Mark and Barbara were engaged. In fact, it was just a few weeks before the wedding. Everything seemed to be in their favor. They were in love, they wanted children, Mark had a job waiting for him to start right after graduation, and just to make sure that they would get off to a great start they were taking a class together at Brigham Young University, “Achieving Success in Marriage.”
And then the plot began to thicken. One of the major assignments for the class was for a couple to do a babysitting project together. They were to volunteer, without pay, to spend as long a period as they could tending the children of a family they would choose. When Barbara proposed the plan to Mr. and Mrs. Taylor, who had seven children, they thought it was the best thing that had happened since Christmas and made plans to spend the next Saturday off by themselves in the mountains, leaving at nine in the morning and returning at ten in the evening.
The very first time Mark and Barbara had talked about having children, Mark had assured her that he wanted six. “Six?” Barbara had asked weakly. “Are you sure we can handle six?”
“Six,” Mark had emphasized. “The Lord will provide.”
At ten minutes past nine, seven children under eleven years of age waved good-bye to their parents and turned curiously to their two baby-sitters.
“Want to play ball with me?” said the five-year-old to Mark.
“Uh—sure.” Mark followed the boy out to the backyard.
In 15 minutes Mark was back in the house. He fished out his Advanced Accounting text from his briefcase and quickly converted the dining room table into a desk.
“I didn’t know about this test on Monday, Barb. But I think just a couple of hours should take care of it. If you can keep them outside for a while, I’d really appreciate it.”
“Come on, kids. Out to the backyard,” said Barbara. “I’ve got this game I want to teach you.”
The next three hours sped by for Barbara on wings of lead. She kept the children as quiet as possible while Mark studied, and then they all joined together for a backyard picnic lunch that Barbara and the older children had prepared.
“I think I’m too old to be a mother,” Barbara sighed, pouring Mark another glass of lemonade. “When I was 13 I used to do this all the time. What’s happened to me?”
“You’re doing great,” he assured her, fortifying her with a kiss.
“Wrestling time, wrestling time!” The eight-year-old boy pounced on Mark, and was quickly followed by three other children.
Mark good-naturedly rolled onto the grass, tickling as many ribcages as he could reach. Then he pushed the two-year-old toward Barbara with a look of great distaste on his face. “Phew. Smells like somebody’s pants need changing.”
So Barbara changed the pants. And Mark sat on the couch reading a storybook to the younger children, which was soon replaced by a news magazine. For the rest of the afternoon Mark’s major participation in the flow of events was to tie three pair of shoelaces and to send the rest of the problems to Barbara. At six o’clock he asked, “How long until supper, Barb?” And at eight o’clock, “Hey, isn’t it time these kids were heading for bed?”
At nine o’clock the last head was lying on its pillow. Barbara collapsed on the couch and closed her eyes.
“Alone at last,” sighed Mark and pulled her close to him.
“Just a minute,” said Barbara coolly, moving away. “I think we need a little talk.”
“Six children? You said you wanted six children?”
“You said the Lord would provide?”
“Well, it’s beginning to seem to me that what you meant was that the Lord was going to provide you with me to do all the work.”
“I—I don’t get it.”
“Your idea of family living seems to be that you will preside and I will conduct—everything. Is that right?”
“Well, no. I expect to do my share. I’ve been working my tail off to get through school and get a job. It’s no easy thing to be a breadwinner these days.”
“So that’s all you’re going to be—a breadwinner? Have a nice, tidy, eight-to-five job, while mine goes eighteen hours a day, seven days a week?”
“Well, people sort of have to specialize. Our economy’s built on it. I guess I figured that I would specialize in bringing home the bacon and you would specialize in taking care of the kids. What do you want—one of those fifty-fifty contracts that some brides draw up?”
“No. No, I don’t. But I do want a husband that intends to be a father to his children, not just somebody that shows up at the supper table and gives a few instructions and hides behind a magazine.”
When the Taylors came home, the discussion was still going strong.
“Thanks so much,” said Mrs. Taylor, as she saw them to the door. “We had a wonderful time. I hope you learned what you came to learn.”
“More,” Barbara smiled. “Much more.”
At her place the discussion resumed, a discussion that should have happened months before. As they parted, Mark and Barbara were no longer engaged. Her idea of what a father should be, and his idea, were not the same.
The traditional idea that father is supposed to be the breadwinner and authority figure and not really a participating member of the family is not holding up these days, in the Church or in society.
Young men are becoming increasingly more involved with their children’s lives and activities. The head of a New York corporation stated, “I love being a father. I think it’s probably the single most important thing a man can do.” And one who missed the opportunities he could have enjoyed in his role as father said, “If only I’d known. I spent so much time working and advancing my career, only to come to realize that the most important thing in my life was my children.”
Young people who are looking to their futures, planning with great care their education, their profession, would do well to ask another vital question: “What sort of father am I preparing to be?” Or for a girl, “What sort of father am I going to choose for my children?”
The fact that fathers need to be closely involved with their children is clear. Studies show that when the father is absent, physically or emotionally, the development of children is slowed. They have a harder time getting along with others and don’t do as well in school. A boy needs to have a mature male close to him to let him see what being a man is all about. And a girl needs the same to let her know what it’s like to live with, to love, and to be loved by a man.
But not only is it the children who suffer when the father is not really a part of the family. Pearl Buck, author and philosopher, saw it this way: “It is perfectly true that … children suffer from the lack of the influence of men upon them in home and school. But men lose more. They lose very much when they relegate home and children to women. They lose fun and the excitement of growing, developing life. … But they lose something deeper than that. They lose touch with the source of life itself, which is deep in the very process of living with a woman and the children a man has created with her. When he lives not there but in his office, in his work, among other men, he is strangling the roots of his own being” (Of Men and Women, New York: John Day Co., 1941, pp. 55–56).
I found a list of five points on “How to Be an Effective Father” in a study guide used in university classes. And it occurred to me that future fathers, still living in their parents’ homes, might begin even now to work on these. Here is the list with a few suggestions.
1. Initiate family activities.
The person who starts fun and interesting things is looked on as an important person. Is it easy for you to suggest ideas and activities in your own family? How about taking over a family home evening—planning a night out roller skating with everybody—suggesting that the family have a meeting to discuss a certain problem that’s been bugging you.
2. Gather information about family members.
Fathers are away so much that sometimes they don’t know each family member as well as they should. Do you really know what’s going on inside your own parents and your brothers and sisters? Or do you live side by side as strangers, sharing only conversation like, “Please pass the salt?” How about reading your mother an interesting idea from a book and ask her what she thinks about it. Ask your father what profession he almost went into and why he changed his mind. Ask your little sister what she dreamed about last night.
3. Create a personal relationship with each family member.
It’s great to do things all together as a group, but a father also needs to become involved with each child individually. Take your mother out for a pizza on a private date. Take your little brother to the library and show him some of the books you read when you were his age. Plan a private fishing trip with your father.
4. Express affection
It is not manly to avoid expressing emotions. How long since you’ve told your mother and father that you love them? So what if it’s been even longer since they did it? Write them a note to start with if it’s too hard to say it. And the same for your brothers and sisters.
5. Establish family discipline
A father must be involved in shaping the values, social skills, and morality of the children. Only when you have children of your own can you really make the rules and discipline. But even now you can help your parents to discuss and set family rules.
Here are a few other suggestions that future fathers can think about:
Decide on an occupation that will fit in well with family living. Work that will demand an unreasonable amount of your time and energy may not be worth the price you will have to pay. Elder Boyd K. Packer once said, “Your occupation must become a contributing factor toward the more important objective of building your home and family and not the major objective around which all else must revolve” (“That All May Be Edified,” Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 233). Many businesses are experimenting now with flexible time schedules that allow workers more time with their families, and some are even granting “paternity leaves,” giving father some time off the job to help with things at home when a new baby arrives.
Put baby-sitting on the list of acceptable jobs along with yard work and other more traditionally masculine activities. What makes mowing a lawn a more worthy activity than feeding or reading to a developing child of God?
Look forward to being in the delivery room at the time your children are born. Every man I have talked to who has done this believes it gave him a great start in the relationship with the baby. “I didn’t feel that it was her child,” said one. “It was our child.”
Make sure that the girl you select to be your children’s mother is one that you truly love, not just one that happens to be the cutest. A wise person once said, “The best thing a man can do for his children is to love their mother.” Nothing can help a home be a happy place for children more than genuine love shared by the parents.
Young men whose eternal goal is to become like their Father in Heaven can do no better than to take seriously their earthly fatherhood. And as they do, everyone—father, mother, children, and generations to come—will be the richer.