This won’t be an easy one for me. I will be touching on things that make me uncomfortable, but I think I ought to say what I am compelled to say, and I believe I need to read these words, once they’ve tethered to one another and been birthed into the world.
I will start by confessing that I have no idea what it means to be a good father. I know I’ve been described as one, but I don’t believe it’s quite true of me, and that’s not false humility talking. I know myself all too well to call myself good at something as impossibly challenging as fatherhood. I am too lazy, too impatient, too self-absorbed to call myself a good father. I’m far too weak. A good father is none of those things, certainly not weak.
When news trickled down the Facebook vine that my nephew and his girlfriend are expecting a baby this year, I felt an unspoken burden upon me to share some sort of advice for this first time father-to-be. My unspoken burden increased in scope and weight when I came to the realization that the advice I might offer is quite limited. Certainly, I could share the things you read in books: be tender, don’t discipline out of anger, teach kids to be respectful, etc–but I feel rather uncomfortable preaching such tenants, when I struggle so futilely to maintain them myself.
This is what I came to–it’s just one thing. There is one thing I can say that, up to this point, I’ve done, and it has worked. In fact, I believe this one thing must be the launching point for all the other good things that might be accomplished by a father toward his children. Stay present. If you can do just that, you have a solid start toward being a good father. Stay present. When every fiber of your being screams to run away, to escape the stress–the crushing weight of responsibility and the unconscious echoes of it’s all on me–when you long for the Space of some other place, stay present.
During my short time in college, I was able to maintain a 3.8 GPA, while working full time. I’ve never been much of a study bug, especially with subjects that bore me, and I don’t think I was any smarter than most of my classmates who received lower marks than I did. If I had a secret, it was this: I showed up to class. As long as I showed up, even if the class was a drudgery, and I was hopelessly mal-equipped due to my deplorable lack of math skills, I could still do well in a class. Maybe this approach works with parenthood as well. Just show up.
My boys adore me. In the future, this may not always be the case, but it remains for now, and I can’t say I understand why. I’m so run down from life much of the time that I can’t even stay awake long enough for a viewing of “Despicable Me”, and good luck getting me outside most of the time. I did make it outside for a little while recently. It snowed in our neighborhood, which almost never happens, and the boys were primed for snowmen and snow forts and snowball fights. Old dad rolled his tired bones outside and managed to make a morning of it. Old dad showed up. I stayed present.
What is it about our children? They are living mirrors–little mirrors in which you see reflected both the best and worst parts of yourself. Your strengths, and especially your weaknesses, are on display upon those little mirrors. Maybe this is why so many men succumb to the temptation to run away. Nothing draws out your inadequacies as a human being faster than a needy child. Let’s face it–many days, it hardly seems worth it. I’ve had days. Oh my, I’ve had days. I’ve had countless, frustrating, find a happy place sort of days. I’ve had frantic, anxiety-ridden days boil down into crucial moments, where I find my finger poised upon the “purchase” button of a one-way-ticket to New Zealand, but for me it’s in my boys’ eyes, you see. I cannot peer into those stunning portals of blue–confounding mixtures of earnestness and trepidation, anger and innocence, fear and loving devotion–I cannot bring myself to walk away.
So, this is my advice to you, dear nephew. When you are struggling, gaze into the eyes of your child, and stay present. When you feel low and you feel inadequate, and you feel like the entire world hates you and you hate the world, stay present. Your kid is going to need you, for all your strengths, as well as your weaknesses.
Many, many blessings on you.