Fatherhood

The Privileged Avenue

There’s a peace lily on a stand in the corner of our dining room that’s twice the size it was the last time I took notice of it. It has new, white flowers unfurling themselves. I stopped and admired it for a few moments. 

I stopped and looked.

The alarm goes off. The day flies by. Breakfast together. Drive to work. Home from work. Dinner together. Stories. Bed. Our rhythms are the stuff life is made of, but the familiarity means I can all too easily miss the beauty. 

Looking and seeing aren’t exactly the same thing. Everyday I look at my family, my kids. I don’t always see them. This week I’ve had a few moments when I’ve stopped and really admired my kids for a moment. I’ve seen them. 

Finnden: Dad, can I tell you a joke?
Me: (Half listening) Sure. 

My expectations were low. His jokes are usually ones he makes up, things like What did the moon say to the sun? Stop shining! You’re too bright! They’re not really funny because they’re not really jokes. But this one…

Finnden: What do you call a pirate with two eyes, two hands and two legs?
Me: I don’t know.
Finnden: A beginner. 

A little laugh escaped my lips, not so much at the joke but at my astonishment. When did you learn to tell a joke?

I came home from work and Ona, the youngest, barely two, came running from the kitchen, yelling, Daddy, hurry, I hungry for dinner!

I paused in the process of putting down my bag and looked at her. That was a full sentence, I thought. Sure it was a garbled mess, unintelligible to anyone but Karen and me, but she’d given us a glimpse of just how much her mind was at work. 

The most profound moment came while I was putting together a little photo book to send to both grandpas for Father’s Day. I scoured through all our pictures over the past year or so and put them in an album, and as I looked at them all there together I was seeing my kids anew. I saw them when they thought no one was watching and when they were putting on a show. I saw them being silly and being kind. I saw them being pensive and deliciously weird. Each of them came through so clearly, and in a way that was so definitively them, that it took my breath away. Frozen in place like that I finally stopped and saw and admired them in all their created glory, marveling at how much they were not mine but their own.

Perhaps there is nothing in this world as powerful to break selfishness as is the simple act of looking at our own children. In our love for them we are given a privileged avenue to feel as God feels—to burst in unselfishness, in joy, in delight, and in the desire to let another’s life be more real and important than our own.
-Ronald Rolheiser

Learn As You Grow

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. 

Taking Notice

“Daddy, will you dance with me?”

The answer is yes, Ellis.

Usually she’s wearing a princess dress in some pastel hue. Then she takes my hands and insists that she be allowed to lead.

On the way home from work last week I listened to an episode of the TED Radio Hour that told the story of a little girl who could not sit still. She was constantly fidgeting, wiggling her way through classes at school, unable to focus. The girl’s teachers suggested her mother take her to see someone, a professional who could help diagnose what was wrong with her. When the little girl visited the doctor, instead of diagnosing her, he simply watched her, talked to her, took notice of her. Then he explained to her that he needed to have a private talk with her mother and left the room, flipping on the radio as he went. He and the little girl’s mother stood where she could not see them, and they watched while the girl leaped and whirled around the room. The doctor turned to look at the girl’s mother and told her there was absolutely nothing wrong; she was simply born to dance. That little girl grew to be Dame Gillian Lynne, one of the most prolific and acclaimed dancers and choreographers in the world.

When they interviewed her Gillian said, “I really owe my whole career… and, I suppose, my life to this man.”

What if he hadn’t noticed? What if he hadn’t really seen her? What if no one ever had?

I was suddenly struck by the parental responsibility of noticing, of perceiving the potential of large lives packed into these tiny bodies. I’m not talking about success, or education, or performance, or anything else by which these kids will undoubtedly be measured, compared, and arranged. No, I’m talking about the innate properties that need only the twin opportunities of acknowledgment and encouragement to thrive.

I was also convicted by how infrequently I really notice. I’m often rushing and hurrying, coaxing and cajoling, prodding and pandering to bring about this outcome or another, trying to get where I need to go or hoping to make it through the grocery store without little hands pulling down every single can of diced tomatoes.

Sometimes I feel like I’m just trying to keep the wheels of my kids’ lives from drifting over the edge of a cliff. But the calling that’s on me as a parent is so much more beautiful than being a guardrail. My calling is to see who they are as deeply as I can and to ask for the help of the Spirit to see even deeper than that. My privilege is to notice the potential for which they were made and to draw that out as best I can.

Because that’s the way I’m seen. Even in my worst moments I’m seen as full of promise and potential. My Heavenly Father isn’t interested in being my guardrail—keeping me in line and helping me mind my manners. He’s taking note of me, looking into the deepest parts of me and seeing all the simmering potential he’d like to see boil over.

I want to be a dad like that, one who takes note, who sees promise wrapped in possibility.

So we dance. Ellis holds onto my finger, and she twirls around in haphazard circles. Suddenly she’ll stop, lean her head back, and raise one leg behind her as far as she can, all awkward angles and imbalance. But behind her closed eyes there is a ballroom brilliant with candlelight, its flicker falling upon throngs of men and women in their finery whose eyes have all turned toward her. In her dream she is gracefully posed, paused, holding their gaze before whirling away again.

And at night, when Karen and I sit in the family room after we’ve put the kids to bed and the melody of some made up song floats down the hall in her little voice, carrying the words that hold what she cares about most, sometimes we just listen.

These are the moments when I feel I’m getting a glimpse of something she is at her very core—strong, imaginative, bold, and disarmingly funny. More than in the the everyday errands, bedtime rituals, breakdowns, time-outs, and all the rest—in these moments I am able to snatch at some epiphany, like fireflies floating on a summer night. So I’m collecting them, putting them in a jar, and pressing my nose up to the glass, wondering what all these little glimmers might become.

Because how can I hope to help her become who she’s meant to be if I don’t notice who she is?

Marred

We moved into our home a little more than a year ago, and it feels like we're finally getting to know it. The floorboards creek fiercely at the end of the hallway, something you may not notice in the afternoon, but when the whole house is fast asleep you may as well have dropped a box full of china. There's a railroad line right across the street. Big freight trains pass through every couple hours. This was certainly something we were aware of before we purchased the home, but you don't know it know it until it rumbles through a few hundred times. Rather than the annoyance it could be, the deep growl of it has become a source of comfort, a reminder that things keep moving.

Older homes in particular require an extra level of patience in learning what makes them tick (and creak, and groan, and make all manner of noises), and a certain amount of diligence in maintenance, including the patching of every minor crack and hole to keep it from becoming a hostel for field mice. But even with all of this attention and care, there are bound to be surprises, some minor and some major. After all, this home has seen a lot of life and a lot of lives, having been around longer than most people I know. Some of the people who have lived here have been tender, I'm sure, and some have been less so.

A couple of months ago I was entering the living room when I noticed a little patch of paint missing from the white trim around the doorway. The spot was just a little less than a foot off the ground. The paint underneath was yellowed and glossy. I assumed that whoever last painted the trim hadn't prepped the area well beforehand, and with two little ones bumping toys and bodies into all things at all times, I wasn't exactly surprised.

A couple weeks later I passed by the same spot, and it had grown just a bit. I may have cursed the painter under my breath. I can't be certain.

Another couple weeks went by, and the spot had grown even larger. This time I bent over to really inspect it, and I noticed a few chips of paint lying along the baseboard. I had my suspicions.

When a few more days had passed and the spot had become even larger I called Finnden over to me. Given that the spot in question stood just outside his bedroom door, he seemed the most likely culprit.

"Finnden, have you been peeling away the paint from the doorway?"

"Huh?"

I took him over to the spot and pointed, "Here. Is this your doing?"

"No."

"You're sure? I won't be mad." (I was mad.)

"Mm-hmm. It wasn't me, Dad."

I took a deep breath and decided to let it go. I couldn't prove it was him, so I chose to trust him.

A few days later I got home from work, and Finnden was playing on the floor of the family room while Karen was making dinner. She looked up from her cookbook. "Finn has something he needs to tell you."

"Oh really," I said as I hung up my coat. "What's that?"

Finnden looked at me briefly, and then back at his Legos. "I've been picking at the paint."

"He told me today," Karen said. "He didn't want to tell you. He was afraid you'd be mad." (He was right.) She went on. "He does it during nap time. When he can't sleep, he sits just outside his bedroom door and picks at the paint.

"I'm sorry, Dad."

I sighed deeply before answering. "You're forgiven. And you won't do it anymore?"

"No."

"Okay then."

A week later he and I were on the couch in the living room reading a book before bed. He was squirming terribly until he finally stopped my reading and told me he had to go to the bathroom. "It's a 'mergency!" I shooed him off to the restroom with a promise that I wouldn't read ahead without him, but my eyes flicked to the spot on the trim as he passed by. It had doubled, nay tripled in size!

What had once appeared as a medium-sized abstracted seashell was now an entire scene. A seahorse now appeared to be kissing the shell. There was no mystery this time. And I was mad.

I stared at it. Glowered, really. I began to formulate the stern words he'd receive when he returned. Thank goodness that kid takes forever to wash his hands.

"That's you."

Those were the first words that came up out of the fog of my fury. What do you mean that's me?

"He does the same thing you do. You pick. When you think no one is watching and no one will notice, you pick."

I suddenly recognized that voice. And He was right.

I have marks on my soul. I have wounds that haven't healed, and spots that tend to show. We all do. The shape and color of mine may be different, but in a way they're all the same because they mar the us the Father makes us.

When I get scared, or bored, or tired, or stressed, or distracted I start to pick. I pry at the edges and reopen old wounds. And I hope no one will notice. I hope that maybe the spots are just inconspicuous enough that they'll be glanced over or given other, easier explanations. But my Father knows. He knows, and he still looks at me with love. He sees my compulsion and still regards me with compassion. He looks at me with understanding and a deep desire for me to know the me he sees, whole and spotless.

When Finn finally returned we had a very different conversation than the one we might have had if he didn't think a running faucet were so worthy of fascination. We're a lot alike.