I’m the father of two boys, sixteen months apart in age. The oldest is almost three. I work full-time in a church, and my wife is working full-time on a PhD in homiletics and theology. We share parenting duties pretty evenly, but I’ll bet I change more diapers.
Fatherhood has been a deeply meaningful and formative experience for me. I love it. When Christians talk about fatherhood, we like to make it about things like leadership, authority, provision, and so on. We don’t really celebrate the actual parenting part of fatherhood. But we should. I want to encourage every father to embrace the joy that comes with nurturing our children.
I hope you’ll indulge me as I share with you a bit of the delight I find in fatherhood. And in doing so, for new dads especially (but also for the wily veterans), I offer a few ideas to help you embrace the nurturing side of fatherhood.
Name your feelings
When our second son was a couple months old, I learned a key lesson. I’d heard it before, so I’ll say I experienced it. I was sitting in our white Rosie maternity glider and holding little Leo, who wanted very badly for something, or everything, in the world to be completely different. And he let me know it the only way he could: loudly. My ears rang. I remembered our doctor’s words: “If he’s fed, he’s got a clean diaper, and there’s nothing hurting him, crying is just exercise.” Filling up those baby lungs. My little Pavarotti. But my patience had worn thin.
If you’ve been tasked with caring for an inconsolable baby for any length of time, you know the brain-fried, frantic feeling. The wisest thing to do is probably to put the baby down in a safe place and go practice your downward dog or lotus position while listening to ocean waves. Maybe I should have. But I sat and held my screamer. I felt my whole body tense up. I felt anger rise, and I’m not an angry person. There are moments when a baby simply is and will be inconsolable. It may be twenty minutes; it may be hours. It makes no difference when you’re in the thick of it. I felt close to losing it.
And then, I looked down at my precious baby. I looked at the tiny tears in his squinty red eye cracks. His open, crying, toothless mouth, laced in saliva. His quivering little tongue down in there. My little boy, who I am responsible for in this world. I said to myself, “I am angry. I am impatient. I am frustrated. I want him to stop crying. But there’s nothing I can do right now.” I said to myself, “Anything I do that’s reactive will only do damage. I’m angry, and that’s okay. I don’t have to do anything about it. And I won’t.”
At that moment, I experienced the tremendous power of naming what I felt. When I named it, my anger backed off and just stood there for a second. I looked it over. I saw it for all the futility, immaturity, even selfishness it was. And then it evaporated. My anger disappeared. Holding my crying, distraught little Leo, my whole body relaxed. My mind cleared. Just me and the little boy I love. I named my anger, and in return it left me alone.
Childcare is self-care
One of the mantras I’ve had knocking around my mind for the past month is “childcare is self-care.” Credit once again belongs to Leo. Let me take you there:
I’m again holding Leo in my arms. He’s now a delightful fifteen-month-old, and this time, he’s as peaceful as a dream. We’re once again rocking in the white Rosie glider, and I’m giving him a bottle of warm milk. The bottle and gentle rocking, and even the soft rhythmic creaking of the glider, usher Leo past drowsiness and into sleep. The curtains are drawn shut; the only light is the soft, dim glow of the touch lamp beside me. Leo’s whole body has relaxed into mine. He lets go of his bottle, and it falls away from his face, which is a picture of complete peace, safety, and comfort.
Few things match holding your sleeping baby in moments like that. I was filled by the bond of nurture, the emotional result of the oxytocin both our brains were surely releasing. We felt, if I can speak for both of us, completely bonded in that moment of trust and care. And the words just came to me like a little meditation, a little wisdom from what is true and right in the universe: childcare is self-care.
Loving others well is the most loving thing you can do for yourself. Attentive and loving childcare foments patience, sacrifice, and gentleness. Carrying your child when your back hurts, playing with them when you’re exhausted, disciplining them in love (and explaining that to them in love!). Childcare is a privilege, and one I don’t take for granted. Being a parent is also the most character-forming arena I’ve entered. Attentively partaking in character-forming disciplines is constituent to responsible self-care.
Rocking gently back and forth, my warm cuddly bundle of a fifteen-month-old all but melted in my arms, breathing his little sleepy, snorty breaths, I was struck by the reality of the deep shift that fatherhood had made in my life. Maybe there’s not much visible difference—though I would guess there’s some. But for me, there has been no human relationship, no role or responsibility, that has been either as demanding or as richly formative and rewarding as fatherhood. And in particular, the nurture of childcare.
Take delight in their delight
My next lesson encompasses so much of my parenting experience. That lesson is: take delight in their delight. Our house design is such that the fridge and pantry stand alone against a wall that I assume holds up the ceiling. This matters because it means that Emmett, who’s about two and half, can run indoor circles around this fridge-pantry-wall structure. The other afternoon he was running, and he yelled out as he often does, “You chase me, Dada!” So I started chasing after him. And the sound of his laughter when he knew I was running behind him was so pure, so effervescent, so full of life that I had to grab my camera as we passed, just to record a few seconds of its sound. “Live in this moment,” I told myself, “because it’s going to pass.”
When children delight in something, they do so fully. They exclaim, “Do it again!” over and over. Nothing holds an adult’s attention in quite that way. Knowing those moments are fleeting, I try—often I fail, but I keep reminding myself to try—to take delight in their delight. On the one hand, it encourages and affirms their curiosity and imagination. It feeds their excitement and sense of wonder in the world. But it also reawakens that sense of wonder in the rest of us. Trying to see wonder through a child’s eyes, even and especially in the mundane, nudges our own slumbering sense of curiosity, of delight, of wonder.
G. K. Chesterton, in his 1908 classic, Orthodoxy, writes about this amazing childhood quality. He notes that “grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.” Children have “abounding vitality” and are “in spirit fierce and free.” Chesterton goes on to propose “perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.” Every day, God says, “Do it again!” to the rising sun and moon, to the blooming flowers or falling snowflakes, just as a child says “Do it again!” every time you swing them around or bounce them playfully on your knees. If we needed another reason to take delight in a child’s delight, Chesterton gives us one: perhaps it puts us somehow in touch with the God who takes delight in creation.
Simply watching children grow is an occasion for delight. I delight in the things Emmett says incorrectly, the funny sentences he constructs, the made-up but completely understandable verb tenses. I delight in watching my boys when they’re transfixed in a task like building with blocks or when they try to read a book to themselves. When they’re frustrated but refuse to give up, and then somehow finally accomplish their goal in the most roundabout and surprising way. Delighting along with my children has given me more delight in life.
The Bible does endorse a childlike disposition toward life and faith. Part of that must certainly be a fully abandoned-to-self sense of wonder and delight.
Take a breath (or twenty)
Fatherhood is certainly the most meaningful, fulfilling, challenging, and taxing role I’ve had. And while I’m no expert in fatherhood or parenting, I do love it. If I were to offer one last piece of advice to someone just before or just after becoming a parent, it would probably be this: whenever you’re able, when you cradle your baby to sleep in your arms—even if you’re desperately hoping she or he falls asleep quickly because you have a thousand things to do or are simply exhausted yourself—count off twenty deep, slow breaths once your baby closes his or her eyes. Hold your baby. Be present in that moment. Twenty of your deepest breaths. I know it might sound insignificant. But hear me out.
On the one hand, taking these deep breaths serves the practical purpose of ensuring that your little bundle is indeed well asleep. It relaxes you, which I have found is the absolute most effective way to relax your child. Those are the things I usually think about from breaths one to six.
During breaths seven through nine, I lose myself looking down at my sleeping boy. His petal-soft eyelids closed, his cheeks pudgy and rosy, his nose a quietly snorting little button. His tiny chest rising and falling; his toyish hands and fingers making sudden, involuntary mimics. He yawns and pouts his lips.
That moment is everything. Breaths ten through twenty are just for me, to be present in that moment. Just to store it safely into my memory, treasure it in my heart.
That moment is every parenting lesson I’ve learned, condensed. I name the moment as sacred, the most person-forming space of my life. I give myself fully to being present, attentive, mindful. It’s my deepest self-care, orienting my whole personhood in the context of this relationship. And it’s pure wonder and delight. Whatever else is calling for my time can wait twenty breaths. It must. Because these moments, too, will end. Growing is tragic beauty: with all the thrills and gains, there are also losses. The running laughter, the “do it again!”, the adorably mispronounced words, the rocking a sleeping child gently in your arms.
So sway with your beloved, sleeping baby for twenty deep breaths. Hold out your child and all your love and hope for him or her before God. Abandon yourself to complete presence in that moment. Be lost in your sleeping child’s tender, gentle face. Count twenty slow, centering breaths. Not only for your baby, but for you.