“Your children need your presence more than your presents.” – Jesse Jackson
On Sunday, I, as many of you might have too, celebrated Father’s Day with my family. Father’s day has always been a special day to me, because I’ve been lucky enough to grow up with a father who taught me authentic manhood every day of his life. A father who helped coach my baseball teams, came to every possible game of every sport I played, and put in countless hours playing catch in the back yard. Who taught me how to golf, how to shake a hand, how to be respectful. I was lucky enough to grow up with a father who taught me how to love in the way he loved my mother. So getting to celebrate Father’s Day has always been great for me.
I realize that many of you who read this post might not be able to relate. I realize that some of you might even resent those recollections of my childhood. Studies show that 26% of all children in the United States alone—that’s over 20 million, by the way—grow up in a house with only one custodial parent, and 5 out of 6 custodial parents are mothers.
But I share this because Sunday was also a very challenging day for me. You see, for the past few years, as my wife and I have started our own little family, I’ve also been the recipient of Father’s Day celebrations. And my wife is very good at throwing a party. Very good at making me feel like I’m the greatest dad our kids could have ever hoped for. This of course, isn’t the case, but that’s why Sunday was such a challenge.
It’s because I know what a truly great father is. I grew up with one. And ever since my children were born, ever since the day I found out we were expecting our first, I knew that if I could be half the father my own dad was, that I’d be okay. Many of you might have felt the same way. Then again, many of you might feel just the opposite. Some of us might define who exactly we want to be as a father by doing just the opposite of whatever our own dads did. But regardless—whether we define our fatherhood by looking positively or negatively at the example our own father set—I like to think most of us have an idea of what we want to be as a father, now or in the future.
The challenge, of course, is actually being that man we want to be. The brother we want to be, the son we want to be, the husband we want to be, the father we want to be. Maybe we look to the dad we knew, or didn’t know, and we realize we’re not half the man to our own family as he was to ours. Or maybe we realize we’ve been acting just like our father did . . . and that that’s not a good thing. It’s for this reason that Father’s Day is challenging for me. I want with everything inside of me to be the best father my children could ever hope for. I want with everything inside of me to teach them the love and respect my father taught me. I want them to see me as their protector, their mentor, and their friend. I want them to run to me 10 years from now the way they run to me at three. And I’m just not sure if I’m doing it.
As I reflect back on who my father was, and what he was to our family, I realize that all those things my father did to make my childhood special, all those things he did that made him the father he is—all the ball games, all the nights of catch or the mornings of golf—boil down to one thing: My father was present.
At church the past few Sundays, we’ve been in a series called White Space. We’ve talked about the idea of white space in graphic design and advertisements, and about how the area that’s left blank on a page actually helps to focus the reader’s attention to what’s important. That it’s not always good to have a page filled with clutter. Sometimes, more information is just more distracting. And the challenge, you might imagine, is to clear up white space in our lives. To clear up our busy schedules so that what we hold most dear, God and our family, might come into better focus.
During this series, we were guided to a site that, if you have a moment, I’d encourage you to visit. It’s not a manly site. In fact, it’s quite girly. It is, after all, called Hands Free Mamma, written by Rachel Macy Stafford. But on this site, Rachel has an entry called, “How to Miss a Childhood,” and I have to admit it hit me pretty hard.
In this entry, Rachel tells of an email she got that read: “I can recall a time when you were out with your children you were really with them. You engaged in a back and forth dialog even if they were pre-verbal. You said, ‘Look at the bus, see the doggie, etc.’ Now I see you on the phone, pushing your kids on the swings while distracted by your devices. You think you are spending time with them but you are not present really. When I see you pick up your kids at day care while you’re on the phone, it breaks my heart. They hear your adult conversations. What do they overhear? What is the message they receive? I am not important; I am not important.”
She continues by listing, as the name implies, ways to miss a childhood. You should click on over to Hands Free Mamma and read the complete list, but here are just a few:
*Keep your phone turned on at all times of the day. Allow the rings, beeps, and buzzes to interrupt your child midsentence; always let the caller take priority.
*Carry your phone around so much that when you happen to leave it in one room your child will come running with it proudly in hand—treating it more like a much needed breathing apparatus than a communication device.
*Decide the app you’re playing is more important than throwing the ball in the yard with your kids. Even better, yell at them to leave you alone while you play your game.
*While you wait for the server to bring your food or the movie to start, get out your phone and stare at it despite the fact your child sits inches away longing for you talk to him.
*Go to your child’s sporting event and look up periodically from your phone thinking she won’t notice that you are not fully focused on her game.
*Check your phone first thing in the morning … even before you kiss, hug, or greet the people in your family.
*Lose your temper with your child when he “bothers” you while you are interacting with your hand-held electronic device.
Looking at my own life . . . guilty as charged. And this is where I think a lot of parents in today’s technological culture fall short, where I think a lot of men fall short, where I fall short. Don’t get me wrong, I am around my family an awful lot. I’m home for dinner. During the summer I come home for lunch, even. I tuck my daughter in to bed at night and sing her a couple songs as I lay with her. I push my kids on the swing set in the backyard.
But the problem is I’m not always there. Too often I’m rushing my daughter to bed. As she’s trying to play a game with me while we get her pajamas on, I’m raising my voice because she just won’t stand still. Doesn’t she know the basketball game is on, and the quicker she gets in bed the quicker I can see what’s happening? When she wants me to sing just one more song, I remind her that she gets two, and only two, songs at night time. Worse more is that half the time as I’m singing and she’s laying on my chest, I’m checking my twitter feed behind her back. When I’m outside pushing my kids on the swing set, all too often I’m standing behind them browsing the internet on my iPhone. I’m guilty more often than I’d like to admit of missing a childhood. Two to be exact.
What makes Father’s Day so special to me each year . . . what makes my father so special to me, is that he was never just “there.” He wasn’t just physically present. My father was there. And I’m being challenged more and more everyday to do the same. To let go of my work when I walk in the front door. To set my phone down with my keys and wallet and walk away from it. To walk toward my 9 month old son who is crawling across the floor and swoop him up. To kiss my daughter on her cheek and ask her about her time with mommy. To earn the #1 Dad trophy they made me at daycare. To be there.
If we truly want to be the men we are called to be, or the fathers we are called to be—if we want to continue the tradition of a strong family or make one anew—let’s begin by creating some white space in our lives. By clearing away some clutter so that what’s important can come into better focus.