On Distracted Dads, Waiting, and Becoming an Attentive Father

Image courtesy of Alejandro Escamilla via unsplash.com

Image courtesy of Alejandro Escamilla via unsplash.com

With coffee at my side and laptop open, I sat in my armchair easing into a relaxing morning, not noticing how long Netflix Kids had been playing in the background. But after a while, my 2-year old son had grown tired of whatever cartoon was playing and asked me to come play in the next room. ‘Just a minute, buddy, I’ll be right there.’ My ‘be right there’ had taken much too long, not in toddler world only, but by any objective standard. Patient as he had been with me, minutes later my son sidled up to the lid of my MacBook and began to push the screen to the keyboard. ‘All done, Daddy,’ he said.

Parenting is a continual experience of convicting moments and this one ranks near the top. Here was a cut-to-the-heart moment from my toddler-as-prophet. It was easy and obvious to close my laptop and play with my son that morning. What was more difficult was facing a truth about myself that was more far-reaching. That morning I knew that I needed to resolutely face the inner battle of a distracted mind and spirit that affects my family. I do not wish to be a distracted dad, but I can’t deny that my children were having to work harder to get my attention.

Fatherhood in an Age of Distraction

To be sure, a divided mind is not the struggle of men alone. We live in an age of distraction, which means that men, women, and children will all wrestle with devoting their attention to one person or one task at a time. In an anxious and distracted age, we are taught the pseudo-virtue of multitasking. In reality, multitasking isn’t biologically possible, but is better described as ‘switch-tasking’, as John Medina has said in his book, Brain Rules.

Sure, there are attention deficit conditions that need care and treatment from clinical professionals. Clinical treatment can make a significant difference in the lives and relationships of those affected by ADD/ADHD. But not every man who struggles with a distracted mind suffers from a clinical condition. What many men and fathers are struggling with is not a clinical condition, but the cultural pressures to be limitless, to excel at everything. But limitless we are not; one cannot excel at everything at all times. To be a focused, available, and attentive father isn’t only counter-cultural, it is the sign of a man who confronts the battlefield of the mind with all its distractions.

The Right Struggle

There is no easy path to become a more focused and attentive father. Any 30-days-to-become-a-more-focused-man book isn’t telling the truth. Acquiring focus, being fully present is a long struggle. But it’s the right struggle. It’s a holy struggle.

And here’s the irony of this right and holy struggle, at least in my experience: distractions often stem from good desires. Sure, a man can be distracted by selfish desires, focusing too much on ease and his own personal comfort. But in my experience, I notice that my wandering mind often moves rapidly among the varied contexts of my life where I’m seeking to be a good and faithful man. For each of the contexts of a father’s life, there are duties–tasks to be done. But there are also hopes and opportunities in these contexts, too–ideas of what could happen that should happen. My distractions stem from a desire to be faithful to numerous tasks; my absentmindedness may be attributed to an active imagination about good things.

I want to be a good father and loving husband. I want to be a faithful and inspiring leader and a devoted servant in my church. I desire to be a good steward with our family finances. I need to take care of my body and soul. I want to enjoy time with my buddies. I want to cherish the past, celebrate the present, and dream about God’s future. All good desires from the soul of a young father–who is not limitless. The poet of Ecclesiastes said ‘God has put eternity into man’s heart.’ But I ain’t reached eternity yet. I can’t cram all my good longings into a day, a week, a year, even a lifetime. If I am to become a more attentive father, I need to concern myself with ‘today, for tomorrow has enough worries of its own.’ And that means making a priority of the people I see everyday–my wife and kids.

The Wisdom and Virtue of a Simple Phrase: ‘It Can Wait’

In this struggle against distractions, I’ve learned that I must look at some good desires in my heart and tell myself, ‘it can wait.’ I need to give myself permission to be a limited human being, a father who accepts limits for the sake of his family. Just because I put some good ideas or projects on hold does not mean they will never happen. Instead, it’s an exercise in keeping first things first. As C.S. Lewis said, ‘Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both.’ Second things matter, but not more than the woman to whom you gave vows, not more than the children God entrusted to you. Becoming a less distracted father means facing second things with the words: ‘it can wait.’

But what do I do in the waiting?, you ask. That’s both simple and challenging: enter the presence of God.

The best way a father can practice waiting is to sit in silence in the presence of God. Many men never approach silence because they fear silence will only release the floodgates of the mind. Truth be told, that will happen at the beginning. The soul’s Enemy tries to intimidate you from hearing the voice of God, so he turns up the volume in your mind. But persevere through the noise and soon enough Christ will still the storm, just as he calmed the tumult on the Sea of Galilee. When the noise settles, light and truth come from the Spirit of the Lord who speaks in the depths of the heart.

Becoming an Attentive Father by Following the Son

In the struggle to become an attentive father, I must fix my mind, my eyes, and my heart on Jesus. Learning from Jesus is my only hope in becoming an attentive father.

Remember when Jesus’ disciples wanted to send children away from Jesus for the sake of more important things? You remember his response, too. He instructed his disciples–the earliest fathers of his church–with this rebuke, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ (Mark 10.14–15, ESV) And then Jesus took children in his arms and blessed them.

The most important task I have as a father is to bless my children with the love of Jesus. That blessing can’t be lip service. Speaking the words of blessing can be flippant if I’m not careful. What I care about is a life and example that blesses my children.

If there’s a holy fear I carry as a dad, it’s that I would enter the empty nest years of parenting saying, ‘I wish I hadn’t been as distracted back then.’ Maybe that’s why I’m writing a post about this struggle as a young father. I’ll make hundreds of mistakes as a father, but I don’t want to face the regret of feeling, ‘I wasn’t committed to being fully present with my children.’ I can’t possibly perfect the art of being fully present in my own strength. I will fail and when I fail, I must repent and receive grace for myself. But when the house is empty of children many years from now, I pray that I could say, ‘By the grace of God, I committed myself to be an attentive father in these years.’

And over time, both as my children grow and when they move out one day (hopefully!), I imagine I’ll pick up some of those ideas and projects I put on hold in the 2010s. Slowly, gradually, I believe God will rightly order this heart into which he has placed eternity. Slowly, gradually, I believe God will reveal to me the treasure and truth the poet of Ecclesiastes promised: ‘He has made everything beautiful in his time.’