Grow(ing) Up Already

So, I’ll be honest. My Father’s Day did not go according to plan. In the past, especially early on as a new father, the day was marked by lots of effort to make me feel appreciated and recognized in my role as a dad. Circumstances conspired to make that impossible yesterday. Kirsten was coming off two back-to-back overnight shifts and those shifts were particularly challenging to boot, emotionally and physically exhausting. She was just spent, and rightly needed to rest. Even so, she got up much earlier than she should have to make a celebratory meal. She’s a saint, and I simply don’t deserve her. Nonetheless, the day was mostly marked by the usual challenges of parenting our two unique and uniquely challenging kids. Between the fatigue that comes from the simple routines of raising children- including meals; play and the obligatory clean-up; baths and bedtimes and waking up throughout the night; the emotional drain of enforcing boundaries and teaching, always teaching and training, etc;- and the busyness that marks most Sundays including travel to Canton and back and various church responsibilities, the day just didn’t allow for time to pause and celebrate being a dad. Add in overwhelming work responsibilities and a handful of relational dramas being played out in various ways, and the day just didn’t feel right.

Of course, there’s even more to it, though. Let’s face it- dads get slighted in our culture. There are lots of reasons for this, to be sure, but it’s true. Take this post, for example, which says that “Americans are expected to spend about $7.4 billion less on gifts and goodies for dads this Father’s Day than they spent on moms for Mother’s Day last month, according to the National Retail Federation,” and “about 64 percent of consumers plan to get Dad a card. That compares to 81 percent who were planning to make sure Mom got a card.” As a dad I can speak of this disparity in treatment too, both on Father’s Day weekend and simply in general. Dads are perceived as less capable, less responsible parents. For example, on Saturday we were at a picnic for cerebral palsy patients at Akron Children’s Hospital. This is a great event they do every year that usually includes Akron Rubber Ducks (minor league baseball) tickets. Sam has a mild CP diagnosis, and we usually try to go. So I took the boys and fed them there, and Kirsten met us later just before going into work. When we came to greet her after she arrived, the boys had just finished eating finger (more accurately, “junk”) food and it was evident on Nathan’s very messy face. Of course, he’s two and honestly my nine year old Autistic child still eats that way too, but I hadn’t had a chance to clean them up yet when we saw Kirsten. She was standing there with a co-worker, who casually remarked, looking at their messy faces, “Oh, must be a day out with dad, huh?” as if dads don’t bother to clean up their kids or are oblivious that there’s food on their face, etc. A mom walking up with their kids in identical circumstances would not have gotten the same kind of comment, I’m almost sure.

Do dads deserve a bad rap? Maybe. The statistics could be used to argue that yes, we do. Some of us abandon our families. Some of us are criminals and are rightly incarcerated and therefore unavailable to parent our kids. Dads are out of the picture in many families for many different reasons. To make matters worse, culture tells us that parenting calls for more stereotypically feminine gifts, like “kissing boo-boos,” changing diapers, and teaching. Of course, that’s only one part of the equation. Parenting, when done well, also calls for more stereotypically male gifts like setting boundaries and the like, and truth be told the best parents, I would argue, do all these things all at once. Dads can and should change diapers, and I know Kirsten would be glad to say that I do. Dads nurture their kids; they “kiss boo-boos;” they teach them too. One parent may be more inclined and gifted in a certain way than the other and certainly parenting labor can be divided in ways that are most efficient, but there can and should be a sense that “we’re all in this together.” Mom shouldn’t be- and shouldn’t be considered- more of a parent than dad is, hopefully, and vice versa.

But naturally it’s more complex than all that. Some dads are incarcerated unjustly due to racial/socioeconomic factors largely beyond their control. Cultural factors come into play in this regard as well, as parenting can become denigrated in a culture still very much mired in the legacy of systemic injustice against a people group perpetrated over the course of centuries. Gender stereotypes should be called into question too. Men and women are different, to be sure, but as I’ve alluded to above, moms and dads should be a team that challenge each other, learn from each other, serve each other and their kids, and accentuate the strengths of each while minimizing and overcoming their weaknesses. Kirsten and I still hope for and are working toward this kind of a marriage, though we are no doubt very far away from it still.

All that said, Mother’s and Father’s Day have different historical roots. On the face of it in popular culture today, they’re the same, but Mother’s Day arose as call to end war and work for justice. It was quickly commercialized, however and perverted into the holiday most of us know and celebrate today. Father’s Day arose because it was (rightly?) recognized that there was a disparity in setting aside time to remember mothers- in whatever way for whatever reason- while not doing so also for fathers. So Father’s Day came about as a perversion of the perversion of Mother’s Day, with both holidays now being overt celebrations of consumer capitalism more than anything else these days. Kirsten rightly wanted to opt out of this perverse consumption this year; so I honored her with a Kiva gift card, for which she was very grateful.

I, on the other hand, am exposed for the selfish, poorly motivated, and deeply wounded person that I am in all this, for I find myself wanting to be recognized for my efforts as a dad, as if I need some sort of external acclamation simply to fulfill the privilege and responsibility that go along with my role. It doesn’t stop at fatherhood either. The trauma I endured as a child and the repeated traumas we’ve experienced even into adulthood have left me with a very real felt need for affirmation, praise, and recognition for what I do, up to and including simply getting out of bed every day and trying to do it- to live and love and serve and grow- all over again- and again and again and again. I think I’m special, that I’m a survivor, that I’m resilient and that it’s some great feat that I keep trying again to give what in so many cases I simply have not received. How can I be a good dad when the best my dad could do was to tell me he loved me while daily leaving me exposed to the abuse of my mother, the worst of which he tried to absorb himself? How can I affirm and instill confidence and capability in my boys when my own father never had the time or emotional resources to do much of the above for me? These questions could go on.

Perhaps to my credit, I certainly try. I try to give what I feel like I don’t have. Both Kirsten and I are uniquely and specially bonded to Samuel due to his traumatic birth. For my part, when he was young especially (and our only child, meaning he got my undivided attention) I would literally spend hours and hours and hours holding him, singing to him, reading to him and spending time with him. I pressed my lips against his ears and told him over and over and over again, “I love you; I love you; I love you; I love you,” on and on and on. I delight in that kid, our gift from God, and am glad to do so. Much has happened since then and there’s seldom opportunity to express myself to him in that way now, but it’s no less true.

Nathan is uniquely a gift from God too, the son we dared to hope for despite the odds, the one who survived a high risk pregnancy and was born without the trauma Samuel endured. He’s ferocious, uniquely vibrant and alive with a special energy that we often struggle to keep up with. It’s as if Samuel expended so much energy just trying to survive his premature birth and the aftermath, while Nathan kept it all pent up inside (as he was pent up inside Kirsten for those several blessed months longer than Sam was) and then burst from the womb rarin’ to go, ready for a fight. He’s a wonder to behold, and I delight in him no less.

Father’s Day is hard for Kirsten and I anyway, each with our own dads now gone. Dad Pearson left us much too early, now nearly 16 years ago. I was glad to know and love and be loved by him for a couple of years. His absence leaves a hole, though, that Kirsten especially struggles to fill with love for our own boys and fierce determination. My dad, gone now three years, has also left a hole, one that we all (except Nathan, who was born just after he died, like ships passing in the night) struggle with. He had many faults, some that were horribly devastating to his family, including and especially me, but he was loving toward and was loved by all. Sam really enjoyed Grandpa’s company when he was around, and I wonder how much of Sam’s oft-repeated yearning to return to TX has to do with the experience of Grandpa there. Kirsten I know was glad to know and love him, and his death still has me reeling in ways I can scarcely articulate. This particular father’s day I also experienced some relational disparities that it’s not really appropriate to go into, but they stung and they still do, even as I work to overcome whatever hurt I feel and extend grace, love, and forgiveness even when it’s not even realized that it’s needed.

In all this I’m challenged to grow up already and keep giving what I feel like I don’t have. In all this my own selfish motives are laid bare and I’m given the opportunity to set them aside and put the other’s needs ahead of my own. Perhaps the best a father can do for their kids is teach them how to do this, how to keep growing and loving and serving and growing up, struggling daily to conform to the image of Christ, who knows a thing or two about giving it all for all of us. After all, when it comes down to it though I don’t feel like I’ve been given what I’m being asked to give, the fact is I’ve been given it all, all that I need and more, for all I truly need is the “never stopping, never giving up, unending, always and forever love” of God. So I need to stop all my trying, I’m sure, and let that unconditional love wash over me. I need to fill up on it so that it can pass through me. I once resolved that I could do no better in the Christian life than to spend it plumbing the depths of God’s great love for me, and that remains true today. God, (please) help me to do so. Kirsten and my boys need it. Your world needs it, and you know I sure do.

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