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The Mystery of Fatherhood

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As an adopting father, I have a unique relationship with my child. While many babies bond with their mother through late night breastfeeding, as adopting parents, my wife and I split this nightly vigil. From his earliest days in the hospital where our son was in intensive care for a week or so, I would arrive at 2:00 AM to feed and care for our newborn.

I will always remember the first moment that my son looked into my eyes. It was during one of these feedings. I was holding him while he slept, engaged in a rousing game of Solitaire on my phone. Our son’s penetrating eyes (at the time seemingly full of all colors and none at once) looked into my own face, calling me away from the screen.

In this encounter, I did not see just a generic life. But, this very particular life. I saw, my Thomas. This life calling out to me for tenderness. This person, placing the fullness of his trust in me, that I would protect him as best as I could. That I would love him.

In the years since this moment, I have spent many days with my son, sharing this gaze.

In the midst of stomach bugs, I have seen the longing in his eyes, his desire that I might erase the terrifying nausea that has overcome him.

I have seen the way that he wants to be recognized when I come home from work, calling out “Daddy, home,” when I open the door to our house in the evening.

I have seen a twinkle in his eyes as he slowly learns to use words to understand the world around him.

I have seen the way that he looks at his mother with infinite love, delighting in her presence in a way that he adores no other person.

I have always been pro-life. But, until I had my son, being pro-life for me was a kind of abstraction. It was holding general principals that all life mattered, that the life of the most vulnerable mattered the most: especially the unborn.

But since becoming a father, the gift of life has become different for me. When I encounter my son, I do not see a general life but this particular person. I see now that the Church (and ideally our society) is univocally pro-life not because of a series of general intellectual principles. But because of the scandalously particular life that has come into the world through my son.

The way that every aspect of the world has changed because of the existence of my Thomas. And your Thomas. And all the Thomases.

Fatherhood has taught me the gift of life. It has radically reconfigured any of my ambitions for success, for power, for fame and fortune. I am a father and a husband first, then an academic. It has enabled me to perceive the mystery of existence, of love, in a way that I could not conceive before I became a father. It has enabled me to discover a tender concern for my students that I never knew existed.

Fatherhood has done so because there is a person in the world, who doesn’t just depend on me for food and clothing. But for a fatherly love that I alone can provide. A love that I feel my entire life has been a preparation for.

This is not because I’ve literally prepared my entire life to become a father (I probably only literally prepared for about two weeks when we heard news about the adoption). It’s because my son’s gaze called out of me something that I did not know existed. A love that I had never experienced before: a love both tender and strong, a love both protective and playful. A love of this person.

I have found my vocation through the gift of my son as many fathers did before me. Men don’t carry children in their wombs for nine months. They don’t think about the consequences of motherhood on a regular basis.

They become fathers, in a concrete way, when their child exits the womb, at the moment of the gaze.

It strikes me that if the pro-life movement wants to be successful, the Church in particular must of course care for the vulnerable, particularly woman experiencing pregnancy and the lives that abide within their wombs.

At the same time, we need to intentionally form young men to receive this gaze of their own child. After all, many children have no eyes of a father to gaze into. These men are gone from their lives. They disappear, leaving the mother and child to fend for themselves. Some fathers reject this gaze, seeing this child as nothing more than an interruption. Many fathers, as Charles Camosy has pointed out, are the reasons that their children are aborted.

In each of these cases, a father’s rejection of the mystery of his own paternity, of his own fatherhood, wounds both the child and the father’s very person. It wounds our entire civilization, creating a space devoid of paternal love.

To build a culture of life will involve passing laws that protect the mother and the child. It was also involve forming young men in the mystery of fatherhood.

This mystery of a love received from the gaze of the most vulnerable. Of a love that changes one’s entire identity as a person.

Fatherhood, motherhood, and childhood are mysteries. Being pro-life means not simply fighting for laws. It also means re-creating a culture where these mysteries are held up as worthy to be contemplated.

Timothy P. O’Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, associate professional specialist in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and founding editor for Church Life.