The Philosophy of Fatherhood: A Call to Adventure

Guest Blogger: Troy Flake

When our first kid was on the way, my wife and I were full of naive excitement and apprehension. We spent a lot of time and energy choosing names, painting the nursery, making plans, and predetermining every aspect of how we’d bring our baby girl into the world. When my wife was about 20 weeks along, the doctors discovered that our new baby had a serious, potentially fatal, heart defect. In order to have a chance at surviving, the baby would need a major open-heart surgery. Immediately, our nervous excitement became chaotic dread.

Shortly before her due date, my wife was devastated to learn that the baby would be whisked away by doctors immediately after she was delivered to be placed on life support. This was particularly hard on her. The doctor agreed to let my wife give the baby one kiss before they took her away. We knew this might be the only kiss my wife would give our little girl during her life. As this bleak reality set in, my wife turned to me and said “You go with the baby. Don’t take your eyes off her. Stay with her no matter what!”

I suddenly felt a transformation. I was still afraid, but I was no longer a passive observer to the drama that was about to unfold. It was now up to me to provide protection, comfort, bonding, and love to this little girl in the critical first moments of her life. I could also feel that my wife was relying on me, trusting me, turning her most precious possession over to me. Along with fear, I felt a purpose. Fear with a purpose feels a lot better than fear alone. This responsibility was a gift from my wife.

A few days after she was born, they performed the surgery. It was 7 hours long and our little girl’s heart was stopped for 3 of those hours. After the operation, she was in extreme peril. The surgical team was crowded in her little room, refusing to go home in case she crashed. There was only enough space for one parent to sit in the corner and watch. With great difficulty, my wife wisely turned these critical hours over to me. There was a real chance these would be the last hours of our little baby’s life. But my wife knew and showed me that she knew that my fatherhood was equal to her motherhood. As hard as it was, she let me act not only as the protector of our child, but as her hero and full partner in parenting. This was an amazing start to fatherhood.

I believe a major part of the bond a man feels for his children comes as a result of his relationship with their mother. Sadly, many fathers walk away from their children when a marriage breaks up because the bond has been severed. Even in stable marriages, the father’s bond can be weakened when the mother doesn’t foster the bond between father and child. When I see a father who is not especially helpful and engaged with his kids, I almost always see a mother who is mistrustful, overly particular, and critical. Both parties likely bear some blame for this dynamic.

I think the moms usually have good intentions — they want their kids to eat right, look right, play safely, avoid all risks. And they probably think they are doing a favor to the husband by providing instructions. But a mother trying to control every aspect of her children’s care is not signalling her trust and admiration for her partner’s role as a father. Or she may have a darker agenda. She may have contempt for her husband and feel threatened when she sees her children forming a bond with someone else. The “devouring mother” doesn’t just devour her children — she devours their father too.

The disengaged father might feel that being lazy is his best choice because whatever he tries is wrong, disappointing, and counterproductive. He is failing to adopt the responsibility presented to him. He is to blame for this. But it is harder to adopt responsibility when it doesn’t seem like you get any credit for it. A father may even resent his wife for criticizing him when his efforts to help fell below her standards. As Dr. Jordan Peterson says, “If you really want to create misery, punish someone when they do something good. That will ensure they never try again.” Sadly, I know men who have bitterly resolved to prove to their wives how useless they can be with the kids because they felt slighted when their effort resulted in criticism.

The popular narrative is that there should be more equality between men and women in child rearing. I think this is a good development from the (probably apocryphal) 1950’s “I don’t change diapers” attitude. Fathers can and should adopt as much responsibility for the care and upbringing of their children as they possibly can. Caring for children is one of the most meaningful things a person can do and men who fail to take that chance when they have it will pay for it dearly. Men get told a lot that they should be better fathers.  Some women complain, demand, or dictate. They tell their partners that they owe them or compare their burden with their husband’s. Some women are picky about how the husband interacts with the kids. They might correct him (often in front of the kids) and then resentfully say “ugh, I will just do it myself.” This kind of attitude can rot the bond between the father and his kids.

Men thrive when they are called to adventure. We’re all familiar with the motif of the hero who goes forth to slay the dragon, save the woman, and get the gold. Moms, do you frame caring for child that way to your husband? Do you let him know that every time he changes a diaper, he has bravely met a horrible beast? That when he soothes a crying baby, he’s used his talents to gain a treasure? That when he gets up with a sick kid at night, then goes to work the next day, he is climbing Everest in your eyes? That he is a hero to you every time? Do you let him figure things out for himself so that his victories are his? Do you let go of enough so that he can use his creativity and ambition in the way he interacts with the kids?

Here’s an experiment. Tell your husband you want to do a girls night and ask him if he wouldn’t mind running the show for a few hours. When the time comes, walk out of the house without saying anything. Or just say “Thanks! I’m so excited to have some time with my friends.” Resist the urge to give instructions. Don’t tell him the bedtime routine. Don’t tell him to keep them out of the street. If he asks what to feed them for dinner say “It’s up to you!” Don’t text him to see how things are going. Just walk away. And when you get back, don’t ask how things went. Just tell him how much fun you had and then go on and on about what a great dad he is. Tell him that you told your friends how great he was. Tell him you told your mom what an awesome dad he is– he will really like that.

You might be surprised, but I promise your kids will survive. They’ll probably eat more sugar and watch more TV than you want, but they’ll survive. The real shock might be the effect that has on your husband. See what happens when you show him that you trust him. You will be presenting him with a challenge that he can solve. When he succeeds, he will feel like he has accomplished something and most importantly, gained the esteem of his wife. This will bond him to you. It will bond him to your kids. That day in the hospital, when my wife turned our little girl over to me, it cemented me to them both. Fatherhood became an adventure and I was the hero of the story.

The Shadow of Parenthood

“The best thing about not having children is that you can go on believing that you’re a good person.” Fay Weldon.

Children can bring out the worst in us, but also potentially the best. Because of children’s ability to expose our weaknesses, parents are given a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge our faults and attempt to change them. It is important to recognize our own “dark side” so we can refine ourselves. Change is extremely difficult and can even seem impossible – however the love we have for our children (and desire to not screw them up) is one of the best motivators for personal progression. In the short clip below Dr. Peterson helps us recognize our own dark potential in parenting, and how we can use this truth to teach our children.

*His rule, “Don’t allow your children to do anything that makes you dislike them” sounds harsh but there is great truth in it. However, it is important to note that the application of this rule is dependent on the maturity and progression of the parent. If a parent “dislikes” harmless and appropriate behavior in their children then he/she is not ready for its application. Clip 3:48

Becoming a Pleasant Mother

Many of us moms may be picturing the nine weeks of summer before us with equal parts excitement and apprehension. Having our beloved children home all day is an “awesome” opportunity – we get the freedom to plan our own adventures; but we also have to, plan our own adventures. We have to entertain our kids for 13+ hours a day and face the guilt of potentially doing it wrong. In past summers I have found myself getting snippy with the kids by the end of the day – too much noise, too many fights, too much chaos. I am often disappointed by my irritability with my children, I never want my children to doubt that I truly enjoy their company. When they are grown, I want them to remember me not as just a good mother, but a pleasant mother. My own mother raised seven children and learned a lot of difficult lessons along the way. I asked her to relate her experience in improving her own interactions with her children and making her relationships with them pleasant – even through the long days of summer.

George Herbet and his Mother, Charles West Cope

From our Guest Blogger, Jana Flake

When I was in the trenches of young motherhood, I noticed that I had turned into a negative person.  I had read a book by psychologist, John Gottman, which described the necessity of the 5 to 1 ratio for a happy relationship.  For every negative statement towards your spouse, or child, you need five positive ones, to keep the relationship flourishing.  I realized that I probably had that ratio flipped.  I became weary of the sound of my own irritation. I often spoke to my children in annoyance, telling them to do something, to hurry up, to fix something they had done incorrectly, or to stop doing something. One day I had a conversation with my eldest daughter who was deciding what to do about college and her future. I asked her if she wanted to be a wife and mother and she quite assuredly said, “Why would I want to do that? You aren’t having any fun at it.”  That response really woke me up to how I was being perceived by my daughter.  I loved my children; they were everything to me, but the daily communication of that love was getting lost. I had come from a long line of negative, worrying women and I didn’t want to pass those traits onto my children. My daughter’s statement was the catalyst that put me on a path of educating myself on parenting and communication, which resulted in a happier life for me, my husband, and children. Here are a few of the most important things I learned and applied in my parenting which I believe helped me to be more pleasant.

It’s the relationship that counts

I noticed that whenever one of my children needed discipline, I was always very negative and often created distance between us by the way I talked to him/her. William Glasser, a psychiatrist and author of Choice Theory recommends that whenever we are facing a difficult situation with our child, we should ask ourselves, “If I do or say this, will we be closer or farther apart? You need to do what you can to keep close to your child. The relationship should take precedence over always being ‘right’. Establishing trust means that there is nothing the children can say or do that will persuade you to reject them.” I decided to think before reacting in stressful situations, to reflect on how I could help my child solve the problem in a respectful way. I realized that if I was intentional in my parenting, I could discipline my children and not hurt the relationship. They might not be happy with me, but because we had worked out potential problem areas, solutions, and consequences in advance -they would not be sulking in their rooms thinking I had treated them unjustly. When it came right down to it, most of my annoyance and harshness came because I was thinking of myself and not my child. William Glasser said, “Few of us are prepared to accept that it is our attempts to control that destroys the only thing we have with our children that gives us control over them, our relationship. Don’t choose to do anything with a child whom you want to grow up to be happy, successful, and close to you, that you believe will increase the distance between you.”

Create a No-Problem Area with each unique child

When I was working with at-risk high school students, I would often have their parents and student in my office trying to figure out how to help the teenager get serious about their deteriorating behavior. After assessing the problem, I would ask the parents what they did with their son/daughter in the “no problem” area. This is a philosophy of Dr. Philip Osborne (Parenting in the 90’s) that has the potential, if implemented by parents, to change their students’ lives as well as their relationships with them. There are four problem areas of interaction between parents and children: parent’s problem (“Clean your room”), child’s problem (“My friend won’t speak to me”), mutual problem (“You need to study so you will pass this class”), and the no-problem area (problems are not the issue – relationship is). I would ask the parents to create a safe space where they could relate to their child in an enjoyable and meaningful way where no areas of conflict were discussed. I noticed that most parents knew they needed “bonding-time” with their kids like going fishing, fixing a car, playing sports, going shopping, etc. but most of the time they would be talking about their child’s problems. I would encourage the parents to find some time when they could just enjoy being with their child. It needed to be a mutually enjoyable experience so the child didn’t feel like a “project”. As a mother I would often take one my children with me when I had errands to run, just to talk. My husband could overcome a dispute with his sons just playing sports with them – never talking about the issues of conflict. It was almost magical to watch. We have interests and talents which bring us great joy. Choose one of these interests that line up with your child’s nature and make this your way of playing and bonding with your child. If you love cooking – teach your child to cook. If you love reading – read with your child. If you love travel – plan a trip with your child. These areas of common interest will be the important “no-problem” zones. These moments with your child will be a safe haven in your relationship when hardships come and you and your child can share your joint-love of this interest throughout your lives.

Look to understand what is behind their behavior

While pursuing my Master’s Degree in Psychology I did an internship in Germany with Dr. James Barton. He explained to me that all behavior a child exhibits is normal if you just understand the world they are living in. That idea has stopped me short many times in my life when I have a knee-jerk reaction to another person’s negative behavior. To help understand the child’s world, Dr. Jane Nelson in Positive Discipline maintains that most negative behavior in children can be understood if we look at their world and what needs they are trying to meet. The goal of a child is to belong and to be loved. Sometimes they will do behaviors that seem to be the opposite of that but if we look beneath the behavior, we can understand their world. Dr. Nelson puts these behaviors in four categories: negative attention (No one is paying attention to me, I will get their attention); misguided power (No one listens to me around here; I have no voice or control; you can’t make me do it); revenge (I’ll get even, I will make my sister cry); and assumed inadequacy (Oh, it’s just not worth it, things will never change; I am just not worth it). I would ask myself when a negative behavior would come up: “Does he need some of my time?” “Is she feeling like she has no control over her life?” “Why is she trying to get back at me?” “Is he feeling like he is not good enough?” If I looked beyond the behavior to what the child was really saying, it helped me calm down and use my problem-solving skills rather than my negative emotion to respond appropriately. Again, getting myself out of the picture helped. (Link to a helpful chart on what drives our children’s negative behavior by Dr. Jane Nelson.)

As I became more mindful of how I spoke to my children and learned to apply these concepts, I began to be a more pleasant mother.   I started to look for opportunities to bond with a particular child and spend just a few minutes one-on-one with them and enjoy their companionship.  Before I began this re-education, most of my interaction with my children involved speaking to them about a problem. I started to have more fun with them. I had been too serious and over-focused on the tasks of running a household. I had missed much of the joys of relationship.  As I look back at the pictures of myself and children before my “awakening” I regret the good times I missed. My daughter’s blunt rejection of the prospect of being a mother was my motivation to change. It must have worked, she now has a large and happy family of her own.

The Blessing of Sorrow

“I walked a mile with pleasure;
She chatted all the way,
But left me none the wiser,
For what she had to say.

I walked a mile with sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her,
When sorrow walked with me.”
Robert Browning Hamilton

Modern philosophy tells us to avoid pain and hardship at all costs, and we are happy to oblige.  However, a life devoid of difficulty has no power to transform us into a greater version of ourselves. True confidence comes in overcoming a challenge and standing bravely in face of hardship.  Along with joy, parenthood brings adversity we may otherwise avoid, and with it many opportunities for change and growth. If we can be grateful for these wisdom-producing tribulations, and not just the love and joy our children bring, we can deepen our experience as a parent.  C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

A May Morning, James Thomas Linnell

The Quest for More

“The world says: ‘You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.’ This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.” Fyodor Dostoevsky

The quest for “more” may bring purpose and pleasure to some, but the desire is ultimately never satisfied. We are often left longing for a greater purpose – one which creates rather than demands. If instead of focusing our energy on material desires, we turn our attention to raising a righteous posterity, relieving the suffering of others, and the development of our own character, we may find true freedom. We will also give our children an example worth emulating, preventing the further moral disintegration Dostoevsky describes.

A Little Child Shall Lead Them

“A century ago, men were following, with bated breath, the march of Napoleon, and waiting with feverish impatience for the latest news of the wars. And all the while, in their own homes, babies were being born. But who could think about babies? Everybody was thinking about battles.

Master Baby, Sir William Orchardson

“In one year, lying midway between Trafalgar and Waterloo, there stole into the world a host of heroes! During that one year, 1809, Gladstone was born at Liverpool; Alfred Tennyson was born at the Somersby rectory, and Oliver Wendell Holmes made his first appearance at Massachusetts. On the very self-same day of that self same year Charles Darwin made his debut at Shrewsbury, and Abraham Lincoln drew his first breath at Old Kentucky. Music was enriched by the advent of Frederic Chopin at Warsaw, and of Felix Mendelssohn at Hamburg, Samuel Morley, Edwin Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Francis Kemple. But nobody thought of babies. Everybody was thinking of battles. Yet viewing that age in the truer perspective which the distance of a hundred years enables us to command, we may well ask ourselves, ‘Which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies of 1809?’

“We fancy that God can only manage His world by big battalions abroad, when all the while He is doing it by beautiful babies. When a wrong wants righting, or a work wants doing, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it. That is why, long, long ago, a babe was born at Bethlehem.”

Frank W. Boreham (Mountains in the Mist)

The Heroic Mother

Many years ago, there lived a woman named Sally. She was a widow with three children. Life had been hard and she would have welcomed a change for the better if it came. She thought she saw it come when a man, who was a widower from her past, returned with a proposal of marriage, in his nice suit of clothes, with talk of a prosperous farm. The thoughts of a better life were inviting and she heard him mention servants and that he was a man of substance. She accepted and crossed the river with him to view her new possessions: What she found was a farm, overgrown with wild blackberry vines and sumac, a floorless, windowless hut. The only servants were two thinly clad barefoot children. Their father had borrowed the suit and the boots to go a-courting in. Her first thought was the obvious one: go back home! But she looked at the motherless children, especially the younger, a boy whose melancholy gaze met hers. For a moment she paused, then, rolling up her sleeves, she quietly spoke these words: “I’ll stay for the sake of this boy.” Oh, Sally Bush, what a treasure stood before your eyes that day. She didn’t know when she looked at that melancholy face of ten years, that her stepson would save this nation, and become the immortal Abraham Lincoln. He was speaking of her, when he later said, “All that I am, and all that I ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”

Every Mother’s Day my father would read this story. For me, it has come to symbolize the Heroic Mother and the influence she can have on the world. (It still makes me cry every time I hear it.)

In our modern age motherhood is often seen as demeaning and unrewarding work. Common expressions include, “Why do women have to be the ones to stay home with babies?” “I can be much more than just a mom.” These sentiments don’t offend me, they sadden me. The meaning and power of motherhood is increasingly being lost in younger generations. Mothers shape culture. The love and nurture children receive from their mothers can echo down the generations and throughout the world. Yes, women can do many important things outside motherhood, but no other work will be as meaningful as mothering a child in love and truth.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers, and those who act as mothers, who, with their love and sacrifice, can transform the world.