Being a father has been one of the most important processes of my life. It is not the only way to be a man (Jesus was not a father and neither was the Apostle Paul), but it is a way of manhood.
When I was a boy and became a young man, I always knew I wanted to be a father, but I was also terrified of it. Would I be any good at it? Would I make the same mistakes of my own father or grandfathers? What was a good father anyway?
Now that I have been a father for over 16 years, I have a learned a few things about being a father. I have also learned enough to know that being a father does not end – ever. Once a father, always a father. I have also learned enough to know I have so much to learn about being a good father, but at the same time have learned enough about being a good-enough father.
Below are some things I have learned about being a father. It is uncertain how much these learnings could be grasped by a young man considering fatherhood (or terrified by it), so I offer these seeds of understanding that have the potential to grow in the hearts and souls of young men and become something much greater than the understanding itself.
Fatherhood is a process. It is not a one time moment of passion with a genetic contribution. It can start there, but it most certainly cannot end there. The word for that is not “father.” Instead, fatherhood is a developmental process of constant growth and change and investment. As your children grow as people, you grow as a father. The process ends not at genetic contribution (or adoption), not at high school graduation, not at the death of your child (God forbid that happens first), and not even at your own death. This process of fatherhood outlives you in the lives of your children and grandchildren.
Fatherhood is opportunity. There are many diverse pathways of manhood, but there are some unique opportunities in being a father. The door is open to fathers to reproduce their own best qualities into the life of another. This is not accomplished by force, of course, but by being the best person you can be day and day out in the presence of your child. It also allows for ample opportunities for self-correction as well. Fatherhood has a unique social context that can be an opportunity to influence another person to be a great person.
Fatherhood is presence. Being presence both physically and psychologically is at least half the the job of fatherhood. Fathers who are physically present, but psychologically absent or physically absent, but psychologically present create ambiguity for their children. Chronic ambiguity can be traumatic for children. Being present in a calm and safe way with your child has a powerful effect of preventing so much negative that can happen in this world.
Fatherhood is formational. Under the ever present eyes of a child, there is a constant context of accountability that requires self-confrontation in order to grow. Being in the presence of a child, your child, forces the question of your own growth and development as a person. The reality is that a father’s growth trajectory is experienced by the child as a highly influential lesson on how to be a person. It does not determine the life course of the child, but it is what the child sees most.
Fatherhood is earned. Engaging in the process of fatherhood as a way of living creates the accumulated credibility that the label “father” is a legitimate label. We used to use the term “illegitimate child” to refer to children who were born outside of marriage. What we really had was wide spread “illegitimate fathers” who did not raise the children they helped create. It is earned by being present, being calm, being kind, being attentive, being patient, being honest, being forgiving, being forgivable. You do not have to be the best father; instead, you do have to show up and be good.
Fatherhood is exposing. Just about every flaw, imperfection, and failure you have or will ever do is exposed when being a father. This is probably terrifying to some young men and may make them run for the hills, but it is one of the great mercies of being a father. So many times when I have felt like a failure as a father, it has prompted some corrective effort. In short, fatherhood is like an early detection mechanism for poor choices and inadequacies that, left unchecked, could have become way worse and hurt a lot of people, or resulted in self-destruction.
Fatherhood is redemptive. Although fatherhood has a constant social context that exposes shortcomings, it also provides a social context for making things right. It is a context for apologies and forgiveness, for humility and clean slates – it is a context for constant redemptions little and big.
Fatherhood is vulnerable. Being a father is a vulnerable position to be in. The responsibility is huge and the stakes are high. Your reputation and name is carried around by children who have free will. But that is the easy part. Each day a father must make the choice to let the forming and vulnerable heart of a child into his own heart or to put up walls and not let the child in. It is a vulnerable feeling to let someone into a place where they could hurt you, but it is also one of the most amazing things in life. Being vulnerable with a child is the context the child needs to grow.
Fatherhood is power. The power a father has in the life of the child is essentially impossible to calculate. What the father does is the reality in which the child lives. Father create reality! That is power. And yet power and vulnerability are two sides to the same coin. Fathers cannot not create reality for their children. The question is: what kind of reality will the father create? Even the absent father has created a reality for his child – the reality that fathers leave. The resent father who leans toward virtue creates a reality that makes it easy for his children to lean the same way.
There is so much more to fatherhood than this scratching of the surface. These a just a few things I have learned and am learning. May these seeds of understanding land and grow somewhere.