parenthood

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. 

A New Normal

We recently had another baby.

Recently? She's three and a half months old. I'm not sure that's recent, exactly.

I've been reeling ever since. I knew that it would be an adjustment, that my life would have to expand to include another life, but I feel as though I've been thrust back to the very beginning of parenthood. I keep telling myself, We've done this twice before. We should have this down by now.

We do not. I do not.

Having the first child was like being schooled in my own selfishness. You know that feeling of reading a really good book, and then someone walks into the room, oblivious to the fact that you're reading (a really good book) and asks you a question? You try a short answer and get back to the paragraph you were reading. But there's the inevitable follow-up question. Then back to the book. Another question, usually something along the lines of Are you even listening to me? And now you're not even sure where you are on the page, so with a passive-aggressive sigh you mark your page and reluctantly engage in the conversation.

Having the first kid was like that. Moment by moment I was confronted with the decision: Will I tend to the needs of this little defenseless boy, to the needs of my tireless wife, to the needs of having us all fed and mostly clothed and presentable in public, or will I continue doing the things I've always done? More often than not, I think, I made the right choice, but I was conscious of the decision every time. Some days I just craved the chance to do whatever it was I wanted to do, to get back to my book, so to speak. Denying myself and choosing generosity—of time, attention, rest, agenda—never came naturally because the things that come naturally are usually quite a bit less holy than what I've been called to be.

Then, after a few months or years or something, I began to get back a little of what I wanted, a little bit of the rhythms and rituals I was used to. I was able to sneak in a chapter here and there before I had to press the bookmark between the pages again.

Then along came baby number two.

Chaos. Although this time, in less time than the first time, I felt like I was able to recover. Life was different, but I found an equilibrium a little faster.

Now though, since the arrival of baby number three, it's as if the book has been placed on some high unreachable shelf in the corner of some room I haven't set foot in for three and a half months. When people ask us how we're doing our answer is often, Oh, we're just trying to find our new normal. But what sort of makes my eyes go wide is the very real possibility that we've already found it. Our new normal (at least for now) is that there just isn't a lot of (read: any) me time because loving these kids is full time. And I'm trying to embrace it, learn from it, and revel in it because my kids are making me a better me, and together we're a better us.

So the book will sit awhile longer, and that's okay because I've been told that once I finally come back to it in a few years I'll probably find myself disappointed that the story written there is a lot less fierce, and funny, and frightening, and full of wonder than the one I've had the chance to live.

I Can't Hear You When I'm Talking

My son is by no means immune to logic…at least no more than the next two-and-a-half-year-old. If he can stop squirming long enough to listen, he’s often able to comprehend the whys and why-nots of a given situation. “No, Finn, I don’t want you to poke the dog in the eye. Yes, I know you think it’s funny, but would you want her to poke you in the eye? No? Then you probably shouldn’t do it.”

He gets it. But again, the key is getting him to sit still long enough to listen to logic. If he can’t or won’t listen, things go downhill fast.

Lately, his greatest joy has been kicking around a soccer ball in the front yard. He runs after it, squealing and giggling. He lines it up just right. He announces, “I kick it.” And then he proceeds to do just that. Then the running and squealing and giggling begin again.

Just the other day I asked him if he wanted to go out front and kick the soccer ball. Before I had even finished asking the question he was at the front door, twisting the doorknob with both little hands, saying, “Go kick. Go kick!” But before we could go outside I needed him to put on his shoes. Logical, right? Well, this is one of those examples where logic fails because he’s just not hearing it. The conversation went something like this:

Finn: Go kick! Me: Yup, we’re going to go play with the ball, but first I need you to get your shoes and… Finn: Go kick! Me: I know, and we will, but… Finn: (with concern) Kick? Me: Mm-hmm, but… Finn: (growing desperate) Please? Me: Yeah, buddy, we will but your shoes… Finn: (the tears are filling his eyes) Please go play? Me: Yeah, just put on…

And then it’s over. He’s beside himself. It’s not really a tantrum. He’s not demanding his way. But suddenly he believes that what he’s been promised will not happen, that the thing he’s pleading for is going ignored. It’s absolute, crushing, and pitiful disappointment.

The logic was sound. The answer was there. He just couldn’t listen.

But this “not listening thing” is not just the territory of two-year olds. We do the same thing, and often we do it with God. There have been many times when I have made my questions known to God, when I have pleaded, when I have demanded justice, or answers, or clarity. And then I have just kept on pleading and demanding and the like. I haven’t stopped to take a breath, much less listen.  Then I conclude that God doesn’t have an answer for me or that he hasn’t been listening when, really, I’m the one who hasn’t been listening.

Habakkuk shows us another way. He does his fair share of questioning and pleading and demanding justice, but then he stops and he listens. He asks his questions, and then he waits; he waits intently and with purpose.

I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint. Habakkuk 2:1

You get this image of Habakkuk standing on the highest point of the city walls, face to the wind, squinting against the sun, eyes scanning the horizon, awaiting a messenger who might come at any moment. He is quiet, but he is expectant and searching. And he gets his answer. And while it may not be the answer he was hoping for, he has had a conversation with God. He has heard the logic of heaven above.