Dear fellow dads,
If you’re like me, nothing strikes more fear in your bones or more hope in your heart than the weight and the beauty evoked by that one simple word: dad. In the delivery room with my wife Miska for the birth of our first son, I carefully followed the detailed instructions gleaned from our birthing class. I counted to provide rhythm and, at appropriate intervals, coached Miska on when to inhale or exhale. At the peak of one particularly sharp labor pain, she buried her fingernails into my arm and, amid clenched jaw and shrill gasps, exclaimed, “Don’t. Tell. Me. How. To. Breathe.”
We hadn’t even gotten our child into the cradle, yet I had already zipped through all my preparation and accumulated knowledge. I didn’t have the foggiest clue how to be a dad. Similar scenarios have repeated multiple times. With each new school year, each new relational or emotional hurdle, each time a conversation carries us into uncharted terrain (those places where our kids’ hearts are most vulnerable and the stakes so high), we realize that, for the most part, we’re winging it. We’re doing the best we can, just like everybody else. One of my writing friends, John Blase, shares an appropriate metaphor for fathering: poker. You’re dealt the cards, and then you have to play them. There’s gamble and risk, there’s no sure thing. Such is love. And life. I agree.
If you’re one who finds solace in the myriad of parenting books and experts who, ever so subtly, offer the promise of certain outcomes, I can only offer a sincere good luck. If like me, however, you’ve flung yourself into the wild waters of fatherhood and find yourself vacillating between profound joy and utter disillusion, intense love and bristling anger, courageous hope and crushing fear (for starters), I’ll pass along two truths I’ve come to believe. Some might call this advice, but I see it as one player at the table giving another player an observation on how the cards seem to be falling.
First, we dads often carry too much on our shoulders. In Christian vernacular, we’re often loaded up with intense pressure about our role. We are reminded that we represent the Divine Father to our children. True enough, but for some the reverse inference is that mothers don’t. Moms, so it goes, provide nurture and domestic stability, but we dads give our kids God. That’s quite a trump card, quite an expectation.
Thankfully, representing God to our children is not simply a dad’s role. God is, of course, not male; and it is both the male and the female together that, in the Eden story, offer God’s image, God’s icon, into the world. In addition to the many fatherly images of God, Scripture also evokes motherly images (traditionally understood). The prophet Hosea describes God as a she-bear guarding her cubs. Deuteronomy presents God as a mother who both births and comforts. Isaiah pictures God as a mother travailing in labor and nursing children from her breast. The Psalms present God as a mother caring for her weaned children, and the Gospels present God as a momma hen tending to her clucking chicks. Both fathers and mothers, women and men, reflect what God is like. Breathe a sigh of relief.
These Scriptures mirror what we dads know firsthand: There is fierceness in a mother’s love. I watched Miska deliver one of our boys au natural, without the aid of an epidural or any drug stronger than Tylenol. Many times since, I’ve watched Miska deliver our boys from heartache, fear and foolishness. Any dad who pounds his chest as if we have a corner on the bolder aspects of God’s nature has been smoking something too strong and for too long. Mothers model God for our children as much as dads, and that’s good news.
While parts of our culture suggest dads carry the weight of God himself on our shoulders, other parts of our culture act as though it barely matters if, after spreading our seed, we show up for much else. We’ve so reacted to oppressive gender roles and expectations that we hesitate to say plainly that we dads (and those of us who serve as dad for others) possess something powerfully unique to offer our daughters and our sons. I couldn’t outline in some flat list exactly what that unique love includes (i.e. we need not insist on guns or football here), but I’ll be bold enough, with a few years under my belt, to say that I can spot when it’s missing.
A couple years ago, I bought “A Dangerous Book for Boys” to stir the masculine pot with my sons. While my wife could tackle several of these projects better than I could (navigating a midnight sea by charting the stars comes to mind), a unique magic happens when my boys open these pages with their dad. I feel no need to explain this. I only know that it’s true. I have a courage to give them that is uniquely their father’s to give. There are places in my boys’ soul that my words and my tears uniquely touch. There is love my boys can know only from their father. I’m necessary, and so are you.
When I cut my boys’ umbilical cords, two things surprised me: 1) I didn’t faint - I’ve got issues with blood, and 2) The surge of inexplicable passion and tenacious love that arrived like a freight train barreling home. That love is only mine to give. And I plan to give it.
I don’t know you, but I’d wager that you love your kids like mad. And I’m betting they love you back just as much. Enjoy it all.
Winn Collier is a columnist and the author of three books, including “Restless Faith” and “Holy Curiosity.” Winn is also the pastor of All Souls in Charlottesville, Virginia. You may connect on his blog at winncollier.com or onTwitter.