Rev. Grace H. Simons
Rev. Joe Cherry
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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
You don't have to be in one of our OWL classes to know that a baby sometimes arrives when the parents haven't hoped and planned for it. So I hope it's obvious that my title this morning - Choosing Fatherhood - is not intended to be about reproductive biology. Quite the contrary.
Biological fathers have probably always had inconsistent patterns in their willingness as well as their ability to be involved in raising their children. Often enough, they haven't stayed around long enough to know that they'd become parents. Not too long ago, my husband David read a piece that said some amazing percentage of the men alive today carry genes that indicate descent from Genghis Khan. That guy wasn't in the habit of setting up housekeeping and helping out with the chores - at least not as far as I've ever heard. Whatever our own experience, we know people who grew up without the presence of their fathers. Sometimes this happens as a result of not knowing, sometimes of tragedy; sometimes it's a choice.
Other men choose to stay with their families, to be fathers in a fuller sense. The last forty or fifty years have heard plenty of talk, some quite strident, about the ways men do, could, should or should not go about fatherhood. Our ideas about the role of a father and appropriate behavior for a man have changed and are still changing. Different groups and subcultures have very different ideas and standards. When we talk about this, many of the terms are familiar, whether or not we subscribe to them: family values, responsibility, authority, respect, nurturing, encouragement, doting, attentiveness. We recognize some affective "baggage" associated with these terms, depending on our own understandings of what fatherhood "ought" to be. But when a man chooses to stay with his children, to be involved in their lives, their growth and development, he also has to make choices about just what kind of father he will be; what fatherhood means for him.
Over the past couple of years, it seems that Americans and particularly the African American community have begun addressing fatherhood and the importance of a father's presence in different ways. You may remember that comedian Bill Cosby gave some speeches challenging African American men to take more responsibility with their offspring. His comments provoked a lot of conversation, some applauding and some attacking. I know that others had been talking about the issue, but it seemed that Cosby's words brought it much more widespread attention. I'd say that's been a good thing. I do not mean to imply that lack of involvement on the part of fathers is seen only in the African American community. It's much more widespread than that. Perhaps the fact that Cosby is both black and a well-known entertainer has helped the conversation take hold in many communities. With all our differences, we're beginning to talk about the importance and the role of fatherhood.
And now we have a very intentional example of fatherhood in the White House. Barack Obama talked about his daughters and his love for them, on the campaign trail. But many politicians do that. He's gone further. Having won the election, he has been outspoken about his intention to be involved in his daughters' lives while President. He and his wife Michelle have protected their daughters from media hounding while openly discussing some of their family patterns and expectations. Who would have predicted pictures of the President cheering from the sidelines of a youth soccer game? And this week, in preparation for Father's Day, Obama has initiated a series of conversations on fatherhood, what it means and what it requires.
Starting with visits to organizations around the nation's capital that mentor and support young men, Obama accompanied five fathers prominent in their fields, who talked about their experiences and hopes. Later they returned to the White House for a town hall meeting featuring their stories and a session with visiting fathers and sons from the DC area. This is to be the first of a series of such meetings held in the coming months in different locations around the country. It's quite a different approach from the usual speech calling for something-to-be-done-about-this-problem that we've heard before.
Since Obama's father was not present during most of his childhood, he's in a unique position to initiate a genuine conversation. We know that children whose fathers are not present are more likely to drop out of school, become involved with drugs, run away from home and serve time in prison. This doesn't always happen, but it's too common. The question is how we can help young men, especially those who have not known the influence of their fathers, to avoid these patterns. It's a big question. We're now beginning to ask it, and to talk about possibilities with the prestige and influence of the President undergirding the conversation.
During this past week, I heard some NPR interviews on the theme of how a man learns to be a father. Most of us tend to repeat the parenting patterns we knew in our own childhoods. That's what's going on when we say something and suddenly realize we sound `just like' one of our parents. Sometimes the example we're instinctively following is effective and appropriate. Sometimes it isn't. Or maybe we don't have a pattern that's familiar. Then what? How does a man learn to be a father?
One interview involved a father whose own father had been absent during his childhood. He spoke of promising his new-born daughter that he would be the best father she ever could want. At the time he was young, still in school and not married. He had no experience of his own father's parenting. What a promise to make in that situation! He said that his first and most nagging question was "Can I do this? Am I up to it?" He spoke of remembering other men in his life - a grandfather, an uncle, certain men in the community who took an interest in him. Their example offered models he could follow, at least in part. He also spoke of improvising, of trying to figure out the best way to handle certain situations, how to balance school, jobs and parenting. His daughter is now four and will enter soon start kindergarten . He finished his degree. So far, so good.
A second father said that his father had been present and was a steady provider, but not much engaged with his children. This father wanted to be more involved with his own family. Expressing this wish led to conversations about deciding to do things differently than a man had known as a child. Again, the importance of other male examples was raised. One person who called in said that he realized that his father set a bad example and vowed to be different. He reported that late in her life, his mother commented that he was a very good father. "I don't know where you learned it," she told him. "It wasn't at home!" This man didn't explain any of the ways he learned to be different, but there are parenting classes, support groups, encouragement from friends and books of advice as well as those guiding models from men who weren't our fathers.
One of the fathers interviewed noted that, while deciding to be different, a man can still understand and empathize with decisions his father made. The speakers talked of the pressure on a father to provide for his family even though that can keep him away from them a good deal of the time. Certainly we know that it takes more than one part-time or minimum-wage job to support kids. Again, balancing time with family, demands from work, involvement with friends or in the community come into play. It's difficult. None of us get more than 24 hours a day. And each man has needs in regard to feeling respected, competent and worthwhile.
Even when all these factors seem to be manageable, fathering isn't going to be easy. Those of you who were here last week heard me affirm that parenting is both joyful and difficult. Both men who were being interviewed, the interviewer and listeners who called in began to chuckle when someone remarked that once you have a child, your life is never the same. Stress, chaos, the weight of responsibility, the need to negotiate and the development of patience all came in for their share of comment. You can't know what you're getting into ahead of time. Being a father calls up abilities, and love, that you didn't know were within you.
Not long ago, I came upon a report of a man stating that "Every man has a dream of what his family will be like." I don't know if he's right, but I like the idea. This kind of dream can be a sort of guiding star; something beckoning from afar, but with no clearly defined path leading to it. Choosing fatherhood means following that dream. A man has to explore the way forward. Some things go more-or-less as expected. Others require adjustment and negotiation. More than one person is involved here, after all, and no one's perceptions or expectations are entirely realistic. Still, the guiding ideal is often realized in a general, but very recognizable way.
Sometimes, however, despite a man's best efforts, that dream will have to be adjusted. Things just aren't going to work out the way he hoped, the way he worked toward. Life has a way of intervening with unexpected twists and turns. We know plenty of stories involving children who just don't have the interest, or perhaps the ability to fulfill parental dreams. A father may have dreamt of a son or daughter and not have one. Maybe there's a longing for a professional athlete or concert musician. Maybe the family business that is the result of so much time and dedication isn't going to be carried on by the next generation.
Some things are out of our control. Sometimes we can work around them. Sometimes we have to stop, assess our situation, maybe even back up some and begin again with the realities of our situation. Our current economy is presenting this kind of challenge to many families. Health issues may arise. Some goals will not be reached. In situations like these, fathers, and indeed any of us, must look again at our dreams. We often focus on the completed picture, even the details, but the underlying foundations support everything else. They provide the options and the all-important character of the dream.
If a father's dreams are grounded in the desire to love his children, to encourage them, helping them to develop their unique spirits, personalities and talents, and guiding them to be responsible and caring adults, changes in the details won't harm the essence of the dream. If his dream requires him to devote his energies and attention to the young lives entrusted to him, he can achieve that goal whether their choices or abilities align with his or not.
Not that he'll be perfect. Not perfectly loving, consistently patient, or uniformly helpful. Every father makes mistakes. No father, no child, no person, really, will ever be perfect. Still, we can be credible, responsible; good, even. When we make these efforts, the shape of our dreams becomes evident in our realities. That reality may not be what a man imagined, but it will be informed by the love and dedication he has given.
That's what's asked of a man who has a baby. Choose fatherhood. Give it your best efforts, your faithful dedication. Do that, and you'll be a good father. Perfection is not required. I remind you that Scripture tells that in the beginning, when God surveyed creation, he pronounced it "good." We do well to adopt that standard.
June 21, 2009
Copyright by Rev. Grace Simons. If you enjoyed it or would like to use part of it, please contact our web wizard,
Rev. Grace Simons left us a
collection of her sermons
when she retired in October, 2011.
We have a brief biography
of Rev. Grace, and the last edition of
a column she wrote for our newsletter.
2172 Kiernan Avenue
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Salida, CA 95368
We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.