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Bobby's not just a character in the novel, he pretty much is the novel. Yes, The First Part Last is about teen pregnancy, but what it's really concerned with is everything that comes after that initial surprise. The novel addresses questions like: What choices do teen parents make? How do they make these choices, and how do they feel about them? And because Nia isn't around for half the novel, it's really Bobby that gives us glimpses into the psychological, emotional, and physical effects of being a single teenage parent, particularly a teen dad.
A lot of the novel is Bobby feeling really angst-ridden about grown-up problems. Instead of worrying about whether Nia likes him or is mad at him, for instance, he's worrying about Nia's blood pressure and whether or not he's being a good father to Feather. He calls this "being a man," but we can think of it as just being a good person, or proof that Bobby is drawn toward doing the right thing.
The person who really gets Bobby thinking about whether or not he's "being a man" is Just Frank, an alcoholic who continually asks Bobby if he's going to be a man. At first Bobby laughs at him, but the idea of what it means to be a man, especially with a baby daughter, is one that Bobby latches onto for much of the novel. After Just Frank dies, we're told:
I went to his funeral at Zion AME, then walked home and held Feather for the rest of the night, wondering if I would be a man, a good man. (3.4)
Part of Bobby's struggle with the whole be-a-man business is that he's not entirely sure what being a man means—he's only a teen, so this is something he's trying to define for himself for the first time. Does it mean taking care of Nia and the baby? Does it mean giving the baby up for adoption? Does it mean skipping out on the responsibility of fatherhood? In some ways, the novel is about Bobby's search for identity as he figures out who he needs to be for both Feather and himself. Just because he's a dad, after all, doesn't mean he's not a teen, too.
Despite his daughter's name, it's pretty clear that the arrival of Feather is no light-hearted affair. Her birth causes Bobby to reexamine who he is and what he values.
Before Nia gets pregnant, we get the sense that Bobby just wants to have a good time in his city. This involves doing things like spray painting walls—"forgot that it used to juice me to do it, and now I need to do it, like yesterday" (15.5)—running around the city with his friends (check out Chapter 16), going to parties, cutting school, and, obviously, getting his mojo on with Nia. It's pretty classic teenage stuff.
But once Feather appears, Bobby's whole perspective changes. He is terrified of the enormous responsibility that this tiny human has thrust upon him. Check it:
She only wants Daddy.
That scares the s*** out of me.
Just me. […]
And all I can do is kiss them and pull her closer so she won't see my face and how scared I am. (5.4-8)
Feather is completely dependent on Bobby. Only a few days old, she doesn't have the neurological capability to see across the room yet, let alone to make decisions—her trust in Bobby is primal and instinctive; she is completely helpless in the world. Someone needs to take care of her, and that someone is Bobby. And he, naturally, is terrified that he'll screw it all up. And while most new parents, no matter their age, have these fears, Bobby's are all the greater due to his age.
Bobby has a couple of choices: He can rise to the occasion, or he can fail miserably. There's not much of an in-between in his eyes. So Bobby really tries to be who he thinks Feather needs him to be. He goes to school because he doesn't want to disappoint his parents (17.38-42, 25.14) and he wants to go to college, and he comes home afterward instead of ditching Feather to go play basketball or hang out at the arcade. In other words, he invests in his present and his future. Most importantly, though, he also starts to recognize his own limitations. He tells us:
Maybe I'll just tell him how I don't think I'll make it if I stay here. In this place. In this state. (30.10)
Because of his desire to be a good father, Bobby gives Feather the ultimate gift: himself. Instead of being pulled every which way by his parents and friends and Nia and Feather and all the things he loves about New York City, he gives up the life he's known to move to small-town Ohio. What gives? Bobby realizes that the move is good for Feather, and that it's good for him, too. He doesn't think he can do right by his daughter in NYC, so be makes the big decision to bounce. It's scary—and exciting—stuff:
I can tell you how it is to feel as brand new as my daughter even though I don't know what comes next in this place called Heaven. (31.10)
Is this a leap into the unknown? Absolutely. But there's optimism here that Bobby doesn't really feel throughout the novel. First, he's weighed down by the pregnancy and worries about Nia's health; then he has Feather to worry about, plus his ability to take care of her. The move to Heaven, Ohio, is kind of Bobby's way of saying goodbye to his childhood and starting his life as an adult. It's a good clean break, and since his brother will be there to help him adjust, we share Bobby's optimism about this next chapter of his life.
Fatherhood doesn't always come naturally to Bobby. Many parts of being a dad are really hard work. Let's take a look at what Bobby's average weekday looks like: Get up really early, feed and change Feather, take her to the babysitter, go to school, stay awake in school, pick up Feather, come home, take care of Feather, fit in homework and friends if there's any time left in the day (there's not), fall into bed exhausted, wake up in the middle of the night when Feather needs it, repeat.
It's exhausting just reading about it, not to mention living it, and Bobby is awfully young to shoulder that kind of burden. But when faced with the choice of giving Feather up or keeping her, he takes a page from John Lennon: All he needs is love. He says:
"No, I don't know anything about raising a kid. I'm sixteen and none of those people on the wall look like the kind of family me and Feather's gonna be. But I'm doing it." (29.49)
It's an inspired moment for Bobby, for sure, but he needs more than love to raise Feather. He needs help learning how to be a father, and as his mom points out, it's too late to learn how, he just has to be an adult (5.3). Every day brings its challenges, and Bobby recalls in almost every chapter how much he misses his previous life, the one in which he can go play basketball when he wants (7.6-13), check out a new arcade if he wants, and dream about the future.
But Bobby never resents his daughter. He may wish for more sleep, or more time to himself, or for Feather to feel better, but he never wishes that he didn't have Feather. He tells his brother, Paul:
I say it like I've known it forever, only now it's so clear and I can say it: "I've never been closer to or loved anybody more than I love Feather." (21.51)
And that's the clincher: Bobby loves his daughter unconditionally. He is so willing to sacrifice who he was for who Feather needs him to be. She cries at 2:00 a.m.? He's on it. He has to make two train transfers to pick her up? Done. He has to go to school even though he's been up all night with her? It ain't easy, but he does it.
So even though Bobby might be caught between childhood and adulthood, it turns out that the birth of Feather and the responsibility of fatherhood makes a man out of Bobby despite his worrying. Parenthood has a way of doing that if you decide to step up to the plate, which is exactly what Bobby does time and again.