You don’t become a father just when you have your first child -- it continually unfolds during a man’s lifetime.
Henry knows this: he shed a tear when he saw the silhouette of his tiny one on the ultrasound. This is not mere sentimentality; Henry feels humbled by the grand mystery of life, conscious of the responsability of fatherhood he is about to take on. “I began preparing to be a dad after we got married. But before my wife got pregnant, it was more of just an idea.”
During the time of expecting, the man doesn’t go through all the dramatic changes the woman does. “You think about what the baby will look like and what kind of father you would like to be,” says Henry. But the day the baby is born, at the amazing moment of encounter, the vague sense of fatherhood becomes truly real. And this is just the beginning. “For the woman, the transition is biological; for the man, it is inevitably more complex,” explains Fr. Denis Metzinger. “He has to make a double transition: from man to husband and later, from husband to father.”
The discovery of fatherhood
While the pregnancy of a woman is enough to wake up a “natural” sense of paternity in a man, “discovering himself as father is the story of a whole life,” explains Fr. Alexis Leproux. “Throughout his childhood, a boy can imagine himself being a father. He wants to know the happiness of those whose paternity he discovers: that of his own father, but also of all those who have left an impression on him during his life with the glow of their paternity — his teachers, uncles, or priests that he has come across. As an adult he develops this feeling, through the responsibilities he has taken on and the services he renders: I am capable of serving life and protecting it. And of transmitting it.”
It is when the child arrives in this world that many first-time fathers discover this special relationship, which includes more than just questions of authority, values, or education; it entails, above all, true agape love. “I’d be willing to give my life without thinking twice for each one of my children,” confides John Francis, father of six. “I put this love at the heart of all my communication with my children: it illuminates everything, it solves all the problems.”
From the very start of the relationship, the first-time father is capable of feeling, sometimes even more intensely than the mother, that his child is “another person.” Allen, father of three, remembers the unexpected emotion he felt when he registered the birth of his child: “Matilda, daughter of …, granddaughter of … It was nothing more than a formality, but it made me realize that my daughter wasn’t just mine, she was part of a long lineage.” For Fr. Leproux, “What is particular to paternal love is that it closely associates the feeling of intimacy with otherness. Being a father means recognizing that your son or daughter is really someone different than you; and at the same time, recognizing that this being is irrevocably connected to us.”
Fatherhood develops throughout a man’s entire life
Fatherhood, deeply anchored in this special love, does not come automatically. It unfolds throughout the life of a man. In fact, it is more of a mission and a gift than a feeling, which is something quite ephemeral. “You are given this paternity along the entire path of your life, guided by Providence, that connects you to the creative and redemptive work of God. We should cultivate this gift that, while it does have its spontaneous moments, demands an extensive learning curve,” Fr. Leproux points out.
According to Fr. Metzinger, “Fathers need to find a sense of gratitude, humility and patience to fulfill this vocation.” And it is as a couple that the gift of fatherhood is developed — as it is for motherhood as well — Fr. Leproux fully agrees: “The main thing fathers need to learn is to base their paternal relationship on the matrimonial alliance. The second thing is to give up any projecting or expectation of reciprocity.”
To make this paternity grow before the eyes of God, many fathers participate in pilgrimages. “Upon hearing Christ, seeing him, the father in the family discovers the Father, he sees the Father, which clarifies our way to be with our children. Happy is the man whose father adores the Father, the originator of the name for all fatherhood,” assures Fr. Leproux.
The father finds himself in the eyes of his wife
According to Fr. Leproux, “The most beautiful door to paternity is the heart of your wife, who puts the child in the arms of his father. She encourages him to talk, play, and pray with the child. This door can be opened a thousand different ways throughout childhood.” The family grows with these exchanges between the mother, the father, and the child.
Outside the family circle, there is a universal dimension to the sense of fatherhood. Priests, singles, students, teachers, etc. receive the “gift that God gives to man to contribute, by his word and deeds, to people discovering their true self. The birth of a child is, par excellence, the key event of paternity, but the waking up of conscience and education in freedom are very profound places where men are called to experience it.”