When our daughter, Maria Kristan, was born, among the many gifts and well-wishes Sarah-Elizabeth and I received were three letters: one from each of the living Democratic presidents. President Jimmy Carter sent one, President Bill Clinton sent one, and our 44th president, Barack Obama, also sent a letter. Vice President Joe Biden left a voicemail message for her that was so kind my wife figured out a way to save it for Maria. When she grows up, I hope that she can appreciate how unique and special it is to have had three presidents write you a letter before you’re even old enough to walk.
But what I know is that her walk in life will be determined much more by what I do—not just as a mayor, but as a man and as a father—than by whatever privilege my office affords her. When I open my eyes in the morning, the first thing I say to myself is “the better I do, the better she will do.” In the city of Atlanta, I’ve made numerous decisions that will impact the quality of life and the future of our City. I’ve put 900 more police officers on the streets. I’ve worked to bring in jobs by attracting corporate headquarters back into the city and encouraging new start-ups and entrepreneurs of all kinds. I’ve made youth development a pillar of my administration by re-opening every recreation center in the City of Atlanta and continuing a scholarship initiative that’s helping hundreds of kids earn college degrees. I’m extremely proud of all we have accomplished. In fact, being mayor of the city of Atlanta is the one job I’d always aspired to since I was 13 years old.
Even though I am proud of my accomplishments, when all is said and done with my political career, no high that I’ve experienced at City Hall will match the joy of seeing my daughter smile for the first time, or take her first steps, or reach her most recent milestone: getting down from the bed using the bench, feet first, and then standing up with that special smile all parents know on her face. I was all smiles that day, too. That moment felt bigger than any election I have won or bill I have passed.
As mayor, I’m term-limited and one day my time in office will come to an end. The arc of history will determine how well I did as Atlanta’s chief executive. But fortunately for me, I will always be Maria Kristan’s dad. She’ll learn more about the world from watching how I treat Sarah-Elizabeth than she will from seeing old clips of Daddy’s press conferences on YouTube or Google. She’ll watch how I handle myself in moments of personal crisis and spiritual quandary, and she’ll refer back to those moments, not the closed-door meetings at City Hall, when she grows up and faces similar challenges in her own life.
The point I’m making is that as men—as fathers—we have to remember that it’s our character, our values, our personal triumphs and, occasionally, our failings that are the things our children will carry with them. Our humanness is what shapes them. Our inclination is often to allow our income, our jobs, our education and the luxuries we can acquire be the things that define us. And it’s true—we should never stop striving to be better. After all the progress of the many great men and women who came before us, we cannot settle for anything less than the pursuit of every hard-fought opportunity afforded to us. But we can’t allow those pursuits to get in the way of being the heroes and providers our daughters and sons truly need us to be.
When I was a boy, my father wrote letters to me filled with his philosophy, his words of wisdom and his dreams for me. There will soon be a day when, just like my dad, I will write letters to Maria Kristan, describing for her the kind of productive and full life I hope she’ll lead in the future. But I hope, just like I did, that she will appreciate those letters above all else. Until that time, I know she’s watching and learning. And it’s from my example that she’ll learn the most.
Kasim Reed is the mayor of Atlanta, GA.