“Dad, why didn’t you become a soldier?”
My dad and I were standing on our back patio, a smooth concrete slab under a rusty tin roof. I think my dad was working on a project, and I was getting in the way or playing with the dog. That’s how it usually was.
This is one of my earliest memories. I don’t remember how old I was, why I asked, or how my dad answered. I only remember asking, and I’m glad I do. It reminds me that even at a young age, we form some specific ideas about dads. To me, dads were about strength and protection. They were heroes. They were like John Wayne, and Robin Hood, and knights, and GI Joes. My dad was a missionary, which was pretty good, but was it as great as being a soldier? Nothing fit my shallow understanding of manhood or fatherhood quite like an action-hero soldier-dad who would definitely be played by John Wayne in a movie.
Over the years, this memory has become more significant to me, because my assumptions about fatherhood stand in ever-stronger contrast to what I actually value in my dad. He is strong, and he’d fight for his family. But it’s not his strength, leadership, or courage that makes him a great dad; it’s his gentleness and tenderness. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone with a gentler spirit or more tender heart than my dad. To me, he embodies the tender love that Jesus has for us all.
My dad taught me how to be a man. Not a “manly” man, that’s for sure. I’d rather drive a Prius than a pickup, and I’m not at all handy. I love sports, but my pulse quickens and my palms sweat if someone calls me “bro.” I’d rather be talking linguistics or staring at maps than doing whatever it is “the guys” do.
My dad showed me that a great father, like a good man, is defined not by strength, but by tenderness. A great father doesn’t run from his feelings, but knows and communicates them. He is fully invested in the nurturing of his children. He is not an unflappable pillar of strength; rather he channels his strength to come alongside the vulnerable.
I often hear Christian leaders lament the absence of fathers from families. I share their concern. But when they proclaim that the solution is for men to “stand up and be men” according to their models of “biblical manhood,” I grimace. These definitions tell men, and by extension fathers, to be half human: to choose stoicism at the cost of emotion, strength at the cost of vulnerability, authority at the cost of partnership. To find their identity in less than what God designed parents to be and children to need.
I feel fortunate that in my family and among my friends, even those who are complementarian, nurturing fathers have been the norm. I’m especially grateful now, as my wife and I wade into the waters of first-time parenthood. There’s nothing I love more than snuggling with my four-month-old son. Except maybe seeing him giggle when we play together.
My heart goes out to dads (or uncles or grandfathers or friends of parents) who miss out on this joy because their idea of masculinity calls for stoicism. Who miss out on being fully present because patriarchy gives them an easy out when the daily grind of diaper changes, feedings, and chores comes knocking.
Let’s create a world where fathers are encouraged to be vulnerable, and where a father’s nurture is as celebrated as a mother’s. Where we recognize that when dads share fully in the work of parenting, it's better for everyone. The truth is, I think this is what most people want. I’m willing to bet that even the men who most loudly preach “biblical manhood” delight in nurturing their children as much as anyone else. But unless we as Christians celebrate a better vision for fatherhood, I fear we do little to strengthen marriages, families, or society.
Contrary to what we sometimes hear from the pulpit, God designed parents to lead, serve, and nurture their families side by side, as equals. Let's make it happen.