The Spirituality of Fatherhood: Grace

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A few years ago, my wife and I became the happy parents of two girls. Then a funny thing happened when we announced there was a third baby coming. Immediately many people assumed this our attempt to “get dad a boy.” We were surprised. I was a fully engaged dad of our girls, encouraging them in their pursuits. I coached basketball, volunteered at school, and as a dance dad learned how to care for their costumes and even help with makeup and hairspray on recital night.

Additionally, I had multiple friends who were dads to two or three daughters with no sons, and they were perfectly happy with that arrangement. Yet even many of them made the same assumption that we were “going for the boy.” Their gendered assumptions and my background in athletics and other traditionally masculine pursuits emboldened people to assume that I wanted or needed a son, and that a boy would likely need to fit into a certain binary assumption of masculinity.

Just over three and a half years ago, that boy was born. In the time since, he, like his sisters, has been his own child. He likes the things he likes, plays the way he plays, and we have endeavored to allow him to be who he is. In many ways he fits the traditional masculine paradigm. He is aggressive, physical, plays hard with his friends, and has the scraped knees and bruises to prove it. He all too often “leads with his head” and makes his mother and I cringe and run to prevent further bodily injury.

He can also be an extremely sensitive child with emotional range and capacity. His feelings can get hurt quickly. He’s deeply affectionate, has long hair, and plays with dolls. He loves his sisters fiercely and wants to please, be near, and be like them. While he knows he is a boy, different from his sisters in their physical bodies and social expectations of dress, they are his models at home. He both looks to them for leadership and competes against them, as they do with each other.

Raising this boy with two older sisters has driven home for me a core lesson about our children and the culture in which they are being raised. We are still culturally wedded to a binary understanding of gender. There are masculine things and feminine things. This simplistic, and erroneous, understanding of gender as a binary instead of a spectrum does us few favors in raising healthy children. It traps us into assumptions about what a child should or shouldn’t do. It dominates conversations about how aggressive they should be, what toys they play with, colors they are allowed to like, sports they can play, clothes they should wear, the list goes on….

In this legalistic structure, behaviors and desires exist to be defined and contained. Rather than giving our children the chance to explore and experience, we tell them what is and is not appropriate for them. This legalism limits parents as well, hence the many who assumed I needed a son to be fulfilled as a man, as if having a male child makes me more masculine as well.

What I have learned raising these three so far is that my job as a father is to give each child the opportunity to be who they are. I’m to give them space to learn and grow and thrive, recognizing that this child does not exist for my pleasure but for God’s.

Children are who they are, and each child needs to be given the opportunity to be who God has made them to be. They are a gift and should be honored as the physical manifestation of God’s grace that they are. They are not here to provide us with an experience or fulfill our assumptions of who they or we should be. We are called to be the parent to the child who is in front of us, not the child we or our culture assumes should exist. As a father, my job is to allow my children the grace to develop and recognize their gifts regardless of where those gifts and interests align on a legalistic binary of masculinity or femininity.

In the Lutheran tradition, of which I am a part, we speak a great deal about the law and the gospel. The law is a gift—it provides needed structure for life—but legalism ultimately cannot bring life. It is the gospel, recognizing what God in Christ has already done for us, that brings life. Being a man, being a father, can never be about fulfilling a legalistic view of masculinity based on assumptions of what boys and men should be. That binary legalism prescribes and limits, it says what should be rather than what is, and ultimately it cannot bring life.

As a father raising these children with my spouse, I’ve learned the necessity and the gift of grace. Grace that sets us free from the law and expectations. Grace that gives us the freedom of knowing we are never going to be perfect parents. Grace that allows us to grant our children the opportunity to be who they are. Grace challenges and frees us as parents not to make them conform to an imposed structure, but to give them the tools and space to grow in healthy and life-giving ways. In so doing, they can live as God desires, serving their neighbor and caring for God’s world.

Erik K.J. Gronberg, PhD, serves as the bishop of the Northern Texas–Northern Louisiana Synod of the ELCA. A native Texan, he attended Harvard University, Luther Seminary, and Dallas Baptist University. Prior to being elected bishop, he served calls in Oconomowoc, WI and Fort Worth, TX. He is married to the Rev. Kendra A. Mohn, PhD, who is Lead Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Fort Worth. They reside in Fort Worth with their children and rescue cat.

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