Today I am a daddy of a one year old. The past year has been quite a journey for me, learning what it means to be a father. It’s been one of the most fulfilling and challenging things I’ve experienced. On Father’s Day my wife asked what it was like to be a father and I compared it to the feeling of hunger.
Fatherhood is much different from my experience with marriage. My first marriage ended in divorce so I know the feeling of permanent disconnection, even when you make a covenant. In marriage you make a choice to love someone forever. And yet our yearning for reciprocation can put conditions on our love. We open our hearts with the understanding that our partner will do the same and in the times that they don’t, things quickly get complicated.
Unintentionally we keep score. We tally happiness and fulfillment against hurts and disappointments. We compare our effort to that of our spouse. We create expectations both expressed and unspoken. We ration out our love based on the performance of the other. We withhold love when the other is deemed undeserving. At least I do.
I don’t want to do it and yet I fight the temptation to do all these things every day. I’ve longed to love purely and unconditionally in my marriage but it’s a struggle every day. I love my wife through a filter of my own hurt and disappointment.
But with my son, the experience has been so much different. I don’t have to make the same effort to love him. I actually can’t help it. It’s like a primal instinct inside of me that rises up every time I see him. I can come home frustrated from my day and one smile from him melts my heart. I can’t stay angry when he’s near me.
I can’t withhold my love from him any more than I can stop from nourishing my own body with food. Like my physical hunger, my love for my son feels as if it something required to live.
My whole life I’ve longed to become a father. Because of the lack in my own childhood, I’ve imagined how I would be different. I’ve dreamed of the things I would teach him and give him that I never received.
And now that I’m a father, I realize I’m the one receiving. Whatever I’ve done in terms of being a good father has come from this uncontrollable hunger from within. It’s less of a choice than a response to what’s inside of me. He’s an extension of me, and loving him is akin to loving myself. Not loving him would be like starving myself. Loving him is nourishment to my own soul.
Being a father isn’t as noble or benevolent as I expected. It’s raw and primal. I love my son deeply and fiercely. I want to protect and defend him from anyone who doesn’t see him as I do.
Loving my son fulfills a pang in my belly that was created as soon as my wife told me she was pregnant. This hunger grew inside of me and continues to grow each day.
Becoming a father has shown me what unconditional love is like. A love that doesn’t require reciprocation. A love that doesn’t keep score. A love that isn’t based on performance. A love that hungers to be poured out.