2 Births of Fatherhood

June 17 issue column

(photo: Shutterstock)

When a child is born, a father is born along with him. The child is the offspring of the parents. He is the incarnation of their love. The proud father expresses his exuberance by handing out cigars or by some other symbolic gesture.

Fatherhood, especially when it happens for the first time, engenders an excited yet indescribable feeling. “I felt something impossible for me to explain in words,” Nat “King” Cole admitted. “Then it came to me. ... I was a father.”

The first level of fatherhood begins with begetting. It has a biological underpinning to it. It is a most natural accomplishment. Nonetheless, it is cause for great rejoicing and celebration. “I have begotten my likeness with the help of the Lord (Genesis 4:1)” is an exultation made by both the father as well as by the mother.

For a while, the father-to-child relationship is relatively undemanding. “This is my child,” the father says. “I am his father.” The father knows exactly what his child needs and supplies it.

Then, at a certain point in the child’s development, he gains a sense of self, of independence. The child then says, “I am a unique person with my own unique future. I am not merely Dad’s progeny. I am his kin, but not his likeness.”

As the child begins to “be born” a second time, as an independent self, the father himself needs to undergo a rebirth. This second birth is far more difficult than the first, for it requires the father to see the child not merely as his child, but as someone different than anyone who ever lived, someone who has his own specific destiny. This second birth of fatherhood is the one that will define his relationship with his child as long as they live. Begetting is easy compared with bringing up a child. The child, flesh of the father’s flesh, now claims a future for himself that the father could not possibly have envisioned. Thus, the father needs to be reborn as a guide, a prophet, a pathfinder. As Liza Minelli averred, “My mother gave me my drive; my father gave me my dreams.”

The father cannot stifle the growth of his child. There may be a moment when the father says, looking at his growing son or daughter, “Who are you? Where did you come from? And where are you going?” And the child may say, “I am sorry to disappoint you, but I am not your clone or a ‘chip off the old block’ or the fulfillment of your expectations. I am me, someone no one has ever met before.”

To employ a musical analogy, the firstborn father is a composer; the second is a conductor. Both fatherhoods are entwined with love, but the second one requires two things that the first one did not, namely wisdom and restraint. Here is where the real challenge of fatherhood resides. It is so easy to entertain toddlers. And these neophytes to the world respond happily to entertainment’s most basic and even silliest forms. Playing with blocks, watching cartoons together and using Daddy as a slow-moving floor horse are enough to fill a child’s heart. When the child begins to mature, however, something that happens all too quickly, Daddy must resort to more sophisticated modes of interaction. Motherhood is immanent. Fatherhood is transcendent. Motherhood is down-to-earth; fatherhood is more abstract. For these reasons, the father’s second birth carries him into a role that is not clearly defined and, hence, difficult to assimilate. His ability to listen and understand his children, to be patient and supportive, will be the principle assets of the born-again father.

Blessed John Paul II, in a homily delivered on March 19, 1981, asked, “Where, dear father, will you be able to draw the energy necessary to assume in various circumstances the right attitude that your children, even without knowing it, expect from you?” He strongly advised against smothering their spontaneity or abandoning them to a state of insecurity or loneliness. “St. Joseph is the answer to this,” he proclaimed.

Even St. Joseph, the patron saint of fathers, knew how difficult it is for a father to be born again. After searching three days for their 12-year-old son, Joseph and Mary found him teaching in the Temple. “Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously,” Mary said to him. Jesus’ response must have stunned them: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:46-50). At this point, St. Joseph knew that a different form of fatherhood was now expected of him.

That St. Joseph is “the best answer” is no doubt the best answer. Who had a greater responsibility as an earthly father in the second sense of fatherhood than St. Joseph?

Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of HLI America, an initiative of Human Life International.