Looking back on your fatherhood
by Michael Rayes
Many thoughts enter your mind on this humid summer day of 2033. Sure, there are current and past events that annoy you. But the really deep contemplation comes when you think about your children. The last 20 years are almost a blur, thinking back to 2013.
In the year 2033, you will most certainly ponder, as all men eventually do, the last twenty years and how you raised your children. You may realize then that you actually had very little impact on many of the things you were so worked up about—national and local politics, taxation, sports teams, civil liberties, the economy, and so on. It is of course good to put forth Catholic Action in these areas. But there is a small group of people over whom you had more influence than any other person. You made the biggest impact over these people; they were most likely to follow your lead, and they were heavily influenced by you personally: your own children. If only you could go back! What if you could go back to 2013 and begin anew? What kind of father would you be?
Foresight in your family
There are five domains of life that need to be developed for a child to grow into a mature, well-adjusted Catholic. These are physical, moral, social, intellectual, and spiritual. Underpinning especially the moral and spiritual domains is emotional balance. The reflection in this article—how you will spend the next 20 years—will focus on your child’s emotional balance and the potential pitfalls which may hinder the father’s role. Regardless of your family situation or the age of your children, there is always room to reflect on your fatherhood.
If “children are the Future,” as humanists say, fathers are the Right Now. You have the power right now to Catholicize your future family tree. Twenty years from now, you can look back over the lives of your children with a peaceful, contented heart, knowing that you gave everything out of love for your children’s souls. Consider how selfishness practiced today will breed future regret and pain. Sacrifice made today will grow to future peace.
Parents, especially busy mothers with young children, naturally get caught up in the here-and-now. It falls to the Catholic father to have the wisdom and foresight to plan for the child’s long-term emotional well-being. You are raising Catholic souls who will one day return to their Creator.
Learning about God the Father
It is probably no exaggeration to say that God the Father is the least understood of the three divine Persons. Even Protestants can relate to our divine Savior, despite their heretical understanding of redemption as sola fide. The Holy Ghost as a Person is often misunderstood, but the Father remains almost nebulous to many people. What is fatherhood? What does God the Father do? How can we really grasp the paradox of benevolent justice as a role of the Father?
The family can be seen as a way to understand the economy of salvation. God is omnipotent and redeems us. Blessed Mother is the highest creature in Heaven and is our mediatrix. We Catholics, in the state of grace, are the children of God and heirs to Heaven. Now consider the family: You are the father. You may find that your wife comes to you with a request or a revelation from one of your children, who went through her instead of speaking directly with you.
In a strong family with clearly defined roles, an approachable father, and a gentle mother, children gain experience with intercession, mercy, justice, sacrifice, and submission. They see these traits occurring in the natural order within their own family. If people today struggle with inaccurate notions of the relationship between God and man, and especially of God the Father, it may be the result of not gaining a solid idea of fatherhood and traditional family life.
Pitfalls ensnaring fathers
Let us consider four potential pitfalls in fatherhood that may contribute to future problems in grown children, and thus serve as a serious hindrance to the Catholic soul as it relates to God. The four pitfalls, listed in order from the most obvious to the most subtle, are paternal abuse, paternal abandonment, paternal neglect, and internal preoccupation. Avoid these, practicing instead a sacrificial, active fatherhood, and you’ll reap a harvest of well-adjusted Catholic men and women in your family tree.
Paternal abuse. We know we must not beat the daylights out of kids. That’s simple enough. But what about spankings? In young children, spankings are appropriate after a warning. Corporal punishment should be somewhat rare, eventually and progressively disappearing as the child grows into adolescence, and should never be directed toward the child’s face.
Instead, wait until you are calm enough to think while administering the punishment. Is it for the child’s correction, or to make you feel better? Are you consistent or do you only spank when you become irritated enough? Does the child see the connection between behavior and consequences as a result of the punishment?
You want your children to fear offending you, but not to be afraid of you.
Paternal abandonment. You may want to jump in your car, keep driving away, and leave them all. At least, sometimes you get that thought. Brush it out of your mind. In the 1970s, millions of fathers permanently left their families. In the 1980s, mothers did the same thing. The consequences of such ungodly selfishness are everywhere today. You cannot leave your wife without leaving your children too. They will either blame themselves or blame you and take their mother’s side. Either way, Daddy’s gone.
You are stuck with your family for the rest of your life. There is no escape. This is your family. There is no starting over. A wise priest once said that divorce is when the parents lay down their cross because it’s too heavy, but then the children must carry it for them.
Instead, realize that your family is yours. Work out whatever burdens you may experience, and rejoice in the consolations that surely come from living as a husband and father. Remember that marriage is a sacrament. Who divorces himself from his baptism? Who in his right mind would wish to separate himself from extreme unction once it’s received? Would you want to tear a sacramental marriage asunder, if that were even possible?
Paternal neglect. This is perhaps the most common pitfall. A father may not leave his wife and kids outright, but he doesn’t take care of them. Some fathers fall into a sort of “functional” level of misery in which they ignore the wife, and perhaps the kids, as much as possible. Then the father can at least live with them while not discussing areas of unresolved conflict. The problem with this arrangement is that it builds a wall of quiet tension between family members, who thus do not learn to have an open, trusting, vulnerable relationship with our crucified Savior. Grown children may stop attending Mass because it is not relevant to them. Why would it be, since Mass is the re-presentation of a complete pouring out of God Himself to make satisfaction for sin? A Father giving the world His Son, and the Son offering His life back to the Father, is the complete antithesis of a father neglecting his children.
Instead, re-arrange your priorities so you can spend more time with your children—and your wife. Take natural consolations in your children’s lives. Remember to listen, listen, and listen even more to your children when they come to you with their seemingly insignificant stories and problems that honestly might stretch your patience beyond agony. Ask God to help you persevere. Remember, hardly anything is more important in this world than for you to spend your energy and time as a husband and father. Most everything else is secondary.
Internal preoccupation. You didn’t leave your family, but your mind did. Sometimes, men need time to mull over problems or work something out in their minds. This is normal. The concern is when it becomes a habit that you may not notice, but your children do. You may hear comments such as, “Daddy is always too busy” or “Daddy never listens to me.” You might find yourself shooing away your children. Once in a while is understandable. A daily habit of doing this, however, will send them off as young adults to find some other person who will listen, or at least act that way. Will this be a fellow Catholic, a worldly person, a hedonist, or an agnostic? You, of course, will have no control over the situation at that point.
Instead of remaining internally focused when a family member wants your attention, stop your thoughts. Offer it up to our Lord, and then force yourself to be fully present with your children or your wife. Look at the person talking to you, showing you their new coloring page, or practicing a recital, or whatever it is. Force yourself again to focus on this person alone. It gets easier with practice.
Serving God in your own fatherhood
Children can be terribly high-maintenance. They want your attention. All of it. Remember that you only spoil a child with things, not with time and attention. When the devil tempted our Lord, we thus learned what the devil offers men (Matt. 4:1-10): First, he offers food or other pleasures of the flesh, then he stimulates man’s pride, and finally he offers power and worldly glory. These are the things that cause problems when raising children. My own children are sometimes astonished at the nice brand-new toys, clothing, and gifts that other children receive, but my kids are gently reminded that many of those children receive things from parents who do not live with them.
Fathers who stay with their families and spend active, loving time with their children and wives will be able to look back one day with a serene heart and realize that they served God through their sacramental role as a husband and father. These men can then say with the Lord, “Begone, Satan: for it is written, The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and him only shalt thou serve.”