Living Into Fatherhood
Over the past three decades, as part of the American Families of Faith Project, we have interviewed nearly 250 diverse fathers about the challenges and blessings of striving to be a faithful father. From thousands of pages of transcriptions and field notes we have gleaned 10 one-liners that have left us pondering the world’s most profound job: that of parent.
“Kids bless you and they stress you.” A Black Baptist father from Louisiana nailed it with this one. No explanation is needed for anyone who has been a parent for more than two days.
“Kids see if faith is a Sunday thing — or if it’s a 24–7 thing.” A White, non-denominational Christian father from Pennsylvania captured the importance what we call belief-behavior congruence. For those fathers, who like us, have been called hypocrites by our own young child, we are aware that kids come equipped with manure detectors that have parent-sensitive settings.
“My Grandfather didn’t act spiritual in synagogue, he was spiritual.” A Jewish father from Delaware called out his own parents for hypocrisy and putting on “appearances,” but he welled with emotion when discussing the profound faith of his Grandfather whose prayers were so powerful they shook you.
“We wanted to come out of this being in love with God, not hating Him.” As Tom Boyer watched his six-year-old daughter Megan falling to leukemia, he and his wife made and kept this pact. Tom said, “You wouldn’t expect bedpan shuffling to be a wonderful memory, but it was. Megan trusted me to do my best job to not hurt her, and that was special to me that she let me do that.” Viktor Frankl wrote, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” Tom witnessed Megan’s increased sympathy and concern for others and shared, “It makes you want to go forth and do likewise.”
“Every morning I look at that list and promise myself that that will never be me.” A White Mormon father told us after our extensive interview that his own father had been distant, cruel, and brutal. At 10 years of age, “Matt” began making a list of his father’s harsh actions. By the time Matt left home, it was more than 100 items long. Now a father of six, Matt kept the 30-plus- year-old list in his sock drawer. Matt is what social scientists call a “transitional character.” Another apt term for this kind of generational turn-around is “a miracle.”
“If your child ever gets the idea into his head that there is something more important to you than he is, then you have no right to be surprised when something else becomes more important to the child than pleasing you.” It has been almost 30 years since the late John Cortell, an avowed atheist and devoted father of five from Oregon, offered us this pearl to contemplate. Sometimes the “faith” of a man consists solely of a sacred connection to his wife and children. Perhaps there is no faith more beautiful or deserving of the name.
“It seemed like church always came before family for my Dad and eventually it cost him his family.” A young father of two from Washington reflected with pain and sorrow on the life of his pastor and father. We are reminded of leading family therapist Bill Doherty’s warning to avoid “time affairs.” Whether the time affair is with NFL football, the golf course, hunting, chasing dollars, or even one’s faith community.
“God requires much more of people than their own self-interest, and recognizing this has brought me much more happiness and joy in my life than any other type of success.” A Latino Christian father originally from Mexico went through a self-reported transformation at 30 years old. He lost his old life and found a new one that came to include a wife and two daughters.
“Now, my most important work begins! Now, my most important work begins!” A Christian father’s daily mantra as he drove home from work based on ideas he read on a fathering website. He came to realize that he had been assuming that because he always worked hard at his job, he had the right to come home and kick back and watch TV while his wife did the hard work of parenting. He realized that, since he was usually tired after work, he needed to psych himself up during his drive home so he would be motivated to work as hard — or harder — at home as a husband and father. Rather than listen to music on the drive home, he thought about the meaningful things he would do with his kids during the few short hours he had with them before bedtime.
“God told me that I will live into the answer.” Brad and his wife had a son with some special needs. Then, several years after the birth of their son, they had triplet daughters who were born severely premature. One of the triplets died shortly after birth. The other two survived but had significant developmental delays in addition to visual and hearing problems. Our home-based interview was extended due to frequent and chaotic interruptions from a series of mild “emergencies” involving the girls, then age two. (Brad had given his wife a rare “night-off” with her friends). Brad cared for his girls with a patience and easiness of manner that seemed to evenly counter the visible chaos of an exceptionally challenging parenting situation. At the conclusion of the interview, we asked,
“I know you are a man of faith, but don’t you ever shake your clenched fists at the heavens and say, ‘Why, God? Why!?’
Brad looked at a point off in the distance that only he could see and said, “I did once.”
“Well, do you feel like you got a response?”
“Please, tell me what it was…”
Again, Brad looked at the distant point visible only to him. And then he softly replied, “God told me that I will live into the answer.” We have been pondering this response for 20 years.
Our decades of looking for answers have led us to many who are seeking their own. In our own search, we have used two diverse tools — religious traditions and social science. One teaches us to believe, the other to be skeptical. Perhaps the psychologist Charlotte Buhler was right when she said: “All we can do is study the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about.” But perhaps there is more.
On this Father’s Day weekend, whether or not you believe in a Father of us all we close with a final reflection from 19th Century agnostic politician Robert Ingersoll, “It is difficult for a child to find a father in God, unless the child first finds something of God in his father.”
Loren Marks is father of Mishonne, Logan, Haley, Denton, and Aliyah and a professor of family life at BYU. David Dollahite is father of Rachel, Erica, Camilla, Katy, Spencer, Jonathan, and Luke and a professor of family life at BYU.