My first Father’s Day

Our fathers shape our lives, for good or for bad, whether we like it or not. That makes Father's Day a powerful opportunity for reflection and connection.

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Adventist Record editor Jarrod Stackelroth holding his daughter. (Credit: Sarbury Photography)

I’ve just experienced my first Father’s Day. And I’m feeling surprisingly reflective about it.

My wife made me a healthy breakfast in bed and Baby sat in my lap as I unwrapped my presents (including a cute book titled My dad is awesome). Then we went out for a family adventure for the first meal we’ve had out in a café/restaurant since my daughter was born—partly due to COVID-19 and partly just because going anywhere with a newborn seems like a bridge too far sometimes. We had a lovely vegan meal and spent some time walking by the beach.

In short, I was spoiled. And I loved it. But my favourite part of the whole day was playing with my daughter after we got home, and she’d had a nap. She was laughing and laughing. It lightened my heart. A baby’s laughter makes all the sleepless nights worth it.

My daughter had no idea it was Father’s Day but I look forward to years to come, when we can spend special time together. I hope for her it will be a celebration of a special relationship. I hope she looks forward to it, as an opportunity to celebrate her daddy. It will always be a special day for my wife and I, as every Mother’s Day will be.

***

This time two years ago I wasn’t sure I’d ever be a father. After years of praying and trying to conceive, I had come to terms with the fact that it may never happen for us. Instead, I was committed to being a father figure for those who needed one, and to making the most of the opportunities I was given. Believe me when I tell you, I understand that Father’s Day is not “fun” for everyone. And a little piece of my heart still aches in sympathy for those who ache on this day.

It is important to acknowledge that not everyone can celebrate Father’s Day. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate fathers.

According to a 2017 US study, children who suffer from the absence of a father will: be twice as likely to drop out of high school, suffer childhood obesity and die as infants; be at four times greater risk of poverty; seven times more likely to have teenage pregnancies; as well as more likelihood of behavioural problems, abuse and neglect, prison and substance abuse.

***

Before our daughter was born, I was worrying about whether or not I had what it took to be a good father. I was sharing some of this with my dad. What he said brought tears to my eyes. “I know you. I know your character and so I know you’ll be a good father.”  I felt seen and known. Affirmed. It didn’t take away my fears or give me all the answers. It just meant that my dad knew me and believed in me. It gave me permission to believe in myself.

***

I was waiting for the emotion to hit. I’d been imagining this moment, wondering what it would be like to see my daughter born. It hadn’t all happened as planned. The induction hadn’t worked and my wife was sent for an emergency C-section in the early hours of the morning.

"It's hard to describe the feelings that go with becoming a dad. I hope to be a good father. I hope that I can teach her and protect her and support and love her."

I had expected to see her and feel a wave of emotion. Instead, I didn’t feel much. I was excited. There she was, all wrinkly and sticky and covered in goop. She was placed on her mother for skin time, while I was conscious of keeping my eyes on the correct side of the caesarean section curtain. I watched as the nurses rubbed her down and she squawked her first breaths of life. The operating team were moving onto stitching my wife up and I was trying to take a photo or video or two to remember what I knew was a significant moment.

It still hadn’t hit me. I felt awkward, a stranger in this sterile, fluoro world. Baby was bundled out to the special care unit; I followed stunned and sleepless in the pre-dawn of a new world. This was Baby’s first day on earth but her blood sugar was very low and the priority was to get her sugars up. I examined my emotions, wondering when the flood of feeling would hit as I followed baby into the SCU. I was a little nervous, holding Baby for the first time and giving her first feed. I also changed her first nappy that day.

It was the early days of the COVID-19 crisis and eventually I was ushered out of the SCU  to go check on my wife. I had no idea where she was—she’d been moved to the maternity unit.

When I found her she was tired. She just wanted to sleep and urged me to go home and have a quick nap myself. We only live a few kilometres from the hospital.

I walked out of the hospital. I felt powerless.

It hit me in the car. The emotion. I wanted to be with them. I wanted to be close, to protect, to hold, to watch over, to love. This was what it meant to be a father. I sobbed on the short drive home before passing out on my bed.

When I woke up I was in a rush to get back to the hospital. I went straight to see Baby in the SCU. As I walked down the hallway, I heard a baby crying. As soon as I heard it, I knew that it was my child. I had heard her cry when she was born, and I recognised her immediately. In the past I would have been able to block it out, or just been mildly annoyed by a cry like this. But now, I knew her, just by her sound, I could hear her.

I’m coming, I thought. Daddy wants to be with you, and I’m almost there. It was her crying. I couldn’t believe it. I’d heard her in the operating theatre yet, even though I knew there were lots of babies in the room, I recognised my daughter crying out for me in the distance.

I’ve learned a lot in the past five months of her life. We’ve struggled through being at home in the pandemic. Hurt that she couldn’t meet her grandparents (still hasn’t met one set). We’ve worked out her routines and continued on with life, fitting her in while also being bowled over by love and thankfulness. And it feels right. Like she’s always been with us.

It’s hard to describe the feelings that go with becoming a dad. I hope to be a good father. I hope that I can teach her and protect her and support and love her. I hope I can pass on to her a love for her heavenly Father. And all while enjoying her infectious smiles and laughter.

I look forward to many more Father’s Days.