In late 1999, my wife, Jean, and I learned that we were expecting our first child. The news came at a hectic time in my career, and I suppose I didn’t truly weigh its significance. I certainly didn’t feel like a father yet — it felt abstract and theoretical.
Several months later, things become more real. Jean’s been in labor for 27 hours. The baby’s vitals don’t look good. The doctors prepare for a C-section, but they give Jean just one last chance, and on that last effort, she pushes Trent out into the world. The nurses bring him to us, all swaddled and clean. While Jean sleeps, I take Trent and sit with him in the rocking chair throughout that first night.
I’m a dad, I say to myself. And it seems that the realities of fatherhood hit me for the first time. And it scares me. Growing up, I never had a reliable dad to learn from. My heart aches at the thought of not having a dad in all the moments I needed one.
As I rock Trent, I pray. And I whisper to him. “I hope I can be a good father to you — the father I never had.”
A changing world
“It is much easier to become a father than to be one,” wrote author Kent Nerburn. It’s true. Even for men who really want the job, it feels intimidating. We can master a sport or a career. But it’s hard to control much of anything in fatherhood. When our baby starts wailing, we can’t make him stop. When our son starts failing algebra, we can’t make him pass. Fatherhood is much slower work.
And what does it mean to be a father today? Today’s “traditional” family looks very different than in previous generations. The father’s traditional roles of provider and protector have seen great change. Often, both parents work outside the home. The dangers we face are the more subtle and insidious attacks from a culture hostile to families. While we still have a need for a nurturing, care-giving mother inside the home, a father’s traditional duties have undergone a transformation. His role as a provider has been split between parents. His role as a protector has grown less obvious.
Fathers today face a greater expectation to be far more engaged. With more moms pitching in as “providers,” we expect dads to be better caregivers. We change diapers and cook and kiss boo-boos. And that’s great. As fathers, we should rejoice in the fact that we can take a greater role in raising our kids. But men still feel wired a certain way, and often, modern fatherhood doesn’t seem like it fits who we think we are. Yet God is always at work, pushing against our impulses and helping us grow ever closer to His plan. Our flesh and fears may try to slow us, but our Lord gives us a spirit of “power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7).
A father’s love
Love is the key to everything. If you love your kids and show them that you love them, the rest naturally develops.
We often consider Mom to be the heart of the family. But Dad has just as critical a role to play in the lives of his children, beyond just carrying the mantle of leadership. A picture comes to mind of a big, strong tree in the backyard, that old oak that spreads its branches across the sky like open arms, the place that kids run to in the morning to play near or sit for comfort.
Can we build that same sense of unshakable security? Can we be the father who says to his kids, “Come, come sit on my lap. What did you do today? Did you make a mistake? What did you learn?” It’s a reflection of how I see our heavenly Father. Someone who’s always ready to share a laugh or wipe a tear. That father can be stern, yes, but always in a loving way. Consequences and correction may come, but he never speaks out of condemnation. His children feel safe.
Fatherhood is about being engaged with your kids, talking and playing with them, holding them when they need to be held. It’s about always aiming to be present, not fleeing into a “man cave” or escaping to work. Those diversions are short, flighty things compared to your relationship with your kids.
A father’s power
Being a safe, welcoming father doesn’t sound all that heroic. Playing dolls with your daughter doesn’t seem very manly. But Scripture tells us that love — that secret of fatherhood — is explicitly tied to sacrifice. It “bears all things” and “endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
Is manliness just brute power and strength? Or does it say, “I’m going to lay down my life”? Sacrifice can feel weak and powerless, but as Christ demonstrated, sacrifice is powerful. We are at our strongest when we lay down our lives, even in small ways, for our families — maybe especially in small ways, because those are the most difficult sacrifices to make.
In healthy families, men demonstrate a common characteristic: sacrifice. These men spend time with their kids even when they’d rather do something else. They talk with their kids when part of them just wants to watch the football game. They deal patiently with their kids when they’ve just spilled milk on the floor — again.
We won’t always do it well. But we must continually challenge ourselves to not only tell our kids that we love them, but also show them in real ways how important they are to us. That might sometimes lead us to make radical choices. But being a dad has always been a pretty radical experience.
A father’s instruction
My sons, Trent and Troy, are entering their teen years now, into a new stage of growth and learning. And I believe that I’m arriving at a bigger role as a teacher. In years past, Jean was the center of our family, nurturing and instructing the boys in what they needed. I helped reinforce those lessons and taught a few of my own. Jean ensured that our kids had the best of foundations, but as the boys have grown, I’ve taken on a bigger role. I feel that responsibility keenly now. I’m the one who has to teach my boys and tell them what it means to be a man. What it means to be an adult, to find their own way and still follow God.
If Mom makes the boat, then Dad hoists the sail. We help our kids catch the wind, teach them how to use it and, when they’re ready, to push off toward the sunrise.