Intentional heart

I started a garden last summer. It went to weeds, and then the weeds grew parched under the relentless Kansas sun, and then they withered and died. I traveled more than I’d anticipated, and when I was home other things competed for my time, if only fatigue. I think on that garden and I fear it will be my fatherhood — ground broken with good intentions, but scorched and barren all the same.

All we parents begin with dreams of what our lives will mean. We dream that our children will be healthy and safe, that they will learn good things from us, that our God will be their God. We dream that when they are older they will be people we like, and that they will in turn want to be near us.

Lately I have wrestled with bouts of panic. I fear I am too far behind, already, in this father’s race. I am apart from them more than I want. This is how our lives will be for the next several years. They used to ask when my traveling will be done, and now they don’t. They have been fishing more with other fathers than with me. They have been to Boy Scouts with other fathers, but not with me. This is our life into any future I can foresee, not that I have ever seen the future well.

Sometimes I panic, and then I despair. Your life stretching out before you holds a series of choices, and what you don’t realize until you are older is how quickly those choices can accumulate and choke off possible futures. If you are not care-filled and prayer-filled and intentional, your days may pile up with more regret than hope.

One of my deep griefs is that I didn’t accept Wife, in those early years, as a partner. I looked on her too often as a bundle of wants and inadequacies and comforts, but not as a partner. Only lately have I come to appreciate her counsel.

It is hard, I think, for men to accept the counsel of a wife. We want to have the answers, and to be strong, and — above all else — to be admired and respected. The last thing we want is to be humbled. To be truly counseled, however, is to practice humility. And to be counseled by your wife, well, that is to let this person — who you want more than anyone else to see you as strong and admirable — inside that place in your heart where your fears and flaws and pettiness reside.

I never treated her as a partner and I rarely valued her counsel and now some things are broken that will never on this earth be unbroken.

But there is grace in broken places, you have to know this. I poured out my heart to her a few days back, my anguish over not being as present in their lives as I had dreamed I would be, over not doing things with them each day, not having as many hours with them to teach what I had hoped I might teach them.

I mourned all the time I have wasted and all the time I will not have.

She reminded me that what a boy grieves — the boy whose father comes home every night, or the boy who never meets his father — is the absence of love. She reminded me that this was my great wound, thinking for years and years that no father wanted me. I never learned how to rebuild an engine or sight in a rifle, nobody took me to Boy Scouts or church, nobody came to my track meets or wrestling matches. But the wound that has run right through the center of me as a man was the absence of a father’s heart.

So I took hope. This I can give them. This they will know, that they are loved.

That can only happen with our children, though, if I am intentional, if you are intentional. Every moment with them, every conversation with them, offers the opportunity to strengthen the bond holding heart close to heart, or to let those bonds erode in the silence.

I don’t have as much time with my sons as other fathers have with their children, and I don’t know how to do the things that other fathers teach their children. But I do have this heart that is theirs, and this prayer on my lips day and night, for patience, for fatherly love, for peace in their presence.

I pray it will be enough, that I will be enough.


  1. Ellen

    I hope to encourage you, Tony. My husband’s father was a military chaplain raised by another military man. He wasn’t handy, so there weren’t any idyllic afternoons building things in the backyard. They survived deployments, long months away. BUT… he loved his sons, and he told them that, and he gave them silly songs at night before bed and long walks on hiking trails all over the world. Both of his sons are convinced of his love, and both are strong Christian husbands and fathers today, some of the most selfless and Christlike men I know. He had his faults… plenty of them, but he was there when he could be, and he did his best, and that’s what mattered…

    My husband is a federal prosecutor, and he often works long and unpredictable hours. The past two years of our sons lives, he has missed at least a 4 months with them because of trials and overwork. He struggles with the broken dream of not seeing us all as much as he’d wanted to, and I struggle with it, too. But I am not afraid that his sons won’t know that he loves them and values them over everything else in this world.
    Life is hard. Jobs are not what we want them to be, and it hurts to be a grownup. We’ve got to give up sometimes on some idealized dreams, but we don’t have to give up on the big picture. Hang in there…

  2. Angela

    Your heart is real…they (the boys) know that. And I will quote you on what you said about seeing your wife as a partner and taking her counsel. Beautifully said.
    Lee is super busy and away many nights. But when you build that bond thru the years the kids know you’re there for them.
    Last yr. Luke(the oldest) had his 1st real girlfriend and he actually talked to Lee about the 1st kiss…date and Valentine’s gift….I can’t imagine in my wildest dreams talking w/ our parents about such things.
    This, you have to look forward to!!!
    Of course then the girl broke his heart…literally used him for a valentine boyfriend…(sounds like something I would have done)
    Good thoughts you shared…so happy for you that the wife encouraged you!

  3. Meredith

    Your boys know they are loved; as little as I have seen them in the past five years, I can tell they do. Wife is one of the wisest people I know – I will pray that you will continue to be open to her counsel and that wounds will be healed.

  4. Mark

    …and God will honor your prayer. It is a myth that parents can “balance” family and career and marriage. The greatest miracle of being a father is that God can take our feeble efforts, which fall so far short of what we wish they could be, and are required to be 100% to our career, and 100% to our wife, and 100% to our children, and make of them what they need to be in each case.

  5. Marc V

    I struggle at a different end of the spectrum. I’m home nearly every night but I can let time/opportunities slip through my fingers due to complacency. We all have that voice of doubt in the back of our minds: are we doing enough, do they know how we really feel, are they getting what they need. It’d be nice to have my body from 20 years ago with the knowledge I have now, but I’ll accept where I’m at and go forward.

    I will suggest if you feel inadequate on the home repair front, then take a class at the local community college with your son(s) when they’re in high school. Classes in home wiring or small engine repair, for example, would be something you could share and try out at casa Woodlief.

  6. Jonny

    “now some things are broken that will never on this earth be unbroken.” Careful that you both don’t sell yourselves short. I also looked on my wife always “as a bundle of wants and inadequacies and comforts, but not as a partner.” Only within the last 10 years am I coming even to understand this strange almost hypostatic union that we call marriage.

    If both partners are willing to work, and work hard, to go forward from where they are to forge what can be possible, God can fix the unrepairable. We’re not there by an stretch, but we can both tell you that things we thought could never be fixed are, perhaps, mending. I remember once being so fed up, so “in my own corner,” and hearing the words of a dear priest friend of mine from Riverside: “Brother, you need to kiss your wife’s feet.” That was the last thing I wanted to do, but it was the right thing to do.

    As was revealed to St Anthony so many centuries ago in the desert, this world is filled with the Evil One’s traps, and we make it past them only with humility. Humility, committed hard work, prayer, and the love that God has for us.

  7. rebecca

    Two thoughts. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. All the moments in all the years add up.

    Also, don’t underestimate the gift you are giving your kids by making it possible for your wife to be home with them. My husband also works long hours, but I feel that one of the greatest gifts he has given our family is that we don’t have the pressures of both parents being gone all day. Your children are enjoying the benefits of that ‘wise counsel’ from your wife.

    Thanks for writing your thoughts. Your words enrich my husband in ways that my words can’t.

  8. Caryn

    If it helps, I was once informed that those of us who are truly concerned that we’re going to get it wrong are the ones most likely to get it right. It’s when we think we have it all covered that we need to be concerned. Whether that is the case or not, it IS true that God is big enough to fill any gaps and cover any mistakes. If I did not believe that, I would fall down helpless and hopeless this very minute. Thank you for sharing your heart. I have enjoyed and been encouraged by your blog for a long time and hope this encourages you even just a little so I can, in a small way, return the favor.

  9. Bill Airtch

    Enough of the grandiose self-pity, the reliance on your god to accept your excuses and to eventually just make things right.

    All of those things that prevent you from being a true father and spouse are BS. Drop them, become the father and husband you should be.

    You will not have a second chance.

  10. JJ

    No, I am sorry, loving them is not enough. Don’t buy that lie. Intention is nothing, worthless. Time spent is meaningless, I can tell you from experience.

    What your sons need is to know how to live life. Not how to make money, not to know how to get good grades, not how to throw a football. They need to know how to create deep and lasting relationships. This cannot be taught except by living it.

    You can provide a living demonstration of this with your wife, but even more important is that you provide a living demonstration of this with other men. Then your sons will know how to create this in their own lives, how to find mentors, how to build networks of true friends. This is what makes a meaningful life. Your sons will want to be a part of your network and will invite you into theirs.

    Develop deep meaningful relationships with other men. One with your sons will naturally follow.

  11. JBryant

    Bill said
    become the father and husband you should be.

    and I couldn’t agree more. Just because you feel bad about it doesn’t change it, or exonerate you from the fact you are neglecting your child. The simple fact is you are judged by your actions, not intentions, and there are plenty of bad fathers who wish they were better, but iwishing doesn’t make it so. Get off your pity-pot and go be a better father. Also, your post sounds incredibly self-centered. Your child is not an extension of your needs; you need to be an extension of his.
    Sorry if this sound s harsh, but raising children is too important to excuse your attitude without comment.

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  13. Tony

    I meant to get here sooner and respond to each of you individually, because so many of you put a lot of thought, I can tell, into your replies. I hope you’ll accept a single thank you to all of you, for your advice, your encouragement, your sympathy in the face of my admitted self-pity, and even your kicks in the pants. I needed all of it, so thank you.

    In the end I believe the harshest of my critics here was right, there’s no excuse for failing my children, and no second chances. I do have to part ways with the notion that looking to God won’t help, however. My personal experience thus far is that He’s seeing me through when my every personal inclination is to give in.

  14. AtoZMom

    You are so heartfelt and know you are not alone. This is a big one for me. My husband is gone all the time. His work is not where we live. He has to travel to remote locations where no one abides. For right now, it’s his life. I know this pains him more than he lets on. He misses his babies growing up. But it makes the time he does have with them even more special.

    What gets me through is in 6 months life will be different. In 6 months, things change. He may be home more in 6 months. It makes the time more tolerable somehow.

    Know God knows your heart. He knows how much you love your family and He is there when you are not. You are doing what you need to do to support your family and raising a family is sacrifices on everyone’s parts.

    Think of this as a season and season’s change.

    Love and hugs again,


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