I have had many men in my life teach me something about being a father.
My dad taught me how to hunt, fish, and live off the land. He taught me how to skin a buck, a rabbit, a squirrel, a catfish, and a frog. He also taught me about gratitude.
Back when I was a kid, my Nana invited our family to her church nativity play. We opted in at the last minute, so my Nana bought my brother and me some simple toy cars as gifts. You see, the other kids at church were going to be exchanging gifts, and my sweet great grandmother did not want us to be left out of the festivities. When I opened my present, I saw the cheap toy and exclaimed, “This is a stupid baby toy car.” or something along those lines. My Nana’s face revealed pain. My father’s face turned crimson with anger. He took me outside, busted my rear end, and explained to me how sweet my Nana was to get us a gift and how I needed to be thankful for the kind things people do for me. My father told me that if I ever acted ungrateful like this again, he would take away all of my toys. I learned that day, and I will never forget, that I am entitled to nothing in this life. Every blessing I have is a luxury, and I need to be truly grateful for them all.
Many things my dad taught me were on purpose. Other lessons were learned unintentionally. He taught me through his own experience that there was such a thing as too much fun. Not everything in life is about having a good time. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, go to work, and do what others want instead of pursuing your own desires.
When I was in high school, my brother and I took a road trip up to see our dad for one of our holiday breaks. We were only there with my dad for a limited amount of time, so every moment was precious to two young boys in need of time with their pops. On the last full day of our visitation, my dad ran out of his favorite herbal tonic. Now my brother and I had no problem with our dad partaking of this organic stress reliever because it made him exponentially more relaxed and fun to be around. The problem was that he spent the vast majority of our last day with him looking for his preferred all natural substance, which just so happened to be in a shortage regionally. I remember thinking to myself that I would never allow something to become so important to me that I would give up time with my loved ones to procure a little bit more of it. While I have never let a substance do this, I can honestly say that my career sometimes suffices.
I do not hold this against my dad at all, nor am I consumed with bitterness towards him for the more self-destructive substances he pursued later. He himself was trying to figure out how to be a father. His dad decided to up and leave my Granny once my father was born. My biological grandfather was a Vietnam war hero who came back from his global exploits to start a brand new family…a family that did not include my father or my Granny. I can only imagine the pain involved with how my father grew up knowing that his own dad lived 20 minutes down the road with three other children and a new wife yet wanted nothing to do with him. I do not resent my father. My heart breaks for him because at least I grew up knowing that both my parents loved me and wanted me to be a part of their lives.
A few years later my Granny married my Papa, the man that I consider to be my paternal grandfather. He taught me how to work hard. I have yet to meet a person that worked harder than my Papa, although my Mom came pretty close. At one point he worked as a tool pusher on a drilling rig, a bail bondsman, a sawmill operator, a commercial swine breeder, and he grew and sold hay. These were not various jobs that he worked at different times of his life. These were all things he did simultaneously. What a man, right? Well…sort of. He was one heck of a provider who ended up making millions, but he left me with one last piece of advice before he lost his mind and his life to dementia. He told me that he would give back every dime he earned to have his family back. Before he passed away, my Papa went through a divorce with my Granny. He told me that he wished he could go back and be a better husband to my Granny and a better father to my dad and my uncle. He always thought that by providing for his family, he was doing his job as a father. Before he died, he admitted that a father must provide more than financial security for his children. A father must also provide love, emotional support, spiritual guidance, and acceptance for his children. This is hard-earned advice that I plan on utilizing, even though I find it easier said than done.
Over the years, I had many men in my life teach me a thing or to about being a father and a man. My Uncle Greg taught me how to build a fence, digging post holes in the clay of Wharton, Texas or the caliche soil of Burnet County and Travis County. He taught me how to spit sunflower seeds from a pickup truck and how to get day old (yet still delicious) biscuits from the Bluebonnet Cafe for free.
My stepfather, Gene, taught me how to fix a car. He taught me the importance of seeking God first every day and how to “take and turn right around” and do just about anything, including loving on your mama because when she’s gone, you never get another chance.
My step grandfather, Warren, taught me how to open up a home to family when they are in need. He did just that when our family desperately needed a place to live. He also stood by my Mema’s side as she valiantly, yet unsuccessfully battled liver disease.
Of all of the men in my life, one has had the biggest impact on me in terms of how I want to be as a father. My father-in-law, Ronnie, has been an exceptional father for my wife and her siblings. He worked long hours, only to come in the door and let his kids swarm him on the living room floor. From what my wife says, he would always play with his kids, even when he was exhausted from long, hot days in the Texas sun or even longer graveyard shifts at night. On his days off, Paw Phillips would barbecue, organize a game of extreme croquet, or just sit and love on his kids. Most summer days began with him and a pad of paper. He would ask the kids, “What do you want to do today?”, then the kids would throw out things like canoeing, eating watermelon, board games, Spades, popsicles, swimming, water balloons, and more. They never completed everything on the list, but he always tried to make life special for his kids. Even more important than that, he was present both physically and mentally.
What made my father-in-law such a great dad was that he suffered from a condition called selflessness, which just so happens to be the primary trait of a great father. He derives the most joy out of life by sharing love with his wife and kids and bringing other people happiness, even if it means that he does not get to do what he wants. I believe that being a great dad means that you have to spend intentional time with your children, even when it seems unpleasant or difficult. As a father of a three year old and a one year old, I see how much effort it requires to consistently accomplish this.
When my toddler tells me, “My want to go and get a snow cone with Daddy.”, or he recaps his day once I get home from work, it is easy to be a dad. When my one year old crawls up into my lap to cuddle with his bunny as it sings, “You Are My Sunshine”, it is fun to be a dad. When the kids are playing independently in the sunroom as my wife and I watch, it is both easy and rewarding to be a father. Once the boys go to sleep at night, and my wife and I can watch Netflix or have an actual conversation, it is easy to be a dad. Things are not always so easy and fun though.
When I have to find the balance between teaching my three year old the value of sharing Mommy and Daddy with his little brother while also helping him to feel that he deserves attention from us too, it is difficult. When month nine of teething for our one year old lines up with his crazy, passionate personality to create high decibel screams, it is not fun to be a dad. When the kids are fighting over sidewalk chalk or taking turns hurting each other, it is not easy to be a dad.
Before I lose some of you, let me explain that I think it is much more difficult to be a mom in the 21st century than it is to be a dad in the 21st century. There are so many mothers out their like my wife who spend significantly more time raising children than most dads do, and they do so without complaining or asking for anything in return. I just think that being a dad is hard for different reasons. Moms are expected to go above and beyond their human capacity to care for their children. If they don’t spend adequate time with their kids, or God forbid, they don’t throw a Pinterest worthy birthday party, they will be mom shamed.
Fathers face a different challenge. While mothers are held to a high standard, it seems to me like fathers are held to an abnormally low standard. To be considered a good dad today, a man needs to take care of his family financially and make a perfunctory amount of family event appearances so that pictures can be posted on social media proving that all is well. Once he has fulfilled these minimum requirements, he is allowed by many in society to spend the rest of his time on golf, watching sports, playing poker, following fantasy football, hunting, fishing, working out, or his career. The temptation to put in the base level father duties and then check out is quite strong for me at least. At the same time, my inner desire to be present and intentional with my kids convinces me to at least try and do better.
When spending one more hour at work means life change for a young adult or educational innovation, it makes it harder to spend that hour with my wife and kids at home. Don’t get me wrong. I love my wife and kids, and I enjoy spending time with them. Sometimes I just don’t know how to spend time with them. This might sound crazy, but it is a reality for me. When I go outside with my family to play in the pool or watch the kids run around, my mind drifts off to pensive land, and my eyes wander over to the weeds in need of pulling. I think about cool history lessons, changing the political climate in our country, or helping a teenage student make sense of our increasingly complex life today. I observe that the lawn needs mowing, the house needs to be painted, and the trees need trimming.
It is not that I do not want to play with my kids. It is instead almost like I am wired to think and do with vigor and effort, but I am lacking the skills to simply sit, play, run around, and laugh with my boys. Sometimes this is not the case, and the ability to relax and play with my kids comes naturally to me. Other times, it is almost impossible. Either way, my boys deserve to have their dad present and involved in their lives. This is one of the reasons that I started blogging. Once I publish a post, my mind gets freed up from all of the thoughts whirling around inside. The dammed up river is allowed to flow freely again, and my mind can relax.
Am I the only father who struggles to find a healthy balance between work and family? Sometimes it feels like it. Some dads seem like they have it all figured out. Others seem not to care. I just don’t hear many dads talking about their experience as fathers beyond the typical diaper change stories and how their kids are doing in sports. Maybe they are like me, and are afraid to admit that they don’t have it all figured out. Maybe I am just weird. It wouldn’t be the first time that my weirdness was the culprit.
What I do know is that I love being a dad. I love my kiddos, and I love watching what an awesome mom they have in my wife. I am thankful for the many examples of fathers in my life that have helped me to see a little or a lot about what it means to be a father. None of these men are perfect, and Lord knows that I am not even close to being a perfect dad. I guess that is kind of the point. None of us can be perfect dads. We can just try our best, admit it when we fall short, and ask for forgiveness when we fail. We can try and imitate the only perfect example of fatherhood that I do know, our Heavenly father. God loves us unconditionally. He gives us the freedom of choice and the freedom to fail, but he always reminds us of the just and wise path to follow. He forgives us when we mess up. He is present. He cares. What better could we do as fathers to our children? He truly is a good, good father.
So, to all the fathers out there doing their best to teach their children to love others, seek truth, think independently, and persevere, while also trying to keep them alive, I salute you. To all of the men who have played a large part or a small part in teaching me how to be a father, I thank you. While many great leaders in history are remembered for their accolades and achievements, it was fathers and mothers like us who raised young men and women to carry out the plans of these leaders. Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Churchill, and MLK all depended on fathers to prepare generations of young folks to make their visions a reality. I don’t know about you, but that gets me pretty psyched!
Happy late Father’s Day!