Growing as a Father


The Potential Future

Carrie and I met in college, and were friends—just friends—for two years before we started dating (near Christmas in 1997). It was only a matter of months before I fell deeply in love with her and very much wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Yet shortly after this, and as we began planning our wedding and our life together, the topic of children understandably came up. The more I thought about this, the more I froze and panicked at the prospect.

I had all sorts of thoughts:

  • How tough is parenthood?
  • Just how demanding are children on a person?
  • Could I do this? I mean, really do this?
  • At what point would the trials of children and their demands become too much and break me?

Carrie and I would have lengthy discussions about this, but I was so rigid in my thinking for a while that we didn’t get anywhere. Ultimately, and to her credit, she wouldn’t bend. She had wanted children all her life and saw them as enriching a marriage. She couldn’t imagine marriage without children, whether biological or adopted.

Together, Not Alone

Carrie was diagnosed with endometriosis in college. She was told to have children right away or her chance to conceive naturally would be minimized. Her potential inability to have biological children was also a discussion we had early on because adoption could have been our only option to parenthood. But what really drove the point home was when she explained to me that if I ultimately decided I didn’t want to have children, not only would we not get married, but I’d likely not marry at all in the Catholic church.

My thinking spiraled down for a while before I sought my first professional counseling. I don’t remember too much about those sessions except it was very helpful to talk things out with my therapist, Karen. She ultimately made the following point that overrode all my fears: I would be going through parenting together with Carrie, and not all on my own. She asked me, “Would you rather not have children and not be with her? Or go ‘all in’ and be there for each other no matter what children may bring?”

That did it. Once I had made my mind up that life with Carrie was worth whatever it would bring, I went "all in" on the idea of having children, as well. It was still scary, but we would do it as we always have done things—as a couple, and together.

And so, off we went . . .

Born by Grace

Just shy of eighteen months after our wedding, our first child was born. Meredith was our unexpected blessing. Her middle name is Grace because she was born by the sheer grace of God. Carrie has already written enough about what a difficult baby Meredith was (read more here), and once Meredith got out of little baby stage, much of the nighttime parenting fell to me. This was because it was much easier for me to get up, attend to her, settle her down, and go back to sleep. I also had the train ride into Chicago to catch up on missed sleep. Once Carrie was woken up during the night, she was pretty much up for the day.

I can’t say I minded, really. To me, it only made sense. This was a way for me to actively help in parenting. This, to me, was active fathering. Nothing was out of bounds, per se. There was no sense in me saying, “I shouldn’t do this,” or “That’s Carrie’s role.”

It was hard, to be sure. When she slept on my chest, I experienced a little nagging worry in my head. What if she rolls off? Or the night I thought I was sleeping next to her crib. I stood up in bed and walked into the ceiling fan—suffering what Carrie and I think was a mild concussion.

Yet, there were the definite joys. Her deep belly laugh. The look in her eyes when she was taking something new in. And as Carrie will attest, while you were right in her face and playing with her all the time and occupying her, she was very happy and a lot of fun. As she moved out of toddlerhood, she became easier to parent.

Unexpected Delights

As time went on and she grew into the early double-digits, I wanted to try reading the first book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy with her. To my surprise, she loved it—so much so that it became a near-nightly ritual for us to read a chapter a night. This led to reading The Two Towers and The Return of the King, as well as sharing both Lord of the Rings LEGO games with her and many, many LEGO building sets.

Near the end of this time, our reading took on a different flavor in the form of comic books. Art Baltazar and Franco’s Tiny Titans ran for several years, and was always a joy to read together. This ended, but the creators picked right back up with Superman Family Adventures.

After this came one of the most unexpected delights in our relationship. Meredith was a little over twelve years old. On a whim, I picked up the first issue of Batman ’66, a comic book based on the ridiculous, campy television series starring Adam West. So was born a monthly ritual that ran for years—reading the new issue of Batman ‘66 when it came out. I would bring the newest issue home, and it was always met with giddy excitement.

Yet now, with Meredith having just turned sixteen, there is no nightly reading of comic books between the two of us. Every night she unwinds by coloring on her bed. It relaxes her.

Still, there are other joys that I share with her. Now we play Super Smash Bros. in the evenings. Other evenings, we play her Pokemon card game. It’s enjoyable—but different. As a father, I count my lucky stars that my nearly sixteen-year-old daughter still loves spending lots of time with me.

Steve Abbs with his children

Steve Abbs with his children

Welcoming a Son

Ted came along a couple of months shy of our fourth wedding anniversary. Right from the get-go, I had some serious adjusting and accepting to do. Going into marriage and having decided to have children, I wanted all girls. Perhaps this is due to a deep-seated thought I’ve had—a thought I have actively worked to replace—that women are better than men in many respects. I generally find women to be more sensitive, feelings-oriented, and easier to talk to.

I know this thinking is faulty, and it has taken a few recent, personal experiences to help drive this point home. But back in 2003, I experienced a slight sinking feeling when we found out our second child would be a boy. Carrie recalls being adamant about finding out the gender of our second child—because if it was a boy, she needed me to work through and process my feelings of sadness prior to Ted being born.

Thankfully, Ted’s infancy was much easier than Meredith’s. He ate well, and he slept solidly at four weeks. (We were still waiting for that miracle with Meredith at age two.) Ted was just a happy baby. Tank-sized, but overall much easier than his sister. We call them the “Sleepless Wonder” and the “Wonderful Sleeper.”

New Challenges, New Joys

Parenting Ted has taken on a very different flavor than Meredith. Carrie wrote in her earlier post about Ted’s autism and the many challenges his special needs bring. Taking Ted to the park as a young boy, along with Meredith, was unique. Ted needed more support and close monitoring than his sister, due in large part to his limited social skills and understanding of cues, like waiting his turn, etc. This was part of my active fathering.

It would have been easier not to take him along, and just to enjoy time with Meredith. But this wouldn’t have done Ted any favors. He needed to get out. He needed to be with other children, even if he wasn’t as "fun" as Meredith. And Carrie desperately needed these evening breaks after being home with them all day. I tried very hard never to question or push back on things like this. That is what I wanted my role as a father to look like.

Steve with his son, Ted

Steve with his son, Ted

Reading with Ted has been a joy, though, just as with Meredith. Starting from when he was a baby, Ted has adored Dr. Seuss. I would gingerly place him on his back on the floor. And there I was, flat on my back next to him, Dr. Seuss book proudly held aloft above us. I would read to him such books as Fox in Socks in the most exaggerated, playful voices I could.

Through all of this, however, I have had to resign myself to the fact that “fun” with Ted is very different than with many other boys. He has no real interest in most sports, so whiffle ball in the backyard—so beloved by me and my brothers growing up—doesn’t happen. He enjoys certain aspects of video games, but many games, even if they would be appropriate for his age, are too challenging for someone with his needs. And if he were left to his own devices, he would—pun intended—do just that: spend the entire day, day-after-day, playing on his devices (an iPad, or the computer). In this sense, he does not actively seek out time with me like Meredith does.

Ted’s comfort in being by himself, though, does not change the fact that he does benefit from time with me. It just takes on a different shape. Although he may not always actively voice it, his behavior shows when I am either not around as much due to work demands, or if I have simply not “done somefing together” with him for a few nights. He becomes more jittery and agitated, sometimes loudly vocalizing refusal for food or activities that he would normally accept and enjoy. The best, though, is when he comes up and asks to do somefing together. Carrie and I believe his spirit yearns for time with us, and he values the attention we place on him.

Active Fathering

This all brings me to a rather curious question: who am I? It seems simple enough, but it’s also easy to start tossing around the ubiquitous "hats" analogy—"We all wear many hats. I’m a worker. I’m a spouse. I’m a parent. I’m a video gamer. I’m a comic book geek. I’m a child of God. I’m a shoulder to cry on."

But all titles or hats cannot all have equal footing, right? The fact that I love comic books doesn’t outstrip the deep love I have for Carrie. Yes, they are both part of who I am, but to what degree?

From the moment I stepped into this epic journey of fatherhood, I vowed I would engage as much as I could in active fathering, as I mentioned earlier. My role is much more than that of primary breadwinner. To me, I am a husband and father first, and an employee second. There are people entrusted directly to me, and they rely on me. This, to me, outstrips any desire to climb the corporate ladder or to put in excessive hours at work—necessary as it can sometimes be.

Nothing has ever really been out of bounds for me to at least try and help with. Diapering a butt. Cleaning the house,. Picking up after a busy birthday party. Leaving parties early with Ted, so Carrie can enjoy herself and get a break. Getting down on the floor and playing with Meredith and Ted—even if it did involve singing “Shepherd me, O God” because Fox in Socks was purportedly in the emergency room from falling down the stairs.

A Challenge for Fathers

This probably all sounds pompous, like I think of myself as the best father out there. I do not, and readily admit that sometimes—many times—I come up short. Cooking scared me tremendously for the first thirteen years of our marriage, and I would make dumb excuses like potentially burning my hand. You know what, though? When your wife gets sick, you have to learn to be able to pull things together in the kitchen. I was tentative at first. Cooking isn’t perfect, and recipes fail. You make mistakes and learn. (Like reheating ham on the grill only needs a few minutes total, not five minutes on each side. These “tasty” morsels are now affectionately known as “Ham Crispies.”)

Through it all, though, I try. I try, and I wonder if fathers try hard enough. Where does their heart lie? We as fathers are entrusted with the care and upbringing of people—of souls. Shouldn’t that trump all else, not only just in face-time, but where our heart is?

I suppose, then, that this is my challenge for all fathers out there: Why did you get into fathering in the first place? What keeps you in it? Is your heart truly in it? And what "trenches," per se, have you slogged through to ensure that your children get the best you can offer them?

A belated Happy Father’s Day to all fathers. Go out and do us proud.

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