Becoming a parent is a life changing experience. At least, in some sense it should be. Yes, a truism, a cliche. But the meat and marvel of it is how this life changing by new life appearing is different for everyone. Personality, past life experience, and age are just three basic elements which have a huge impact on the experience of becoming a parent. And there are many more.
Many Americans come from a shared cultural background and so as new parents they can come together and converse on the basis of this shared experience about the change in their lives. There is the diaper changing, feeding, lack of sleep, and all those new struggles. People share their shock at the life change.
As the second oldest in a very large family, I come to parenthood from a very different place. Before I ever had the name father, I have changed many a child’s diaper, fed, chased, and heard the night troubles. I suppose I have been present and a part of the whole messy experience for at least a half dozen younger siblings. There is no new introduction to those aspects of child rearing.
The coming of my own child has felt in many ways more like the return of the old familiar rather than something shocking and new. The house has felt empty, absent the sounds of small children. Yes, I remember all these things, the familiar rhythms, the cadence, the sounds. I haven’t had the “I didn’t expect things to be like this” experience than many people today share in common when they come together and talk about their new experience of parenthood. The familiarity has made the transition calmer for me, not as stressed nor filled with shock and uncertainty. That has been a blessing, though all the past experience doesn’t mean I have answers. All experience means is that I know a parent never has the answers, and that confounding problems and unanswerable questions are just part of being a parent. And I know nobody else has all the secret answers. You never get it all figured out, and experience teaches the listening to accept this truth a little more comfortably.
But being a parent is different than being an older sibling, and my deep familiarity with the basic rudiments of child care can almost obscure that important truth. As an older brother I was called upon to change diapers, feed hungry bellies, and make sure little hands and feet didn’t come to harm. And those little siblings looked up to me and found me fascinating and a person to be emulated–as they found all their older siblings. As special as that relationship is, it is not the same as being a father.
As an older brother I wasn’t particularly attentive to my siblings. That was a shortcoming on my part. I didn’t go out of my way to avoid my younger siblings, but neither did I go out of my way to bring them into my activities. They were welcome to be around or tag along, but I was busy with my own things. I helped with feeding and diaper changing as needed, but it was duty I did without complaint–or much thought.
It is a danger to think I can be a father as I was an older brother–able to do what is needed with those diapers and feeding–and admired by the little person–but not so much present in my own thoughts and intentions. The damage from such casual preoccupation can be so much greater when it is a father.
As an older brother it was not my responsibility to chart a course of discipline and instruction. It was not my job to teach–and by that I mean shining light on the reality of life and truth more importantly than math and language arts. Being a father has opened that world. I need to be fathering, not brothering. “What are we doing?” as a question on the deep existential level of teaching a child about life was not my responsibility in all my previous interaction with little people. That was not my job because I was not a father. But now I am.
This is what is different. Dirty diapers I know, and spit up, and all the confounding things of non-answers about sleepless nights, bad digestion, and teething. But spending my life toward a child as a father–this is new. For a few short years, I will be the world to my little son. I will mean the world to him. In those littlest of years I will seem the embodiment of power, wisdom, intelligence, and perhaps goodness. I will be all that he wants to be. With time he will come to know how I come so far short of those things, but in the beginning there is profound opportunity to be the vessel of incalculable impact on a little soul. And I do not want to be inattentive to this sober reality, or to the small one whom I could so easily overlook in a busy life full of doing.
Yes, I hope to do and be with my son in the big special things; the going on adventures and playing grand games, the building and making projects, the sharing which is special in big ways. I look forward to that because there is so much I want to share. But equally important–perhaps even more important–I want to see him every day, and remember him in the small things, hear him in the small conversations, to truly remember him and be present in the small and easily forgotten moments of every day.
So I hope I grow into being a father, into being awake in the every day, and being loving in the deep ways that truly matter.