m speaking beyond the differences in corporal punishment. The whole attitude around discipline is just different. In Ethiopia, where patriarchy plays a huge role, the issue of respect to your parents–and to your dad, specifically–has a higher value. Respect for your parents is good, of course, but when you put too much emphasis on this, discipline becomes more about the dad than the child.
Here, discipline is on a different extreme. In my opinion, we believe when our children experience something unpleasant that is always a negative experience. But not everything good in life is pleasant. Sometimes you need unpleasant experiences in order to get to the place you need to be. The real world is not an easy world. It’s a battle. We have to prepare our kids for that.
Neither extreme is good. We need to find a balance between the two. Our kids need to know we love them. And, they need to know the unpleasantness of discipline is done out of that love for them.
What do you enjoy about being a dad?
Knowing these kids are connected with me in a very different way than any other person in the world–the fact that we are trusted by God to take care of these human lives–to coach, support, mentor them, it’s amazing. It’s a lot of responsibility. It makes me so happy.
Would you share about the heartache of losing your son?
On the fourth day of his life, our son, Caleb, died unexpectedly while he was asleep. I came into his room and tried to wake him up, but he was gone. It was difficult. We were confused. It took us three months to learn the reason: He died because of a metabolic disorder due to some genetic issues. It was very tough to accept emotionally.
For me, it was not only the grief but also making sure my wife was OK. I didn’t have the time to grieve well in the first few months, to be honest. I just wanted to make sure the grief was not destroying her. There were times I complained to God.
As a father, it started to hit me after those first few months. I started to experience grief and fear with my older kids, Hannah and Josh. I would wake up in the middle of the night and check them. It took me close to two years to stop doing that. Even on long drives, I stop and wake them up. They get angry because they don’t understand. But the fear lingered with me.
We also learned so much. God was so good to us. Our community was so good to us. My colleagues also stood with us in the darkest days of our lives. We received a lot of encouraging messages and cards from my office almost every day for more than a month. One can find few workplaces with such love and support. That was the biggest blessing through it all. People stood with us. They prayed with us. They came to see us. They made sure we didn’t entertain unhealthy thoughts. Too much loneliness can take you to a different and dangerous place. People kept us from that. I am grateful for that. You need to have people around you.
We always ask: How has becoming a dad made you a better person?
It helps me be more patient. I was the kind of guy who expected overnight results. With kids, you have to recognize change takes time.
We always ask: What do you believe is your finest fathering skill?
I talk with them. They’re verbal processors. They like to talk with me before bed. We have a little routine we unintentionally built. They talk with me at night about their books, their school friends, their teachers, their video games–about everything–right before bed.
We always ask: What’s one thing you’ve learned from your father?
As I mentioned, I grew up in a very patriarchal society. But, my dad was a little different from the culture. He encouraged me and my brothers in many ways. I was born when our country was closed to the rest of the world. He helped me to think big. To develop confidence that we could achieve more than we could imagine.
He also allowed me to practice my faith. As a 9th grader, I went to church. It was difficult to do that under a Communist regime. Religion was all underground. It was tough to go to church. My dad didn’t go, but he allowed me to go. He gave me the freedom to pursue what I believed in.
We always ask: What is your favorite activity to do with your kids?
Going to the park and playing soccer and running around with my kids. Often each week, we listen to audio Bible stories.
There are a lot of people who talk about the erosion of fatherhood. You guys are doing something about it. Thanks for the interview.
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