My Son is a Father: A Reflection
Guard your roving thoughts with a jealous care, for speech is but the dialer of thoughts, and every fool can plainly read in your words what is the hour of your thoughts.
–Alfred Lord Tennyson
My son guards his speech with me carefully for reasons I can only surmise. Given my profession is surmising the thoughts and intents of the heart, as unknowable as it is, and as wrong as I often am, I have reams of words. And I am foolishly prone to spill them as if the flow has little consequence. It does. Always.
As Tennyson proclaims, it is far wiser to guard your thoughts, limit your speech, and allow the work of mental gestation to increase fruitfulness rather than release rapacious verbiage. He is reflecting a long well known stream of wisdom that echoes the language of Proverbs 17:28—“Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.”
One of the topics I will likely never write on, and if I do, posthumously, is the complex interplay of the adult child-parent relationship. It is seldom the ground of reflection in parenting books since most parents buy books to consider how to address the turbulent waters of breastfeeding, feeding and sleep schedules, discipline, and developmental markers that indicate your child is well above average. The later years of parenting are left to the fervid imagination and silence—who wants to put in print what might further offend, complicate, or alienate?
What I intend to do is not walk on the thin ice of reflection or counsel, as much make a few observations of watching my son parent. We just spent a week in Albania with my daughter-in-law Sassy, who is an International Montessori teacher and my son, Andrew who is a stay-at-home Dad. We have watched him clean their apartment, feed and change Elsa, buy groceries, fix dinner, call a doctor, and walk Elsa for hours in his Ergo.
In Eastern Europe, it is quite uncommon for a man to tend to, let alone carry a baby on his body. It is even more uncommon for a man to be a stay at home Dad. Women work, tend to the house, cook, clean, shop, take care of children and gossip with their neighbors late in the afternoon. Men sit in front of stores, smoke, and play checkers. In our travels in the Mid-East, Asia, Africa, and Central America it is often the same. Women work; men kibitz. If men work it is because they are severely poor or wealthy. Often the middle muddles away the day in the smoke filled cavern of a man cave watching football or risking a few pennies in card games. Of all things, child-care is the most time consuming, demanding, and thankless. It is women’s work.
Needless to say, the necessity for two-income workers, greater potential for juggling dual careers and the greater role of fatherhood, at least in the United States and other Western countries makes joint child-care a more viable possibility. It is not my concern at the moment to argue for this trend, other than to set the stage for what I observed.
My son is a patient, attentive, playful, and lively father. He is the father I did not choose to be; he is the father I would not have considered a possibility when I was a father to him. Instead, I traveled many miles to city gates to sell the wares of knowledge and wisdom—playing a few games of checkers and gambling a few pennies in the stock market. The luxury, or is it burden, of staying home with the kids seemed generationally the calling of my wife.
I never took for granted her work or viewed it as the ‘lesser’ course. It just seemed inevitable that I went out to work and Becky would tend to our brood. The few times she left for a weekend and returned to the chaos of my attempts to care, feed, and sustain life for our children taught me that I had the far easier and less important role. As the 80’s and 90’s departed for the new millennium our parenting took on the cast of surviving adolescence and that period coincided with the start-up of Mars Hill Graduate School. It was a free-for-all of crisis, exhaustion, and upheaval. I don’t remember much of that period at home or school since both felt like an endless firefight on the front lines of an intractable war.
For a week, we mainly lingered in their apartment, traveled by car to Montenegro, and participated in the rhapsody of the sounds and movements of a 4 month-old beautiful little girl. Our eyes were not on each other or the past; nor were they on my failures or the current tensions or differences between us. Parenting a precious new life stops time and causes one to be seized by innocence and beauty. My children tease me, or is it mock, my perennial and overused stock of words: beauty, joy, shame, and glory. These words so infused in the vernacular of my reading of Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar don’t connect in our normal conversations, yet in the presence of Elsa, we all stumble to find words to express what is ineffable.
She has so recently arrived on this earth that she still bears the utter holiness and guilelessness of heaven. To drink her in is an elixir that allows us to forget human trafficking, the ravages of the Syrian war just 1500 miles from where we stare at her, and all the tensions that exist in every family.
What do I want to tell my son? What do I want to ask? It is simple. I respect your life. I honor your daily, attentive care of your beautiful daughter and wife. And what is it that I am meant to ponder during this season of baby bliss? As I watched him put his nose to hers and heard her giggle: How do I become more like you? How in the final decades of my parenting do I learn to be the father you already are and delight in my children the way you shine on your daughter?
My son and I may never have a conversation about the artists, philosophers, theologians, pundits, political theorists I read or the random reflections of two friends who are intrigued by each others world views—that may be the provenance of chosen friends, not family. But we love each other and more, even more we love his daughter. And that shared love offers a limbic link that is deeper and faster than any river of words; it is the reservoir of what is so deep and unfathomable that one can merely stare at her face and silently wonder. Maybe, just maybe, becoming wise is really about letting words sputter away to be taken up in silent awe.
May this Christmas be a small taste of taking in the awe of God becoming a child—May we fall silent, even for a moment, in wonder.