Friday, January 17, 2014

3 Realizations From My First Year of Fatherhood

One year ago tomorrow (January 18th), my wife was due to have our son Owen.  As is often the case during parenting, things didn't go exactly as planned.  He decided to grace us with his presence on the 22nd, and chose an emergency surgery as the way to enter the world.
Having a kid changed many facets of my life.  It is one of the best learning experiences I've ever had.  Nothing has prompted me to grow in compassion, mercy, respect, and responsibility like having a child did.  I look back at who I was a year ago and the difference shocks me.  It's like looking in a mirror that you would find at the circus.  It resembles you, and you know it's you, but so much of it is different that it hardly seems possible.  The following three realizations during my first year of fatherhood have changed me a great deal:

1. Babies are helpless, and so am I.

This might seem obvious, but I had never contemplated the implications of how helpless human children really are.  Owen, without constant care and frequent attention, would not have lived past a few days, maybe hours.  This is in stark contrast to many of the other creatures on earth.  Giraffes walk within two minutes.  Zebras are capable of running within one hour.  Many sharks are born with a full set of teeth and immediately hunt their own prey.  We are one year in and Owen can finally walk, is working on his third tooth, has no idea how to find or prepare his own food, and is unable to extract himself from his own waste.  The care required from human parents is not one hour, one day, or even one year.  It's about a decade to basic self-sufficiency, and in modern society it's common to last 22 years (through college).  And yet, we are the most dominant species on the planet.

Obviously the top of the food chain:

This thought, of our complete dependency on others, caused me to ask, "why?".  What sort of spiritual growth can we come to as a result of the fact that we are entirely dependent upon others for so long?  

The answer is simple.  In our natural order, we are quickly taught that survival is dependent upon others.  It's a standard which we take for granted even though it underlies our very existence.  We would not be alive but for the care of those around us.   We are programmed early with the understanding that little, if anything, is within our own control.

But what about when we become seemingly self-sufficient, capable of generating an income necessary for our own care?  Even then, we rely on the specialties of those around us to produce goods that we are incapable of producing ourselves, to invent new items that we would never consider, and to work so that society can function.  Very little in our adult life is actually within our absolute control.

The Bible has revealed all of creation is created ex nihilo.  It's a Latin phrase that means "out of nothing."   And because we are of nothing, we have no property intrinsic to our being that requires we exist.  God must actively hold us in being.  We are all entirely helpless and dependent upon God.   Perhaps our seeming helplessness in this world is a physical representation of a greater Truth.  It should come as no shock to us that the entire time we existed, it was because of another.

Owen, joyously depending on his parents:

2.  Parenthood develops compassion and mercy through sacrifice.

I've always been kind of a manly man.  I grew facial hair early (8th grade), I was stronger than most people around me, and I was emotionally impenetrable. In addition, as I grew up in my Protestant faith, I considered myself a good Christian.  I mostly did the right things. I regularly said I cared for others.  I often prayed for them.

I'm not saying it was necessarily a lie.  I really was trying. I just never realized how self-centered I was.  It's probably something most people don't realize until they have somebody else whose life entirely depends on them.  

Parenthood was the first time I was challenged to put somebody else's life before my own (probably because my wife is amazingly self-sufficient).  Parenthood requires regular sacrifice.  For example, for several years prior to fatherhood I got wings and beers with the guys every Wednesday night.  After having a kid, that was much harder. In order to be a good parent and give Owen the care he deserves and needs, I have been forced to regularly miss something I loved.  And, at first, it was really frustrating.  As another example, instead of getting 6-8 straight hours of sleep every night, I'd get 5-6 hours in three different chunks.  That's uncomfortable.  It requires patience and self-control not to get frustrated.  And, due to lack of sleep, it could effect my attitude and actions when I was with others.  I had to begin actively thinking about patience and self-control.  It became a habit for those things to cross my mind during the regular course of the day--and it never was before.  Lack of sleep, and inability to just get up and do something were only a few of the challenges I experienced.  But, every challenge led to something better.  It's an ongoing development project: me, and who/what I live for.

The results have been mind boggling.  A year of sacrifice helped develop some incredible and positive habits.  I think, due to having Owen, I'm more patient with ineptitude (something that really got under my skin in the past--and it's still a work in progress), I am more willing to take the initiative to help others without the other person's initial request.  When I imagine the suffering of others, I'm able to give it a human face: Owen.  Movies full of injustice have brought me to tears when I never would have given them a second thought in the past.  Driving by homeless people during a cold Nebraska night makes me feel ashamed that I have an unused guest bedroom in my apartment. (I still don't bring them in for safety concerns of my wife and child--as much as I want to do so). During my first six years in Lincoln, I never fed the homeless or gave money to them on the street.  The number of times is now growing every week.  And it's all because I see the face of Owen on every beggar.  He has humanized the entire race of humanity for me through his helplessness.

And when you're seeing this, who could say no!?
Children do this to most parents because life stops revolving around themselves.  You develop the habit and spiritual awareness that life is about others.

I have become especially sensitive and soft-hearted to single parents.  Raising a kid with two of us means we get to split the sacrifices--not always equally, but we still share the burden.  Single mothers (and fathers) are frequently without the emotional, physical, and spiritual support of other people.   I can't even begin to imagine what that's like.  The thought nearly brings me to tears.  The devotion and sacrifice single parents put toward their children is absolutely incredible and inspiring.  God bless single parents--if you aren't praying for them regularly, please start.

Side note:  Thanks mom and dad for everything you did for me.  It's true, you never understand the sacrifice of parents before you have kids.  As far as I can remember, I never had a dirty diaper.

3. Children help us all re-experience the little joys of life and draw out the beauty in this world.

Most people love babies and very young children (especially when they are other people's).  Sure, they are cute and cuddly, but even moreso, they are bewildered with all their new experiences.  Consider the following example:  It snowed in early December.  Miranda and I absolutely had to get Owen out in the snow to experience it.  We laughed and enjoyed the wonder on his face as the snow fell from the sky and speckled his cheeks.  Generally, snow doesn't really excite me anymore.  If anything, I first think about how much of a burden it is to remove and drive in.  I'm too caught up in everyday life to consider how amazing something like snow is--but, due to Owen, I was caught up in how beautiful and spectacular such a simple thing in life was.

Situations like these aren't rare.  In fact, they happen almost every day.  Owen learns to wave at people and we celebrate like we invested early in Berkshire Hathaway and Facebook and Twitter.  You get the picture.  Simple things in life that we generally take for granted become very big things again.  Everyday things become occasions for joy.

He even made Halloween more complete...

Joke aside, children help us all see the beauty in the world.  Their innocence and inexperience draw out things we have been numbed to and re-invigorate our minds.  It's a breath of fresh air, and probably the most positive thing I've ever experienced.


Having a child is a big deal, and it's taxing.  But, every second of it is worthwhile.  They say nothing good comes easy, and that definitely applies to children.  Owen has changed my life in almost every way imaginable, and yet I'm incredibly thankful he was here to shift my focus outward more frequently.  Kids are good. They bring value and joy to the world.  Owen is intrinsically valuable beyond measure, and when you have your own child, you begin to realize everybody else is valuable too.

So much changed in the first year, I can't wait to see what the rest of our lives bring!  One thing I know for sure, it's going to be incredible.