Family

Lessons on fatherhood from an unintended stay-at-home dad

This Father's Day week, Salt&Light honours all dads and their noble calling.

Cliff Tam // June 13, 2022, 5:00 pm

The Tam Family 2

"I could groan through parenthood, or see the mundane as privileged opportunities to journey with my children," says Cliff Tam, a stay-at-home father whose parenthood journey has been a trying one.

The passer-by hurried past our family as we struggled up the church stairwell. “I remember my kids when they were your kids’ age. And I can tell you, I sure don’t miss those times,” she remarked.

My girls, five and three, climbed up – one large, painful step at a time, from level 3 to level 6 – as my wife and I exchanged glances.

I understood what she meant. Because, well, I am a stay-at-home dad (SAHD).

I had never intended to be an SAHD. I would be much more comfortable “doing ministry” in a conventional church setting or working full-time. Playing with children doesn’t come naturally to me; I am no Mary Poppins.

Yet, God led me on this journey where I have learnt precious lessons about fathering and the Father’s heart.

Discovering my identity in the mundane

When I started my SAHD journey, I struggled.

I struggled with looking after both a baby and a toddler at the same time. In fact, I congratulated myself when I could take both of them to the mall by myself!

But the most significant struggle was with my identity. Am I less of a man if I am not working? Am I a second-class Christian if everyone else I know is serving the Lord in some sort of ministry or church setting?

Could I be secure in Christ if I had no accolades or KPIs to show for it?

We all know that our identity is rooted in our relationship with Jesus. I knew it in my head, but did I believe it in my heart?

In the New Testament times, slaves belonged in the lowest class in society. Yet, the apostle Paul reminded them that they were free in Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:22). They were free not because of their status in society but their relationship with Jesus.

I discovered that if I genuinely believed that my identity was rooted in Jesus, it wouldn’t matter whether I was a CEO, a minister or a stay-at-home dad. It wouldn’t matter if I was a slave to the mundane.

I began to challenge myself: Could I be secure in Christ if I had no accolades or KPIs to show for it? 

We tend to think that serving in conventional ministry is sacred above all else. But on the night before Jesus was crucified, He washed His disciples’ feet (John 13:5). This is the most mundane task any one could do. Yet, He chose to do so.

Jesus made the menial, mundane and ordinary sacred.

I learnt that it doesn’t matter what type of task God puts me to do; I can do all things for the glory of God (Colossians 3:17). This was hard to accept because I would rather be involved in some church ministry than watch my kids. But along the way, God revealed to me that parenting has a deeper meaning.

Parenting as discipleship

If there was one lesson I learnt as a father, it is that parenting is discipleship.

I have discovered that parents, not the church, should be the ones discipling their children (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Ephesians 6:9). I am not against Sunday School; I am thankful for the volunteers there who teach my children about Jesus. But in The Disciple-Making Parents, author Bettis Chap made this statement:

Parenting is a commission to do all we can to raise our children to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. The foundational parenting text is not Ephesians 6:1-4 or Deuteronomy 6:4-9, as important as they are, instead it is Matthew 28:18-20.

When I read this, I had my light-bulb moment.

When I linked parenting with discipleship, my mind was blown. I realised that every opportunity I have with my children is an opportunity to show them who our heavenly Father is.

When I linked parenting with discipleship, my mind was blown.

To be a father is a high calling. To our kids, we are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). And we can’t fake it. Our children see us when we are at our best and at our worst.

There is no point in teaching my children to love our neighbours in church while they see me react in rage when someone cuts me off on the road. I am challenged again and again.

Do I exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) before my children? Sadly, there are times when I am not kind, patient or loving. When I rush to get things done or am tired, I bark at my children to hurry up.

Over time, I have learnt that getting things done is pointless if I do not exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. My attitude in what I do is more important than the act itself.

One study showed that faith is more likely to be passed on to the next generation if a father is warm to his children than if the mother expresses warmth. We all know that mothers are naturally more nurturing and caring. But the study showed me that I can’t pass my duty as a father to my wife.

My focus now has been to show God’s love to my kids every day.

God Himself is our heavenly Father. What more of a privilege do I have than to show our children who God is by loving them through demonstrating love, patience and kindness?

My goal these days has evolved. Instead of checking off my to-do list as quickly as possible, my focus now has been to show God’s love to my kids every day.

There are times when I fail, and I need to apologise to my girls for getting upset. It is humbling.

But I am learning that life isn’t about getting through the day or passing time until my children grow up. Rather, I am creating a legacy for generations to come – moment by moment – through everyday discipleship, even in the little moments of parenting.

Leaving a legacy, one day at a time

The hardest thing I have ever done is to complete an Ironman triathlon. I spent 14 hours swimming 4km, biking 180km and running a marathon back-to-back. On that day, I exercised more than I slept.

But completing an Ironman triathlon is a joke compared to looking after kids, because the latter is so much harder!

As a family without a domestic helper or robust grandparent support, rest is a luxury. When our children are young, they constantly need us. Often, just when I have a quiet moment to myself, my girls would come asking, “Papa, can you play with me?”

What keeps me going, especially when the days are hard? I remind myself that I do this because my girls will be my legacy.

My harvest will come. It will not come in weeks or months, but in years and generations.

The reality is that my girls will grow up. They might have kids of their own. They might even become grandparents. So right now, I could complain, or I could use every minute I have to show them who God is.

The impact is immense.

I learnt that looking after my girls isn’t just about getting through the day. Instead, the values that guide my parenting of them will be passed on to future generations.

On the days I feel like quitting, I remind myself that I am a farmer sowing seeds. That’s all I am doing. What we sow, we will reap (Galatians 6:7). My harvest will come. It will not come in weeks or months, but in years and generations.

So yes, today may be a tough day. But what is one tough day or season in raising my children compared to the harvest reaped through generations to come?

In the Bible, a generation is 100 years (Genesis 15:13,16). When I imagine that my everyday parenting sows a legacy for hundreds of years ahead, I am in awe. That is worth my all.

Time is short

The comment from that passer-by in the stairwell made me think a lot. 

As she hurried up the stairs, I groaned inwardly at how slow we all were, waiting for my little ones to overcome the series of dark, dirty steps.

Yet, I realised, it was precisely this lesson that God wanted me to learn.

No matter how awful the day might be with them, it is a chance to disciple.

I could groan through parenthood, or see the mundane as privileged opportunities to journey with my children, to show God’s extraordinary love to them.

Today, if someone asked me: “If tomorrow is your last day on earth and you have a choice to either live the best day of your life or the worst day with your children, which would you choose?”

Without batting an eyelid, I would take the worst day with my children. The worst day of tantrums, vomit, poop and broken drinking glasses. Because no matter how awful the day might be with them, it is a chance to disciple. Jesus exemplified sacrificial love when He laid down His life for us (1 John 3:16).

Time is short. I don’t want to miss any chance to show them who Jesus is.

Would you join me in delighting in this messy, slow journey of parenthood?


FATHER’S DAY STORIES:

Staying at home for my son with autism: One dad adjusts to life without a job title

5 dads from the Bible who light the way for all dads

How to be a father to the fatherless

About the author

Cliff Tam

Cliff Tam is a missionary from Canada who is married to Wai Jia. They have two wonderful girls, Sarah-Faith and Esther-Praise. A liver transplant survivor and Ironman triathlon finisher, Cliff lives in deep gratitude to God for a second chance at life. Find out more about his writings and weekly webinars at www.clifftam.com.

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