The pilgrimage into fatherhood

I became a father only 42 years ago, so I still am discovering all that this role encompasses. Perhaps, after 10 years of additional experience, I’ll be able to tell you precisely what “fatherhood” means.

Jun 17, 2015

By David Gibson
I became a father only 42 years ago, so I still am discovering all that this role encompasses. Perhaps, after 10 years of additional experience, I’ll be able to tell you precisely what “fatherhood” means.

The fact seems to be, however, that every earthly father is a work in progress. Furthermore, each father is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all pattern for fatherhood.

Fathers-to-be often develop a fairly clear sense of the kind of parent they intend to become. They know, at least, what kind of parent they don’t want to be. But even in the first days after a child’s birth, these mind’s-eye notions yield to the realization that fatherhood is a real-life role influenced by the unexpected.

Some fathers ask, while taking their first steps into parenthood, “Do all newborns cry this loudly?” Or, “Is our bundle of joy ever going to sleep during the night?”

From the moment a child is born, it is clear that new fathers are called, like new mothers, to learn not only what a child is in terms of wants and needs. They are called to encounter a particular child as a one-of-a-kind human being. From his intimate vantage point, a father soon realizes that his child is not only growing, but changing. Over time a father sees that his child possesses genuine talents, as well as personality traits that, alternately, are enjoyable, or hard to handle.

As a child grows older, a father repeatedly is challenged to understand, support and always love his child, who, it turns out, is nothing less than the complex web of humanity that all of us are.

So, a new father embarks on a pilgrimage of sorts. Like the patriarch Abraham in the book of Genesis, he journeys with hope and expectation into a future that in many ways is unknown.

“A child changes our lives” and parents cannot “predict what a child will require” from them, Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, wrote April 25 in his diocesan blog. “When a child comes into our world,” he said, “the world, as we know it, changes.”

Bishop Flores affirmed that, indeed, children at all ages want their parents’ time. He also pointed out that “unexpected” developments and difficulties may arise in family life, possibly altering some plans the parents had made.

But “life is not only, or even primarily about, what our plans are and what I want,” the bishop said. “Life is also about what God gives us, about what opens up when the unexpected happens.”

The people in our lives are God’s gift, “designed to mold the course of our lives for the better,” Bishop Flores believes. He wrote:

“Sometimes, people are a blessing by being a burden. We are blessed when God calls something out of us, to be generous to someone else. It does change us.”

The bishop said, “We must have compassionate families. ... Our principal job in this life is to look at others and love them to God.”

I think fathers sometimes find it hard to feel that their role is God-like. It is a rare father who considers himself a parent of excellence at every moment.

Fathers experience unnerving frustrations, not sure what a pleading nine-year-old really needs, as opposed to what he wants. They suffer over not seeming able to “get through” to a volatile 15-year-old. Often, they wonder what to do next.

There are happy times for fathers, moments of resurrection when parent and child rise above some difficulty that threatened to build a wall between them. But, there can be as-yet unresolved parent- child power struggles, too, as well as times when a parent exclaims inwardly, “Someone has to be the adult here!”

Fathers struggle, not always certain when to say “no” and when to say “yes” to a child. But those are only two key words in a father’s vocabulary.

Pope Francis suggests that all family members need to utter these three little words with some regularity: “please,” “thank you” and “sorry.” Does that mean they are words to utter to children?

The pilgrimage into fatherhood has one big starting point, followed by a thousand new starting points along the way. The journey is long. Over time, a father finds himself tugged at and urged along, both in welcomed and unwelcomed ways.

Inherently, the journey into fatherhood challenges a man to grow and change in ways he could not imagine on the day of his first child’s birth. Slowly, life transforms for parents.

A father’s pilgrimage may not be easy, but, yes, it can be distinctly God-like and Christian. Jesus’ followers, after all, are not meant to stand still in life as if carved in stone. Like Abraham, they repeatedly listen for God’s call as their journey advances.

A father’s pilgrimage is a vocation, calling him to discover each child as a unique individual and to nurture that. But he discovers something else, too.

Little by little, and pretty astonishingly, he discovers himself — someone whose hidden gifts have been unearthed by his children.

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