I have just realized something awful about fatherhood. It’s something I’ve read about, but have always thought was one of those things that didn’t apply to me. But I was wrong. It’s something I hoped to avoid, something that will cause much pain, for my children and for myself.
About a year ago my boys came in from playing in the woods. It was raining outside, and they were covered in mud. I didn’t want them slogging dirt through the house, so I told them to strip down to their Underoos on the porch while I ran to get a towel. We live in the country, so our nearest neighbor is seventy yards away—besides, it was raining pretty hard. No one was outside. Moments later I wrapped them in the towel and sent them straight to the bath.
A few nights ago as I tucked my sons into bed, I was trying to understand why one of them was so embarrassed to change into his pajamas. Something about it struck me as odd, so things got serious. “Did something happen? Did someone make fun of you?” I asked. My other son started crying and told me, “Yes.” I was horrified. I imagined the worst, and I was prepared to do terrible things to the person who had wounded my boys in this way. Then they lowered the boom.
“It was you.”
They reminded me of the previous year’s incident with the muddy clothes and the front porch and the Underoos. They said the girl next door informed them a few days later she had looked out her window and seen them all but naked. They cried and cried. They were shamed, their little boy hearts were wounded–and I did the wounding. Of course I didn’t mean to, but that doesn’t matter. My carelessness led to their shame. It’s something they’ll always remember, and it will shape them in ways that it’s impossible to foresee.
The thing I’ve realized about fatherhood is this: I will fail. No matter how hard I try to be a perfect father, I will fail. Miserably. I will love my children imperfectly. Their malleable hearts will be shaped not just by my successes, but by my failures, and they’ll bear those intimate wounds all their lives. Praise God, He somehow makes good of our worst. As a friend recently told me, my realization that I will fail is a great success on this long journey of becoming like my Father in Heaven.
*This was first published in Homelife magazine in 2009.
Andrew Peterson is a singer-songwriter and author. Andrew has released more than ten records over the past twenty years, earning him a reputation for songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. As an author, Andrew’s books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga, released in collectible hardcover editions through Random House in 2020, and his creative memoir, Adorning the Dark, released in 2019 through B&H Publishing.
Thank you for sharing.
Good to know I’m not the only one …
I was surprised to feel tears rolling off my face when I finished reading your post. As a father of two in diapers, I know I will revisit this article for encouragement. And I dread that day.
I need to be reminded of this. I have the terrible habit of thinking I have it all together when it comes to…well, just about anything. But I don’t have it all together, especially in parenting.
Well said. Thank you, brother.
Andrew, I feel for you. I’m another of those imperfect fathers. I thank God He’s not imperfect like we are.
A wise man’s lyrics come to mind: “It’s the fear that His love is no better than mine.” Well His love (and His parenting skill set, too) are more than enough to make up for our lacking.
I wonder if you have already let the boys know that the neighbor girl was making fun of having seen them in their Underoos, not about anything particular about them or their physiques. At their ages they just might find comfort in that.
Keep on, my brother!
thank you. so hard. so true. and thankful, too, for the truth in how “He somehow makes good of our worst.”
After just reading this article (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html), this was something I really needed to hear. Thanks for sharing.
This is very touching and sobering. A great reminder for all Dads. And yet God does know that we are frail, and he does remember that we are dust. I believe fathers like you can cling to and take comfort from that truth even when they “fail miserably.”
Your friend is right: Realizing…and admitting openly….our imperfections and yes, mistakes, as parents IS a great success in our development as parents. As the mother of 3 grown children, and a pediatric nurse who has worked with children and families for 30 years, I have a bit of a benchmark that I use. There are 2 kinds of parents: those who are still under the illusion that they have the perfect little family and that they have all the parenting challenges conquered…..and those who have had the experience of being humbled by their children. It is not difficult to assess people and determine into which category they fall, generally.
Our children often have a great many things to teach us. I have a 26 yr old daughter who is now a mother herself, who recently pointed out very clearly some of the mistakes we made with her when she was a teenager. It still burns, and it still humbles. The best thing to do is look those situations (and children) straight in the face, admit, confess, ask for forgiveness, and reinforce the fact that you are still the parent, and you still get to call the shots to the best of your ability…..and point them ever toward the One who does not make mistakes, because His strength is made perfect when we are weak.
And I ask myself is it hard to face my failure as a father and husband because I don’t want my loves to be harmed… or because I am proud – because I want to think better of myself than that?
Or, God help me, for both reasons?
The hardest part of redemption is the bitter draught of death that must precede it.
tears… swallowing hard. thanks so much for sharing your (all of our) failing to be perfect.
As a father of kids that age I felt the same pull of emotion you and others have mentioned. Am I the only one who also felt this jolt of anger at the girl? It might not be my first thought, but probably my second thought would be to take offense at someone who had created that hardship for my kids. (and more importantly, for me) I am so quick to find fault in others and defend my actions and my own, when the right response is a gentle spirit and understanding ear. Like you, I fail. Repeatedly. Thank you for reminding me that simply recognizing that is a simple, small victory.
Regarding kids in underwear, my kids still change out on the screen porch before and after swimming… not the modest sort…
I’ve told my kids many times, their dad and I love them with all our hearts, but because we’re not perfect, we can’t show our love perfectly. We mess up and have to ask forgiveness, just like they do. Only God can love with a perfect, unfailing love. Thankfully, His love is able to bind up the wounds we inflict on one another and make our hearts whole.
I heard some wise council back when I first became a mother: “Don’t strive to be the perfect mother. You just need to be “good enough.” Now, that sounds sort of silly, like a mediocre goal, but it’s made so much sense to me as I’ve traveled this road of parenthood. I tend to be a perfectionist, which is another word term for “really obsessed with my personal performance.” I’m doing my best, and am trying to enjoy my children, knowing that I will screw up.
My oldest (now 12) and I are able to talk about my everyday failures in being a perfect mother, and laugh together about how I don’t get it right all the time. She’s started teasing me “Mother knows best!” (from that evil witch in Tangled) when I start getting too controlling or nit-picky. (I confessed to her after we saw that movie together that I related with that witch a little!) And I can laugh and loosen up a bit when she does this.
All in all, “good enough” is a good goal for parenting. It leaves room for grace.
BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
What sweet hearts those little fellas have. Since you’ve already dealt with the asking forgiveness part of this, would it now help them to hear some of our embarrassing kid stories while they are recuperating?
Our kids are older than yours, but when they were younger, finding a way to laugh about stuff like this (eventually, when they were ready to forgive) seemed to help them realize they weren’t alone and soothe out lingering embarrassment. I think it was empowering somehow.
I don’t mind to go first.
(My son said I could tell you this, by the way.)
When our oldest son was little, he created his own Super Hero. It was Super Naked Boy. Super Naked Boy’s costume included cowboy boots, swimming goggles, and a cape. And it included only those things. (I think he thought a lack of clothing made him invisible.) We strongly discouraged Super Naked boy, of course. But he was very little, and he didn’t understand… that is, until he decided to introduce his super self to a women’s Bible Study in our living room one night. Apparently, a room full of hysterically-laughing young women quickly taught him what we had not been able to get across in private. He was clearly NOT invisible. He never did it again.
Another one. A friend of mine was at camp one summer in the rugged wilds. She was showering one morning, and a huge, angry possum meandered into the shower stall and started hissing at her. In a panic, she searched for some way to defend herself. There was only a dirty mop in the corner of the room. She grabbed it and began to scream and whack the possum with the mop, “Splat! Splat! Splat!” as full of adrenaline as a ferocious pirate.
Unfortunately, her screams attracted the attention of the camp director. He was a rough old guy who ran into the shower trying to help, but ended up witnessing this awful battle. At the time, she felt like she would die of embarrassment. She never wanted to see that man again. But now she can laugh about it.
And finally… here’s my story. It involves LOVE, so maybe it will make them giggle.
I had a horrible crush on my college English professor. He collected socks, made the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted, and was quite a bit shorter than me. But he spoke Middle English as smooth as Belgium chocolate, and I was completely infatuated. If he had asked I would have married him without the first date.
I was so in love with him, that I would call his answering machine every night after hours, just to listen to the sound of his voice. His messages were witty and charming; and I would sigh into the phone, wishing he could love me, too.
One night, I just couldn’t stand it any more. This was before cell phones, so I was calling from a truck stop pay phone with a bunch of my friends nearby. As the message ended, I lost myself. “I love him! I love him! I love him! Why doesn’t he love me? Why is he dating that awful, beastly old, ugly woman? I could make him so much happier. We could read poetry together, and wrote stories. And he is so handsome, and smart, and wonderful!” I went on and on. All of the tension I had been feeling for years poured out of me. Then I realized something. I hadn’t heard the answering machine beep.
I hadn’t heard it beep because it had already beeped. My entire speech had been recorded, and he would hear it the next day. And he would recognize my voice, because I had signed up for every class he had taught for years.
My life was over. I almost quit college that night. I cried for about ten hours. He knew my brutal everything.
The next morning very early, I trembled walking into his office. I knew I had to face it somehow or change school. I began, “Dr. So-in-so, I am so sorry about that message I left on your machine…”
He interrupted me. He never interrupted people.
I’m not still sure if there’s ever a perfect time to lie, but if there is, this was it. “Becca, my answering machine had some technical problems last night, and I couldn’t hear any of the messages. Now what did you need?” (Sigh. My hero.)
Anyway, so many of us have been caught on the porch in our underoos in one way or another. I hope your kids can laugh a little at our common vulnerability. We’ll be praying for giggles to replace the shame.
BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
P.S. Also, sometimes we’ve also given our kids the opportunity to playfully “get us back” a little when we’ve messed up royally. Not in a vengeful way, because they need to learn forgiveness. But there are times when a little something playful to break the tension helps somehow.
I don’t know your kids, but in this situation, we might let our kids run a pair of Dad’s shorts up a flagpole during a late night ceremony while he salutes. Or make him drive his car for a week with his own underwear hanging half out the trunk.
This would NOT be something that belittles their pain. Nor would it be a graceless “payback.” We would only do it if it’s something they could enjoy poking back on Dad a little about. This can be delicate, so it takes discernment. But you have that.
It might not work for your kids’ temperaments. But for ours, this sort of thing has actually increased bonds that were broken.
BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
Oh, scratch all that. I just saw this article was from 2009. I was thinking they were still upset…
Rachel from NE
My father once told me that he felt the mark of a father was the ability to look into the eyes of his children and apologize if he knew he was wrong. I have had times when he would come into my room after I had gone to bed and wake me up to do just this. I have more respect for my father than any other human being ever (except my husband). His humility and vulnerability with me reinforced to me how much he loved me. He loved me enough to be wrong. And he never failed, in these times, to point me to the Father who would not fail me. I do so love my Daddy! Hang in there!
If it helps, I tend to remember less about my parents’ screw-ups and more about their response to the pain those screw-ups caused. A little humility can go a long way. I pray my kids agree.
“It’s something they’ll always remember, and it will shape them in ways that it’s impossible to foresee.”
I have memories of similar humiliating incidents (some from my childhood, but most from my early teen years), and I can recall times when I knew my mother had acted carelessly. But then I knew she was doing her best to raise five children, and I never doubted how much she loved me. Even though unpleasant memories remain with me to this day, I do not regret them. In fact, I am thankful for them, becuase I know that they contributed greatly to the development of my character.
So take heart, AP. Your “failure” will likely shape them, but it will most likely be for the better, and the Lord is in control of that. Your boys know that you’re doing your best, and that you love them very much. That’s what matters most.
One of the best gifts my parents ever gave me was their willingness (and ability) to ask for forgiveness when they had made a mistake, and they did give that gift to me more than once. 🙂 I definitely remember that better than any of the mistakes they may have made.
I don’t have kids, but I do remind my friends and family with children, or those expecting, that they can’t give their kids a more valuable gift than to admit that they make mistakes and ask their forgiveness. It also reminds both parents and kids that we are all accountable to the same Father, which is so important, too.
Thank you for writing this. It softened my heart to the gospel all over again. Then it made me do something I’ve never done before. I went back to a letter I wrote a friend, at least a year ago, and made it into a blog post. It may be a small encouragement…if not, pay it no mind. =) http://jameswitmer.blogspot.com/2011/01/no-condemnation.html
Thanks, Andrew … this is a message I needed today.
I have this horrible fear that something I say to my children will scar them for life, much in the way that I still carry around words that my father or grandfather said to me.
I have not always been patient with them. When I lose it, I always apologize, and they are full of forgiveness. But it’s hard for me to forgive myself.
I will be a first time dad in April of this year. The notion of “perfect” will have to go out the window…
This makes me think of Penny in The Yearling, and his gut wrenching pain of knowing that life would go back on his boy–“A man’s hear aches, seein’ his younguns face the world. Knowin’ they got to get their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin’. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever’ man’s lonesome. What’s he to do then?” It was Penny’s tenderheartedness, not his ability to be his fatherly ideal, that gave Jodi the space to find himself valuable–loved–even in the middle of the tears.
Penny taught my heart to ache for your sadness.
All these comments make me want to hide someplace warm and dark and safe. My little one is only 10 months old, but I’ve already had foretastes of these intimate wounds, and I dread their inevitable worsening.
The look of betrayal on a baby’s face when you leave the room as he is crawling toward you can be quite haunting. 🙁
Kirsten, your comments on “The Yearling” make me want to read it again, but as a story about Penny, rather than Jody.
That bitter taste of paternal failure is a familiar flavor in my mouth. I will say, though, that asking my daughter for forgiveness sometimes brings me closer to her than anything else could. Thanks be to God for the grace we enjoy.
Oh… I’m not a parent yet, but I can imagine the hurt. I was just talking with a friend about her concern to be a good mom for her two little boys, particularly the older one who, at the age of 2, has already reached a significant level of cognizance. She expressed some amount of fear and trembling at the prospect of being the parent that her child needs. I recall plenty of incidents from my own childhood which impacted me in ways that adults probably would not have guessed. In cases like these it seems like the best response from a parent (besides future attention to not repeat the same mistake) is humility, expression of sorrow, and efforts to keep communication open. And the tone in which you’re telling this story makes it clear that was how you responded, AP. Thanks for sharing this story. I’m adding this lesson to my mental store of parenting knowledge gained from wise people.
Read this article this morning after a tough day yesterday as a dad.
Just want to be the strong leader of my family and yet be the loving father at the same time. I have a very laid back personality. So what happens is my flesh wants to ignore the tough issues (where my kids need firmness) and instead be the nice guy. Such a struggle for me and yesterday was just laying it all before the Lord. I don’t want to be the dad that gets walked all over but I struggle because I so desperately do not want my kids ever to see their dad as mean or a tyrant.
So when I am honest and have an open heart to God, I know deep down that my kids need and deserve and will ultimately thank me for giving them boundaries and being intentional, clear, consistent with those boundaries. Yet raising my kids in a loving way that is full of endless grace and mercy. As a dad of two girls (6 and 1) and one boy (3), I realize that each day is opportunity to grow in this, and ultimately learn from failures that are inevitable.
So Andrew, thank you for this article and for your honesty as a dad. Reading this article when I did is just further proof that our Father completely embeds himself in every detail of our lives.
I’ve failed so many times as a father and have had to ask forgiveness of my children so often…and then, my 10 year old daughter hand writes and colors this and leaves it on my bed as I was getting ready for work this morning:
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” 1Peter 4:18
And I praise God that she is starting to understand the Gospel in spite of my weakness, and she in turn is helping me to understand it, as well.
“Theres’ nothing more to say!”
Two bits of wisdom I’ve picked up from others over the years. (My kids are 20 & 18.)
“If you could rewind the parenting tape and do it all over, you’d just make different mistakes.” It would be possible to find this depressing, but it helped me let go of the mistakes I have made (and the ones yet to come), and realize that, since all parents are human, all fail.
“Feelings of failure are based on the assumption that now is the only time that counts.” (Wish I could attribute the author; maybe someone else can?) This helpful phrase applies to so much more than parenting, but it is especially calming when I’m focused on some present worry about one of my kids, to remember that there are many chapters left in the book of his/her life. And Phil. 1:6 reminds me that God is the author of all our chapters.
I find it no coincidence that i made the post below on a friend’s FB page just 15 min ago. She’s facing the anxiety of being a new parent. I switched over to the Rabbit Room and found your post. No coincidence at all.
“My greatest moments in parenting come when I realize I’m just as fallible as my kids. Allow yourself to make mistakes, admit it when you do, seek help, and read books. There are tons of resources available to you…use them. You’re going to be great! “
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