The Frontier of Fatherhood: Mirroring the Mystery

Holding my baby boy in my arms a mere 4 hours after meeting him, I started crying. Not because of his awkward little dimples, not because of his tiny toes, not because of my same blue eyes staring back at me from within his tiny little face.

I started crying because I realized how all the little people I saw walking outside my hospital window got here, how something I had always taken for granted, namely childbirth, was the most difficult, intense, psyche-obliterating battle in the world. Dorothy Day called it the “mortal combat of childbirth,” and that’s the best description I’ve ever heard of it (ours took 33 hours…).

I never knew what women went through. I never knew how mentally and physically demanding this parenthood stuff was. I always thought it was all sunshine and rainbows with a little stress thrown in.

I think I mixed up the ratio.

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The Navajo believed that a baby’s soul didn’t infuse into the body until the child laughed. And I think I must a bit of a closeted Navajo, because for those first few weeks I didn’t feel a huge connection to my son. My wife was instantly in love, and I was just sort of, well, freaked out. My neat and tidy world had been turned upside down.

But on a walk one day one of the wise women of our block came over to look at the little man. She started talking to him in bright, kindly tones. He stared at her transfixed, and then, suddenly, he giggled.

A light came to his eyes as well as mine: THERE’S SOMEBODY IN THERE!

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the early giggler, May 2016

I rushed inside and sang like a madman to him for the next three hours. I felt like we needed some proper introductions and since he was a fan of my falsetto, we decided to sing and coo to each other all afternoon.

Maybe that’s why fatherhood feels so much like a frontier.  I’m witnessing things secondhand through someone else: my wife, mother, mother-in-law, and the wise women of my street. What they seem to know innately through experience, I have to learn by stumbling over.

I’m comforted, as usual, by theology. We call God father. Maybe the name implies a little distance, but an equally intense love. I’ve known no greater pain than watching my baby boy struggle during an extended hospital stay when he was only 6 weeks old. I looked on helpless, but my heart was pierced. If God loves me with a tenth of that intensity, than I know I’m okay. I know that the universe, no matter how dark and broken it seems at times, is filled with an everlasting light.

But God is also mother, even though we preferred the male pronouns associated with male power in a patriarchal culture. But in scripture God appears to be powerful in a very different way than our patriarchs, so maybe it’s time to start calling God both.

Maybe that’s also why our culture has denigrated nature and women for so long: We refused to believe the Good News (Gospel) that the divine is made manifest to us not just in churches or priests or prayers but in the sprawling web of birth and death, joy and sorrow all around us. Once you see that, the incarnation is truly everywhere, the Word made flesh is at our fingerprints.

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They say most of our early images of God come from our parents. If you’re a Catholic like me than God is like your dad and Mary is like your mom. Jesus is like some nice guy you kind of know but keep at arms length.

What they never tell you, but I think embedded in our Christmas celebrations, is that God comes to you later in life as your children, and that you get to mirror the love of God to one another: You get to be the divine parent and they get to be the divine child. And the love between you is Spirit that always surround us. And that’s the trinity.

In the beginning was relationship, an everflowing river of outpouring love.

My first Father’s Day reminds me of how much I don’t know, of how much I have to learn, of the ever new horizons of life and learning. But most of it, it reminds me, yet again, how the incarnation is everywhere. How even in a world that appears as dark and broken as our own, love wins out and love has always been winning out.

From the big bang to the present moment, we are breathing the divine breath, we are birthing the Presence. And we are, more often than not, the frames through which others experience God’s presence.

Can we picture anything more wonderful?

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William on the day of his Baptism. March 2016. Photo by F.C. Dimond