Religion & Liberty Online

The joy of fatherhood: How sacrifice brings meaning to life

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Modern men increasingly place a higher value on economic or educational milestones than marriage and children, viewing fatherhood as a “capstone” rather than “cornerstone” of a life well lived. But when taking up the mantle of fatherhood, men enter into a calling that brings joy and meaning to life and positive transformative across society.

Read More…

American society has increasingly prioritized self-fulfillment and personal choice above all else, leading to a gradual devaluing of the family. Birth rates are in rapid decline across the Western world, and given the common cultural attitudes about children and child-rearing, they show few signs of slowing. For men, the trend is particularly pronounced.

“A good deal of research shows that in many areas of the industrialized world, men are fathering fewer children, and doing so later in life – even more so than women are,” writes Arthur Brooks at The Atlantic. “This is especially true for highly educated men.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, today’s rising generations place far more worth on various economic or educational milestones, viewing fatherhood as a “capstone” rather than “cornerstone” of a life well lived. Presented with an abundance of opportunity, the modern man is inundated with subtle signals, convincing him that marriage and children can wait.

Yet the data tell a different story, showing that fatherhood bears tremendous fruit, whether in the lives of men and their children or across society at large. While our culture continues to preach and teach that idolatry of the self is the sure way to “personal happiness,” the research continues to demonstrate that ordering our lives around sacrifice offers far more joy, meaning, and purpose.

Brooks summarizes the research as follows:

Fatherhood, like motherhood, requires obvious economic and social sacrifices. But on the happiness balance sheet, the evidence supporting it is very strong: Fatherhood, for the average man, is a huge source of net well-being. In one study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2012, researchers found that parents enjoyed higher levels of happiness, positive emotion, and meaning in life than nonparents—and this was especially true for fathers. Similarly, researchers in 2001 found that men who lived with their young children (or who had grown children) had significantly higher life satisfaction and were less likely to suffer from depression than men who were childless or who were living apart from their young children.

In addition to being happier, men with kids work a lot more than childless men, even though their time tends to be constrained by family life. According to the 2001 study, men living with their children worked, on average, 6.6 hours more each week than childless men, and two hours more than men who were not living with their kids. Yet the impact on free time doesn’t seem to bother most dads; on the contrary, according to a 2016 Boston College study, Millennial fathers are significantly more likely than nonfathers to say, “My life conditions are excellent.”

Brooks notes that this is yet another example of what psychologists call “the helper’s high,” which “refers to the good feeling we get when we sacrifice for others.”

In ordering their lives in the service of women and children, men are binding themselves to rhythms of love that are bound to bring just as much joy as difficult, thankless work. “Sacrificing for others – especially those you love most – is like a natural happiness drug,” Brooks explains.

Brooks proceeds by offering three “happiness lessons” that are well timed and targeted for a culture that far too often neglects the beauty and meaning such work.

  1. “If you want kids, have them.”

The patterns in the data should help allay the common fear that becoming a father will be a net-negative force on a man’s well-being. The idea that staying childless and footloose is more satisfying is, on average, wrong. Everyone has a different experience of fatherhood depending on many factors, including the quality of one’s parenting partnership. But all things being equal, fatherhood is an excellent investment in happiness.

  1. “Don’t resist the work and sacrifice that fatherhood entails.”

I often feel resentful when family responsibilities pull me away from my personal priorities, which (unlike my dad’s) generally involve me wanting to work more. But resentments are a poor guide to happiness, and the 14th hour at the office is a bad trade for the first hour at home. If you, like me, sometimes find yourself feeling a little bitter about having to parent, try an “opposite signal” strategy: When you are annoyed that family needs are impinging on your individual desires, take it as a sign that you need to focus more on family, not less.

  1. Celebrate the work of fatherhood

If a dad is a good parent, he deserves to know it, which brings us to the third lesson: The helper’s high is great, but you can make your dad even happier by acknowledging and thanking him for the ways he’s served your family. Further, research overwhelmingly illustrates that showing your appreciation will likely improve your relationship and make you happier. Maybe you have the kind of dad who doesn’t take such recognition gracefully (“What the hell did you think I was going to do—let you kids starve?”). It doesn’t matter. The thanks will still register, and will help you both.

Brooks’ remarks are tightly woven with data points from every direction one could imagine. But these are facts and features about fatherhood that humanity has long known in some sense or another.

For Christians, in particular, the Biblical story paints a picture of the human family in the Garden of Eden, one that continues to grow as human civilization expands. The family sets the stage for our service and orients the scope for our gift-giving across every sphere of the social and economic order.

It is in the family where we first learn to love and relate, to order our obligations, and to orient our activities toward other-centered ends. It is in the basic, mundane exchanges between husband and wife, brother and sister, parent and child that we learn what it means to truly flourish. When men take up the mantle of fatherhood, they enter into a calling that has transformative impact well beyond their own utility and happiness.

As theologian Herman Bavinck writes in The Christian Family:

The family is and remains the nurturing institution par excellence. Beyond every other institution it has this advantage, namely, that it was not constructed and artificially assembled by man…Even though the family has existed for centuries, we cannot create a likeness; it was, it is, and it will continue to be a gift, an institution that God alone sustains. Furthermore, the family does not consist of a number of empty forms that we need to fill, but it is full of life…A wealth of relationships, a multiplicity of characteristics, a treasure trove of gifts, a world of love, a wonderful intermingling of rights and duties – all of these, once again, are brought together not by human determination but by God’s sovereign determination …

… Therefore the nurture that takes place within the family possesses a very special character. … Everything is serviceable for nurturing each other day by day, hour by hour, without plan, without appointment, without technique, all of which are set beforehand. Everything possesses power to nurture, apart from being able to analyze and calculate that power. Thousands of incidents, thousands of trivia, thousands of trifles all exert their influence. It is life itself that nurtures, that cultivates the rich, inexhaustible, multifaceted, magnificent life. The family is the school of life, because it is the fountain and hearth of life.

What may seem an incredible sacrifice to modern men – prolonging career dreams, emptying financial resources, giving time, energy, and attention – will yield more fruit than we think. Likewise, what may seem utterly mundane – changing diapers, feeding mouths, teaching “yes” and “no,” reading stories, driving kids from here to there – is the starting point for something deeply divine and eternal.

The invitation to be fruitful and multiply is a primary call to God’s people, and it coats and colors all else. We are invited to participate in the restoration of the family, and in doing so, to lay the foundations for the replenishing of the earth. This Father’s Day, it’s a call worth celebrating

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.