I came across an arresting picture on the internet recently, one that caused me to give some serious thought to what it takes to be a father.
At first, I didn’t fully understand the symbolism inherent in the picture. In fact, my first thought was that the son was systematically dismantling his father in order to complete himself. Selfish, no?
But after a bit, I came to think the artist’s intent was more likely to show how much fathers give of themselves for their sons, even to the point of depleting their very being. Selfless, right?
Still, I had difficulty coming to terms with either of those representations of fatherhood. In the first place, I don’t have a son. For the past forty-six years I’ve been father to two lovely daughters, so the picture didn’t truly portray me.
More importantly, though, I discovered I had a problem with the notion that fathers must become diminished in order that their children might thrive. It’s true, of course, that any nurturing father will freely give of himself to help his children—so, in that sense, the picture of the fractured father did make some sense.
But it’s been my experience with my daughters that, the more I gave, the more I got in return. And it wasn’t even an equal exchange! What came back to me from the girls was infinitely more than I could possibly have given.
As they progressed from infancy to girlhood, I used to tell them all the time how much I loved them, and I tried to mirror my words through my behaviours. But with them, it was the reverse. The loving attention they lavished on me—their hugs and kisses, their squeals of delight when I’d arrive home—made it unnecessary that they say anything. They filled my heart every time I held them.
It was after each of them was born that I learned I didn’t have to carve out a chunk from my love for my wife in order to find love for them. Love builds upon itself, I discovered; it multiplies and is unending. So, each time I passed along one of those chunks of love, I was not depleted like the father in the picture; rather I was made even more complete.
Through their teenage years and into young womanhood, I came to realize the importance of letting them go bit by bit, even as I continued to hug them close. And when they would come to me for advice, or even just for a sympathetic ear, our conversations were honest, sincere, and loving. Even when I pretended to be the sage passing along my accumulated wisdom, I found I learned more from them—about their world, about the challenges and opportunities confronting them, and about the persons they were becoming. Any chunks of insight I gave were repaid tenfold, and I was not at all diminished.
As mothers now, their first priority is to their husbands and children. I don’t see them as often as once I did, but our get-togethers are all the more enjoyable for that. I’ve tried to let both girls know that, although they long ago stopped being children, I’ve never stopped being a father. They understand that and still go out of their way to make me feel valued and loved—supplemented even now, not depleted; relevant, not sidelined.
There’s an old saying that we have to give a little to get a little. Well, when all is said and done, I gave what I could as a father, and I got so much more in return. With another Fathers’ Day fast upon us, I give thanks anew for the great privilege I’ve had with such children.
If I had a picture similar to the one of that father and his son, there would be two daughters, complete and whole, and a father—double their size, swollen with the love and honour they’ve lavished on me.
Bursting, in fact.