May 25, 2010

A Father’s View of Love

Sunday, May 23, 2010.

Yesterday I experienced the bittersweet joy a father experiences at the wedding of his daughter. It’s a dizzying emotional mixture of sadness and loss and gladness and gain. It’s like living through fall, winter and spring in the course of 20 minutes, though in reality the play lasted 23 years.

Fall is the season of dawning mortality – the season a father realizes the singular love his baby girl had for him will not last forever. Winter is the season of death – the season when the daughter introduces her father to the man she wants to marry – the man who wants to take his place as the main man in her life, and the man who she wants to be the main man in her life. But spring is the season of new love, and new life. This is exactly what we hoped our daughter would find for her life; and, as the spring bud of love emerges to full bloom it is beautiful and fresh and fragrant with hope. Spring is the season of unbridled joy.

Most wedding guests, together with the bride and groom, only experience the season of spring at a wedding. But the seasons and emotions the father experiences at his daughter’s wedding are more comlex, and to sort them out I chose to write about it here.

The wedding took place in the small college town of Moscow, Idaho. Moscow is located on the middle western edge of Idaho, literally a few steps from the eastern border of the state of Washington. Moscow is quaint, but is inconspicuous and largely unknown to all but a small cadre of local wheat farmers and the students of the University of Idaho, and their families who moved them here. What do small college towns like Moscow, Idaho, produce? The answer is love.

But what is love? And hereinafter I shall give you my current answer to this mostly rhetorical question.

Of course, I’m not the first to address the topic of love, nor the most insightful. But as the father of the bride of the wedding which occurred only hours ago, I am freshly bathed in the subject, and maybe I can remind some of you more distantly removed what you already know about this universal, and yet perplexing subject.

To understand the complexity of a father’s emotions at a wedding, we have to go back to the beginning. My daughter, Jessica, was born in June of 1987, nearly 23 years ago. Before we made the decision to have a child, my wife and I made a two-column list; one column was reasons to not have a kid, and one column was reasons to have a kid. When we were done with the lists, the reasons to not have a kid outnumbered the reasons to have one. What we didn’t know then, but what we learned, is that the best reason to have a child – a reason nearly sufficient, by itself, to justify the decision against all the “not” reasons – is outside the realm of your knowledge and experience until you actually have a child. And here I am talking about the profound love a parent has for his (her) own child, and the amazing love they experience in return.

Over the years after my two daughters were born I had several ah-ha moments. One I can recall is that I experienced, firsthand, the wellspring of love a father has for his child; and by association I began to understand a little bit the love that God must have for me, and for all of us children of his. Another ah-ha occurred when Sue was pregnant with our second child. Her love for our first child, Jessica, was so deep that she worried whether she could love the second child as much. I experienced this concern to a lesser degree. When the second child, Valerie, was born we were both relieved to learn that the wellspring of love runs deep; there wasn’t a limited supply available. We had no trouble loving Valerie as much as Jessica, and we learned that we could love more than we would ever know, and more than we would ever experience.

I’ve also learned that the love a daughter has for her father is a fickle and evolving thing. When my daughters were very young they loved me completely and unconditionally, and I could tell they adored their daddy. But as they aged a “funny” thing happened, and it looked to me like they began to love me less, and that they began to love me conditionally. The little girls who were so eager to run to me and throw themselves on me yelling “Daddy! Daddy!” were becoming more reserved (they don’t do this now, you know). The grade-school girls who were so eager to show their daddy off at show and tell suddenly wanted to be dropped off a half block from the junior high school. No public displays of affection, dad. PLEASE!

As my girls progressed through high school and college, it seemed to me that they loved me, principally, when they needed or wanted something from me. This of course was not altogether true, but it was true enough for me to experience the sensation, and to express it here. It seems to me that this experience of the alienation of parental love, and of loving the father when in need, runs roughly parallel to the experience of love between God and “man.” There certainly have been times in my life where my love of God was directly proportionate to my wants and needs, and what I wanted God to do for me.

But I’d heard that God loves us unconditionally (not that God has no consequence for our rebellions against him), and I decided early on to love my daughters unconditionally, as well. Somewhere along the way of life it occurred to me that my daughters, whom I love, would look for love from other men – or perhaps from only one other man. This must account, in part, for the sense I’ve had through the years that my daughters were loving me less. Maybe they were preparing themselves to find that other man. Maybe they were subconsciously preparing me for the realization that I wouldn’t always be the only male love in their lives.

The thing is, a father knows this is the way it is supposed to be, but we really don’t like it as it’s happening. Still, good fathers want the best for their daughters. And so, what do we fathers do – what can we do – to help our daughters find a good other man to love? The right kind of man? The right man?

The answer I came up with was to love them, and to let them know I loved them, and to model good male behavior (well, as good as I could find it in myself to muster) so that they would know a good man when they saw him. The part about loving your daughters and letting them know you love them is important, men (and single mothers, please take note). Daughters want the love of a man, and they need it. And if you don’t give it to them when they are young, they will seek it from other men in relationships and in ways which are not always healthy -- relationships which will not always lead to real love for them, and which often will not lead to them finding that right man to take your place as the main male in their life.

So yesterday my oldest daughter, Jessica, got married. How did she do in finding a man to love, and to love her? In my opinion she did very well. I am convinced that she found the right man, and I am glad for it. I think their love is real, if not complete, and I think their marriage will last. And when it does, I also plan to take some of credit for the success of their marriage.

Why do I think their love is real and that it will last? Well first of all, they both already know a lot about love. Her from her mother and me, and him from his parents (there are many others in their respective villages from whom they have experienced love). Second of all, they also know from their parents that romantic love is only part of what it means to love, and that it is not the only, nor maybe even the main ingredient that makes for a successful marriage. Romantic love is really just a small subset of the much bigger thing that love is. Real love in marriage is about sacrifice and commitment. Real love requires forgiving and, sometimes, forgetting. Real love is selfless and God-like.

Some of the complexities of love the newlyweds have yet to learn (as do I). They started the together part of their learning journey two years ago, and yesterday they committed to continue the love-learning journey together ‘til death do they part, and sans the bride’s father. And this is as it should be; This is how God made it to be. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and also a woman, in this case, my daughter, shall do the same), and be united to his wife (her husband), and the two shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24.

Yesterday, then, was both the end and the beginning. The beginning of a new life and a new love, a love which already had begun and was flourishing. And the end of an era for my daughter and me. But not the end of love. True love never ends. The love a father has for his daughter never ends, just as the love God has for us never ends. This is the nature of love, that, as with being able to completely and fully love more than one child, we are able to love many people and let that love be manifested genuinely, but differently at different times and to different people.

Love has many seasons and many forms. In my life I have been lucky and blessed to experience love in many, if not all it’s many forms. I’ve had the wonderful love of a mother, and the steady, and sometimes hard, love of a father. I’ve experienced the blissful romantic love of youth, and I’ve know 30 years of the evolving, mature and committed love of marriage ‘til death we did part. I’ve known the love a father has for his children and I’ve received the adoring love of my baby girls. And I have the love and support of good friends and extended families. These are all fragmented mini-mirrorings of the constant and all-encompassing love of God, which we each have irrespective of whether we even know it; But I do know it.

And the romantic love expressed at a wedding can’t capture the essence and fullness of love any more than a single photographic snap shot could capture the essence and fullness of life. It’s just too rich and complex and multi-faceted. And neither could I, in a mere essay, or even a book, capture more than a snippet of what love is. But this wedding yesterday was as real as the dirt under your fingernails after you plant flowers or vegetables in your garden in the spring. Those vegetables and flowers will nourish your body and your soul for a time, but not forever. You will need to turn the soil again and plant again, and weed and water again, year to year, season to season.

People come into our lives, and people go out of our lives. When a loved one moves on, by death, or by marriage of a child, or for reasons beyond our ability to understand or comprehend, a new season begins. But we are not then, nor ever, condemned to living without love.

So this is my prayer for my children, and specifically my prayer for Jessica and Luke, and generically my prayer for each of you: May you experience the fullness of life by experiencing the fullness of love in all it’s many forms; May you know the love of God and let that love flow through you in every relationship; And may you never live a day without giving and receiving love. Amen.


  1. I shall be brief this time. ;)

    That was LOVEly!

  2. But where's the pic of YOU with your daughter and her new husband??? ;)

  3. Grandma G - The essay is titled "A Father's View." The picture came from my camera, and that's me, behind the lens.

  4. Oh. I see. Well, next time maybe you should do "The In-Laws' View". ;)

  5. Your essay reminded me of my relationship with my father, many years gone on his God journey, and how I knew I was loved by him and how I loved him in return. How I have wished for him to know me now, older than he was when he departed... but isn't that also the nature of love, to want to share?
    Thank you for sharing this story.

  6. Your daughter loves you. (And thinks youre well on your way to being the next Nicholas Sparks: Non-Fiction.