“Who would be a father!” – Shakespeare, Othello
I write this with a heaping measure of sensitivity though probably not enough, hoping to avoid offending someone by what I have to say. Whenever anyone talks or writes about anything family related, there is bound to be someone with hurt feelings. Family is a sensitive topic all around.
I’ve seen various studies over the years on the importance of fatherhood in a child’s development. Those studies and my own observation leads me to conclude that of all the family members, be it mother, father, son, daughter, sibling, grandparent, cousin, aunt/uncle, niece/nephew, the role that has perhaps most negatively impacted the largest number of people is father, whether he was there for his child or not. The role that has perhaps most positively impacted the largest number of people is mother, who was most likely there for her child. I conclude this from experience though I admit I could be dead wrong.
For that reason, I sense that Father’s Day is so much different than Mother’s Day. My hunch is more of us are inclined to put heart and soul into Mother’s Day than into Father’s Day.
So knowing you may be getting a dose of completely false ideas below, feel free to stop reading here or pick this apart in the comments to teach me to steer clear from any form of psychology in the future.
We all have a father, yet the thought of him might bring you feelings that range anywhere from the proudest love to the most base hatred. There’s this thing called “daddy issues” for a reason. Everyone has them because everyone is shaped in some way, for both good and bad, by their father. While mother is not exempt because we are shaped for good or ill by her, it’s interesting that “mommy issues” isn’t a thing.
My intention isn’t to call up feelings of bitterness about your father, if you have them. I’m writing this because I want to be a good father. I want to be as good a father as a mother, if that makes any sense. Maybe it will in a minute. The problem is I know from my family experience what being a very good mother looks like, and I’m nowhere close to matching that level of parenting.
If Motherhood is Calculus…
The day before Mother’s Day, I wrote some thoughts after my solo fathering experience of our four young children while my wife was away. As I put them to bed I couldn’t help but grow in appreciation and respect for their mother, my mother, and mothers the world over. If all the parenting had been left to me since their birth, I wondered, how different would these children be? I noticed the touches of their mother in their bedrooms: their clean bed sheets, the framed art placed on the dressers and walls, their clothes folded and put away with each fitting them as they grew, the story books she reads to them at bedtime. I more fully noticed the touches of their mother all over their beautiful souls – and I say that not to get lofty and poetic, it’s a statement of fact.
I knew before that motherhood was challenging and demanding, but that night I decided that motherhood is so challenging it is like something almost incomprehensible, like calculus. As in, it is incomprehensible to my admittedly inferior parenting style which aligns more with simple arithmetic than it does with calculus.
I also got a D in calculus.
The Power of Motherhood
The power of the mother is unquestionable. She knows her child in a way no one else is capable. She has given up many freedoms to conceive and bear him. The very physical attachment that begins with the umbilical cord in utero and on to nursing the newborn infant continues on in a very emotional attachment for life. Mother knows her child.
My motherhood-calculus theory is that mothering is the science of taking a small child and shaping her into something great and wonderful. In calculus, very small and changing details (the infinitesimal) can determine great things, like who her child is and who her child can become in a chaotic, ever-changing world environment.
Fatherhood is Voluntary
So what makes fatherhood different? If I were to compare anything to fatherhood, what would it be? Should I write a post called, “fatherhood is arithmetic?” And if motherhood is so complex and grand in scope, how could I make fatherhood equally so? How can I be a better dad?
I won’t compare fatherhood to math or science. With the help of my observant and wise wife, I’ve settled on what might sound like an unusual statement: fatherhood is voluntary.
Before I get into what I mean, here are the facts about the obvious differences between mother and father:
- Mother’s Sacrifice: There is no comparison between the mother’s sacrifice to bring life to the world and the man’s very meager contribution. Childbearing and early child rearing is very physical and emotional for the mother. A mother’s health and overall quality of life deteriorates while carrying and bearing the child. From a few weeks after conception until childbirth, mother is unable to live as freely as she did before conception. If the mother cares for the child in infancy and beyond, she is unable to live as freely as she did before conception.
- Mother-Child Bond: As a consequence of the sacrifice a mother has given, the bond a mother has to her child is most often deep and profound. Because of the strong bond developed, mother is more likely to feel like she knows and understands her child. Mothers tend to be more nurturing, loving, understanding and forgiving than fathers.
- Father’s Sacrifice: Fathers don’t sacrifice their bodies for their child’s early development in utero and newborn. A father’s health remains vibrant and their freedom is unencumbered from conception onward.
- Father-Child Bond: Fathers tend to be more demanding or disconnected; more rough than tender; less patient and more disciplinary than the mother.
These stark differences show that mother’s job is clear: once she is pregnant and wants to keep her baby, there is no turning back. She moves forward, knowing that her life will change forever. She is going to invest her whole heart, mind and body to the cause of bringing life to the earth.
The father has a moral and ethical obligation to do the same. But he doesn’t have to. He can choose the immoral and unethical option. He can walk away. He shouldn’t do that, but he can.
I will throw out there that perhaps more than at any other time in the history of civilization, we in the industrialized world have more opportunities to make choices. Where two hundred years ago the masses of humanity around the world were spending their much shorter lives dependent on their families just to put bread and water on the table, today we have many more choices available to us.
Today, the law may impose penalties on the wayward father who walks, but he can still walk.
The opportunities for leisure and recreation and welfare and laziness (I’m separating each, not lumping them together) are greater than ever. A father doesn’t have to be around his child. He can even be around his child but keep the TV on or put the iPad in his child’s hands, effectively walking away, even though he’s there.
The bar for fatherhood today, in my opinion, is very low. It may be the same for mothers as well, but that bond most often ensures that she is there for her child.
Dad, who cannot give body and heart in the same way mother already has, must find other ways to earn that bond with his children.
My Dad earned his bond. He was gone a lot as I grew up, but he was there. He was working full time and in school full time pursuing his PhD until I was almost 17. He used to tell me how he wished we could be together more and do more fun things together. But I remember him being there because the time we did spend together was quality time. And it was in those times that I knew when he was away, he was still there.
The Power of Fatherhood: “One That Compos’d Your Beauties”
I want to be there for my kids in the same way my Dad was there for me. He had not invested in me the same way my mother had early on, but he did his best to teach me and be there for me, and the mark was made even when he wasn’t there, because a father is always there. There is power when a father is there that fills the void when he is not.
As I now turn to my children, understanding that I have not sacrificed body and soul to give them life, the bonding I create with them will be my loving presence. I need to understand that I will have an impact on my children in my presence just as much as in my absence. What I say to them and how I say it will affect them and shape them for the rest of their lives. The choices I make and the choices I don’t make will do the same.
Voluntary doesn’t mean walking away. Voluntary fatherhood means I recognize my influence is affecting their lives.
When I think of fatherhood in this way, it makes me want to be better and work harder at my very imperfect fatherly love.
I want my childrens’ lives to be full, rich, and wonderful. So I will do what I can to ensure that in both my presence and my absence, they know I am there, that I love them, and that I care. That’s the kind of math I can do.
“To you, your father should be as a god;
One that compos’d your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted, and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.”
– Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream