Our nation and our world are undoubtedly in a time of crisis. We are living through a historic period of uncertainty and anxiety. In the fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic, many of our society’s most powerful institutions have been shaken, in some cases, right down to their foundations. Our children are living through these uncertain times right along with us; in many ways, their lives have been uprooted by “social distancing” and “stay at home” guidelines even more than our adult lives have been. During this tumultuous time in the lives of our children, it is up to us as parents, and, in our case, as fathers, to help our sons and daughters regain and maintain a solid footing. We need to do all we can to provide them stability in the midst of the unstable. Now more than most times in recent memory, we fathers need to be the rock for our families.
Disclaimer: I am just shy of thirty years old. I’ve been married for less than four years and my wife and I have two children under the age of three. I have never directly experienced anything close to a major life or family crisis and am thankful that God hasn’t given me any such “trials by fire”. That being said, I’ve witnessed the impact of family crises on the lives of a great number of boys, crises in a wide variety of type and severity. I’ve seen friends and colleagues affected by unforeseen turmoils. Through great friends and mentors at The Heights and beyond I have observed numerous men with steadfast devotion to their families and I’ve received what I think is tremendous counsel from which all husbands and fathers can benefit. I offer the following suggestions as encouragement to fathers to be intentional about our response to these uncertain times.
In the weeks and months leading up to the birth of my first child, I had many conversations with my mentor about fatherhood. Whenever the topic of the actual birth arose, the advice was always the same: “When you’re in the delivery room, you need to exude calm, reassuring confidence. Don’t betray any feelings of anxiety or concern. Your wife needs you to be a rock.” Thanks be to God our son was born without any complications for himself or my wife, but that didn’t stop me from being a nervous wreck throughout the whole process. Still, my friend’s words echoed in my thoughts all morning and were a comfort and a guide to me as I supported my wife and welcomed our child.
The need for this kind of steadfastness within the father is ever-present. Our family, and particularly our children, always need us to provide for them a stable foundation: a joyful and peaceful home, a confidence and optimism that all will be well. During moments of crisis the call to “be the rock” for our family only intensifies. So, how do we respond? Every situation requires a personalized approach and every family and individual has particular needs. There are some needs, though, that exist always and in every family, and thus several ways that we can provide solid ground for our children.
Perhaps the simplest and yet most overlooked need of our children is our presence to them. Be there for them. Spend time with them. But while it sounds, and is, simple, every father knows that spending time with his children is not always easy. We have so many things competing for our attention and, during trying times, our thoughts can be constantly occupied with some other focus. It is critical to their formation that we show our children that they are a priority in our life. A popular saying at The Heights is that the measure of a man is his devotion. Devotion, although difficult to quantify, might most accurately be measured in time spent and attention given. Show your children that you are devoted to them by giving them your undivided attention for extended periods of time every day.
Over the past three weeks, I’ve heard from many parents and students of the great blessing that this time to “stay at home” has been for their family life. Make it so for your family. Go for long walks. Play ball in the yard or at the park. Play board games and make puzzles. Build and paint a birdhouse. Build and demolish a pillow fort. Plant a garden. Cook with your kids. Watch great movies. Read great books. Pray. The possibilities are endless as long as you set the time aside, and leave your phone far away.
Of course, it can’t be all play and no work. After all, part of providing stability for our family is providing for them financially. But our work, too, is a chance for us to show our children devotion to our family and to instill in them confidence. Our kids need to see us working. Knowing of our labor helps our children feel secure and gives them a model of professionalism and work ethic that they can carry into their own lives. This time when so many of us are forced to work from home, therefore, provides us with a remarkable opportunity to form our children’s understanding of work.
During this period of staying at home, when our professional life and our family life need to occupy the same physical space, I see two major temptations in how we use our time: to work too much or play too much. An excess of either will injure our children and offend against our responsibility to provide them with stability. It’s important to make time for both in our schedule. Set aside your own space for work and stick to a schedule that respects work and play. This can help us keep the two worlds from encroaching upon each other, while also teaching our children the importance of both family life and work life. As much as possible, structure your workday so that it coincides with when the kids are “working” – finishing schoolwork, doing chores, reading, or napping. Before I leave my toddlers to begin work each day I often tell them what I’m going to be working on and ask them what they’ll be working on. I think this helps them realize the need for me to work, while at the same time teaching them that they have their own jobs to do – even if those jobs typically involve play dough and trucks.
In this new age of anxiety, our children are probably hearing just as much about the state of the world as we are, but are likely understanding far less. They are certainly feeling the effects of this crisis, whether through the constraints of social distancing, the constant drone of news reports on the TV or radio, or the concerned tones and worried expressions during their parents’ conversations. Such turmoil has the ability to take away our children’s peace in the same way that it does our own. As fathers, we can help our children maintain emotional stability by modeling for them both honesty and hope.
We can’t hide reality from our children – for us to lie to them would be more dangerous than for them to learn any truth that is in the world. We need to tell them the truth in a way that is appropriate for their particular stages of maturity. That truth, however, needs to be informed by and infused with the underlying Truths of our faith that we are in the loving and merciful hands of God and that He uses all things for the good. Keeping a supernatural outlook in the midst of any crisis will not only give ourselves peace of mind but will also preserve the peace of our children and instill in them the confidence that all will be well.
We can also help our sons and daughters see the silver lining in any situation without being insensitive to the suffering going on around us. For many at this time, “stay at home” means that families now have infinitely more time together than perhaps ever before. That is a tremendous gift and should be seen and talked about as such.
There are also concrete ways in which we can help our children to grow in hope and optimism and maintain a sense of stability. Smile, joke, play, and laugh. Spend time doing things that you and your family enjoy. Show them affection. Kiss your wife. Limit your consumption of news media, maybe even to times when the kids are sleeping or otherwise engaged. Pay attention to your expressions, body language, and tone of voice, and work to remain positive and to avoid betraying feelings of anxiety – regardless of their age, our kids take many of their emotional cues from us. Seeing a calm, loving, and joyful dad goes a long, long way in maintaining the happiness of our children.
The call to be our family’s stability during this historically unstable time is a tall order, maybe even an insurmountably tall order. We really can’t do it on our own; we don’t have the strength. But this was true even before the pandemic. In my own case, no matter how often I resolved to be more patient with my toddler son and year-old daughter, to avoid sighing in frustration while putting on tiny shoes, to resist the temptation to work during playtime, I fell back into these hurtful actions on an almost daily basis. I know I’m not alone in these struggles. And now we are spending nearly every waking hour under the same roof as our children and have all the added worries of this global crisis coupled with new stresses from our jobs. Providing for the family, being present to them in meaningful ways, exuding constantly a joyful optimism, living a virtuous life; these are titanic undertakings during “good” times. The only way we can accomplish any of these essential tasks of fatherhood is by relying on the One whose strength never fails and whose patience is never-ending. And through Him, we will find the strength and the patience and the hope that we need to be an abiding rock for our family as He is for us. If we will return often to the Lord and rely on Him, He will renew in us the “steadfast spirit” that we need and that our families need from us.
Prayer is the only way to maintain that steadfastness. It is the only way that we will be able to rise to the challenges facing us. If you’ve fallen away from your routine of daily prayer, return. Or, if you’ve never really had a routine, this might be a great time to begin building one. Consider praying a morning offering, the Angelus, or the Rosary on a daily basis. Read the daily Mass readings or good spiritual writings. Regular conversations with a spiritual director can also provide valuable guidance, accountability, and support.
And in those prayers, pray for your children and your wife daily. I’ve heard of people praying a decade of the rosary every day for each of their children. Just think of how many “Hail, Marys” that will be for your children over your lifetime! Practice regular small sacrifices and mortifications for your family: a self-denial of a snack between meals, springing out of bed right away in the morning, resisting the urge to check email or news updates during work time or family time. Lastly, pray with your children every day. Without the ability to go to Mass regularly, we have lost what is in many families the only opportunity that our children have to see us living our faith. But we’ve also lost our daily commute and our late nights at the office and our meals on the road. Take advantage of the extra time that you now have to do the things that your family never had time for before, like praying a family rosary after dinner or saying the Angelus together before lunch every day. Have the humility to start something new. Your example will have a profound and lasting impact on your children.
Be the Rock
One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Saint Augustine who said in a sermon, “Bad times, hard times – this is what people are saying; but let us live well and the times will be good. We are the times. Such as we are, such are the times.” I don’t think this quote is ever more applicable than it is with regard to the father and his family. We are the tone-setters for our household. Our children, and particularly our sons, will follow our lead. Give them the gift of a present, joyful, prayerful father and they will be happy. Live well for your family and the times will be good. Be the rock for your family and, even in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty, your household will have stability.