Sunday, June 16, 2019

Who a Father Is

Today, Father's Day, is a day to reflect on what it is to be a father.

A child's relationship with the father is different than the mother, as it should be.  God knew what He was doing when he set up the family so that there could be both the influence of the male and the female.  We need both parents to inform who we are as people.  Neither is more important, but it is a mistake to see them as the same.

My experience tells me that the father is the one who provides.  I do not simply mean financially, though that is a part of it.  The mother has a special nurturing closeness.  Fathers can be close and nurturing, but they are there to provide all that the child needs to become an adult.  Sometimes there is a distance between fathers and children because the father is less interested in those immediate affections from their children and more interested in their children's future happiness.  Perhaps I should restate: it is not that the father does not want their children's affection, it's that the father intuitively understands that he does not have a right to claim them.

There was a father who had a baby girl.  But the mother left him and left the state.  She married another man and sent the father papers for him to sign to relinquish parental rights.  This was before it was easy to track someone on the Internet, so he did not know where his child was.  Years later, he hired a private detective who tracked them down.  The detective told him that the daughter was doing well and was happy, believing that the man who was raising her was her biological father.  After listening to the detective, that man decided never to contact her.  He yearned to see his child and tell her how much he cared for her.  But he didn't.  That is because a father understands that the happiness of a child comes before his own.

You can see this in small things as well as big things.  There was a father who planned a big family trip to Florida.  The one thing that he wanted to do was see the swimming "Mermaids" in an aquatic show that he found enchanting.  His children complained and whined and moaned.  And even though it was unfair of them, he relented and went and did something that they all wanted to do.  Parents know this life, taking your kids to see movies you hate or to concerts of whoever the inane child star is at the time.

But even more so, fathers are ready to be the villain to their children.  There was a father whose wife left him.  They had four children, most of them still in grade school.  The court system being what it is, tends to have it so mothers win custody the vast majority of the time.  This father knew that he could not let this happen.  It wasn't that the mother was abusive or bad.  But he knew that the best lives for his children would be if he raised them.  He had made a good living and could give his children a stability that she could not.  He fought like hell to keep his kids.  He was willing to give anything, even his own home, to make sure that his kids could stay with him.  It eventually worked out where he retained full custody, but she had unlimited access to the kids.

He didn't want her to leave and was willing to do anything to get her to stay.  She refused.  Because children tend to have closer affection for their mothers, blame for the divorce fell on the father.  Never once did he dispute this.  Never once did he imply that she was the one who wanted to leave.  He allowed his children to think he was the bad guy so that they could have a good relationship with their mother.

A real man, a real father, looks past the those affections that parents desire from their children.  He has to.  Sometimes he has to push his children because he knows they cannot stay children.  His little boys and baby girls must grow up to be men and women.  He has to push them to the point where they no longer need him.  Sometimes they will run to him with problems, but he will not bail them out.  They resent him for this, but he needs them to grow up.

There was a father who pushed his kids, particularly in the area of academics.  He allowed them to do sports and extra-curriculars, but he did not allow them to get jobs.  He said that school was their job and they needed to excel.  He sent them to Catholic school, despite the cost.  He knew that this would not only give them a leg up academically, but it would lay out a foundation of spirituality and morality that could govern the rest of their lives.  Often his kids struggled, but he would not accept their mediocrity.  He pushed them and they detested his unfairness.  But he pushed them to be the best that they could be so they could get into any school they wanted and could pursue whatever career they desired so they could maximize their happiness.  But this pressure strained so much of his relationships with his kids.  Fights would often break out and things became antagonistic in other personal areas.  He would yell and criticize everything about them.  They treated him with snark.  One of them hated him.  One of them did not want him to be at their wedding.  One of them decided that after graduating college, he would have nothing to do with him.

Children can be unfair, but a father cannot care.

There was a father whose children had a confrontation with him one day about one of the kids.  This father did everything he could to provide for his children, but in their eyes, it was not good enough.  He was not the father they thought they deserved.  At this confrontation, his children (some of them adults), yelled, cried, and said that his home was not safe emotionally.  They laid at his feet all of the problems that one of the children was facing and intimated that it was his fault, even though it wasn't.

Children can be unfair.

And this father stood his ground, knowing that their attacks were rooted in care for their sibling.  But he allowed himself a moment of vulnerability.  Not everyone can be a stoic stone all the time.  That night, he was sitting on the couch, watching TV with his son, both a bit numb to the emotional events of the day.  It was quiet, they way it is when two men sit and watch TV together.  And then out of the blue, he asked his son, with complete vulnerability and honesty:

"Am I a bad father?"

This is the question that every father is afraid of.  You have to be strong and push your kids.  But how do you know if you push them too hard or push them away?  How do you know when you've made one mistake too many?  It's okay let your kids think you are the bad guy, but what if you become so domineering that you actually become the bad guy?

This father asked the question few fathers ever dare ask.  And after the events of the day,  I'm sure he could guess the answer.

His son looked at him as if for the first time.  He did not see that grand authoritative father.  He saw a man.  He saw a man just like him, one who struggled every day with trying to figure out what is right and having the strength to do it.  The father had made himself more vulnerable in that moment than his son had ever seen in his life.  The son knew that his next words could destroy him in a way that no other words could.  What was this son, one who struggled with this father for his entire life, to do?  How was he to respond?  He laid his head against his father's chest, the way John did to Christ at the Last Supper.

And I said, "You're a good father."

All of these stories are about my dad.  More than anyone I have ever known, he has taught me what it is to be a man.

Like my late mother, my father is not a saint.  I do not say this as a criticism, but an acknowledgment of our fallen reality.  He made many mistakes along the way, as all fathers do.  But he is a better man than I could ever hope to be.  I pray always that he is proud of me in proportion to how honored I am to be his son.  For whatever reason, from all eternity, God chose him to be dad.  So much of who I am has been shaped by him.  He never gave up on me, never let me settle for less.  No matter the highs and lows of our relationship, this much I know to be true:

I am a man because of my father.

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