Embracing Awkward

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  • Thoughts on Being an Imperfect Father

    "You never would get through to the end of being a father, no matter where you stored your mind or how many steps in the series you followed. Not even if you died. Alive or dead or a thousand miles distant, you were always going to be on the hook for work that was neither a procedure nor a series of steps but, rather, something that demanded your full, constant attention without necessarily calling on you to do, perform, or say anything at all...an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars." - Michael Chabon

    On April 29th 2005 something happened in my life that had never happened before. I became a dad. Jayne McBride Rhodes (“Jayne Mac”) was born, sweet, calm and bald. Very bald. We had to use a sticky substance just to get little bows to stick on her head. 

    I almost missed her grand entrance into the world. My wife sent me to Walmart to pick up some DVDs to watch, Newlyweds with Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey to be exact. There was a McDonald’s inside that seduced me into a late morning sausage biscuit, the new walk of shame. By the time I got back things were moving quickly and before I knew it I was staring into her struggling eyes, kissing the matted mess of hair on the top of her head, pretty sure I wasn’t holding her the right way. The perfect metaphor of how it feels to be a father. Never quite sure you’re doing it right. Almost positive you’re not. 

    Michael Chabon once wrote that “to be a father is to be a man who fails every day.” That’s what it feels like to be a dad. To be keenly aware that you’re not doing it right, not doing or being enough. My daughter is 9 now, and it’s harder to look her in the eyes, because those eyes saw her mom and I fighting just the other day. Her ears heard me saying things I later had to apologize for, first to her mom, then to her. To be a dad is to be someone who needs to be forgiven. 

    This is why the greatest gift a dad could ever give his children is to never tire of saying, “I’m sorry,” and “I was wrong,” and “I love you.” And to mean it. An imperfect father resting in the forgiveness of his perfect heavenly Father is free to be wrong, to apologize, to love from the heart with deep joy. In the words of Jamie Smith, to be a dad is to be someone “who promises to love prodigals.” Because they themselves are one. Prodigal sons who’ve been welcomed home by the Father with kisses make the best dads. 

    A few years ago we were at a wedding in Augusta, GA. My daughter was 6 at the time, old enough to figure out that she loved to dance. So as we walked through the doors of the reception, she made a bee line to the dance floor, and was by far the first one out there. It’s funny how different your children are from you. My happy place at a wedding is in the corner with a plate full of food and a beverage in my hand. Her's is the dance floor. 

    As she was dancing these older girls show up and they really know how to dance. And as they start breaking it down, I watch my daughter crumple on the dance floor, eyes like lasers burning through these girls. I can tell she’s angry, jealous, insecure. As we climbed into the car to head home, she was still upset. So I asked her what was wrong, doing that thing parents do where you try not to laugh and cry at the same time. 

    Through gritted teeth she said, “Those girls. I hate those girls. They’re better dancers than me.” And my heart broke. Not because those girls could dance, but because I saw the same perfectionism I’ve lived with for almost 34 years worming it’s way into the heart of my 6 year old daughter. That perfectionism that robs all joy because it fixates you so desperately upon your own performance, with the promise if you can just be perfect everything will be ok. What it doesn’t tell you is that nothing will ever be perfect, you most of all. 

    Anne Lamott once wrote,“Perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping- stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”  To be a dad is to be someone resigned, not to being perfect, but to being there. No matter how much you stumble, to keep going, keep running, keep trying. Not someone who has it all together, but someone who walks together with you through it, mountains and valleys alike.

    It’s Father’s Day and I’m thinking about the first time I ever held my daughter 9 years ago, and I realize now more than ever it isn’t how you hold her. It’s that you hold her.