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The question that helped me get past my sense of dad-fail

father son feet forest

Daiga Ellaby | Unsplash

John Touhey - published on 06/17/23

Being a good father means first of all becoming aware that you are a son in need of paternal affection.

One day I was speaking with a Franciscan priest about some troubles my children were facing that I felt helpless to solve. I told the priest that for this reason I sometimes feel like a failure as a parent. Sometimes I tell myself that if I were a really “successful” father I would have more solutions to offer my kids. I suppose many fathers (secretly perhaps), experience this sense of falling short.

Pope Francis is well aware of the challenges fathers face, having made 2021 the year of St. Joseph. At that time, he encouraged fathers to “not let fatherhood be the fruit of chance or simply the consequence of past experience, but rather [to] decide with awareness how to love someone, how to take on the responsibility of someone.”

Hiking through the forest with my father

father children hike forest

I often recall how my father would take me for hikes with the Boy Scouts on the weekends. As we walked through the forest, he would point out the different trees and tell us their names, showing us how to recognize species by their bark and the shapes of their leaves. Since my dad was an entomologist, he was especially adept at identifying insects. No bug escaped his notice! Those hikes turned out to be very important for me. I confess I can only recall the names of a few of those trees and insects, but my father did manage to instill in me a love and respect for nature, and an awareness of the importance of paying close attention to the beauty that surrounds us.

As I grew older, I found myself drawn to writing and the arts. If my father was disappointed that I did not follow his footsteps and pursue a scientific career, he did not show it. Instead, he quietly encouraged me and looked very proud when he spotted me typing away at a keyboard or when I was taking a bow at a school play. When my father did express concern over how I would make a living in the humanities, it was gently and without pressure. Dad simply wanted me to pursue my interests with open eyes and a sense of the challenges I would be facing.

The attitude of St. Joseph

In this, my father displayed the attitude that Pope Francis spoke about when referring to St. Joseph, who demonstrated “the capacity to slip into second place” as he exercised his paternal responsibilities in raising Jesus.

“A father is good when he knows how to remove himself at the right time, so his child can engage with his beauty, with his uniqueness, with his choices, with his vocation,” the Pope said.

This is an aspect of fatherhood that I find particularly challenging. In a time when our society provides so little support for the young and even seeks to exploit their idealism and energy, it can be truly difficult to know when I need to let go. In those times, I think of the freedom that my father allowed me, his trust that my destiny was in God’s hands. I also find myself turning more and more to St. Joseph as the Pope suggested, asking him to lend me wisdom and strength. I turn to the words of the Pope for guidance and talk to priests and other fathers about my struggles. Though my own father died almost 30 years ago, I find that I still need a father as much as my kids do.

The most important question fathers need to ask themselves

“Do you love your children?”the Franciscan priest asked me after I told him about my sense of parental failure.

“Yes,” I answered immediately.

“And do your children know that you love them?”

I took a second to think it over. “Yes … I’m sure they know it,” I answered.

“Then you are not a failure,” the priest told me.

Of course, I would like to be a good father — and maybe someday even a great one. When I fall short, however, I am called to keep trying. These days I increasingly realize that if I want to be a good father, I must also be aware that I am first of all a son in need of paternal affection. Thankfully, like every father out there, I have a Father who always watches over me, and many other fathers who, like my departed dad, like St. Joseph, like Pope Francis and my friends in the Christian community, continue to offer me their paternal affection and example.

Happy Father’s Day to all those who are called to practice fatherhood in our world!

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