Fatherhood

From an article on the First Thing blog by Andrew J. Peach:

In Sowell’s language, the wisdom embodied in fatherhood is “systemic knowledge,” knowledge acquired from the accumulated experience of previous generations. The rituals, customs, and rules of conduct that have been bequeathed to us by our predecessors are not principally products of reason; rather, they are embodiments of the successful adaptations that humans have made to their surroundings in the past. Not being the express product of a given individual, these adaptations are rarely understood in full by any given individual. In the words of economist F.A. Hayek, “[M]an has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he is still better served by custom than understanding.” Understood in this light, confidence in fatherhood is confidence in a way of living, a groove that has been worn into existence by the many feet that have trod the same ground.

Faith in fatherhood, when such faith has existed, has always been faith in a tradition, which is to say faith in a communally and historically based institution that is wiser and more robust than any individual’s desires, whims, or considered judgments. Even before the children arrive and he is standing on the altar, the young father-in-the-making can hardly be said to be giving full consent to his marriage vows. The groom has little idea what he is getting himself into when he agrees to love his bride “for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health.” Legally speaking, no groom could ever satisfy the criterion of assent necessary for a binding contract; he only understands the content of the vows he has made long after he has uttered them.

To speak more metaphorically, what vowing spouses are doing is putting up a fence around themselves so that the seeds of the relationship will have the protection and space needed to grow. In a negative sense, they are barring the exits, but they are doing so because the positive goods to be attained—for them, their children, and society—are too good and often too unexpected to be entrusted to fleeting feelings of fidelity. As horse farmer and communitarian author Wendell Berry observes, marriage—like friendships, families, and neighborhoods—“is a form of bondage, and involved in our humanity is always the wish to escape. . . . But involved in our humanity also is the warning that we can escape only into loneliness and meaninglessness.”

Most fathers-to-be suppose that their old ego-centered lives will continue more or less unabated after the child arrives. With the exception of a few more obstacles and demands on their time, their involvement with their children is envisioned as being something manageable and marginal. Nothing like a complete transformation—an abrupt end to their former life—really enters men’s minds.

But then the onslaught begins, and a man begins to realize that these people, his wife and children, are literally and perhaps even intentionally killing his old self. All around him everything is changing, without any signs of ever reverting back to the way they used to be. Into the indefinite future, nearly every hour of his days threatens to be filled with activities that, as a single-person or even a childless husband, he never would have chosen. Due to the continual interruptions of sleep, he is always mildly fatigued; due to long-term financial concerns, he is cautious in spending, forsaking old consumer habits and personal indulgences; he finds his wife equally exhausted and preoccupied with the children; connections with former friends start to slip away; traveling with his children is like traveling third class in Bulgaria, to quote H.L. Mencken; and the changes go on and on. In short, he discovers, in a terrifying realization, what Dostoevsky proclaimed long ago: “[A]ctive love is a harsh and fearful reality compared with love in dreams.” Fatherhood is just not what he bargained for.

Yet, through the exhaustion, financial stress, screaming, and general chaos, there enters in at times, mysteriously and unexpectedly, deep contentment and gratitude. It is not the pleasure or amusement of high school or college but rather the honor and nobility of sacrifice and commitment, like that felt by a soldier. What happens to his children now happens to him; his life, though awhirl with the trivial concerns of children, is more serious than it ever was before. Everything he does, from bringing home a paycheck to painting a bedroom, has a new end and, hence, a greater significance. The joys and sorrows of his children are now his joys and sorrows; the stakes of his life have risen. And if he is faithful to his calling, he might come to find that, against nearly all prior expectations, he never wants to return to the way things used to be.

Reflecting upon this transformation, it must be concluded that virtually all of the goods that fatherhood has to offer originate outside of or are only tangentially related to the will and rational planning of a father. All of the Norman Rockwell moments in fatherhood—watching a son cleanly field a ground ball or a daughter sing in the school choir—are real, overpowering, and ultimately not of a man’s doing. In some nominal sense, of course, men give consent to be fathers, which is to say that they willingly hold their post while a swarm of unforeseen contingencies relentlessly comes their way. If they choose not to escape this form of bondage, most fathers, I would hazard to guess, would rightly regard themselves as “the luckiest men alive.” In their hearts they know that the goods of fatherhood are among the highest available in this life and that those goods are principally the result of forces—tradition (and perhaps even Providence?)—outside their rational plans.

This entry was posted in Currents. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Fatherhood

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s