Not long ago I had to take my daughter to the emergency room for the first time. She had tumbled face first down some stairs and slammed her head into concrete. I felt pretty terrible for not protecting her, but the worst of my fatherly pain lay ahead.
At the hospital the doctors examined her as best they could, but they eventually presented me with a choice about how to proceed. They thought that my daughter was most likely going to be fine, but they couldn’t be certain without performing a CT scan, a test accompanied by the usual risks associated with radiation. They asked if I wanted them to perform the scan or not.
I weighed my options and made what I thought was the best decision under the circumstances: I asked them to perform the CT scan. I figured that the present and obvious risk of concussion or hidden bleeding warranted the lesser risk of radiation exposure. At the time I even explained my thinking by saying, “Better safe than sorry.” (I’m not clever in emergencies; if I’m ever in an emergency with you, you should expect to hear clichés. Also I babble in emergencies, so you should expect to hear a lot of them.)
The scan itself was a bit of a nightmare for everyone involved. My daughter screamed because grown men held her down with her head between menacing braces. I felt sick because my daughter kept crying and reaching for me, terrified and desperate to know why I wasn’t saving her. There wasn’t any way for me to make her understand that I was trying to do what I thought was best. I imagine that my attempts at consolation seemed particularly hollow because I was one of the people holding her down. Still, the worst of my fatherly pain lay ahead.
When it was over, the doctor said she hadn’t been seriously injured. Also, with the help of hugs and cookies, she calmed down quickly enough. Everything seemed to return to normal, and I drove home chuckling about how my daughter was still indestructible.
Then just a couple of days later, a study emerged about how performing CT scans on young children significantly increases their chances of developing Leukemia and other severe conditions.
That was when fatherhood really started to hurt. I imagined my precious little baby, in the hospital again just a few years from now, fighting for her life against a disease I had caused. I imagined myself standing beside her hospital bed, haunted by the vivid memory of her frantic wails in the CT scan juxtaposed with my own words: “Better safe than sorry.” I realized exactly how sorry I could be.
Now, just so I’m being clear, I know that reaction was melodramatic. The odds are still overwhelmingly in my daughter’s favor that she isn’t going to develop a horrible disease from her one experience with CT scans. In fact, my point has nothing to do with disease or CT scans at all.
My point is that fatherhood overwhelmed me. I had made the best decision I could, but was then vividly reminded that I might as well have made it in the metaphorical dark. There were so many things I couldn’t know, so many things I couldn’t understand, that what I did know and understand seemed insignificant. I’m fine with that sort of situation when I’m the only person affected, but as a father I have to make decisions for my daughter too. I’m less fine with that.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t get to know the future. I don’t get to know when I’m wrong about what’s important or what might have long term consequences. In fact, I can probably assume that I’m going to be mistaken a lot.
When I think back on my own life and my own father, I’m pretty sure that some of his words which have affected me most were ones he didn’t intend to have much weight. Not that he was being deliberately flippant, just busy. As much as I sometimes like to imagine otherwise, everything doesn’t revolve around me, and he had other things to do than carefully mull over every word and action to consider how it might affect my long-term development.
However, it’s fitting that when I went to him with all of these concerns, he gave me a good answer: “Remember to whom she ultimately belongs.”
As a Christian I understand that my role as father is at best to be a worthy proxy. My daughter’s true Father is her Heavenly one. His knowledge is infinite, his wisdom perfect, his devotion unchanging. He will care for his daughter according to his bountiful goodness and mercy. In short, he’ll be for her all of the things that I want for her.
He invites me to strive to reflect that and to participate in it, but my limitations can’t sabotage it. When I do well, I point to him who is better. When I do badly, he continues in perfection and will overcome my failures.
Jesus talks about this in a couple of places. One of my favorite passages in the New Testament comes from the Gospel according to Matthew when Jesus turns to the fathers in the audience and asks them a series of pretty obvious questions: “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?” (Matthew 7:9-10, ESV)
His point is pretty obvious. Even sinful people understand what fatherhood is supposed to look like, and most of them probably try to live up to the standard. Imagine how much better God must be at loving his children, because God is without sin.
Of course that doesn’t mean I’m off the hook. I’m still going to try my best to protect her and love her, all the more even because God has entrusted her to me. She’s my little honey; I want to take care of her. Also though, I have the opportunity to point her toward God, to be the sort of father that models him faithfully.
The comfort is that, when my sin hampers me–when I’m not knowledgeable enough, or strong enough, or loving enough—I’m not actually her last defense. She has a bigger, wiser, stronger, and better Father than me, a perfect Father who will always work for her good.