I didn’t sign up to screw up my kids. Fatherhood was going to be GREAT – adventures, hugs, and giving better than I got.
27 years, 10 kids, 6 months of couple’s counseling and 1 year of Catholic psychotherapy later, it’s the break of dawn before my eldest daughter’s college graduation and I’m a mess. I’m jogging and crying, hoping no one sees me. The weight of my failures as a father, failures I can only now see clearly, is crushing me. Sure, clarity has its advantages – I can change things going forward – but the devil is in the flashbacks. Moments where I misfired and wounded. I can’t go back and hug my little Gabrielle at age 4. I can’t tell her that she’s beautiful inside and out. I’m too late. 19 years too late.
What do I see now that I wish I could have seen then?
1. I Failed to Recognize My Own Power, Both to Build and Damage
Here’s the deal: God gave dads tremendous power – power to make deep impressions on their kids, to mold and stretch them. I wish I knew just how much of an impression I was making.
Every moment was being recorded. My kids were absorbing every word, every look, every attitude, and it formed how they thought about themselves and about the world. They were craving answers to foundational questions: “Am I lovable? Am I valuable? Do I have what it takes?”
What I know now is that everything I do matters. If I see the good in them, and speak it, they see it in themselves. If I show them their beauty, they see it too. If I love them strongly, that’s how they learn to love.
On the other hand, if I see them as an annoyance or in my way, they’re lost. If I can’t be bothered, they must be useless. To survive, they try to become useful, and they’re primed to be used. At least then they’ll feel valuable.
2. I Failed to Love in a Way My Kids Could Receive
The end of life, life’s purpose, is eternal relationship and communion with God. God is a communion of persons in an eternal exchange of love, and we are made to share in the exchange. That exchange starts here.
Just like I want to be seen, to be known, and to be loved, so do my kids. God put me in their lives to love them first, to notice them, to understand them, to encourage them, and to help them uncover their potential. All that means that I needed to love them in the way they needed it, not just in the way I wanted to give it. My way of loving, the way that is convenient and comfortable for me, was not good enough. I need to love in the way they need it, given their strengths and weaknesses. When I love in their language, they actually feel loved.
3. I Failed to Follow the Fatherhood Path God Laid Out
Providing food and shelter is important. It’s a form of love. Feeding the hearts of kids with warm relationship, intentional attention, shared experience…that’s even better. But it isn’t enough. It’s two legs of the tripod: good, but unstable. The third leg, the crucial piece often ignored by our technologically-advanced but spiritually-blind culture is God’s wisdom. Bottom line, NOTHING in life makes sense or has real meaning unless I seek first God’s Kingdom, His rules, His ways. “Apart from me you can do NOTHING.” – Jn 15:5
The trouble is, in practice, I taught my kids to be anxious about money, to work late and freak out when things don’t go your way. I chased business success and conversations that pleased me. Instead, God wanted me to trust Him, love Him with my whole heart, mind and soul, and live the priorities, in order: Him, my wife, my kids, and then everything else.
My Pain, Your Gain
I started The Strong Catholic Dad Podcast to share with dads the nuggets I wish I had known 30 years ago. I am a dad who has wounded my family, made changes, and seen powerful results. I wish I knew earlier that I was off track when it didn’t feel like it. I have a dream to encourage dads to get in the right game, because winning there is awesome.