Missing in Action

Confessions of an emotionally absent father—who just happens to be a pastor

I would love to let myself off the hook and diagnose myself with adult ADHD. I can focus on sermon preparation for hours, get lost in a book or a movie with no distractions or engage in theological conversations with friends with the intensity of a biologist looking through a microscope. But put me in a room with my kids for five minutes, and my attention evaporates like water in a hot kettle. What's going on here?

I'll occasionally emerge from my home office and perform all the perfunctory duties of parenthood. Changing a diaper, smiling at my daughter's piano playing, making PB&Js for lunch, whatever needs to be done to be a “good dad.” And then the frustrated voice of my wife ... “Greg, Greg-she asked you a question!” My daughter has asked what I thought of her performance on the piano-three times! How could I miss that? I was in the same room! Well, not really.

Recently, I have had to face the facts: I am an emotionally absent father. I've read the books and preached the Father's Day sermons, knowing the harm distant dads can inflict on their kids. I just never expected to be one myself. Since my discovery, I have been making an ever-expanding list of reasons why I have been such an emotionally absent father. I offer them to you in the form of confessions.

I am convinced that the battle for fatherhood (and everything else for that matter) is rooted in Paul's imperative to “take every thought captive” (see 2 Cor. 10:5), and bring each one under the lordship of Jesus. In an effort to identify such harmful thoughts, here are the assumptions that were destroying my family. If you see your reflection in them, why not join me in coming clean?

No. 1: Domestic Life Bores Me.
I remember waking up on one Saturday morning secretly hoping for a reason to run out, to check my e-mail, to call a ministry colleague. The plan was to go to Home Depot for wall anchors, then to the mall for the kids' haircuts, then back home to hammer in the anchors, then to the in-laws, then ... As my wife laid out the itinerary, I found myself wishing for Sunday morning's arrival. The proposed activities for the day just plain bored me.

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It never really dawned on me that Lisa was not as eager as I was to “escape” the humdrum of a typical Saturday. So I went off to Home Depot, to the mall, to the in-laws, “surviving” the day until I could do something I was really interested in. Little did I know that my kids were growing up before my glassy eyes while I was living for something else. What was I going to do about this problem, being bored with domestic life?

I have committed myself to memorizing Deuteronomy 6:4-9: “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates'” (NKJV).

Do you notice how the instruction of children is rooted in the mundane? The lessons of life are not learned primarily at a youth group or a retreat. They are learned walking along the road, at the breakfast table, in the moments of domestic life. This is where the battle rages; this is where I need to be for my kids.

No. 2: I Have No Idea How to Connect With Young Kids.
Before we had our first child, I used to picture myself taking my child on long trips, playing catch in the backyard and laughing over my favorite John Candy movies. It never really occurred to me how old that imaginary child was. Looking back, I think he was about 11 or 12.

What do I do with kids who can't talk, walk, play and watch movies?

Maybe I'm the only dad who feels this way, but what does a dad with no maternal instinct do with little kids? I asked a few older men who raised children what they did, but what I have found is not particularly helpful. It seems that most parents of teenage children don't remember much from the younger years. How do I spend quality time with a 2-year-old who can't talk with me?

Matthew 10:29-31 has been very helpful in showing me the error of this attitude: “'Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” God, for reasons I can't understand, shows a passionate interest in the details (the hairs on my head) of my life.

And now I have the privilege of asking my kids what they like to talk about, what they're interested in. Did you know that The Little Mermaid's name is Ariel? Did you know that Hula-Hoops could roll backward if you flip your wrist just right? It's funny how I can ask a Hitchcock buff useless trivia questions for an entire evening and never get bored. Why not get into some of my kids' trivia with them?

No. 3: I'm There for Recreation; My Wife's There for the Mundane.
You have probably noticed that the few examples of my interaction with the kids mentioned thus far are recreational in nature (wrestling, movies, playing catch). So, I was always silently irritated when I was changing a diaper, taking the kids to get their hair cut or helping them try on different clothes in a department store. Somewhere in the back of my mind lurked an unspoken conviction: This is Mom's job!

I didn't grow up in the '50s, but somewhere I got the notion that my “quality time” with the kids was supposed to be scheduled recreation time. At some point I had to face my chauvinism. Unless I could scripturally prove that “head of the home” was equivalent to “on-the-clock-playmate,” I was not going to get a lot of sympathy for my sense that Lisa was responsible for all of the mundane stuff. Something was going to have to change.

I came to see the double benefit of getting involved with my kids' daily routines. Men, a wife finds nothing more appealing than taking a bath while we help our kids with their homework, their pajamas and, especially, their diapers! I think a lot of men (me chiefly) have to confess that our “recreation-only” policy with our kids is rooted in chauvinism, not Scripture.

I strive to take this thought captive every time I take the kids for a haircut. My wife never signed a contract that said this was her job only! But I did make a commitment to love her like “Christ loved the church” (see Eph. 5:25). The last time I checked, Jesus did not agree to merely “play” with me when things are going well. He's with me through every mundane step of my daily living.

No. 4: Kids Aren't Really People Until They Grow Up.
Like a constant hum, the sense that I was emotionally absent was a nagging voice in the back of my mind. What enabled me to suppress it, though, was the unspoken conviction that it wasn't really a big deal to ignore the kids a little while they were small. I mean, they were safe, weren't they? They had a doting mother who more than made up for my inattentiveness during this busy period in life. When they grew up a little, my presence in their lives would increase.

Without knowing it, I had developed a unique theology of children. As pro-life as I claimed to be, I did not consider my children fully human-more like humans-in-waiting. What was I saying, if they were older, more communicative, more on my level, then I would give them my full attention? My daughter made a profession of faith when she was 4. Does she have junior Holy Spirit, a pint-sized salvation? Wow-just thinking about the implications of how I viewed my children gave me the chills.

I find myself reflected in the attitude of the disciples in Matthew 19:12. “Beat it, Kids. You're not on His radar screen until you hit 18!” Jesus' actions, however, indict me, don't they? My children are better examples of who inherits the kingdom of heaven than even my adult Christian friends. When I get on the floor with them, when I wrestle with them, when I talk with them, I'm close to the kingdom-wow! Forgive me, Lord, when I act like the kids you've given me are second-rate citizens.

To write as if I am a completely different person now would be a farce. By the grace of God, though, I have come to see how embracing these ways of thinking have actually harmed my children. But I'm in the process of turning this around. In the meantime, I'm learning to pray:

Lord, teach me to count my blessings. Convict me when I act like Your gifts are my burden. Instill in me a burning passion to be there for my children. Show me the Savior's embrace of them to expose my sinful indifference toward them. And, most of all, Lord, when I'm long gone from this Earth, let my children remember that nobody was ever in their corner as much as their dad. Amen.

Maximize the Mundane

A daily jumpstart to reconnecting with your kids

Face it, Pastor: When you combine your flexible schedule with the need to practice what you preach, making time for your kids should be second nature, right? Just in case it's not, grab your day-planner or start up Outlook and make some concrete plans to connect with your kids-every day. Here are some ideas:

MONDAY: It's your day off, and you've got Home Depot and a shaggy lawn in your cross hairs. Don't even think of leaving home without a kid in tow. Be sure to stop by the riding mowers ... just to look of course. When you get home, grab another kid and explain that they “get to” help you with a “landscaping project.” Ask their advice, plant some bushes, cut some grass.

TUESDAY: You need to make a few visits at the hospital. Pick up one of your children after school, stop for a Slurpee at 7-Eleven, and take them along to the hospital as a “visitation assistant.” Give them an opportunity to pray for the patient, and-on the way home-discuss the visit. You might be surprised by your child's insight.

WEDNESDAY: Call ahead to the school, and surprise your kids by joining them for lunch. (Honestly, you need to get away from the office anyway.) If you're cool enough to get to sit with your kids' friends, be sure to bring up in conversation (that won't embarrass them) something they've accomplished that makes you proud.

THURSDAY: Nothing exciting happens in a kid's life on Thursdays-except today. After dinner, you leave your wife with a book and a bathtub full of bubbles. Then, you and the kids head out for some miniature golf and ice cream.

FRIDAY: You usually meet for lunch with a fellow pastor. Call him ahead of time and ask him if he minds if you bring along one of your children. Keep the conversation light-no dreary church gossip allowed-and include your child. Note: Be sure to brag on him or her.

SATURDAY: You're finishing up preparations for tomorrow's sermon. Grab one of your children, and tell them the general gist of the message. Then, ask them if it makes sense, how it can be applied and if they think people will learn more about God through it. Listen to their answers-you may need to make some adjustments.

SUNDAY: Get up early enough to pray. Then, grab some kids to help you make breakfast. How much more can you honor God than by releasing the day's events for a half-hour and focusing on your family?

Greg Dutcher is a freelance writer and teaching pastor at Christ Fellowship Church (www.christfc.org) in Fallston, Maryland.

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