He’s taller than me. I said it couldn’t happen, but it did and he is. He’s my son and I look up to him.
Before having children, I imagined having children. In particular, I pictured my role in raising a son and the impact I’d have upon his life. My responsibility was to shape his mind, character and faith. For me it was a calling and one I approached with equal parts privilege and trepidation. When I first held him in my arms, I understood my vocation afresh. Fathering was a sacred trust. I would be his dad — his guide and provider, someone he could always depend on, a man to emulate and look up to.
It’s all true of course. At our best, we fathers are those things and more. So are mothers. Deliberate or not, we are formative agents of influence. As a pastor, I see it played out every day. The gulf between those who have been parented well and those who haven’t is wide. But what is equally true is that as we shape our children so they shape us. Now as I look up to my son, I know more deeply just how much he has formed me. The truth is, I am a different person for having him in my life.
I am more humble in expectation. My son has taught me that good parenting has so little to do with grand vistas and life plans. For the most part, it is borne out in the most ordinary commitments made and remade every day. As an idealist, this has been a hard lesson for me. It still is. Taking each day as it comes, showing up again tomorrow when I’ve dropped the ball today, and, more often than not, accepting that ‘good enough’ is really the best I’ll ever be. And as for those aspirations I had for his faith … they may never be exactly as I had planned. I know that now. But when I look up at my son — when I see his goodness and beauty — I am reassured that all of this is ok.
I am more present to life. Children, especially in their earliest years, have a way of grabbing you by the shirt collar and wrenching you into the moment. Even when you’d rather be elsewhere. And they do it over and over again. Nappies, nap times, feeding, laundry, reading stories, bedtime routines, homework, hockey games, and midnight taxiing — all of this shapes your focus and draws you in time after time. So much so that as they get older, the attention they once demanded from you transforms into the time you crave with them. When I look at my son I know, more forcefully than at any other moment, that now is the time.
I am confronted by my own fallibility. In so many parts of life I am competent. I speak, I lead, I write, I envision, counsel, direct and manage, and in all of this I’m affirmed. I like it that way. But then I come home. In parenting I routinely feel incompetent. In one of the most important and long lasting roles of my life I am mostly at sea. I fail as often as I succeed. All that is less than it needs to be in my character and skill-set is cast in stark relief. But when I look up at my son, I see grace in human form. I see grace at work in him, in me and in all that really counts.
I know heartache, joy and longing more intimately. No one could have told me just how much I would love my children, how deeply and passionately I would care, how proud I would be and how cut when things go awry. Sometimes love for my children makes my heart sing, and other times it hurts. Frankly, there are times when I really wish I didn’t care so much. Because love, deeply felt, can manifest in unhelpful ways, trampling over boundaries essential to growth and good relationship. Love’s most natural instinct is to step in when, sometimes, stepping away is what’s needed most. But it is love of this depth and drive that forms us as nothing else can. I look up at my son and I know that I am different for it.
Parenting is not the only path to maturity and change. There are so many other ways to travel. But it has been significant to me, a pathway on which I have been formed as much as I have formed. No doubt, this fathering business has shaped my character, highlighted my frailties and honed by understandings of faith and life as much as anything else I have done.
Perhaps looking up to him is more appropriate than I had thought.
[Thanks to my brother Mark for the photograph and to an article I read twenty five years ago that’s still worth reading: David E. Nowak, ‘Formative Parenting: Formed, Forming, and Being Formed.’ In Studies in Formative Spirituality, 1986, 7 (1): 75-90.]