Sunday, May 3, 2009

Re-Thinking the Meaning of Dad

Parenthood is awesome! I wouldn't trade being a dad for anything in the world. It's an adventure. Not that the adventure always takes the turns you want it to. Parental life's a series of ups and downs. One minute your kids are saying and doing things that convince you they must be angels straight from heaven. The next they're saying and doing things that make you envious of species that eat their own young. Fatherhood's not easy, but I can tell you from experience, it's better than the alternative.

Being a dad is full of special moments. They're not the things that make for great headlines or that necessarily translate into interesting stories at parties. But, as a father, you understand that they're the moments God made life for. Take, for instance, this past weekend. William had his normal soccer game. This week, his team had a much-anticipated confrontation with the dreaded Purple People Eaters. If you ask me, a name like Purple People Eaters seems a little intense for three-year-old soccer. I guess their coach figured that if they couldn't beat the other teams, at least they could give them nightmares. Well, as I helped William get ready for the big game, I happened to mention that today he was going to face the Purple People Eaters. Immediately, I knew I'd said too much. His eyes grew wide with terror. His lip began to quiver. Then, despite his best efforts to muster his courage, he burst into tears and cried, "Daddy! Please don't make me see the purple peter eaters!" Biting my lip so as not to laugh, I quickly dropped to one knee, pulled my little man close, hugged him, and assured him that I was not about to send him off to be devoured by the "peter eaters." For a moment he just held on tight, squeezing my neck so hard that my head almost popped off my shoulders. A moment or two later, I had him laughing and relatively convinced that he was not going to encounter cannibals on the soccer field. It's doubtful that William will remember that moment very long. I'll never forget it.

The trick to fatherhood is learning to slow down so that you don't miss it. As dad's, we feel the pressure and responsibility of providing for our families. Our American culture drums into our male psyche pretty early that we are going to be judged by how much of a material success we're perceived to be. It's easy to find ourselves consumed with living up to the image of success that society has set for us. We end up chasing what the world around us tells us we need, rather than stepping back, surveying what's personally important to us, and setting our own course based on our own priorities. Before you know it, we've allowed the concerns of work, bills, planning for the future, and a whole host of other things to overflow and drown out the special, daily moments with our wives and kids that are just waiting to be enjoyed. Oh sure, we say that the most important thing to us is our family. But how often do we stop and listen to what our wives and kids are telling us they really need. If we're not careful, we'll find that we've used the old excuse of "providing for my family" to justify our own agenda at the expense of the very family we claim to be looking out for. We'll realize all too late that we've spent years pursuing our culture's image of a successful man, only to find that when we cross that desert, the oasis we thought we were headed for turned out to be a mirage. Tragically, for many dads, by the time they realize they've been chasing the wrong things, their wife has long since given up on intimacy and their kids are far too busy with college or their first job to notice that dad has finally figured it out.

I'm a freelance writer by profession. I'll write anything: professional memos, creative projects, biographies, you name it. I've even authored a number of social studies books used by public schools. But being a freelance writer means that if I ain't writing, I ain't getting paid. When I'm not writing for a client, my job is to find work! The upside is that I can work my own schedule. It allows me to spend time with my wife and kids. The downside is the insecurity that often accompanies self-employment. The scary part is, if I'm not on guard for it, I can become so focused on the downside that, before I know it, I've allowed all my worry and uncertainty to totally destroy the upside. What good is the time to spend with my wife and kids if I'm too anxious to enjoy it? The bottom line is, I don't want to be so focused on trying to provide my kids with all the material things I think they're going to need in the future that I neglect to give them all of the time, energy, and encouragement they need from me today. I don't want to look back and find that I missed all the little moments I could have been laughing with, playing with, drawing with, and reading to my kids because, mentally or physically, I was somewhere else.

Last Friday night, I was feeling those pangs of anxiety. I was nearing the end of a writing contract and realizing that my next decent payday was well over a month away. "I should get on the computer and start running down some leads," I thought. I heard Meredith and the kids in the backyard. Emerson and William were arguing over a lone watergun that they both wanted to play with. Suddenly, I got an idea. I remembered a couple of all-but-forgotten super soakers in the garage. As William and Emerson continued to play tug-of-war (Meredith was looking after Carson and too tired to play referree) I bolted through the door, both guns blazing! Little munchkins were scattered in every direction, screaming as dad doused them with water. The screams quickly turned to laughter and, before you knew it, I had allowed William and Emerson to wrestle the guns away and turn them on me. In moments, a water fight had broken out that soaked the whole family. About a half hour later, we made our way inside, dripping water all over the floor as we headed upstairs to dry off and get the kids ready for bed. As I tucked Emerson into bed that night, she looked up at me with a huge smile and said, "Daddy, this sure was a fun night." I smiled and kissed her. "Yes, Sugarbear," I said, "It sure was."

I still don't know who my next big client will be. I still have college educations, monthly bills, a mortgage, and a long list of other things I could choose to worry about. But, at the end of the day, I know that twenty years from now, I won't care about most of the things that, today, battle to dominate my thoughts and schedule. I will, however, think about that water fight and smile. Even more important, so will my children. So maybe it's time we re-think the meaning of Dad. Yes, we are providers. But what should we be most concerned with providing? Sure, do your best to take care of all of the financial responsibilities that come with parenting. But never ever forget, your kids need you there to assure them that no "purple peter eater" can mess with them while dad's around. And be assured, there's a water fight with your name on it waiting to be fought in the backyard.


  1. Per usual, another great post! Can't wait to see these compiled into a best-selling book! I'd like to order my autographed copy now! ;-)

    Keep 'em coming!

  2. I feel your pain! Stay true to your hearts desires. One day we'll make some money :o)


  3. thanks for these reflections. i am inspired your provider instinct doesn't overcome your perseverance as writer to find steadier, but maybe less fulfilling, less you work. for me, for this season, the writing is the sidellne, but still room to share your reflection it all flows better when we follow our children's lead