This is the first post in our week long celebration of Father’s Day.
I was inspired by Mary C. Stelter’s post here at RI just before Mother’s Day, which she called “Becoming Mother,” to think about my own path to becoming Father.
As the youngest child in my family, I was not well prepared to become the father of an infant son. I had not seen babies nursed and changed and bathed, except from a great distance. Oh, I had played with little ones at church, but almost as a novelty.
My lovely wife on the other hand was the oldest of 11 when we married (her youngest brother — #12 in their family — was born 10 weeks before our oldest son), so when we got married and she wanted to start our family right away, I assumed she would be there to coach me, to show me the ropes.
In addition to my lack of understanding of all things baby, I think I had a strange view of fatherhood, as well. My father was clearly a provider and protector. He worked long hours and traveled quite a bit, and so he was absent for a lot of my childhood. I never thought much about that fact, and just accepted it as the way things were. When I was young, we took family vacations, and after we joined the church we held Family Home Evenings, so Dad was present. But as I grew into a teen he was naturally less involved in my day-to-day life.
When our first son was born, I had no idea what to expect. I was surprised almost constantly. Surprised that the baby did not want to cuddle (an odd trait of our first son, who happened to be born in the middle of a very hot June in Provo). Surprised at how little he could do when we was born. (I told you I had no idea what to expect.) Surprised at how little he slept when we wanted to sleep. Surprised at how he ate (or didn’t). Surprised at how his motor skills developed over time. Surprised at how he explored his world and tested his boundaries. Surprised at how I reacted to all of those developments.
Our second son came 21 months after the first. I thought I had the baby thing down (though I really didn’t), until it became clear that Son #2 was not Son#1. Another surprise. While Son#1 had to DO everything, Son#2 was a watcher and observer.
I think the biggest surprise to me, though, was that I did not love my children instantly when they were born. I’m not sure what I expected, but I was surprised to realize that I had to get to know each child and come to love that child individually. It was not enough to love the idea of having children (though I did); I had to learn to love each child who joined our family. It would be difficult to overstate how uncomfortable that made me feel.
And, frankly, it is a lesson that has taken me years to learn – and one I am still learning.
In my head I imagined a family of parents who loved their children and children who loved their parents. I imagined that my advice would be gratefully received by my adoring children, and they would seek to please me. While it is true that infants do seek the maternal smile – that approving expression from caregivers – from the very beginning, my expectations for my children was completely out of whack with their developmental abilities. And so were my expectations for myself.
I found that I had to seek opportunities to develop a relationship with my kids – we had to do things together. Some things we tried went well: we enjoyed travelling to grandparents’ homes, going to the park to play, playing games at home. Other things not so much: I am not much of a soccer dad. My kids didn’t enjoy playing tennis. I could never coach a T-ball team. I learned to sit through movies that interest little kids and not me. I tried to stay up with the sports page for a son who followed the local teams. I tried at least to know who was on popular radio once in a while (my listening tastes lean much older…like to the eighteenth century).
I encouraged them to work beside me in the family garden. I used to pay my kids to wash the car or shine my shoes with me. The goal was not really to get high quality work out of them, but to do something with them. My boys and I endured father-son campouts together (until they aged out; I tried very hard not to be the one to cry “uncle”). I went to many daddy-daughter dinners at church, at Brownies, and at school. I read the books they were reading (those that read), and I read lots of books to them, too. Of course I attended every concert, every play, every public performance of any kind.
I’ve driven all my kids to seminary (well, the youngest hasn’t gone, yet), and I love those few minutes together in the car for touching base, just a little, each morning. Some of my kids have appreciated a hands-on approach to their school work; others have preferred to go it alone. When I was really on my game, I could find something they knew more about than I did and let them show me a thing or two.
The key, it seems to me, was my time. Far more important than what we did was that we did something together. In some periods, I tried doing something with each one individually; other times we did things as a group.
And over time some things did become clear. Those little boys and girls were my children. I felt responsible for them. My heart ached when they hurt or were sick. And my heart soared when I was proud of what they learned or did.
My younger children owe my older children a great debt of gratitude since the older ones taught me most of what I know about being a father, and I suspect I owe my oldest brother the same debt. It’s been decades since those oldest boys were little ones, and I’m exceptionally pleased at where we are now in our relationship as father and children. It reminds me that I have learned along the way, not only to love my children, but to cherish them, to enjoy their contribution to my life and to celebrate their successes in their own.
How about you? What have you learned in your journey to fatherhood? And what have you learned as you helped your father along his journey?