Delight and Despair in the Inner Life of a Father

I chased after his every move as he walked as briskly as his little legs could take him. To hold him steady whenever he walked down the stairs meant that I had to bend exceptionally low to reach his armpits. “Damn. Old already.” I muttered to myself. Contrary to popular belief, the high offices of financial institutions, political parties or even the UN Security Council are not the centres of power struggles. Imbalance of powers begin at the seemingly innocent playground.

The unspoken challenges of who can run faster, jump higher or climb quicker. The taunting gets louder with age. Gender and racial segregation, largely self-enforced, are clear as day. Social groups and imagined communities form a palpable sense of ‘Us vs Them’.

I looked on with pride as my son now climbs each step of the stairs more steadily than before. I am forced to my knees to go after him as he gleefully runs beneath a little bridge about half my height. I find myself scrambling and suppressing my laugh as he finds out for the first time the force of gravity on the slide.

And why do I notice mummies tend to go before a child, but daddies tend to follow behind?

Fathers are wired differently.

Mothers say, “Don’t run so fast”, “Don’t climb so high”; fathers say, “Run faster”, “Climb higher”.

Mothers protect by preventing children from getting hurt. Fathers protect by preparing them so they won’t get hurt in future. Both are needed.

Jason Wong, Founder of Dads for Life

I didn’t quite expect a short, somewhat routine evening trip to the plagground to elicit the most complex of emotions in me.

My heart soared as he screamed ‘playyyyyyyyyyy’ as I released him from the clutches of the stroller after I had applied a liberal amount of Ru Yi oil on him to prevent mosquito bites. And as quickly as it came, my beaming with pride turned to anxiety and worry.

He doesn’t know what he’s coming up against, I thought. Bigger boys. Higher steps. Kids who had no idea how their strength could be overwhelming to an 18 month toddler. Some who just didn’t care. I found in me almost a compulsion to protect, to catch, to ensure. And in cases when he was being bullied by inconsiderate kids, I almost wanted to bully back. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

The playground is the centre of power struggles. Us adults? We’re not immune either.

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As a young man from a conservative Presbyterian background, I found this verse very hard to swallow. In fact, it was so out of sync with the worldview taught to me that I secretly suspected that this verse was added to the Scriptures by a heretic.

They say it takes a father to know one. I concur; and if I may add, it takes a father to know The Father. Who would’ve thought, that a trip to the playground would awaken the realities of this verse in my heart again?

Of course! Fatherhood is the awakening of delight. Us men, socialised into stoicity and emotionless strength, rarely open our eyes to wonder.

“From that moment, I loved him.”

A recent father describing the first time he sang to his newborn child.

We delight in the fruit of our wives’ wombs. We delight as they begin to wake up to the world around them. We delight when they first recognise us, when they first smile at us, when they call us ‘Papa’. Oh, the indescribable joy, our hearts bursting.

But this delight has a shadow. The shadows are cast when they seek independence from attachment. The shadows are cast when their attachments are aligned towards their mummies, as is often the course of nature. They are cast when us daddies, in our inevitable frustration and angst, lose our tempers and our self-control.

And the shadows are the darkest when us, in the midst of the busyness and demands of our careers to provide for the family, begin to feel that our children are chores rather than joys.

Oh, the despair. He’s climbing up that damn stairs again. How many times must I crawl on my knees? Is it time to go home yet? He needs to sleep. Argh. He doesn’t want me again, he always wants only Mama.

The despair of tiredness. Of frustration. Of helplessness, of meaninglessness. Of rejection.

These are but the hilly terrains on the landscape of fatherhood.

And like our children, traversing the obstacles up and down that seemingly innocuous playground, we follow them. We go with them through the ups and the downs, through the smooth parts and the challenging ones, cheering them on, picking them up, soothing their scraped knees and their scratched chins.

‘Run along!’ we shout.

Our hearts held back by apprehensiveness, but filled with delight.



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