By Peter Holmes
BEING a father, my thoughts and discussions with other fathers frequently visit the matter of my children’s formation.
Are the children receiving the best moral and religious formation possible?
Am I a good role model, mentor and do I support their formation?
Any brief moment of relaxation is usually disintegrated by a nagging sense of guilt over perceived failures, or worry about failures I do not actually know about yet, but am certain exist. Any parent will know what I mean by residual guilt in parenting.
This is especially the case for parents of more than two children who are constantly badgered by the self-justifying niggles of the 1.9-child-family man.
“Oh sure I could have more children, but I want to give my children the best schools, the best advantages (things) and my best attention. I can’t do that if I’m spread over more children.”
Even if we don’t buy the line that Dad spending a few hours more “quality time” a week in an empty house is better than the child being surrounded by a pile of loving people, those voices still activate a parental guilt complex.
Am I spending enough time with the baby? Did I help enough with the homework this week? Is my boy missing sport opportunities because we also drive three others to various games on a Saturday? Is it time for “the talk”? The list is endless.
Lying in bed on a Saturday morning I had something of an epiphany.
Not a genuinely new insight, you understand, just me finally catching up with a truth that has been slapping me about the face for many years now.
Groaning to myself that lying in bed on a Saturday morning, listening to the first wave of giggles and pattering feet that heralds some form of mischief is the time I am most tempted to be jealous of single men or men with small families.
I manage to force one bleary eye open enough to see the clock tick over to 6.28am, just as a small voice sotto whispers at the bedroom door. “Daddy, Anastasia tipped over the milk … and it’s spreading over the floor.”
Fifteen minutes of crawling about cleaning the kitchen floor, still working with only one eye open as if, by keeping one closed, I could somehow slip back into blissful sleep after this chore, I stand to walk back to the bedroom.
I am prevented by two sets of hands tugging on mine, and four sets of puppy-dog eyes pleading with me to play, read or give piggy-back rides.
I have to say those people who pine longingly for these cute moments with children almost certainly don’t imagine the moment occurring when you are at your worst.
Saturday morning. The only sleep-in possible all week. A pounding headache that threatens to become a migraine in a few hours.
A house that desperately needs cleaning up before visitors. Bone-weary tiredness from working late for a month. All these add up to me being the least likely person to respond positively to the very reasonable requests of my children to pay them attention, play, help, support, admire, encourage and, in short, to love them.
Fortunately children have been blessed by God with the instinct, perhaps innocent cunning, to know that they needn’t bother with reasoned arguments.
Instead they turn on the full blast of cuteness, the guilt of that shattered look when you refuse to read their favourite book, the persistent nagging until it is easier to say “yes” than “no” for the 74th time and, the clincher, the rather alarming combination of sounds that is the tinkle of breaking glass and the sudden cessation of the usual joyful babble.
In the end it is simply easier to drag oneself out of bed and stagger into some form of parenting than it is to grind teeth under a pillow while desperately trying to cling to the last shreds of a blissful dream.
As a father I am unable to be as selfish as I would, I am ashamed to admit, like to be. I don’t merely mean that I have committed to sacrificing myself for the good of my children. I promised to do that on my wedding day, and several times a day in prayer and a few more to boot.
But, the way some Saturday mornings feel, no vow has the strength to drag me onto my feet ready for action. On Saturday morning all bets are off.
No, I mean that being a father forces me to be unselfish. Even at my worst, one-eyed, pending migraine, desperately clinging to a blissful dream, I still stagger unwillingly into action and spend the morning reading books, answering questions, binding minor wounds, buying new soccer shoes and generally being Dad.
I am dragged into unselfishness in spite of myself. My children form me as much as I form them – probably even more. I am certain I will resent this epiphany next Saturday, when I lie under my pillow gnashing my teeth yet again in the private hell of the selfish person. Until, that is, my children drag me kicking and screaming or muttering incoherently into the world of unselfishness again.
Peter Holmes is a theologian based in Sydney.