About twenty years ago I saw a fascinating item in the magazine Scientific American.
It was a little blurb about a detailed study of the facial features of infants. According to the study, most babies go through a phase of looking like their fathers early in their development. This is the case even if they grow up to look nothing like their fathers, but rather become, say, the spitting image of their mothers.
Of course the researchers viewed this as a trick of evolution. The thought was that nature was giving a father extra assurance that the child is “his” early in the life of his offspring—to increase the chances that he will choose to take an active role in the protection and nurture of the child.
You don’t have to be a scientist to grasp the truth that children tend do a lot better in life with a Dad in the picture. (The studies showing the disastrous effects of fatherlessness in our culture are legion.) But what the scientists viewed as a clever artifact of evolution, seems to me to be evidence of design by a wise, benevolent Creator.
In other words, God created parenting to be a team sport—a team comprised of one man and one woman. You see, (spoiler alert), men and women are different, and are hard-wired to play different roles in the child-rearing process. We bring different strengths and skill sets to the table.
I once heard Pastor Robert Morris put it this way: A mother’s role is to nurture kids. A father’s role is to call them to their destinies. When a child scrapes her knee, Mom might say, “Oh sweetie, so sorry. Let’s get that cleaned up and bandaged.” Dad, on the other hand, says, “Aw, it’s a long way from your heart. You’re going to be okay. Get back out there and play.” (Football pat on the bottom optional.)
Both are good. Both are right. Both are necessary.
Other studies have observed that the way fathers tend to play with their kids differs markedly from play initiated by their mothers. It is the three-year-old’s father who is likely to be down on all fours pretending to be a bear; saying, “Rarrr, I’m going to eat you up!”; with the child at once laughing and screaming in giddy fear.
Both good. Right. Necessary.
However, psychologists are increasingly convinced that the rough, scary, father-kind of play serves a vital role in the development of children into future adults who can handle the stresses and pressures of life.
You’ve probably seen this graphical meme on Facebook:
This makes us laugh because it rings true to our experience as parents. Which brings me back to that study about fathers connecting to their infant children’s faces . . .
The Father-Heart Moment
It has been my privilege and responsibility in life to raise three daughters. With one married and all in their twenties, that blessed task is almost finished. On countless occasions I have said the words, “I love being a father to daughters.” And I have.
And early on with each one of my girls there was a . . . moment . . .
She is maybe five or six months old, which means she has stopped looking like a tiny alien, as all newborns do (let’s be honest), and now looks like a beautiful miniature human. She’s alert and responsive to you. She interacts. Best of all, you’ve figured out how to make her laugh.
Oh, how you love to make her laugh. (It’s like crack cocaine, that bubbling, baby belly laugh.)
So one day you’re hovering over the helpless little thing. And she’s looking at you. She makes a certain face. And suddenly you see yourself to a degree you’ve never perceived before. And maybe you also see your mother; or your brother; or that ancient, sepia-toned picture of your grandfather when he was a baby.
Then, without warning, your heart stops. Then it melts in your chest.
And in that moment you know that you must not ever let anything bad happen to her. That you would crawl naked across broken glass every day to provide for her. And that from this day forward it is your God-given mission to steward this wriggling, giggling lump of raw potential and help her become the best possible version of who He created her to be.
So you embrace that mission as if lives depended on it (and you know that, in fact, they do.) But soon three sobering realities confront you.
The first is that this world is a horribly twisted, fallen place. Depravity and violence seem to ooze from every crack in the crumbling edifice of our culture. This is the world you need to prepare her for. God in heaven, how is that even possible?
Secondly, you know all-too-painfully well how flawed and broken you are as a human being. You’re intimately acquainted with your every character flaw. With how very many mistakes and poor choices you’ve made up to that point in your life—and how many more you’re certain to make going forward. But now it’s not just your sorry rear on the line. Lord, she’s counting on me so I’m counting on you!
Thirdly, and this is the most startling revelation . . . you discover that she is broken too. That she was born neither a perfect angel nor a proverbial “blank slate” awaiting your brilliant writing. That she came out of the womb just as fallen and in need of divine redemption and restoration as you and every other son and daughter of Adam—only cuter. Dear Jesus, help me point her to you.
So in the face of these three bracing headwinds, you take a deep breath, lean in, and do the best you can.
Oh, and you do all of this times three when God blesses you thricely. That’s when you discover that all three are utterly different in personality, temperament, gifting and heavenly calling. And therefore each needs different things from you. Each responds best to a different style of training, correction and love.
So you and your wife pray.
You pray to love them well; and discipline them wisely. You pray you’re striking the right balance between firm and soft—rigid and flexible.
You pray to know what’s a big deal and what’s a triviality you can let slide. When to say “yes” and be the hero; or say “no” and be the villain. When to embarrass them, and when to be cool.
You don’t always get it right.
But you pray for grace, And God supplies it.
You pray that His mercies will cover your mistakes. And you find those mercies new every morning.
Discovering What is Next
Those three are wonderful young adults now. As a living testament to the above-mentioned grace and mercy, they’ve avoided hard prison time and are productive, Jesus-loving members of society. The world is a better place because they’re in it.
Frankly, they’ve made it easy to be their father. They’ve made their mother and me look better and wiser than we really are. (I know many really great Christian couples who, for whatever reasons, have walked through much more arduous, heart-breaking parenting journeys than we ever faced.)
As I said, although I will always be a father, my season of father-ing is gradually coming to an end in a way. It seems a season of mentoring is ahead. God has already put several young men in my life who inexplicably want to know what I know about life and living. (Mentoring boys is an interesting counterpoint to 25 years of living in girl-world.)
Here on Father’s Day 2015, one thing is absolutely clear and true in my heart.
It’s said that every man’s greatest need is for honor. That respect is like oxygen to us. That the deepest thirst of the manly soul is for the clear water of admiration—particularly from his wife and children.
These blessings I have enjoyed in embarrassing abundance. Those three girls have always and only offered me these most precious of gifts—their honor, respect and admiration.
Move over George Bailey. It is me, David A. Holland, who is the richest man in town.