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The Shelter of the Father
by Kent Nerburn Northern Minnesota


I did not intend to be a father. It was a midlife surprise. My wife and I refer to it as an “appliance failure.”

It was the most wonderful failure of my entire life. And I would never wish it to have been any other way.

When I stood at the bedside of my wife, weary and joyful from the end of her labor, and held that child of our making in my arms for the first time, I understood the meaning of “miracle.” That little being looking back at me was at once a part of me and totally distinct from me. He was “self” and “other” formed into one.

There is no way to describe this experience, just as there is no way to describe the first time you make love or the haunted moment of watching the light fade from a dying parent’s eyes. Some things are just too vast for words, even for thought. You must bow your head before them and commit yourself to the greatness of their mystery. There is nothing else you can do.

Becoming a father is one of those moments. You men who have become fathers understand what I am saying. Those of you who have not yet experienced that mystery can look forward with joy and trepidation to the moment when fatherhood takes you in its grasp and forever divides your world into “before” and “after.” And you women, who carry within you the echo of the father, whether he was present or absent, know the power of the father as the moonlight knows the power of the sun.

Something strange, sad, and, I would say, dangerous has been happening to fatherhood recently. Its worthiness and elemental moral significance have gotten lost in the struggles of gender politics. Women’s legitimate desire to break free from the limitations of male dominance has resulted in fatherhood being equated with maleness. And the two are not the same.

Fatherhood is about empowerment and guidance. It is about becoming the protective sky under which your son or daughter walks, while motherhood is about becoming the soft earth that receives their footsteps. Each has its role, and neither can replace the other.

The Native American traditions, to which I have devoted much of my life, understand this, and they honor it. They know that it is the father who must give the child courage. It is the father who must give the child wings. It is the father who must show the child how to step free of fears.

This Father’s Day we would do well to look beyond gender politics, biology, and personal psychology. We need to look deeper, to the yin and yang of creation, to the complementary embrace of the sun and the moon, the earth and the sky, the rock and the waters. Only then do we see that fatherhood is not about dominance or competition or status or strength. It is about playing a worthy part in bringing all things into harmony and balance.

This is the time that we as children need to honor the balance that the father brings, and we as fathers need to look into our hearts to see if we truly are embracing the responsibilities of fatherhood as the sheltering sky.

We, as fathers, are too soon gone. When we pass on, as my father has, we must be sure that we leave our children — our dearly loved sons and daughters — able to stand tall in the sunlight of life. We must leave them kind and hopeful and filled with possibility. We must leave them knowing that they were loved, so they can wrap themselves in the comfort of that remembered love when life’s cold winds begin to blow. And blow they surely will.

I hope that this Father’s Day you will all look at the fathers in your life — the fathers that you are, the fathers that you had, the fathers that you hope to be. Remember, as the Native people do, that if the mother builds the nest, it is the father who teaches the young to fly. Honor those fathers, and honor that fatherhood within you.

Fathering is the most elemental and important task you will ever have. Do it poorly, and you will leave your children shivering under alien skies. Do it well, and you will teach them to reach for the stars.


Copyright © 2012 by Kent Nerburn. Printed with permission from New World Library.

Kent Nerburn
Kent Nerburn
holds a PhD in religion and art. His most recent work, Ordinary Sacred, joins Simple Truths and Small Graces as the conclusion of a trilogy filled with spiritual and inspirational stories. His other books include Letters to My Son, The Wolf at Twilight, and Neither Wolf nor Dog, both winners of The Minnesota Book Award.