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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Pondering Fatherhood Over a Book and a Beer…

Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Fear
"You're a good dad, Carlos," a friend on Facebook commented on a photo I posted of my four-year-old son, who spent the day at work with me last Friday.

The words lingered uncomfortably in my mind.  

Really?  I knew he was just trying to make me feel good and, maybe, from previous comments and pictures I have posted, he really does think of me as a good dad, but it did make me pause.  What does it mean to be a good dad?

The question was apropos to ponder a couple of days later on Father's Day while reading a book and having a beer, as my wife and children were enjoying the swimming pool of a club that we joined for the summer (Yes, some people like to think.  I like to ponder.  And, what better way to ponder than with a beer in my hand, I say)

Anyway, the more I pondered, the more I realized, the enormity and complexity that answering the question entails.

Bl. Pope John XXIII once wrote, "It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father."

What a sad commentary but how profoundly astute.  

I'm no expert but if there is something I have learned in my eleven short years of fatherhood, and the last six of learning a little about my faith, is that being a good dad, or a real father, as the Pope stated, means a lot more than just having children and providing for them.
A "real" father has to go beyond his procreative and financial contributions.  A real father has to be a leader in all aspects of his family's life.

That's a pretty monumental and, in all honesty, intimidating responsibility, which may account for why so many men today relinquish their duties.

Let's face it, it takes a lot of courage (sometimes more than I have) and, while I still have times where I act more like Al Bundy of Married With Children than Jim Anderson of Father Knows Best (probably too many if you ask my wife), it's not something I take lightly.

One of the most satisfying moments for me as a father in recent weeks, came a few Sundays ago at Mass.

My two younger kids, who are seven and four, started mimicking everything I did.  They sat on either side of me and, when I kneeled and prayed, they kneeled and prayed.  When I followed the readings in the missal, my seven-year-old read along in her Magnificat Kids and my four-year-old pretended to be reading.  When I stood, they stood. 

They were unusually quiet throughout the entire liturgy.  At times, they were overtly affectionate and cuddled next to me and hugged me.  My son even gave me unsolicited kisses.  It was probably one of the most rewarding masses my wife and I have ever experienced with our children.  

Like many Catholic dads of young children, I spend many Sunday mornings at Mass shushing them or separating them when they are fighting.  Even my eleven-year-old occasionally acts up and starts bothering one of her younger siblings in church.
However, that day was different.  They were truly on their best behavior.  

What I think it shows is that, despite all the distractions and apparent lack of attention, my kids are watching me and they are willing to follow, if I lead them.

And that, for me, means leading by example.  As most studies show, kids learn more from what they see at home from mom and, especially, dad than from what they hear us say.

In fact, the moral funk our society has been in over the past several decades, unfortunately correlates with the deteriorating role of the father within the American family.

Therefore, being a good father begins with being a good husband, which most men would agree is not easy.  Yet, if I can't set an example as a husband in my own marriage, which is the most important and intimate relationship I can ever experience with another person, then what kind of example am I really setting for my children about love, respect, honor and commitment?

Hence, a real father must get outside of his selfish and self-centered tendencies (and God knows it's a struggle for me) and focus on the needs of his wife and children.  In other words, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who came to serve and not be served (which I have not yet mastered).

Father's Day was a great example.  We got up early, as we usually do on Sundays to go to Mass, then went to breakfast at a Jewish deli (of my choosing).  

By the time we got back home, it was early afternoon and instead of going out with my son, who wanted to play basketball outside in the hot sun, I distracted him by putting on a movie and, while the kids watched the film, I took a little nap (not exactly focusing on the needs of my family, I know) and my wife worked out (Mother's Day, Father's Day, it doesn't make a difference, that's what she does!).  

After the movie, they all wanted to go to the pool, although I could have just stayed on the couch watching TV all day!

As a matter of fact, when my wife suggested to the kids that they go ahead and I join them later (one of the perks of Father's Day!), I almost broke into a touchdown dance in the middle of the living room.

So, I stayed behind watching TV.  This is what Father's Day is all about.  I'm on our leather couch, with my feet up on the coffee table and the remote in my hand.  I could watch whatever I want and not be distracted or feel that my wife was going to get upset because she was doing chores and I was relaxing.  It was wonderful.  

However, about twenty minutes into my self-absorption, a thought crossed my mind (they don't happen often but...); here it was Father's Day and I was neglecting to act like a father! (They say ignorance is bliss but unfortunately I read too many books and listen to too many CD's on fatherhood, my bad!).  So, I reluctantly decided to join them.

Still, it was a halfhearted effort.  When I showed up at the pool, my wife quickly asked, "You didn't bring a bathing suit?"  I saw the disappointment on their faces.

All I took was a book and my reading glasses (I guess you can say, I showed up as if I was doing them a favor but this was still all about me).    

But, God has a funny way of making a point.

My wife asked if I wanted to order something from the menu and we ordered food for the kids and I ordered a Corona.

As I was sitting underneath an umbrella by the pool, sipping my beer and reading my book, Fr. Larry Richards' Be A Man! Becoming the Man God Created You to Be (which in retrospect, may not have been the best choice in my egocentric Father's Day mood), I came upon these words:

"Before you go to bed each night, ask yourself, "Did I commit one unselfish act today, one act of service?"   If the answer is no, you wasted your life in Christ today.  You are not a servant.  You are more concerned about yourself..."

I felt like I was hit by a two by four across the forehead.  What am I doing?  It's Father's Day, God's sake!

I immediately put down my book, removed my glasses and shirt, and jumped into the water in my Bermuda shorts.

The kids loved it.

"You don't even have a bathing suit!" my younger daughter exclaimed in delight.

We had a blast and, at least for that brief time playing in the pool, I was a good dad.

As I reflected on the day later that night, I realized that, going back to the first sentence in the Fr. Richards' book, we are all going to die.   And, at the end of the day, when I do, it's not going to matter how much knowledge I gained or how much time I had to relax and be selfish.  What will matter are the memories I leave my wife and kids and the love and time I gave and shared with them.

Maybe, that is what my Facebook friend meant by the comment on my picture because that is what being a good dad means...

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