A few weeks ago, my middle-school aged daughters challenged me to a little footrace through the neighborhood. Historically, I've "smoked" the girls during these sorts of races, showing no mercy in pursuit of the finish line. This time the outcome was far different. While I jumped out to a fast start, both girls quickly passed me as my breathing became laborious and my pace declined. "Getting slow, old man," was the jab from my oldest daughter. My reply? "Let me know how fast you are when you're working a fulltime job, preparing dinner, caring for a house, and getting three kids to all their practices."
While we were all laughing in the moment, I recognized that the footrace was symbolic of our shifting relationships. Dad was losing speed as the daughters were gaining it.
My children have reached the peak of adolescence. While I marvel at their independence and growing mastery of all the skills they will need to live independently, I grieve my shift in identity from "daddy" to "dad." Simply put, my role as father to three amazing kids is evolving. Today, I'm no longer tasked with changing diapers; instead, I am the designated driver for trips to the mall. Today, I'm no longer the first confidant the children seek on a difficult day; I'm somewhere behind the neighbor's kids, the track team, and the social media "friends" living over in Japan.
They aren't interested in my delicious Saturday morning breakfasts either, as they prefer to sleep until the sun is high overhead. In so many significant ways, the job description for fatherhood is changing for me. That said, I remain accountable for the hearts, souls, minds, and strength - the wellness - of my son and two daughters. Accountability begins with me. I must be well to ensure that my children are well.
Family Wellness Starts With Us
Healthy fathers tend to their own hearts, souls, minds, and strength. While we may excel in one facet of wellness, the real challenge is to achieve balance in all areas. How is this possible? Intention. If we're committed to wellness as fathers, we must dedicate significant time to the various facets of personal wellness. Why is this important? Wellness keeps us equipped to manage the demands of work and family life while also modeling important behaviors for our children.
Nurturing The Heart
Aristotle believed that the heart was the most important organ in the body because he was sure the heart governed emotion. While the philosopher's understanding of the body was a bit off target, the sentiment of the heart symbolizing emotion stuck. Fathers, like all other human beings on the planet, are emotional beings. When we experience success or take in a breathtaking experience, "the heart" is inundated with joy. On the other hand, when the news is bleak, or the losses mount, "the heart" may be overwhelmed with pain or grief.
It is important for fathers to express, process, and learn from their emotions. The difficult emotions may be especially cumbersome for fathers to manage because of the male propensity to "bottle up" emotions that others may perceive as signs of weakness. Emotional denial, however, is not the same as emotional management. We are emotional beings; expressing and receiving emotion is a vital aspect of a father's emotion. In fact, I'm not afraid to cry around my children. When I cry, my three understand that "dad's okay" and just needs to release some pent-up emotion.
Tending to The Soul
Healthy fathers tend to their souls - their inner faith - and model this soul tending for the family. Tending to one's soul isn't a legalistic obligation, but rather an opportunity to honor one's connection with God. Wherever you are at in your relationship with God, even if it is non-existent, we all have a deep need in this area. Everyone is a theologian, and everyone has an “idea” of God.
Care for the soul begins with humility. Looking up at the stars every night and taking in a slice of the universe's vastness helps the individual put personal problems, anxiety, and fear in proper perspective. We are "small" in the great scheme of the universe; our smallness helps us to see the myriad ways our connections with family, nature, community, and God help us to move forward. Our kids need to see us caring for our souls. I have a strong faith life that I share with my kids. My goal as a dad is to instill in them the importance of caring for their own souls as they grow.
Cultivating The Mind
As fathers we must also take good care of our minds and the intellectual stimulation they can provide. How do we take care of our minds? Curiosity. Curiosity is contagious. While we may be at the top of the game in our chosen professions and preferred hobbies, the curious mind is always eager to learn something new and sharpen the skills and wisdom that have been in place for some time.
Care of the mind requires a regular regimen of reading, writing, and conversation. It also means stoking intellect through adventures, contextual experiences, and other opportunities that push "what we know" beyond current limits. Encouraging our kids to be curious becomes an easier task of fatherhood when we show that we are curious about the world. In our family, the "winter trip" to a great American city is a way we collectively care for our minds and stoke intellect. New museums, new foods, and new cultural experiences keep the neurons firing.
Striving for Strength
Wellness in fathers also requires an emphasis on strength, that is, care for the body. While the need for regular exercise and healthy dietary practices is an obvious component of this type of care, there are some areas of bodily care that many fathers may overlook. Appropriate amounts of sleep, moderation in the use of alcohol, and regular medical exams are among the important practices that help keep the body strong.
While you may not always be as lean and nimble as your kids, a strong body is a body built for the long haul. Our kids need us to stick around as long as we are able.
Dads, we owe it to our kids to live well and model the priorities and practices that will keep them well too. Tend to the heart, mind, soul, and body for a balanced expression of wellness, and celebrate the day your kids "do it all" better than you.