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Fatherhood as Vocation by Graham Scharf

I’m wired to be an achiever. Give me a problem, and I’ll solve it; give me a goal, and I’ll exceed it. I never dreamed of being a father, because I didn’t think it was important. It was a part of life, to be sure, but a peripheral part of being an achiever.

It was a very good thing that I had the privilege of fathering thrust upon me, because I would have chosen achievement over children. My wife, Rebecca, gave birth to our firstborn daughter, Elisabeth, when we were only 25 and still in the midst of higher education. She was in her fourth year of medical school, and I was teaching full time in a failing elementary school while completing my final year of a Master of Arts in Teaching.

Our life situation gave us three options. We could pay someone else to provide childcare; Rebecca could be the full time parent; or I could be the full time parent. With a grueling residency which could demand as much as 100 hours a week still ahead of Rebecca, we realized that if we both worked, we would have little or no family time for the next three years. Alternately, if she stayed home with Elisabeth, it would be far more difficult to do a residency later in life – and without a residency, she wouldn’t be able to practice medicine at all. By contrast, I had experience in a successful consulting team, and an advanced degree in education. I could step out of the workforce and step back in with relative ease. Becoming a full-time father was, from our perspective, the only viable option.

I live in New York City, the Mecca of achievers. One of the first questions in a conversation with a new acquaintance in a playground or at a cocktail party is almost inevitably, “So, what do you do?” Among my peers, the answers range from investment banking to medicine, to running a start-up or non-profit. Everyone does something remarkable. And then the question comes to me, “So, what do you do?” I remember well that when I first became a full-time father, I told people what I had done in consulting and education, and concluded, “And now I’m home with my daughter.” Fatherhood, as much as I enjoyed it, still didn’t measure up on the achiever index.

When Elisabeth was about four years old, I discovered Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life. In those pages Gladys Hunt introduced me to the rich world of enjoying children’s literature with children. We went to the library and checked out stacks of books from the book list (which comprises the entire second half of the book), and sat together on the floor with Curious George, Olivia the pig, Lilly’s Big Day and her Purple Plastic Purse, among others. I called my parents and announced, “I have found the best book on children’s literature!” They replied, “Did you know that we used that book to find books for you when you were little?” Their investment in me was now coming full circle as I began to relish fatherhood even more in the context of great books, combining my love for books and education with my love for fathering my daughter. When Elisabeth turned five, I read her the Chronicles of Narnia and the Little House on the Prairie series – and we both loved every minute.

I have been a full-time father for five years now, and we now have a second beautiful daughter, Katherine. I have come to both see and feel that being a father is not peripheral to achievement. A successful author and friend put it this way: “My books are popular now. In twenty years, I don’t know if anyone will remember my books. But I do know that I’ll have a relationship with my kids twenty years from now.” Relationships matter. My relationship with my daughters matters a lot more than my current employment – which I can almost certainly predict will not be my job in twenty years. Now when I’m asked, “So, what do you do?” I usually reply simply, “I’m a father.” My achievement index has been adjusted. It isn’t just that I have the privilege of being a full-time father; it is that I have the privilege of being a father.

This article is excerpted from Keith Zafren’s book How to Be a Great Dad and used by permission. Image from Flickr and used under Creative Commons license.