Pulled Out Beyond My Capacities
a triptych on fatherhood
For many mothers (including me) pregnancy and labor mean that parenthood is marked by growth beyond the limits of your old self, long before the baby takes his or her first breath.
It’s not exactly nice to learn that the transition stage of labor is often marked by a sense of impossibility, and it’s well nigh infuriating when midwives get excited when you say “I can’t do this” because to them it mostly means the baby is coming soon(ish).
But for fathers, more of that sense of “Who cares whether I can do this, I’m doing it” and the shock of what you are capable of comes after birth. I recently ran into three good readings on fatherhood and being pulled past who you thought you were.
JD Flynn, on being a dad to children with Down Syndrome:
For, JD writes against the attempts to minimize either the suffering or the joy his children experience. Everything is intermingled.
It is good that these children require much more of me than I think I have to give. It is good that loving them requires capacity beyond my reserves.
These people require that I cast out into the deep — that in patience, and presence, and assistance, I go beyond where I wish to go, and beyond even where I can go, on my own.
Because here’s the thing: Out there in the deep, beyond my own self-giving, that’s where grace is. That’s where I’ve found something that seems like joy. […]
And listen, all of us are called into some kind of “deep” — something out there beyond our own capacity for self-gift. This one just happens to be mine.
Ross Douthat on dying to self as a dad
A few years ago, Ross Douthat contributed “The Case for One More Child” to Plough, and made a number of reasonable-by-secular-term arguments for children, before turning to his final argument.
The deepest reason to have more kids, though, is self-centered in a radically different way. It’s that if you don’t feel cut out for spiritual heroism, if you aren’t chaste or poor or particularly obedient, if you aren’t ready to be Mother Teresa – well, then having a bunch of kids is the form of life most likely to force you toward kenosis, self-emptying, the experience of what it means to live entirely for someone other than yourself. […]
For the average sinner, though, for me and maybe for you, life with children establishes at least some of the preconditions for growing in holiness, even if there’s always the risk of being redirected into tribal narcissism. If I didn’t have kids there’s a 5 percent chance that I’d be doing something more radical in pursuit of sainthood; there’s a 95 percent chance that I’d just be a more persistent sinner, a more selfish person, because no squalling infant or tearful nine-year-old is there to force me to live for her and not myself.
The Awe-fullness of Authority
Finally, I’ve been going through some long-neglected tabs, and finally returned to Perri Klass’s appreciation of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Montessori-influenced novels. Klass highlights one moment of paternal authority and awe.
Family life can stunt you and corrupt you, family life can be brutal, and family life can also be glorious and even redemptive. The stakes are high. There is a deeply affecting moment in “The Home-Maker” when Lester realizes his complete power over little Stephen, who allows himself to confess the darkest, deepest fear that has been torturing him: that his mother will insist on laundering his Teddy bear.
“Don’t let him be washed, Father! Don’t let him!” He raised his streaming eyes agonizingly towards his father, his whole face quivering.
Lester was so horrified that for a moment he could not speak. He was horrified to see Stephen reduced so low. He was more horrified at the position in which he found himself, absolute arbiter over another human being, a being who had no recourse, no appeal from his decisions. It was indecent, he thought; it sinned against human dignity, both his and the child’s.
Looking at his son, Lester reflects, “What a ghastly thing to have sensitive, helpless human beings absolutely in the power of other human beings! . . . In the silent room he heard it echoing solemnly, ‘That’s what it is to be a parent.’ He had been a parent for thirteen years before he thought of it.”
Some parts of parental stretching and growth are mostly physical (we’ve gone through a recent round of caing for sick children while being under the weather outselves). And that kind of physical generosity has a moral component, too.
But that’s different than the moments you realize you stand in authority over someone dependent and must be an example, a just ruler, a… philosopher-king? Mothers and fathers can be more acutely aware of the need for moral excellence that applies to all men and women.