In youth, my imagination traced the contours of an eventual adult life. Certain shades and shapes seemed a given, even if the details remained undetermined.
A creative job with influence, yes. Marriage, no doubt—though the face behind the veil changed or clouded with each evaporating crush. My mind inevitably moved a few years forward, with all the future’s terms and conditions, to fatherhood. Sparks of possibility gave way to silent pep talks and trouble swallowing.
My reservations stemmed from misplaced faith in how we arrive at adulthood. Some men are natural fathers, I believed—born and bound for the job. This domestic destiny passed over me; before I could even distinguish the chalky outline of the batter’s box, I faced a two-strike count.
The naturals relaxed their shoulders in the presence of children, even before having their own. Some, confidently seizing the spotlight, scooped little ones, sending them skyward into position as temporary satellites. The smalls of their backs scraped the clouds before engaging their descent. The same men effortlessly shifted their feet back into place, sure-handed, cushioning the landing. Meanwhile, I shrugged off nearly every chance to cradle a baby, my fumble fears overtaking me.
As much as anything, I spent myself loving an 8-year-old—and all the verbs that pursuit implies. Correcting. Caressing. Reminding. Chasing. Improvising. Praying.
Sifting the contents of my own childhood, I blew the dust off more discomfort. Unresolved traumas and acquired fears, questions lacking answers, detours successfully designed to avoid an actual reckoning. An out-of-focus past blurred edges of the present, casting doubt on offerings of future love.
As if the self-doubt wasn’t loud enough, infertility entered the conversation. First as intuition, then as diagnosis. For months, each daydream began and ended the same. Sitting across from God as awkwardness hangs over a job interview. He nods, taciturn, through all my remarking. Then he clears his throat, ending even the hope of courtesy and a callback. You and I both know you’re not qualified for this.
Fast forward to 7:36 Central time on a standard weeknight. In his second-floor room, my son turns and kicks through stages of sleep. Downstairs, I exhale and the change in pressure drives me back into the couch. Counting the day’s math in reverse, I calculate time divided many ways.
Working at the sentence level, writing, and editing. Balancing principles and potential while grading student journalism. Investing care in the million little messages, back and forth, that sustain another day of marriage. As much as anything, I spent myself loving an 8-year-old—and all the verbs that pursuit implies. Correcting. Caressing. Reminding. Chasing. Improvising. Praying.
Leave any judgments to my wife and son—whether, on balance, I am good for them or any good at what I do. But I was wrong about fatherhood and what it takes; wrong about whatever level of fitness one carries into the job. I am doing the work, and resemble a better version of myself within the labor.
When my son arrived, I stayed a while longer within my naturally unnatural cocoon. Our introduction was not like love at first sight. At least not the initial dictionary definition of love. But I thumbed down the page a few entries and found myself—responsible, tethered, making promises, intent on keeping them.
Some distance, prompted by years of disqualifying myself, lingered. I took tentative, tiptoed steps toward this miracle with brown eyes; in the most welcome of surprises, the span closed hour by hour, day after day. Affection soon replaced nouns and verbs I once understood, love’s every definition disappearing into the others. To borrow and stretch a R.E.M. line, sweetness and gravity and the best sort of heartache followed.
Truths about works and grace know no time or boundary. Sitting across from you, a glass of wine into dinner, I might recount steps I took into the heart of fatherhood. Therapy tested my theories, exposed lies I told myself about myself, and softened me to the point of self-love. Countless conversations with my wife refined my abilities and approach—as did the trip, fall, and rebound cycle of every day.
My efforts mattered—and still do. But I cannot overestimate the tender measure of mercy these days deliver. People like me worry about what they carry to the table. I couldn’t possibly realize how staring into the face of a beautiful, complicated boy would reshape my language and expectation. Not what I bring, but what he brings out of me.
Whittling my past into clarity, I meet him where he is. Seeing my own gestures in miniature, I name and describe anxieties he can’t yet admit. We share disappointed silences before I explain—in words he knows—that life doesn’t always work out how we plan. Then I tell him we share that burden too.
The prospect of entertaining any child holds little interest. But I love playing the small rooms and, knowing my audience, land punchlines that send him away giggling. I still scare easy when offered a friend’s baby, but know how to pull one boy close, erasing the distance of a hard day or harsh word.
And I believe he grows daily in the knowledge that I love him for who he is, not what he does or fails to do. Holding out this blessed assurance like communion bread, I remember how often I’ve craved dipping even a crust into the chalice myself. Thanks be to God.
If you step into the role, something inside must stare down the past and settle up. You work to shed selfish skin, learning to pronounce every syllable of the word “sacrifice.”
I know what I don’t know, namely how each moment of someone’s life bears down on the next. So I rarely offer parenting advice. If you step into the role, something inside must stare down the past and settle up. You work to shed selfish skin, learning to pronounce every syllable of the word “sacrifice.” And you witness how experiences and traits you once called liabilities become secret strengths. But I can’t tell you which parts, to what degree, or where to get started.
I do know this: we tell ourselves a thousand myths about what constitutes success and failure in our families. These myths plague infertile couples, would-be dads, single moms, and parents of adult children. Becoming yourself—for everyone’s sake—involves accepting love enough to surgically probe the layers of those lies.
Every prospective father or experienced mother is wrong about something. But I pray we all learn to stop keeping score. I still worry about failing my son—but now I know that’s only natural. Love is a process even the most equipped can’t prepare for; the good news is that upon beginning, it changes you from the inside out.