Being a good father

Nathan & Eliza, Thanksgiving 2011

In May 2012 Anna and I will celebrate nine years of marriage, which is hard to contemplate. But before we do, we will celebrate Nathan’s fourth birthday on April 29. I can think of few things that have shaped me more than becoming a husband and a father. Most of the other hugely formative things in my life were in place at my birth–my family of origin, my family’s faith, etc. The only comparable experience, where I can remember both a before and an after, is moving to the United States when I was 14.

It would be convenient for me to fit my reflections, especially on fatherhood, into what seems to be a cultural narrative that defines the experience of parenting for people of my race, educational level, and (dare I say) economic status. The reality is that being a father is one of the most challenging things I have undertaken. To be honest, this caught me by surprise. Incidentally, an irony of the way we prepare for becoming parents is that I spent almost 100% of my energy on preparing for the act of coaching during childbirth. I neglected to prepare much for status and role of being a father–a pretty big oversight.

One of the hardest lessons is that there is no such thing as a Platonic ideal of the good father (or mother, for that matter). There is no such thing as a good father only as being a good father for the children entrusted to one’s care.

This is a challenging lesson to learn because one of the most natural ways in which we learn how to parent is by following the subconscious example or model that we received through our own parents. Unfortunately, there are a thousand factors that distinguish my parents’ context as mother and father and my own–chiefly among them being the fact that Nathan and Eliza are not me as I was.

To be sure, there are many places in which their little characters (by no means fixed) resemble or echo my own as well as Anna’s, but they are unique–the combination of likenesses arranged in a way found in no other person sharing the same gene pool. This limits the value of copying our own parents or other parents who have children very different from our own.

For me this has meant something of an existential crisis over the last four years. I have gradually become aware that my children, especially my son Nathan, do not respond to the forces and the practices that I believe ought to easily conform them to my will. And perhaps I am learning that conforming them to my will is only necessary insofar as it leads to the development of good character and a healthy sense of self. A bully can get his own way, but the price is a damaged and humiliated child.

The existential crisis I wrote of is simply the crisis that comes from realizing that the answers you thought you had aren’t holding water. We sometimes experience this in matters of faith–in terms of concrete beliefs about who God is and how he has revealed Himself to us. More often those crises come through very tangible and concrete situations related to the living of our lives and carrying out of our vocation as Christians, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.

God is meeting me in the midst of the challenge and inviting me to learn my children more deeply. Indeed, I feel like I now know Nathan quite intimately–how he thinks, what sets him off, how to manage and handle transitions. But the process of knowing has come with bruises–evenings of slumping into the couch and wondering why things can’t be just a little easier or why Nathan has such a strong will? The process of knowing has come through the mortification known only to parents who have to remove their son from the Thomas Table at Barnes and Noble by brute force because the thirty minutes allocated to transitioning him away from play were not long enough and a tantrum has begun. Believe me, you will never feel smaller than in an instant like this. And if it is possible to feel smaller, I hope I never experience it.

Despite the challenge and despite the struggles there is much joy and there is much grace. Yes, the learning curve is steep but the act of fathering has taught me a whole new level of death to self and giving of self that I doubt I personally could experience otherwise.

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