Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement
The most important thing about parenting I learned from my dad. It wasn’t anything he said, it is what he did, day after day.
That I learned the most important thing about parenting from my dad is not surprising. After my mom left him when I was seven and my brother was three, my dad raised us on his own at a time when single parents were not as common, and a single dad was rare indeed. With a broken marriage and shattered finances, followed by job insecurity and one health problem after another, my dad gave himself over to both the obvious and the millions of imperceptible daily duties of bringing up two young boys. My greatest education in parenting comes from what my dad chose to build his parenting upon.
My father attended daily Mass every morning at 6:30am. In and of itself, this practice was neither a form of overt piety nor heroism; in fact, when I asked my dad recently why he went to Mass every day, he said, “I just enjoyed it. It was a good way to start my day.”
Mass always ended a couple minutes before 7am (so I’ve been told!) and he would race home afterwards to pack our lunches and get my brother and me ready for school. Otherwise, his days were no different than the great many parents who tend to their kids, work their jobs, cook meals, pay bills, attend school meetings, drive to sports practices, and maybe find a half-hour or so of down time at the end of the day. In all those ways, what he did then is much like what I do now. And yet I can’t help but think about the sheer volume of it all for one man, about the way he poured himself into it all, and about the simple routine that started all those days.
Once, when I was in the middle of one of my precocious, self-centered obnoxi-thons during my early teenage year, my dad’s best friend sort of reprimanded me:
“Someday you’ll realize all that your dad’s done for you.”
More than 20 years later, I still think about that prophecy. With my eldest son now a couple years older than I was when my dad became my sole day-to-day parent, I can’t imagine trying to give him and his siblings all they need without their mother (especially since she is the superior parent). Now that I am myself am in the midst of experiencing the joys and the struggles of parenting, I’m starting to realize what my dad did for me and for my brother.
The most important thing he did for us, though, was that he went to Mass every morning. It is not that all the things that happened the rest of the day were the effects of this one cause; rather, each of those days that I lived under his care were days spent with a man who practiced giving both his joys and his sorrows to the Lord, who stuck to “the familiar ritual of the Eucharistic Prayer in the midst of a life in turmoil,” as Tim O’Malley wrote a few short weeks ago on these very (digital) pages. As much as he had to improvise in those days and over those years, he made that one constant his foundation. And for two boys who lost the stability of a familiar home, he became our stability.
Though the translation of the Missal was different then, I like to think of my father at those early morning Masses when I recite these words before approaching the altar at Mass:
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof;
But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
For him, that roof covered our home, and our home was a perpetual reminder of the fracture that had occurred in his life—of what once was but was no longer. Under that roof, we all erred, we all failed, and for all his remarkable virtues and heroic deeds, he also had his fair share of poor decisions. Like all families, ours was, in many ways, unworthy of blessing.
But. I love that word right in this prayer. But I turn to you, O Lord. But I trust in you, O Lord. But your word is not my word because your word heals even when my word wounds…. But my dad practiced opening himself to more than he was by himself, and at couple minutes before 7am, he would race home to make our lunches.
I’ve learned a lot about the Eucharist since I was a child. In fact, I “know” a lot more about the Eucharist than my dad ever did. I’ve studied the Eucharist, I’ve taught the Eucharist, I’ve written about the Eucharist. And yet, there is nothing I could ever think or say or write that would exceed the eloquence of what my dad did, day after day.
He went out before we woke to receive the Eucharist and he brought the Eucharist back to us within himself.
“Become what you receive.” My dad carried what he received into our home and shared Him in the uncountable small acts of love he performed on a daily basis. We fed on his love; he became our bread.
That is the most important thing about parenting.