On March 17, 2004 I became a father for the first time. I had been around babies, but I really hadn’t needed to take care of them. The day after Phoebe was born, her mom had to have emergency surgery to remove her gallbladder. I was left with the 24-hour, round the clock care of a tiny little infant about which I knew very little. I am thankful for the nurses who helped me learn how to properly hold a baby and how to bottle feed one.
I would describe my first interactions with Phoebe as a bit odd. It felt like meeting someone for the first time and not knowing how to act or what to say. Of course, Phoebe couldn’t say much either. Over the course of a few days I realized which cries were for food, which cries were for needing changed, and which cries were for needing to be rocked.
After the anxiety dwindled over the care and maintenance of this new little creature, the idea finally sank in, “I’m a dad.” Honestly, it was a little bit scary to ponder what being a dad meant. As I thought about it I realized that having a baby doesn’t make you a dad (it makes you a donor of genetic material). Being a dad is a lifelong commitment to walk beside another human being and be there for them no matter what. Any long-term commitment like this should make you a bit nervous, and hopefully you ponder the responsibilities before donating the genetic material.
On February 16, 2006, I became a father for the second time. Shortly after Zeke’s birth I decided that I had the best of both worlds (a boy and a girl), and that I should have a vasectomy. The craziest thing for me was that I always thought I’d have more children even though I could no longer contribute the genetic material to create them. I felt this way because I knew that my heart had more love to give. Then on February 22, 2014, I became a dad again to three more children. They are triplets of different ages, who had been raised by a single mother with whom I fell desperately in love. I have accepted the wonderful opportunity and responsibility of making Brandon, Nathan, and Emma children of my own.
When Zeke was born, I thought, “How could I love another child as much as I love Phoebe?” That’s when I realized that parental love is multiplication, not division. When I got remarried to Tawnya, I realized that the parental love I feel for each of my five children is different, and yet the same. The love I have for every one of them is as unique as they are themselves. I love them differently, because each child offers something different that I admire. My love is the same; in that, I would gladly give my life for them, and I have a “whatever it takes” mentality guiding me.
So in my early years of being a dad, and even now, I have had to struggle with the question of, “How will I become the father that I want to be?” Most people start with the example of the father that they have had in their lives. I don’t want to down-talk my own father because he’s one of the hardest working men I have ever met. In the years since I’ve been on my own, our relationship has blossomed and I would say we are good friends now. My grandpa was not a good father to my dad. My dad learned from his father’s mistakes but it was difficult for him to overcome all of the cycles of thinking and behavior he learned from watching his dad. It is my belief that he was a better father to me than his father had been to him. Obviously, there is no definitive book on fatherhood. So I would explain that I am thankful for the father I had, but that I resolved to do some things a bit differently than he did.
I took a deep look at the sacrificial love of Jesus. I realized that I must be an example of this kind of love to my children. As you can imagine, this was a monumental task. So I started looking around at Christian father’s, that I admired, and I tried to figure out the principles they were basing their parental relationships around. One of the first things I realized is that I would need to be emotionally available to my children. This means that they would need to feel comfortable talking to me and sharing their feelings without a thought of retribution.
I think being emotionally available to children is a hard thing for a man to do. We have been taught to act like we are emotionless blobs of flesh and that it is not manly to “get into our feelings.” There’s been a longstanding tradition of men working and providing the financial backing for their family with little else required. This leaves a huge void in the lives of our children and leaves a huge burden to be carried by our spouses. I often think men who buy into this line of thinking are just copping out of what they know they should be doing. It is only when we are emotionally available to our kids that any real teaching can be done. Teaching can be accomplished through careful correction, but it’s better done in conversation.
Another thing that I saw in the lives of men I looked up to was the principle: I should never ask my child to do something that I myself am not willing to also do. Or as Jesus puts it, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31). You can tell a child to not use profanity (and even wash their mouths out with soap), but when you are sitting around using profanity, your words spoken to them are in vain. You can tell children to clean their rooms but if your room is the dirtiest room in the house, your instruction will fall on deaf ears. You can tell your child to treat others kindly, and not to talk negatively about other people; but when you are passing along gossip, you should not be surprised when they do as well. The example we set for our children should be one of integrity and honesty.
The more I thought about fatherhood, the more I realized that the point is to launch human beings capable of loving and serving others in the same way Jesus loved and served. Since they have to do this in the “real world” it means I have to set up rewards and consequences that make sense in the “real world.” A common parental mistake in 2019 is to say something like, “Let her/him stomp off up the stairs and slam the bedroom door. Children should be able to express their emotions.” So are you telling me that I can stomp off from my boss and slam my office door? Or are you telling me that I can stomp off in an angry huff when my teacher (or a police officer) tells me something I do not like? If it doesn’t work that way in the “real world” then it shouldn’t be allowed in the home. Thinking about child-rearing this way makes it easy to explain the rules.
There is more to say about fatherhood than all the books in the world could contain. I’ve realized that I’m not perfect as a dad, and I never will be. But I can honestly say I’m willing to go the extra mile and to put in the work to be the best dad I can be. At the end of the day, I recognize that I’m only here to point my kids to Jesus, and to pray that they somehow see His love in me. One of the ways I’ve chosen to do this is to bring my children to the places I serve. They have been to nursing homes, homeless shelters, and to visit shut-ins. They haven’t just witnessed me being a servant of Christ but they have served right beside me! Fatherhood is one of the greatest blessings, and for this blessing I give God all of the glory!