Love in the Act: thoughts on becoming a good father

...I felt a full measure of the compassion and connection that comes only from that life-giving love.
— Nathan McTague

“He just looks so small,” I kept hearing myself say.  I stood in the sterile light of the sterilized room looking down on his tiny prone form, wondering how such a thing was even possible. How do we ever even live when so much could potentially go awry in these infinitely complex super-systems we call “bodies”? “What makes this all work out … for any of us?” I wondered.

And then, unbidden in the quiet recesses of my mind, from a place where I was not and could not be as worried as my thinking parts, I heard the comprehensive, single-word answer —“Love”.

Love is the only catalyst capable of making us live, of keeping us alive, of inspiring us to want to go on living. Love and love alone in all its resplendent forms and glory.

Love in the building of flesh and bone. Love in the labor of birthing. Love in the habits of providing care, and safety, and nurturance. Love in the cleaning of spills, and the washing of bodies, and the laundering of clothes. Love in the cooking of food, and in the feeding. Love in the lifting up and the laying down. Love in the arms of holding. Love in the shoulder of leaning. Love in the act of loving.

Without Love’s simple mundane magic, humans would never, or would surely cease to, exist.

As I stood there, studying his micro-movements, his shallow unsure breath, his tiny furrowed brow, his stuttering eyelids, and his unused limbs, I realized that I had not yet loved him in this way. I reached out and smoothed his cool, bare forehead, petting him slowly and steadily, as if he were a sleeping, long-haired puppy. He hummed and murmured, muttering from his morphine haze, “Dat feels goot… Dat feels goot …” in time with the soft tide of my hand.

I looked at my mom in the chair on the other side of the hospital bed, feeling suddenly embarrassed to be eliciting such a response from my dad, but I didn’t stop petting him. I kept a lazy rhythmic cadence of caresses, noticing the texture of his few wispy remaining hairs, as I brushed them backward with my fingers. He hummed and chanted his appreciative mantra with each sweep; receiving like an old pro this newly developing form of love between us.

My dad—technically deferred by the conventional “step-“ that in certain conversations delineates him from my “biological father”—came into my life fully formed. That is, my 10-year old “I” had thought before my step-dad arrived that my life was “fully formed”, and was rueful of the discovery that my mom had not. Sure, I was very glad for her, and intrigued by the idea of life with a present and accounted for father-hood. But I nevertheless considered the man himself and his role in the family dynamic as squarely interloping on my life as it was and should be. And as a result, while we have over the 30 years since forged a deep intellectual and visceral bond, we have consistently lacked (perhaps without knowing or missing it) the kind of emotional bond that comes from having someone loving you right from conception. We have said, “I love you,” many times over our years together, and regularly hugged at the beginning and end of all the family gatherings stretched in between. And easily we would have both answered in the affirmative if questioned about whether or not we loved one another.

But until this moment, with his wracked and shrunken body, his ripped open cervical spine, his stapled skin from occiput to shoulder blades, his useless limbs, and addled mind—I had never fully really totally loved him. I had not spent this variety of time, or of action, or of heart in the loving of him. I had not given him the kind of love that keeps him alive.

Of course it all makes sense to me. Knowing what I know about how development works, how the brain works, how emotional connection works – it is not at all surprising that he and I had never shared love at this particular level. He’d never had to keep me alive with his love—though of course he had functionally provided for my living for many years at far and above the step-parent call of duty, had made my life and development a continued possibility, and had given himself over to appreciating the little upstart he inherited at the hand of my mother. Nevertheless, neither of us had experienced or shared with each other the sense of love one feels giving or receiving the all-powerful cosmic force of parental devotion.

Having three daughters of my own, I am intimately aware of the power of paternal love. I have felt how potent it can be in both the effortless already always present giving, and in the expectant and reassuring receiving. I see how my girls flourish under the radiance of the love that keeps them alive, coming not just from me, but from their mothers and other family members as well. And I feel how that love has taken root in them and grows not only into, but also back out of them toward us.

But standing there under those sterile lights, in that sterilized hospital room, petting my surgically invalidated step-dad’s nearly bald head, I felt a full measure of the compassion and connection that comes only from that life-giving love. I smoothed out the furrow in his brow and felt the coarse single strands of hair sweep under my hand in time with his murmuring “dat feels goot”s; loving him in the way I have only loved my babies.

Over the course of the three weeks that I spent helping my mom nurse him back toward full recovery, I assisted my dad with the kind of things I’ve only done for my children. I fed and cleaned him. I helped him sit up, and lie down, and reach things his atrophied limbs would not. I helped him stand, helped him walk, helped him get to the bathroom. I tucked him in and got him up.  I reassured him and encouraged him in the simplest of tasks. I prayed and sang for his survival and his delivery and his development. I loved him (back) to life.

They say you can tell how “good” a father is not by how his children behave but by how he treats his (misbehaving) children; but in the neurological recovery ward, watching as my dad slowly, slowly, painfully unfurled back into being, I realized I had become the father I truly want to be not because of how well I do with my children—which still has and needs time to develop—but by how I had become able to love and care for my dad. There’s something, at present still ineffable, in the act of parenting my dad that has catalyzed my understanding of myself as a father. I have in a sense arrived at the ultimate expression of my fatherhood not by simply loving my children into life (as herculean as that task has often felt), but by nursing my convalescing step-dad back to uneasy health.

And at the same time, I found myself feeling such appreciation for this man who got saddled with the unappreciative, self-involved preteen son of his lover, and still went 30 some-odd years treating that boy as his. He didn’t make me. He didn’t love me into being. He didn’t keep me alive with his deep, unquestioning, cosmic adoration. He just met me where we were, and cared for and fathered me anyway.

And now, as I sit in my own home again, with my own children around me, and Father’s Day at hand, I find myself at some deeper, cleaner, fuller understanding of myself and all men as fathers, not (just) from my endeavors raising my kids, but from this recent stint of fathering my father, and giving him the love that kept him alive.

About Nathan

Nathan M. McTague is the father of three amazing daughters who challenge, inspire, and help him grow everyday. He's also a certified professional life coach, parent mentor, and Positive Discipline parent educator committed to empowering people to reach their highest potentials in self-development, family, and vocation. McTague and life-partner, Natalie Christensen, own and create new media for Feeleez: An Empathy Game for Children; as well as, write, offer workshops, and provide support for dedicated parents.


This month we are hearing from men. Click here to read an article written by Steven Roy, Carrie-Anne's husband.