I’ve heard it called simply “father strength,” that inexplicable strength of fathers. Something happens when men become fathers – they can do anything – lift heavy boxes, turn stubborn screws, open sealed jars, hike miles and miles without getting tired. Every father I have met is like this somehow – a Superman in Clark Kent clothing. Fathers just always seem to be strong.
It isn’t an obvious strength – fathers don’t generally have bulging muscles, and they seldom make sport of lifting large weights short distances. Fathers don’t generally “work out” in that way (who has the time?!). Fathers can’t lift a thousand pounds over their head for an instant, but they can lift 30 pounds for hours on end. Fathers can’t move a bulldozer across a stadium, but they can rock a child to sleep and walk in circles for an entire night. Look at their forearms – even long after their children have grown. You might not see it at first, but fathers are surprisingly strong.
Now that I am a young father, I can understand a little better where this comes from. I’m not a sporty guy, generally, but in this first month of child-rearing I’ve had a demanding workout every day: mostly short, small repetitive movements maintained for an hour or two; long walks down short hallways and around livingrooms; a short break and then back at it – carting, carrying, soothing, entertaining, enjoying my baby and all the paraphernalia babies seem to require. The muscles in my shoulders and back ache, but I only notice it after I’ve put her down – when my daughter is in my arms I am hardly aware of any pain or discomfort. It makes sense to me, going through this now, how fathers can be so strong: a few years of this kind of training and you really can do anything.
This strength that lasts for a lifetime is built by the daily exercise of caring for a child. The act of caring builds muscles. Fatherstrength, when you think about it, is really love. It is the result of loving, and the ability to love. It is love embodied, and as such, acts like opening jars and repairing bicycle tires and lifting groceries and moving furniture are acts of love. We fathers are able to do them so well because we’ve loved.
Fatherstrength as love also changes what it means to be “strong.” Fatherstrength is not the ability to bend other people to one’s will. It isn’t the ability to withstand pain. It isn’t the glorification of independence. In fact, it is the opposite of these things: bending oneself to the needs of another, opening oneself to the sufferings and cares of another, being gloriously and intimately connected and bound to another.
For the first six weeks after a child is born, scientists tell us, the level of testosterone in the father drops dramatically, allowing/encouraging the father to bond with the child to a level it might not have been biologically able to otherwise. It is almost as if the whole of nature was telling us what is most important, what is a more profound source of strength, what is the ground of care. How the father’s body knows to respond to the birth of a child is a mystery. Fatherstrength may be surprising, but it is surely the most natural thing in the world.