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Cultivating Fatherhood ~ Keep Showing Up

September 25, 2023

Adam R. Nettesheim

Cultivating Fatherhood will be space made for the dads among us who love their kids and yet know that the adventure of parenting, with all its joys and beauty, can also be a perilous one. Make no mistake, showing up for your kids is beautiful, rewarding, hard, holy, brave work. My efforts are here intended to provide encouragement and understanding that equips us for our responsibility to the amazing beings who call us “dad.”

One of the hardest parts about fatherhood… well… one of the hardest parts about most ANYTHING, quite frankly, is just showing up. Don’t get me wrong, I really love my kids. My kids are amazing. As I type these words one is reading a Garfield book, one is blowing (loudly) on a pitchpipe, and one is feeding her guinea pigs. Last night, the boys were up with leg aches and bad dreams, and they woke up their mother seeking help and comfort. When I woke up this morning I did so with our youngest child’s body laying horizontally between my Wife and me, making it clear that she did not have a terribly good night of sleep. So now, in an attempt to give her a break, our bedroom door is locked, and I am downstairs amidst a pile of Legos, crayons, schoolwork, a little toy robot, a kid’s Bible, crust from their breakfast, storybooks, and other various flotsam and jetsam of the season of life we’re currently in. 

Yet I also feel an internal grinding of my gears. A conflict that doesn’t quite know how to engage today, and a part that doesn’t want to because engaging is the first step towards… getting it wrong. Fathers throughout time have sometimes struggled with showing up because showing up means being capable and culpable in failure. Things don’t turn out perfectly for those we are responsible for, and it feels like our fault. We can find it so difficult to reconcile our emotions and drives and duties with our fluctuating capacities to simply be present with our kids. Some men take any insecurity and roll it into bravado, into a persona, into seeking power. If they can control what they are afraid of (including their families) then that means they’ve ‘won’ and they’ve ‘mastered’ their fear. Other responses can look like disassociation, addiction, or absence.

The responses to fear are varied but many seek the same effect – disconnection between ourselves and our feelings of failure. 

Sometimes that disconnect comes in a physical sense, like when fathers walk out the door and don’t come back. Or sometimes it looks like the behavior that contributed to the thirteen-year period when alcohol was prohibited in the US. Families suffered severely when some fathers clocked out of their day labor and spent much of, if not all their earnings on drink. The futility of life for many who attempted to provide for their families likely drove some to seek solace in a bottle, and their fear of failing to provide became a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy. In more recent generations it was the stereotype that some fathers might go to the garage alone or out with ‘the boys’ every night rather than spend time with their families. My generation struggles with a new but still disconnecting vice – our phones. We may statistically be more physically present than some previous generations, but our hearts can still be miles away. Our solace is often scrolled for on an illuminated screen, looking for the ‘fix’ that will regulate our emotions, though it never seems to come. 

We are all selfish creatures and prone to sin in so many ways. However, it seems at least part of this impulse to disconnect is not because we don’t love our kids, but because we do. We want what’s best for them, and we believe in our core that we’re not it. We snap when we get overwhelmed, we don’t always know what to do with difficult emotions, we don’t have all the answers, and we just can’t seem to ‘fix’ everything. Somehow, we have the sense that God made a mistake when He put us in the position of being our children’s dad. Doesn’t He know? Doesn’t He know how broken we are?

I recently read the story of Mary and Joseph looking for Jesus in Jerusalem when the pre-teen Christ child ditched His family on a road trip and was found in the temple three days later. My emotions attached to the story quickly because a month or so before this one of our own kids went missing in a public place. When they did find Jesus His mother scolds Him by saying “Your father and I have been anxiously looking for you.”

Yep. I feel you, Joe.

When I couldn’t find my three-year-old, ‘anxious’ is certainly one word that describes what I was feeling. It was also a whole lot of self-incrimination. My Wife and I made a decision a year previous that dramatically affected the family, and though I was the one who initiated our conversation about the need for this change, and though in the end we made the decision together, I was still, a year later, feeling a lot of guilt and doubt about what was lost in the decision, and whether the good that was lost could be regained in a new environment. The low-grade doubts came roaring back into my mind as I searched ‘anxiously’ for my son. Accusing voices pummeled me, snidely saying that such things were inevitable because I had failed my family and I was a deficient father. We did find my son after some time due to the kindness of another young person who saw him wandering by himself and brought him back. But the gratitude I felt couldn’t break through the incrimination. And at the base of it all is this belief that my family would be better off without me. They’d be better off if I didn’t show up. 

The story of Joseph bookends with fear. The last story where Joseph is a part of the narrative is in Luke 2 where they are searching for Jesus in the temple. But one of the first stories is Joseph wrestling with the idea of what to do with a pregnant fiancé, a pregnancy he had nothing to do with. We know he was afraid because when the Angel appears and delivers the results of the divine paternity test, the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” Now that’s a common thing for angels to say, but typically that invocation is more an invitation to not be freaked out when there’s a brilliant blazing being of light that has popped into your living room out of nowhere. For Joseph, the fear this angel was dispelling was of a different sort: 

“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a Son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”

My kids may be miraculous to me, but they are 100% human being. Imagine being the step-dad to the Son of God! How could one change the diapers of the Savior of the World? What could you possibly teach The Word Made Flesh? Any feeling of inadequacy I may feel must pale in comparison to what Joseph might have felt as he made the decision to show up and be Jesus’ dad. It’s comforting for me to realize that God knew full well that Joseph was an imperfect human – a human in need of the saving that His Son would bring. And yet, God still knew His Son needed an earthly father to show up for Him. In my struggles to reconcile my imperfections with my duties as a father, it is comforting to think that my God also took all my shortcomings into account when He called me to be the father of my kids as well.

None of this is going to go perfectly. Oh yes, we are meant to strive to move forward, to lay aside things that hinder us from “running the race set before us.” Choosing love over selfishness and fear is a daily battle. But like He did with Joseph, God takes our humanity into account when He calls us to be dads. 

And that is a very comforting thought. That helps me have the courage to show up. 

To remind myself of this, I’ve loosely adapted the angel’s message to Joseph. May I encourage you to take it and personalize it for yourself too. 

“Adam, son of Jim, do not be afraid to show up every day and be your children’s father. God is well aware of your imperfections, but He has chosen you as their father still. Teach them how to lean on Him in their weaknesses by leaning on Him in yours. Teach them how to hope in times of lack and trust in times of fear. And teach them that the One who saves them from their sins loves them in their failures too. Show up for them as God has shown up for you.”

I dedicate this article to my Dad, a wonderful, imperfect man who still courageously shows up for me. Thank you, Sir.

 The featured image, “Aspen Gold,” is courtesy of Steve Moon and is used with his kind permission for Cultivating.


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