How do we acknowledge the role of father in these changing times? First it was the sexual revolution and the challenging of gender roles, then there was the advent of artificial conception methods which reduced the need for even a sexual relationship. Now we are faced with the question of equality in marriage. So without denying anyone the right to the role of fatherhood, I would like to make some observations about the nature of fatherhood from my limited experience.
One of my favourite saints is Joseph. Scripture reveals only a few details of this simple man, but it is clear that his family situation was anything but conventional. Having worked for many years to secure a livelihood to support a wife, he discovers that the maiden betrothed to him is with child. (Matt 1:18) Imagine the embarrassment of the carpenter in a small village where everyone knows everything.
In faithfulness to God and in love for Mary, Joseph takes her as his wife protecting her from shame and cruelty (Matt 1:19-25). In doing so, he takes on the responsibility of providing for her child, unaware of the significance of this act. The scriptures go on to tell that he protects his young family from the ruthless Herod by escaping as refugees to Egypt. He was a humble hero who never knew it.
Regardless of who does what in contemporary households, there are certain essential roles in family life. For me, the role has mostly been to protect and provide. Like my father before me, providing was almost instinctual. Each of us was motivated by the desire to see our wives’ and children’s physical needs met. Whilst not a lofty ambition, I have found satisfaction in being able to provide at this most basic level.
Food on the table and roof over their heads is a pretty good start and had we not been able to achieve this I would have been disappointed. However there were times when my wife Brenda and I struggled to make ends meet. We were most fortunate to have the support of her father during a few lean times. Bill was a good provider whose generosity knew no bounds.
Of course, providing for one’s family doesn’t stop at food and shelter. Next in the line was education and for our family providing Catholic schooling was a priority. In our household this was the third biggest expense after the mortgage and the food bills. Like most families we were keen to provide the best we could afford for our children, be it shoes or schools.
Brenda and I also regarded sport and music as part of the education for our children so all five had their choice of learning a musical instrument and playing a winter sport. Most parents know the significant commitment of time, energy and money that accompanies the provision of these activities for children.
On the basis of the experiences we offered, each child eventually made his or her choices of leisure time pursuits. In many ways the most important provision for our children was that of choice, whether it be the choice of careers which stem from education and training, of faith based on the sharing of one’s beliefs and practices or lifestyle based upon the example of years of loving commitment to one another. Having choices provides the greatest gift of all − freedom.
For over 20 years I chose to sleep in a t-shirt and shorts, to the amusement of all in our family. I have only realised in hindsight that this was because I needed to be ready for action, should I be needed throughout the night. When the kids were young that might be to burp a bubble in a tiny belly, later it could be an emergency run for teenagers stranded at a party or the club. As an empty nester I am enjoying not being on standby, as well as the simple pleasure of comfortable pyjamas.
Protection of our loved ones is not something that most blokes talk about. Most fathers I know are ordinary guys who do not regard themselves as superheros. While I certainly don’t fit any of the Marvel comic moulds, on more than one occasion I have experienced the rush of adrenalin which rises when a loved one is threatened. I recognise this protective instinct is not unique to men or to fathers.
As a man, I am also aware of my physical presence and power, especially when I am responding to a perceived threat or the desire to protect. There are times when I’ve had to be mindful of the effect I might have on others. There have been times when I have had to control myself in order to protect those I love. Like most superheroes, we ordinary dads have a ‘shadow’ side as well.
Likewise, many a father has been called upon to protect a child from him or herself, whether a small child testing the limits of climbing abilities or a teenager unaware of the pitfalls of experimentation but nevertheless feeling invincible. I’ve found the challenge of discipline to be in recognising when I was acting out of loving protection rather than fearful overprotection.
As a new father, our son had cause to ask many questions about birth, parenting and partnering in the last few years. Recently he commented that he thought Brenda and I had a very traditional approach to marriage and family. A bit surprised, we asked what he meant. He responded, “The whole idea of two people living one life”. We smiled quietly at each other because this what we were striving to achieve for nearly 40 years.
Traditional or not, we have experienced satisfaction, delight and some success in sharing life as a couple parenting our children and now grand-parenting their children. Brenda has long maintained that my fathering has enabled her mothering and vice versa. For us it is simply a loving partnership in life. One of the most rewarding dimensions of this shared life has been the protection and nurturing, providing for and nourishing of children. No prizes for guessing which parent specialised in which parts.
Bishop Bill recently wrote very reasonably about “same sex marriage” amid the many opinions about modern families. Everything, from the film Gayby Baby through to bible-based family values, is professing to know what is right. Whether we be father or mother, male or female, I believe parents are called to care for God’s most precious gift. Like Mary and Joseph’s child Jesus, the ones we care for are the children of God.
Some of us are privileged to share in the procreative act with our Creator. Most of us are capable of protecting and nurturing, nourishing and providing for the young and in doing so contributing in a substantial way to the future of this world.
Children who are warm, safe, comforted and fed will pretty much do the rest themselves. They do the growing, learning, exploring, challenging and choosing themselves. If our partnership includes our heavenly Father as well as our earthly partner, then each night we might pray,
“Loving Father please hold the precious ones you have entrusted to us gently in the palm of your almighty hand. Amen.”