Look, all dads have done this. My children want cookies. I tell them there are no cookies, knowing full well that there are cookies, and I’m going to eat them all after they go to bed. As a new father, I would’ve instantly melted and given all the cookies away. Now, my reserves of compassion are filled much lower. I want them all for me. I’m not proud of this.
Do I love my children more than myself? Yes. Would I do anything for them (except share my cookies)? Absolutely. Parenting in the abstract, though, is different than the moment-by-moment reality. There are many times I fall short of the ideal. Being a parent takes so much energy, so much time, so much compassion, that there are days I struggle to be the sort of father I want to be.
A father’s weekends often consist of attending multiple amateur sports games, cleaning the mess the children left in the kitchen just so you can make your own breakfast, repeating the same process before lunch and feeling guilty about watching the football game when your daughter wants to keep playing dolls with you.
Sometimes you need time for yourself. Our kids need so much from us — time and attention, cooking and cleaning, listening to their endless stories, mediating their arguments, drying their tears, absorbing their temper tantrums, being insistently hugged to the point of developing claustrophobia — that parents end up running on fumes.
The vocation to parenthood requires constant empathy and compassion, but it is a joyous vocation. Keeping it that way requires boundaries, self-care and taking time to nurture the entirety of who God is calling us to be as well-rounded human beings. We can’t give what we don’t have. The more we try, the emptier our hands become, so a parent should find ways to recharge before the compassion completely runs out.
How do we cultivate compassion?
Keep your spiritual life strong. Pray with your family, but also maintain times of solitude for prayer. Set reasonable boundaries. It isn’t wrong to need alone time, particularly if that’s how you fill up the empathy reservoir. I’ve found it easiest to simply wake up before the kids so I have half an hour of quiet time. Then I’m usually good for the day. Don’t waste precious alone time on mindless social media or television. Take time to stay healthy. Eat well. Exercise. Read a book. Sit in the sun. The fruits of these activities are not for you alone. If you have more energy, you’ll have more to give away to your children.
It’s a balance, guarding our inner life so we can make genuine connections with each other. It reveals how closely the interior life is linked with our exterior actions. Everything flows from the same source. Stay close to Jesus so He will be present in your family life. With Him in our homes, every moment becomes a joy.
Just don’t tell my kids about the cookies.
Father Michael Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.