I remember standing alongside Karen's bed in the delivery room in La Jolla, California. In the moments before our first kid was born I held her hand and wondered if, through all her pain and effort, she could tell how sweaty my palms were. In my head I was cycling through all the ways life was about to change, all the ways I needed to change if I was ever going to have any hope of being good at this fathering thing.
In that hospital room I let all the fears of the coming years crowd in at once. They jammed together and overlapped so that my unease over changing diapers smashed right up against my concern of how I'd help him navigate the world of dating. My fear of holding babies kept company with the worry that I'd never be able to help him with math homework more advanced than long division. To say nothing of colleges, weddings, careers and the natural hardships, feelings, and healing that life brings our way.
The tears I shed that day were an equal concoction of awe and panic.
Today, the most frequent advice I give to new fathers and fathers-to-be is: Relax. You'll learn as you go.
We don't have to figure out fathering all at once. Those first couple weeks all they need is to be held. And then to be changed, fed, and put back to bed. And trust me, that's enough. Those tasks will feel like more than enough.
Then they'll become second nature, and just when you've begun to master them you'll find you need another skill. You'll learn to interpret fussing from crying. You'll learn the difference between hungry cries and hurting cries and angry cries and just crying to cry cries. (There's a lot of crying.)
And later you'll learn how they like to be loved. How they need to be disciplined. How they best receive encouragement. All three of my kids help me know what they need and what they need me to be for them. Bit by bit they've taught me how to be a father.
But throughout a really wonderful Father's Day weekend, I realized that my kids have taught me so much more.
A few days earlier Finnden and I were in the basement together. I was working on some things, and he was in the corner by himself, quietly playing with Legos. Just before we went upstairs he turned to me and said, "Dad, I have something for you." He came over, took my hand, and led me to where he'd been working. I looked down to see that he'd spelled out Happy Father's Day out of Legos.
He looked at me with a huge grin and said, "I did it because we both like Legos so much."
Finn is one of the most kind and empathetic people I've ever known. He sees people. He sees the things that mean something, and then he imagines ways to make those things mean even more. He teaches me—with a hug, or a word, or a drawing—what God's love likely looks like.
We went to the pool this weekend where I spent more than an hour wading in four feet of water so that Ellis could jump to me over and over and over again. She's still learning to swim, so she didn't want me going an inch further than her jump could carry her. To tease her I'd take tiny backward steps, and she'd say, "No, no, no. No farther." Half an hour into this game she said, "Stop, Daddy! Stop right there." I laughed and went a little further, to which she finally stamped her foot and shouted loud enough for the whole pool to hear, "Stop right there in the name of the Lord!"
That little girl is fearless and ferocious. She knows her mind and she speaks it. And she teaches me that maybe I don't need to always run my thoughts through an endless loop of what will they say? or the filter of what will they think? before those thoughts form into words. She teaches me to be brave.
On Sunday we were coming back from errands, and I opened the door next to Ona's car seat to find her beaming at me. Then she squealed and reached for me. As if that wasn't enough, when I scooped her up she nestled her little nose into the crook of my neck and held it there for a rare cuddle. When she pulled back I smiled, and then I watched her close her eyes and lean forward until her forehead touched mine. We stood like that, motionless—I barely dared to breathe—until she suddenly wriggled to get down.
I set her in the grass to toddle off, my heart filled to the brim. I've never seen someone so quick to smile, that bright, big, whole-faced kind of smile. She teaches me what it looks like to spread joy and how just a few moments of intention can fill a heart to overflowing.
As I said before, somewhere along the way I realized that in fathering, my kids help stagger the lessons. We learn to be parents as we go. But this weekend God pointed out how often my kids are helping me learn to grow. They're teaching me how to be a better human. My children are teaching me how to be a child of God.