Reposted from a popular post I published two years ago:
“I’m twenty-two," a young adult told me this week, "and I have nothing to live for”. It’s the kind of thing pastors, as stand-in fathers, sometimes hear from kids who don’t dare utter such things to their own dads. It wasn’t the voice of resignation; it was the voice of despair. It was the voice of one “should” piled up on top of another, burying this young person in shame and paralyzing fear.
It’s Father’s Day, and around the country kids are supposed to tell their dads how grateful they are for what their dads have done for them.
For many, that’s a tough sell. Their dads simply haven’t done for them what they really needed. For others, dads have done to them what they really didn’t need or want. There are, of course, those who can recognize in their flawed and fallible fathers the good that’s come into their lives through what those fathers intended, and sometimes what they never intended at all—the good that came despite the struggle those dads had trying to be dads.
Frankly, there’s at least as much pain on this day of national sentimentalism as there is pleasure. But mostly there’s just a lot of confusion: dads feeling pressure to live up to some vision of fatherhood that simply evades them. Kids of every age feeling pressure to say things that just aren’t fully true. Both dads and kids feeling that there’s something missing in all this. Or maybe, there’s something, some goodness, that’s not missing at all . . . something that lies hidden, buried, yet available beneath all the layers of expectation and yearning.
I’m a father to five adult kids, their partners, and two grandchildren. Two of those five kids are my flesh and blood. Three share DNA with another father. It’s a great privilege to “father” all of them and to share three of them with another man who’s doing his best to “father” too.
It’s not easy work. We’ve both dragged our respective kids through failed marriages and all the pain and bewilderment that a broken family thrusts upon our kids. None of us—dads and kids—signed up for the pain. But pain is what we’ve lived through. Healing too, of course.
Maybe to some people my history disqualifies me from giving advice about fathering. But honestly it’s those who’ve failed and gotten back up again who are most able to articulate the kind of wisdom I’ve needed. Those who know only success live in a world that’s unfamiliar to most of the rest of us.
So, as a father who’s made plenty of mistakes, I’ll offer some unsolicited advice to fathers on this Father’s Day. Maybe, hopefully, there’s a little hard won wisdom in it.
Here it is:
Dads, stop trying so hard.
Stop crafting grand visions.
Stop shaming and scolding.
Stop being the expert.
Of course, kids will need boundaries. They’ll need guidance. They’ll need words. But before you set those boundaries, give that guidance, or speak your advice, establish the firm, unshakeable ground beneath their feet from which they can rise into the beauty and power of their own originality. Ground yourself to a goodness that’s always available to you (and your kids), but that’s hidden and obscured when you’re pushing, prodding . . . talking.
Dads, love your children.
Without imposition of your own agendas for their lives.
This is so freakin' hard. I get that.
But without this ground beneath them (and you), all your boundaries and visions and words ring hollow, tinny, even ridiculously unwelcome. But if that sense of unconditional, nonjudgmental love is firmly in place you’ll be able to do the other things—this time because your kids have asked for all that. And when they actually ask, what you have to offer can make all the difference in the world.
Your unconditional love gives your kids something worth living for because it helps your children find what they are made for, and to find it on their own. They will need your love to hold them in that empty and scary space of self-discovery. Your love will help them know they don’t have to hurry; they don’t have to be perfect; they can make mistakes—even colossal ones.
To lots of dads, all this may sound terribly “soft”. But in my experience, it is my embrace, my deep look into their frightened and often insecure eyes, my availability at the end of the phone (or via text or instant messenger, even at 2:00am), my lifetime of experience and a sense of humor that helps them not take things too seriously, my listening ear (and the swallowing of my words). . . all of these, offered with a deep sense of my unconditional love, establishes the firm ground from which my children can find a way to create a life that is fully and authentically theirs, and not some projection of my own needs and wants, my fears and neuroses upon them.
The truth is, some fathers don’t have a lot to give to their children materially. But every father can love. And that love, even offered by a father who has nothing else, is a wealth, unimaginable.
Love gives us all something worth living for.
And this is a truth religious people—we Christians, in particular—are supposed to know, and live, by heart.