When my older sister started kindergarten, my dad decided he should go to college. He had been working as a carpenter since graduating high school, but knew he needed something more. He was 28 years old with three (soon to be four) tiny kids and a wife and bills to pay. So, he packed his backpack with his books and got on his bike and peddled down to the University for his very first college classes. He sat there with a bunch of 18 year old freshmen, most of whom lived in the dorms or a fraternity and had no cares in the world about feeding babies or loving a wife or being a provider for anyone but themselves. My dad was a full time student and then after class he came home to drop off his books, grab his red lunchbox packed with leftovers, and head to his full time job making circuit breakers on an assembly line. Second shift at a factory owned the rest of his day. Sometimes we went to see him on his lunch break, and by that I mean my mom loaded us up in the station wagon, four kids under six all in our footie pajamas, and my dad came out to the car for 30 minutes - long enough for him to say hi and remind us that he loved us. When he got off work at midnight, he would come home and fall into bed, long after we were all asleep, and then get up the next day and do it all over again.
My childhood was not extravagant, but I don’t remember ever feeling like I was going without. We always had shoes on our feet and our teeth brushed and ponytails pulled back so tight it made our eyes squinty (per our request, I’m told). Those were lean years – my parents will tell you that now. But they would also tell you that this is nothing remarkable. It was hard. They were tired. But they knew it was the only way. "We did what we had to do," they would say. My dad knew that sacrifice was the only way to make life better for his own children.
This story about my dad is the story of a lot of dads. Not in the same way, of course, because each has their own road, but the underlying theme is that every single day dads are giving of themselves in order to provide for their families. Men everywhere are making sacrifices and doing hard and holy things for the sake of their little tribe at home. More than anything else, they keep showing up. And showing up is hard. Showing up is selfless and sometimes thankless and usually unnoticed until you stop doing it. Dads around the world are the silent, steady, guiding light that sometimes go unseen, or instead, are only called out for the things they don’t do instead of the things they do.
But dads, man. Their hands are dirty in the mess of parenting and loving and living with passion. Dads wake kids up in the morning and feed them breakfast and send them off to school. Dads change diapers and wake up in the middle of the night to grab the bottle or pat that baby’s bottom until she falls back asleep so mama can get an extra hour. Dads go to work and make hard decisions and feel the weight of being a provider, and while less common today than ever, sometimes the sole provider of the family. Dads aren’t idiot "babysitters" who mismatch the kids’ outfits and come within inches of lighting themselves and the house on fire while mom is gone. Dads build forts and put on superhero costumes and have fake sword fights. Dads play Barbies and dress up. Dads feel the gravity of knowing those little eyes are looking up to them every single day. Dads are the sanity and saving grace for mama – her safe place to land and the arms to fall back on. Dads aren’t Homer Simpson or Phil Dunphy or whatever other moron way they are portrayed in media. Dads are compassion and strength. They teach us honesty and integrity and respect. The maker of mac and cheese and the reader of bedtime stories. The rescuer of the pacifier from behind the couch. The helper of homework at the kitchen table. The giver of advice and listener to teenage (and grown up) drama. The one who takes off the training wheels and, in what seems like moments later, is teaching you to drive a car. Dads are equal parts nurturer and protector. They are partner and lover to one and friend to many.
I was listening to the radio and they were talking about this study of millennial dads and they found that 9 out of 10 dads say they feel like they have to be perfect. In a society that's constantly changing its mind about what it means to be a man, they start feeling like they have to be equal parts William Wallace and Tim Gunn and Chip Gaines and Danny Tanner. We see a lot of articles about moms (or maybe I do because I’m friends with a lot of them) and they talk about how moms are done feeling like they have to be perfect, how they are going to be "real" and "authentic" about what motherhood is really like, about how messy their house is and how their kid had a screaming fit in Target. Moms are allowed to be messy, but dads? Do we give them the same courtesy? Dads put a lot of pressure on themselves and I wonder if we recognize that as much as we should. Hey, dads, this is your permission slip to stop feeling like you have to be all the things all the time. Aren't we all just a crazy wild mess trying to raise more little humans to not be a crazy wild mess?
Maybe you hate everything I’ve said so far because you don’t even know your dad or you feel like he doesn't know you. Either daddy walked away or just never really showed up in the first place. Maybe you fall asleep at night wondering why you weren’t worth it for him to stay. Maybe he made an idiot decision that cost him everything. Maybe he really IS a moron who can’t be helped – I don’t know. I’m not saying he didn’t make bad decisions or leave a lot of casualties in the wake of his own selfishness. I have yet to meet a perfect dad, my dad and grandpas included. And hear me say this, if your dad is/was unsafe or unkind or uncaring in any way, I’m so sorry for that and I will always advocate for healthy boundaries with people - family or otherwise. Daddy wounds can cut deep and I don’t make light of that today.
But, if it’s possible, what if we start looking at our dads as simply people who did and are doing the best they can? What if you looked at your dad in the most generous light possible and for whatever he did or didn’t do for you, what if you let him off the hook? What if finally forgiving him is the best thing you can do today? What if it’s for your own sake and not for his at all? But what if you both benefit from that and it’s a chance to start fresh?
So, to the men who are biological fathers and adoptive fathers and father figures, we celebrate you today. If your dad is amazing - everything I have described and more - celebrate him today. For the man that he is and the man that he is still becoming. If you don’t have your real daddy but you’ve got a man in your life who kept showing up for you – a teacher or a mentor or a stepdad – celebrate him today. If your dad has gone on to Heaven, celebrate him today. For the man in your life who has been your father in one way or another, send him a text or write him a card or call him this afternoon. Thank him. Encourage him. Pray for him. Love him extra hard today and try to let that spill over into the other days too. Dads work hard and play hard and love hard and for all the things we hear about dads who don't show up, I just think we need to keep encouraging and celebrating the dads who do. The ones who are examples to others. The ones who love their families so well. I know so many men who faithfully serve their families and they deserve our gratitude.
To my dad, thank you, today and always. For your sacrifices of time, energy, effort, love. And to dads everywhere, do not grow weary. This is our plea. We see you. We need you. We celebrate you and ask you to please keep showing up. The world is desperately hungry for more dads who keep showing up.