During my wife Becca’s pregnancy, I tried to make a habit of writing for my unborn daughter. A Word file filled up with many thoughts and fragments: poems, pieces of advice, reflections from prayer. My daughter had so much to learn from me, I imagined, thinking of the world awaiting her and feeling her kicks against Becca’s stomach during the long winter nights.
That file has gone unopened since my daughter Hannah’s birthday. True, the poems are embarrassing, and the advice is trite, but I do not think that is why I have not returned to it. Rather, I have realized that what I have to offer to my daughter will be called forth by the Spirit from our experiences together.
Becoming a parent is a risky and scary venture,[i] and the Church’s magisterial tradition leaves a concrete theology of fatherhood underdeveloped.[ii] I am not convinced this is a bad thing. While advocating a broad form of what fatherhood looks like, the Church allows for freedom in figuring this out, especially amidst necessary changes to parenting roles.
On Father’s Day, I offer four observations about my vocation as a father that life with my daughter has given me. Such suggestions are not meant to be universal; they are from my experience as a “stay-at-home dad” of a firstborn baby who recently turned three months old. However, I wanted to share my own thoughts as I reflect on my first Father’s Day as a father.
Fatherhood has concretely shown me what conversion looks like. For Rilke, encountering art may have sounded the call, “You must change your life,”[iii] but an infant screaming at 3 AM teaches that with an incredible urgency. Especially in the first month of her life, Hannah forced me to change by a constant turning toward her. She cares not for my fatigue, urgent blog posts, dissertation writing, or various lesser forms of excused selfishness: love for her calls me to this blowout diaper, this seventeenth round of singing “Graceland” to stop the crying, this midnight stroll through the kitchen. The concrete presence of a child who cannot be understood except over time in the sharing of a life forms an incredible analogue for life with Christ and our brothers and sisters in the Church.[iv]
- Fatherhood has also called forth a more generous sharing of life than I imagined possible. The shape of the Christian life is to participate in the love of Christ, being beloved sons and daughters of God who “lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13), and fatherhood enfleshes this love in innumerable small ways. It calls you to sing one more song than you want to, to forget the smartphone for one more hour, to sleep far less than you would hope (or even need). But this is not just an abstract ascetical practice: these all involve pouring out life. As an infant unable to do much of anything on her own, not only Hannah’s biological life but her life as an emerging person comes from the life—the words, the gestures, the time, the play—that her mother and I share with her. Her life right now is almost literally our life.
- The fact that this life, given and shared, is a gift fills me with incredible gratitude and wonder. It has been hard to pray with Hannah like I used to, but my time holding her ends up being a litany of “thank you” to God: that such a beautiful child would be given us, that we ourselves would have been able to be children once, that our families would be making such sacrifices to see and spend time with Hannah, that our world could hold space for such miracles. Becca and I are able to give Hannah life in a real way only because we first received it and continue to receive it: it is life we received from our parents; it is life we receive from the side of Christ Himself in the Eucharist and the Church; it is life which she can then turn toward her Creator and others as she grows. Life with Hannah calls me more and more toward a continual Eucharist, a continual thanksgiving for this life.
- Such gratitude for a good world is not unthreatened by concrete sin and evil. Though it is easy to indulge in fear, the risk of having a child accompanies a deeper hope for Hannah and the world. Rowan Williams points this out in the character of Shatov in Dostoevsky’s Demons:
[At the birth of his child] Shatov has been liberated from the need to create God through his own will by the invasive presence of joy […] Only when we see Shatov at his wife’s bedside is it plain that the work involved [in finding God and changing the world] […] is simply the labor of conserving life in small particulars, a commitment to human history not as a grand project but as the continuance of a vulnerable localized care.[v]
Given as a gift and a site for God’s love to be manifest, the world becomes worth working for and entrusting to God every time I see Hannah smile and imagine the future to which God calls her.
I can only spend Father’s Day giving thanks for the gift of being a father and for the gifts of my own father and other father-figures in my life. Life with my daughter is so different from what I imagined in last winter’s poems and aphorisms, but it is so much richer too. For this way of life with all the variations and opportunities in which God calls me and other fathers to love, in which we experience the Spirit’s unique re-presentations of the love of Christ poured out for us in our own circumstances, I am deeply grateful.
[i] The rather picturesque version of fatherhood I describe cannot ignore the innumerable experiences of absent or abusive fathers, as well as the more everyday mistakes and traumas that fathers can inflict. Nobody reminds me of this ambiguity of fatherhood more than Philip Larkin in “This Be the Verse.”
[ii] John Paul II sums up when describing a father’s vocation as providing financial support, education, the witness of a Christian life, and—primarily—love for wives and children in Familiaris Consortio (no. 25). For all his lack of specificity, John Paul does devote an extraordinarily beautiful paragraph to this role in FC no. 25: “In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family: he will perform this task by exercising generous responsibility for the life conceived under the heart of the mother, by a more solicitous commitment to education, a task he shares with his wife, by work which is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability, and by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church.”
[iv] This is a point which Rowan Williams expresses incredibly well in his sermon, “Not to Condemn the World” (A Ray of Darkness (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 1995), pp. 26-30).
[v] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008), 26. The rest of Williams’ discussion of Shatov, especially in chapter 2, is equally insightful.