Becoming Father

[ 5 ] Comments

by Paul

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.

newbornAs 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). fatherhood

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?

Photo credit:  John Ryan via Compfight,  Mark Nye via Compfight,  Mig Rodz via Compfight

About Paul

Paul was a convert to the church with his parents and siblings when he was a child, and therefore has the great blessing of having some of his formative years in the church while still remembering his family’s conversion experience. He is the father of seven and husband to his lovely wife. He served an LDS mission in Germany and has lived in Latin America and twice in Asia for his employer; now he lives with his lovely wife and youngest two children in the Midwestern US. Prior to earning his MBA, Paul also earned degrees in English and Theatre History. He also blogs at A Latter-day Voice (see the link below -- in "Our Authors Elsewhere" section at the bottom of the page) where he writes, as he does here, of his own experience as a Latter-day Saint. He does not speak for the church but will speak in favor of it.

5 Responses to Becoming Father

  1. templegoer says:

    I’m really appreciating the vulnerability you’re showing here, Paul.

    I’ve known marriages founder because one partner has expectations of their spouse’s parenting skills that don’t materialise, and I think we big up fatherhood and motherhood within the church, and rightfully so, but it’s hard to meet the expectations that are consequently set up.
    My darling husband is the kindest of men and loves his kids dearly, but comes from a background where the expectation was that children be seen and not heard. Fathers especially did not expect to interact with their kids at any level, to the point that any interaction he had with our kids as babies was seen by his parents as a failure on my part to protect him from their demands.
    He still largely tolerates them rather than interacting with them, but they are very accepting of this aspect of his personality and show no doubt of his love and commitment to them.It’s just not part of his expectations of himself. And let’s face it, there’s always something else that can be on our minds, isn’t there?
    Nothing is perfect, and sometimes we just have to accept someone else’s reality, and accept that there will be consequences. It’s part of what makes us unique.
    He is genuinely a wonderful man who’s spiritual counsel I would stake my life upon, and yet not a very hands on dad. It doesn’t make him a bad dad.

    • Paul says:

      TG, you are right: there’s probably not a “right” way to do these things. Our outstanding (or mediocre) parenting efforts do not guarantee a set of results (good or bad); there are many, many moving parts.

      I find for myself it’s been a journey; I am certainly a very different father today than I was 32 years ago; I’m even a very different father than I was five years ago. And I expect five years from now I’ll be different, still.

  2. jendoop says:

    Paul, I also appreciated your honest and open approach, thank you for sharing this. It was illuminating for me, really, I had very little clue that this is the way men might feel about and view parenting. It’s altered the way I view my Dad in retrospect, and how I view the efforts of my husband. My expectations are high, too high.

    Somewhat fathers are at a disadvantage because we inadvertently hold them up to God in a comparison of success/failure. There is a song that my kids will sing in sacrament meeting on Sunday about how the look in their father’s eyes and the sound of his voice remind them of Father above. I feel uncomfortable hearing them sing it, thinking about how impossible that comparison is. Impossible for children and wives to see the unique strengths in their father’s or husband’s parenting style when compared to the perfection of God, and impossible for fathers to feel that they even come close to meeting the expectations. When I think about the sound of my father’s voice I think about how rough it is from years of smoking or remember how much it hurt my feelings when it raised. (I love you, Dad)

    Our cultural view of families as precious and paramount may have an unintended consequence of setting us up for feeling like a failure. No one meets the standard, yet we are taught the standard so we can all rise to something better. It’s this difficult middle ground of wanting the best, while not feeling short changed or disappointed that our fathers are average just like we are. Thank you for helping me understand the good men in my life a little more, and realizing a bit more of their diligence and goodness.

    • Paul says:

      You raise a great point, Jen. When we put mothers and fathers on pedestals instead of seeing them for the humble, struggling, sometimes successful and sometimes imperfect humans they are, there’s little place to go but crashing down.

      It’s a fine balance. It’s good to honor fathers and mothers, and it’s very good to honor fatherhood and motherhood. But just as Elder Faust told someone (was it Elder Uchtdorf?) not to “inhale” the praise, I think we need to avoid inhaling the pedestal talk when setting expectations for one another.

  3. MSKeller says:

    and like you, I find that ‘motherhood’ is also a journey. It isn’t some place you ‘arrive’ even after all are up and out and grown and becoming parents themselves. I do however find deep satisfaction in the look in my children’s eyes who have become parents, “They finally ‘get it'” I find myself sighing.

    It is hard. We aren’t perfect, but we did it. . . and that deserves some applause. I think the honor comes in that, we fall alot, we fail sometimes, but we keep trying.

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