I married when I was 25. I’m almost 32 now. I look back, seven years and three kids later, and I don’t recognize the man who woke up and drove to the church that morning.
He doesn’t even look like a man from this vantage point, though he probably considered himself one. He was a boy. A selfish, stupid boy who had spent nearly every waking moment of his life up until that day concerned almost exclusively with caring for, and satisfying, himself. He had been the focus of his life. He did not know how to focus on anything else.
People in my generation are hesitant to get married and start families because they think they aren’t cut out for it. They aren’t ready, they insist. They worry that they may not be “marriage material” or “parent material.” They’re right. The material of marriage is selflessness and devotion. It’s hard to develop that kind of material when your most pressing daily concern is the satisfaction of your own needs and desires — though you could probably make more progress than I did during my single years.
You cannot be marriage material until you are married. That’s the whole risk and reward of the thing. Marriage is a transformation. It’s one of the few times in life when you, in one instant, become something other than what you were before. Your very identity changes as you are bonded for life to this other person. But this transformation of identity does not automatically include a transformation of personality and tendency. Those you must bring with you into this new and higher calling. Slowly you will discover your unfitness, and the real work will begin when you set out to purge yourself of your childish ways and conform yourself with your vocation.
I don’t know how much work the average person has to do in this regard. I know that I had quite a lot to do, and still it is nowhere near complete. You can be selfish when you are single without ever really noticing your selfishness. The demands made upon your time and your life are not very great, and harshest demands come with financial compensation. It is easy to maintain considerable levels of self-absorption while still being a competent employee, loyal friend, and polite neighbor. Your employers, friends, and neighbors don’t expect much of you, all things considered.
So it was only after I got married that I discovered some of my worst characteristics. I discovered that I was jealous of my time. I discovered that I was the sort of person who expects gratitude and feels slighted when they don’t receive it. I discovered that I was reluctant to make sacrifices. I discovered that I was impatient. I discovered that I was immature. I discovered how little I’d learned in my first 25 years of life, and how little I’d grown.
I had only just begun to confront these ugly aspects of myself when my wife became pregnant with twins. The next moment of transformation was upon us. If I wasn’t marriage material even less was I dad material. The transformation occurred regardless, no matter my lack of preparedness. As my children’s lives came suddenly into being, so did my new life as a father and my wife’s as a mother. We were now parents and we would never not be parents. Our old lives as non-parents were dead and gone, never to return.
Again, my personality and habits struggled to adjust to this new reality. It was easy enough in the early going. Infants don’t do anything but poop, sleep, and cry. If you can cope with the sleep deprivation, the rest is manageable. But as the children grew, and we added another one into the mix, the full scope of fatherhood started to dawn on me. My responsibility not only for their physical wellbeing, but their spiritual wellbeing, came more clearly into view. I felt utterly unworthy as I contemplated the great task before me.
Those feelings of incompetence never completely go away. Not for me, anyway. I often feel like I’m making it up as I go. The worries creep in. Am I screwing my kids up? Will they be talking about me to their therapist one day? Am I the man my wife needs me to be? Am I a spiritual leader? Will I look back on my current self seven years from today and see the same stupid boy I see now when I look seven years in the past?
This kind of self-criticism is another new feature of my life as a dad and a husband. I think it comes with the territory when you love someone. Love brings a lot of things into focus, including yourself. It’s like catching a glimpse of your reflection in a mirror, when the light is particularly bright, and seeing blemishes you didn’t notice when it was dim. It can be a painful revelation, yet necessary.
But you can’t spend too much time standing around inspecting your own face. Your reflection must fade away so that the focus can return to those you love, and the God through whom you love them. Only when I became a father and husband did I learn to see myself, and only when I became a father and husband did I learn to forget myself. That is the true beauty of this vocation. You discover what it means to really take joy in someone else; in their happiness, in their accomplishments, in their victories, in them. It’s in those moments where everything fits into place and you find harmony.
I still have moments of self-doubt. I still sometimes question my “material.” But I know that it’s the material of a husband and a father. Because that’s who I am, and who I’ll always be.