You hold in your arms a tiny life, you gaze on your creation, amazed and filled with a sense of awe at what you have created.
Welcome to fatherhood.
You are now called a father but have yet to earn the right to be named a father for the skills of fatherhood take many years to learn. Fatherhood is a skill, learnt by watching your father like apprentices of old who learnt their trade by watching their Masters. If your father was not skilled then you will not have that benefit but all is not lost for you can teach yourself the skills you need.
You have just begun the most difficult journey you will undertake in this life. A journey more difficult than the challenges of your daily work life. Learning to be a father has the potential to strip you to your core, to wound you, to tear down your carefully constructed artifices behind which you hide and remake you a different man.
Many men give up, turning their backs on their young preferring instead to maintain the illusion of fatherhood. They are present yet absent, professing to love, they criticize, and ashamed of themselves they push their shame onto their children to carry for them. Yes, the courage of many men will falter and in their lack of courage they will wound their sons and daughters.
So enjoy this moment when your son or daughter lies peacefully sleeping in your arms for you have just begun the journey of learning to be a father.
The first lesson. You do not need to be a perfect father; you only need to be good enough. Many men determined to be perfect fathers set themselves up for failure by their anxiety and fear. It is not perfection your child needs; it is a father who is good enough, good enough to last the distance of staying with them through thick and thin. Fatherhood is not a sprint, it is a marathon. It is a marathon of 20 years or more so do not expect to receive applause for being a father for 3 or 5 or 10 or 15 years. You need to be good enough to last the distance with humour, laughter and kindness.
The second lesson. Do not presume you will necessarily love your child. Those soft, endearing emotions of the first few days that mix of awe at the gift of life and your sheer amazement that in a climatic moment you were able to perform and create life, those emotions while necessary are not love.
Love needs time to grow, and in those early weeks when sleep deprived the sound of squawking baby sets teeth on edge and nerves unraveling you will wonder whether you do or did or will love this child. Love is learnt in learning to calm yourself, to gather unraveled nerves and unclench your teeth and cradling that squalling bundle, calm another. Through the squalling of their fear, they need to hear the deep soothing sounds of your voice, the quiet reassuring beat of your heart assuring them that all is well. This is a skill you will need to often repeat. As your child grows there will be many occasions where they will be filled with angst and fear, when life for them will seem insecure and you will be filled with your own fears, in those times you will need to place those fears aside and once again cradle your child. They need to learn from you their father, that fear is part of life as is trusting life enough to overcome fear and face the challenges before them. As you learn to soothe your own fears so you teach your children how to soothe theirs.
The third lesson. Your children need to know you see them, really see them in all their chaotic, jumbled potentiality. Caught up in the pressures of your life you assure yourself that what you do is for your children. You love them because you provide for them, each day you put up with “dip sticks” and people who annoy you so you can provide for them. Yet, your children do not see that, nor do they care. They need to know that you their father see them and in that look they will know they are loved. So shut down your computer, turn off your phone, the world will still go around. You are not so incredibly important to the universe but you are to the little life before you. Do not ask them to be a perfect reflection for your glory. They will embarrass you; they will do things that make you cringe. That is their role in life yet in those cringe-worthy moments, when they have come last in that race or dropped the ball in the game or scored a goal for the opposing team or mis-stepped in the ballet production. In those moment let them know they are seen and loved by you. For that gaze of love will remain with them and in the future when as adults life turns hostile they will know some resilience because their father saw them and loved them when things were bad before.
The fourth lesson. Let your children test their strength against you. Fathers, you sons need to test their strength against you. It is in the safety of your relationship with them your son becomes aware of his growing strength and you and your son take pride in this. If he does not learn to do this with you, he will seek it elsewhere in forums and spheres that may have more disastrous consequences. Do not always defeat your son or play to win, allow him the pleasure of winning, for there will come a day when your son will be stronger than you. A day when your son will defeat you. That is the way it must be. Those little defeats allowed by you prepare him to win and prepare you for that day when you can graciously step aside.
The fifth lesson. Endure the adolescent years. These years will test you to their limit. Do not expect your child to necessarily love you or like you or want to be around you. These are the years when you must choose your battles carefully. Not every issue is worth the risk to you relationship with your child. Choose carefully, what battles you will fight and having decided and engaged you need to ensure you win. As much as your child will resist and fight they need to know they are loved enough their father will enforce and establish limits to protect them. They need to know you will stand behind them and where necessary stand up to them. These are the years when your children will most test their strength against you. Do not resent this or feel you are being hard done by. This is necessary but be warned these may not be easy years.
Then there will come a day, an unexpected day when some small thing will make you realize you child is now an adult. They do not seek your advice; they do not even need you for they have stepped upon the stage of their own life. You will watch them as they stride confident and with grace and in that moment filled with pride you will know you are a father.
The name you were called when first you held that little child is now who you are – a father. You are not the man you were. You like some old lion, battled scared can stand with pride for you have learnt the skills of being a father and far, far more importantly as you watch your child you realize the ultimate accolade of being a father is your child can father him/herself.