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On Being A Father

Many fathers feel role strain in the new shape their world is taking. What encouragement is on hand for them?

Fathers’ Day does not get a mention in the Church’s calendar. This contrasts sharply with Mothering Sunday, which has become for many churches a major, if informal, Fathers’ Day does not get a mention in the Church’s calendar. This contrasts sharply with Mothering Sunday, which has become for many churches a major, if informal, Why is there such a difference in how the two occasions are handled by the Church?

If you google ‘Fathers’ Day’ you will be drawn to a wide range of commercial sites which store gifts to offer dads on their special day. There is understandable scepticism about a day which finds its roots in selling stuff to people who already have too much stuff. Yet we do fathers a disservice by resolutely ignoring Fathers’ Day in our formal church arrangements because fathers have a profoundly important role to play in society.

In the last four decades the role of women in society has changed out of all recognition, not least with more women now in employment than at any other stage. All these changes have impacted on the role of men. Rates of divorce and settlements which have largely preferred mothers over fathers when it comes to residence orders have raised question marks over the status of fathers, as have medical changes like artificial insemination.

As a result of these varied factors, discussion about the role of men today has acquired dark undertones, with the suggestion that some are incapable of responding to the new challenges. Yet when it comes to parenting there are many encouraging signs of how seriously men are taking their responsibilities as fathers. This is not a uniform picture across British society but it is still noteworthy. If you are no longer defined solely as a breadwinner then there is scope for your role as a carer to be championed. Fathers have always had intimate bonds with their children – something historical research has revealed through the publication of letters from fathers to children – but the amount of time they spend with their children today is growing.

It is often said that women are too easily stereotyped in life – career woman, spinster, earth mother, vamp, saint – that kind of thing. The same kind of labelling is being applied to men as fathers. There are two poles to this: you are either superdad or deadbeat dad. Superdad works hard and plays hard. He is a good provider but also throws himself wholeheartedly into playing with his children and talking with them in every spare minute he has. He is patient, kind, accessible and never loses his temper – a model citizen in both private and public. And how we hate him for it! Deadbeat dad by contrast is a waster. Parenting for him is a biological, not a social function. He brings children into the world and expects the mother to raise them. He is work-shy, intemperate, addicted to TV or the internet and if the marriage breaks up, hardly sees his children again. The finest example of this type is Homer Simpson, who once said: ‘it’s not easy to juggle a pregnant wife and a troubled child, but somehow I managed to fit in eight hours of TV a day.’

There is always a grain of truth in a stereotype, otherwise they wouldn’t hold such a powerful sway over us. But we do the modern father a disservice if we only categorise him this way. Most fathers know painfully well that they lie between these two poles, aspiring vainly for one and fearful always they will gravitate to the other. They feel what is termed role strain. British men continue to work the longest hours in the European Union but feel they have something extra to give at home too.

When we look at scripture we see that the relationships between fathers and sons were often dramatic. Abraham was tested by God to see if he loved God sufficiently to sacrifice his own son Isaac; Jacob favoured Joseph shamelessly and both suffered heavily for his indiscipline. Euripides said that noble fathers have noble children but I do not think this is always true. Today there are many other powerful influences that come to bear on the younger generation via media and peer pressure but there is evidence of this from the Bible too. Eli was a priest in the house of God but scripture says his boys were worthless, greedy and with no sense of duty: a kind of ASBO family from the Old Testament. God’s judgment on them encompassed the whole nation as it fell in battle to the Philistines. Meanwhile King David had more issues within his own family than most political leaders have with foreign nations. Civil war erupted in Israel because of the instability and intrigue David had engendered in his children, leading to a hasty retreat from his palace in Jerusalem and to Absalom’s gruesome death in the forest. David was incapable of holding it against his son, famously crying: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you’. Israel was an hereditary monarchy, investing the relationship between fathers and sons with explosive potential.

From the New Testament I would pick out two images of fatherhood. Consider Joseph. The first thing to say, by way of admission, is that the Church has painted its icon of the family in a way that is surprisingly frosty towards men. When you think about the family of Jesus, the parent who always comes to mind is Mary. She is the embodiment of maternity. Joseph is not, however, considered the embodiment of paternity. This may have something to do with preserving the doctrine of the virgin birth. And yet Joseph must have had a profound impact on Jesus. He saved the family from Herod. He helped bring Jesus up and joined him to the family trade of carpentry. And he almost certainly died before Jesus, an event that would have burned itself into his son’s emotions. We should rescue Joseph from the shadows and put him at the heart of the family portrait.

The greatest encouragement we can give fathers today is that their role is dignified by God assuming the title of father himself. Throughout scripture God the Father is described as tender and generous, a refuge for those who seek him. Some sons have to live in the shadow of famous and influential fathers. It is as if the child can only be seen through the father. Yet the reverse is true of God. With God, the Father can only be seen through the Son, demonstrating the inherent humility of the God we worship. Many parents – especially mothers – get frustrated when people only relate to them through their children. We should be encouraged by this, because it makes us like God himself.

I am sure that fathers and mothers are equally important to their children, which reminds me of my favourite saying about parenthood in closing: the most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. You may still think Fathers’ Day is just a commercial gimmick, but fatherhood has its roots in the eternal God we worship.



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