There is a certain immediacy about motherhood that cannot be said of fatherhood. Nature goes a long way in helping a mother know what it means to be a mother. Ovulation, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and breast feeding are natural and immediate experiences that teach a mother a great deal about the meaning of her motherhood. Motherhood is imminent, but fatherhood is transcendent.
If nature does comparatively little to teach a man the meaning of fatherhood, his wife, his children, and his culture must help to fill in the blanks. Yet, secular feminism, the high divorce rate, and abortion most emphatically do not help a man to understand the meaning of his own fatherhood. In fact, agencies are busy at work trying to “deconstruct” fatherhood and “deculture” paternity.
Yet, fatherhood and good fathers are of inestimable importance to society. David Blankenhorn, in his book, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Problem (Basic Books), provides evidence that fatherlessness is the leading cause of the declining well-being of children and the engine that drives our most urgent social problems from crime to adolescent pregnancy to child sexual abuse to domestic violence against women.
The following 10 distinctions shed light on the critical, yet subtle nature of fatherhood. Whereas motherhood is unmistakable because of the power of nature, fatherhood requires no small degree of sophisticated understanding.
Fatherhood means being:
1) A leader without being a frontrunner.
Our prevailing notion of leader comes from the worlds of sports and from politics. In this sense, in accordance with the “leader board” in golf, the leader is the one who is ahead of the rest of the field. Or he is the one who is leading in the political polls by outpacing his rivals. But a father is not a leader in this way. He does not try to remove himself from his family. Nor does he regard the members of his family as rivals. On the contrary, he leads in a manner that fulfills each member. His leadership is inseparable from those he leads. What he leads and “fathers” into being is the good of those whom he loves. In other words, fatherhood requires that a father leads by being there, rather than being “ahead of the pack.”
2) A visionary without being arrogant.
Every home must have a fireside and a future, a vestibule and a vision. The father is a visionary in the sense that he has an eye on the future. He has a keen sense of the importance of time. But he has this without presumption or arrogance. He is providential in his fathering. He knows instinctively that his children will grow up and lead independent lives. He provides for them a future vision of themselves.
3) A servant without being servile.
The expression “servus servorum Dei,” adopted by John Paul II, comes from Pope Gregory the Great. Paradoxically, this servant of the servants of God earned the appellation “Great.” He who humbles himself shall be exalted. The father serves all the members of his family without being I any sense inferior. One might say, in this respect, that a father is like a tennis player: when they serve, they both enjoy an advantage.
4) An authority without being authoritarian.
The father, like God, shares in the authorship of life. He is an authority and therefore someone to learn from and be guided by. But his authority does not restrict the liberty of others. In fact, fatherly authority is to cultivate and enhance liberty. St. Thomas Aquinas wisely pointed out that “the respect that one has for the rule flows naturally from the respect one has for the person who gave it” (Ex reverentia praecipientis procedere debet ex reverentia praecepti). A person best understands fatherhood by knowing someone who is a good father. One must begin with the real experience and not the inadequate abstraction.
5) A lover without being sentimental.
The love of a father is strong and unwavering. Love is not bound by a feeling, and hence prone to sentimentality. It is strengthened by principles that always focus on the good of others. Love means doing what is in the best interest of others. Sentimentality means always being nice because one is fearful of opposition.
6) A supporter without being subordinate.
A father is supportive. He holds people up, keeps them going when they are inclined to be discouraged. But his encouraging role does not imply subordination, but reliability and trustworthiness from someone who is strong. He is not supportive in the Hollywood sense of being a “supporting actor.” His supportive role is played out as “the leading man.”
7) A disciplinarian without being punitive.
A good father knows the value of rules and the consequences of disregarding them. He wants his children to be strong in virtue. Therefore, he knows the importance of discipline, restraint, and self-possession. He is not punitive, nor is he overbearing. He makes it clear to his children that there is no true freedom without discipline, and that discipleship requires training. He is wary of punishment as such, since it can strike fear in the heart of a child.
8 ) Merciful without being spineless
Mercy must be grounded in justice. Otherwise it is dissipation and weakness. In fact, it is unjust. A father, because he recognizes the uncompromisable importance of justice is anything but spineless. He is merciful, but his mercy perfects his justice. Mercy without justice is mere capitulation to the desires of others. Justice without mercy is cold legalism.
9) Humble without being self-deprecating.
Humility is based on the honest recognition of who one is. It takes into account one’s limitations and weaknesses. The humble father, when he encounters difficulties, has enough humility to ask for help, even at times, from his own children. Yet, he never gets down on himself. He knows that remaining self-deprecating at a time of crisis is utterly futile.
10) Courageous without being foolhardy.
Courage is not fearlessness, but the ability to rise above fear so that one can do what needs to be done in a time of danger or difficulty. A father does not fall apart when he begins to feel the pressure. Foolhardiness is not courage but an unfocused and unhelpful recklessness. Moreover, courage, as its etymology suggests, requires heart. The father, above all, is a man of heart.
When we consider the meaning of fatherhood, we should do so with humility, gratitude, and love. But we should also do it with refined accuracy. Fatherhood may be a paradox. But the poles of the paradox can be brought into balance with a little bit of wisdom and effort. Or, as some wise person said, “A truly rich man is one whose children run into his arms when his hands are empty.”
“Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children and that is what we are” (1 Jn 3:1). “We are children of God by adoption. By the gift of the Holy Spirit we are able to cry ‘Abba, Father” (Ga 4: 6).
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