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The first time I remember my father told me he loved me was just shy of my 21st birthday. I told my mother in passing that he had never said it to me and it was indicative that he didn’t care. I guess she told him because he called a few days later and said he loved me; that my thoughts of him weren’t true, and he just didn’t need to say it. This was my example of fatherhood.

My father was in and out of my life, but mostly out.  He was abusive, both verbally and physically. He was an alcoholic, a con man, and a rigid taskmaster. He was mean, hard, openly promiscuous, and lude. He would brag about his sexual exploits, hide my half siblings from me, and often drunkenly gamble away something precious to the family.  This was my example of fatherhood.

He was also a comedian, one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and an incredibly hard worker. He would often rise early and go late into the night. He was also a generous man; I would watch him go above and beyond to help my grandmother and his siblings with whatever they needed. He taught me the importance of being kind to strangers, more than a few times stopping to help someone stranded on the side of the road.  This was my example of fatherhood.

I’ve been a father for almost 18 months now. Prior to my daughter’s birth, I was filled with fear and dread. As humans, we tend to default to what we know. Most of what I knew of fatherhood was negative. I feared I would be impatient, unkind, and disinterested as my father had been to me and my siblings.  

I feared I wouldn’t take the time to listen, that I would burst into fits of rage. I would be quicker to speak than listen. And the worst, I would perpetually make promises with no intention of keeping them. I would lead my children on with false hopes of a tomorrow that would never come. I was so afraid that these would be my default settings. Thank God, thus far, this has not been the case.

Going With No Direction

Many men like me who were raised without a consistent or stable father figure deal with this mental strain. We enter the world of fatherhood feeling as though we have no direction and no good examples to fall back on. We throw darts in the dark just trying to figure out what works.

This has been hard for me. As a man trying to lead his family in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord, I have had to do my best with what I have. I have many friends who paint beautiful pictures of fatherhood and I seek to emulate some of what they’ve done but nothing quite replaces the desire to look at my own father and follow him.  

This presents one of the biggest challenges. No matter how great friends and mentors are, nothing can replace being able to go to the man who raised you to seek his advice and counsel.  

The relationship of fathers to their children should be special. A father should be the one to teach his son how to be a man, how to be kind and gracious towards others; how to shave; how to love his wife well and care for his children. A father should teach his son what it means to work diligently and with integrity. Too many of us have not had these lessons imparted to us.

A Reactionary Father

This background has had a significant impact on the way I’ve chosen and am figuring out how to parent. I want to handle discipline differently, show affection more openly, and set a better example of what a man is. I want to be careful and wise with my words, using them to uplift and encourage rather than destroy and manipulate.

But there is danger in our parenting merely being reactionary. Who we are as fathers cannot be built entirely on not being who our fathers were.  

The first reason for this is it is better to be identified for what we are for rather than what we are against.  Your entire identity as a father has to be more than “I’m not him.” This is something I had to work through myself. The desire to do everything and be at everything is me wanting to be present in the lives of my children, but it’s also me not wanting to be my father. There is good and bad here. Being present is important but when being present becomes a self-righteous measuring stick to prove you’re better than your father, then you’ve failed and your kids will see right through it.

The second reason our parenting cannot be solely reactionary is that in truth, our fathers were probably not all bad. I do have many fond memories of my father. There are few people in this world who could make me laugh the way he does. He taught me the importance of learning and why being inquisitive is a good trait to have. He was a man who could have a conversation with anyone regardless of their background and he always treated people with the utmost respect. Although we haven’t spoken in years (pray for reconciliation y’all), there was a time when my father and I spoke nearly every day. While there was a lot of bad to my father, to paint him as all bad would be unfair

A True Father

There is one Father who is all good: God. Our hope as fathers is not placed in our ability to parent well but in him who is the perfect parent to us. Those of us who have had fraught relationships with our fathers often have a hard time seeing God as a good father. Our encouragement is in knowing that no matter how good or bad our fathers were, God is nothing like them.

He has shown us true goodness in sending his Son to pay the price for our sins and has never let us down by breaking a promise to us. He has protected us in ways no one else ever could. We can cling to his word and his truth and know that our hope is secure.  

I am barely two years into the game, so truly I speak as one with limited knowledge. I know many other men who are in the same position as me; men who have sleepless nights wondering what to do next and who live in fear of trying to provide for their families; men who honestly just want to give their children everything they never had.  

Be encouraged brothers. The fact that you are even thinking about these things means you are on the right path. You are going to do the best you can with what you have. The road will not be easy or light. There are decisions you will have to make over the next few decades that will suddenly make things in your childhood make more sense.  

There will be uncertainty and doubt.  Even more importantly, there are going to be moments of immense joy.  You are going to make memories that will last the rest of your life. You’ll practice humility and graciousness towards your kids. Even on the days you fail to do this perfectly, the hope is your children will recognize the sum of your character and not just the isolated incidents.  

I am praying that the pain of bad fathers does not identify us. I am praying that we can see relationships reconciled and families brought back together. Most of all, I am praying that as men in this position, by God’s grace, we will be the best fathers we can be, for his glory and our children’s good.

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