This Father's Day message reflects on the distinct and complementary roles played by mother love an father love. Seedlings—and our children—need both fertile soil and plentiful sunlight to blossom and grow.
“Your children are not your children…” writes the poet.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
Those among us who are parents share the experience of nurturing and protecting our newborns, or the newly adopted children whom we have taken into our hearts and made part of our families. After all of the feeding and clothing and bathing…the talking and teaching…the singing and playing together—perhaps we can be forgiven for feeling a sense of ownership. It’s built right into our language – “my kids,” “our children.” We put our names on these children and soon after attempt to imprint our values on them. So it’s hard to conceive of this idea that they are not really ours.
Friday morning, this thought really came home to roost, as I received a terse text message from Owen—a studious and creative young man who happens to have chosen me as his father. He had just arrived in Spain on a high school trip. I read the words: “In Madrid gud morning”. And except for any photos he might bring back and choose to share with us, that’s pretty much all we will know about his first day in Madrid. “Hey, young man!” I’m thinking. “I, and the person you’ve chosen as your mother, are paying for this trip and we want a daily blog post, with photos. We want to be there with you, virtually, seeing what you see and feeling what you feel!” But…what he has chosen to share is a simple acknowledgement that he’s alive. And that is something, after all.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
So we learn to let go. Perhaps the first time we let go is when a child takes her first steps. Then a little more when she learns to run and ride a bike…and go off on school overnight trips and summer camps. Yet a little more when she starts demanding payment for household labor…and dyeing her hair blue. And then a whole lot more when she starts driving. Truly life keeps moving forward and you can never go back, nor would we want to hold our children back, for they have so much ahead of them.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
“Seek not to make them like you…” Most of us would agree that children can and must grow up to differentiate themselves from their parents. It is, after all, a natural part of growing up. As we saw so beautifully two weeks ago during RE Sunday, the newest class of Unitarian Universalists has graduated and are going off to make a place for themselves in this world.
In a beautiful counterpoint to today’s child dedication service, in which we give young Finn a rose with the thorns removed, the youth on RE Sunday were given roses with the thorns still on. We can no longer protect our grown children from life’s pain. But they will not likely deal with life’s challenges the same way we, as their parents and mentors, might wish. They will do it their way. I have often caught myself trying to teach my children the lessons I have learned the hard way, knowing full well that, if I’m honest with myself, that they will not hear it. Nor should they, really, since they are not me. Perhaps they will find a better way.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
My original impulse was to reflect in this sermon on the differences between father love and mother love. I don’t want to overplay that idea, because I don’t believe in reinforcing age-old gender stereotypes. But the Buddhist and Native American contemplation of Mother Earth and Father Sun (that’s s-u-n) resonate strongly for me. The first observation is that neither Earth nor Sun is better than the other, any more than air is better than water or day is better than night. New life, be it animal or vegetable, generally starts with a seed, an egg, that is nurtured in the mother’s body or in the body of Mother Earth.
As the worshippers at Deer Park Monastery have so beautifully prayed, “Dear Mother Earth, breathing in, we see that we and all of our ancestors are your children. With your patience, stability, endurance and creativity you have raised us and guided us tirelessly through many lifetimes…. You are the great Earth, you are Terra, you are Gaia, you are this beautiful blue planet.”
But, once the seedling or newborn emerges from Mother Earth, it requires the light and energy of Father Sun to continue its growth. We parents—the archers in Gibran’s language—will bend together to launch our children into successful young adulthood. But in my own experience, which I grant is not universal, there has always been a division of labor between Mother Earth and Father Sun. These need not be equated to the sex of the parent: The roles may even be interchanged, or one parent may by choice or circumstance play both roles. The role of Mother love, in my experience, has been more about the hands-on, intimate and immediate care. Mother Earth, after all, is the source of all life, grounding, nourishing and sustaining us in a circle of giving and receiving.
The role of Father love, in my experience, is like that of Father sun (s-u-n), which stands a little farther off, but whose sunlight transmits energy and invites new growth. Father sun stands with arms outstretched and waits for the little one to take his first steps. And he is the one who lets go when the child can finally pedal the bike for the first time.
As an old acquaintance of mine once summed it up: “Dads are fun. Moms are food.” Obviously, he was a dad. His wife might have offered a different phrase. I would imagine it something like, “Moms are on the job. Dads are on the couch.”
Most of us know full well that these playful jabs, while hinting at kernels of truth, leave out a lot of complexity—and short-change the depth and beauty of both the Father and Mother roles.
So here’s my slightly more complicated version of “Dads are fun, Moms are food”:
• First, sunshine and air are like a Father’s role – creating an environment of safety, acceptance and stability – it’s about maintaining an environment for creativity and new growth. “Fun” is an oversimplification, but I think of it more like providing a playing field or stage where children can experience life. It’s playing in the space of the larger world.
• Second, the soil and the grounded environment are like a Mother’s role, feeding and sustaining in a network of interdependence. “Food” is again an oversimplification, and of course it ignores the love and deep intimacy that often occurs between mother and child. This is why I think of it more like Mother Earth, because this better captures the wholeness of motherhood, which is both giving life and sustaining life in a beautiful dance of giving and receiving. It’s intimate and focused on the smaller world.
• Third and finally, these two are not distinctly separated. Like yin and yang, sun and moon, Father love is intricately interwoven with Mother love in an elaborate ecosystem. Clouds and rain and groundwater that pass between earth and sky, within and around the offspring, are like the love that knits the Father and Mother roles together.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
So if you’ll allow me to push the metaphor just a little further: With this delicately balanced ecosystem, you can imagine what kind of consequences might result when any part of this nexus of earth, water and sky is weakened or dysfunctional. There is much literature out there about the consequences of absent fathers—far too much material to get into here in any depth. But I suspect most of us understand it intuitively in terms of having healthy male role models for both boys and girls, creating financially sustainable family units and transmitting healthy values.
Some social scientists, including authors Charles Murray and Hanna Rosen, argue that the role of men in contemporary society is in free fall. The average income of men continues to decline…as boys drop out of high school at twice the rate of girls…and as young men become increasingly less likely to attend and finish college than their female counterparts. Lack of positive father figures in the lives of boys in particular is cited as contributing to disturbing levels of underachievement, lack of ambition, impulsivity, violence, and abuse of alcohol and other drugs.
Even more of a wake-up call, perhaps, Rosen documents the growing numbers of women who have concluded they are better off living and raising children on their own without male partners. And—more significantly—this trend will only increase with the pool of available male partners being increasingly less educated with lower earning potential. She concludes that men are becoming not only marginalized but superfluous in a sociocultural sense.
Again, I’m only grazing the surface here, and I know this can be a complex and emotional topic, especially considering those single mothers who did not actively choose that situation, or those who have chosen it as a far better alternative than keeping their children in close contact with a dysfunctional or even abusive father. We must trust their decisions and offer our unambiguous approval and support. And I particularly would call on the men in this room to be aware of the part they play in creating a community that values and nurtures children and offers healthy male role models.
So in this broader sense, on this Father’s Day, let us celebrate the role of the Father in our community and in our families and give special thanks to those who are a predictable, sustaining presence in the lives of children. All is well in the world when the sun rises predictably every morning and infuses the world with its light, warmth and energy. For those of us who are fathers, and for those mothers and other caring people who take on the role of father, we are reminded that the greatest gift of all is to be fully and consistently present in the lives of our children. They will do the rest on their own.
I close with this Native American Elder’s Mediation: “This is why we call the sun, Father Sun. Father Sun shines life on Mother Earth and from this Father and Mother all life forms exist and continue to reproduce. The Sun shines on all; it is not selective. We should not allow anything to block the Sun from shining on the Earth. We must not pollute the air because the pollutants block the light of life to the Earth. If the Earth cannot receive this light, then life will start to be affected. We must live in harmony with the Sun and Earth. Otherwise, we are harming ourselves.”
And so may it be.
June 16, 2013
Delivered at First Unitarian Church of St. Louis