My “daddy sabbatical” has begun. After serving at a Jesuit high school for the past six years as a Social Justice teacher, I recently decided to take some time away from work and be more present to my two young children.
Such availability, of course, is a privilege. But I am discovering that truly “being there,” especially in an age of so many demands and distractions, is a challenging responsibility. During my first days as a stay-at-home dad, even though I am physically with my children instead of at work, mentally I am often elsewhere. The restless, unsettled, and seemingly uncontrollable thoughts that clamor for my attention, pulling me out of the moment, are what Buddha called the “monkeys in our mind.”
I recently came across a letter that Pedro Arrupe, S.J. wrote in 1977 to his brother Jesuits on Apostolic Availability. Using phrases from St. Ignatius, Fr. Arrupe may as well have been offering tips to the stay-at-home-father. He stirs any “men ready to be sent” to an unconditional commitment of the authentic “contemplative in action,” and a willingness to “undertake all the most difficult tasks.” One way that I have found to help tame the monkeys in my mind, in the midst of the dirtiest dishes and diapers, is to remain grounded in contemplative practice and reflection.
Another Ignatian insight that helps me tame the mental monkeys is an understanding of the importance of fatherhood, and gratitude for that vocation. In his book Tattoos on the Heart, Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J. notes that the absence of positive, if any, father figures has caused deep and lasting heartache, not to mention violence toward oneself and others, in the former gang members (“homies”) he has come to know and love: “In the soul of nearly every homie I know there is a hole that’s in the shape of his dad” (90). In one passage from the book, a formerly incarcerated gang member transcends this trend, sitting at home before his children, totally available, simply watching them eat a meal. Thanking God they are in his life. “You know,” he says to Fr. Boyle, “It’s a father thing.”
Last week, on the first full day of my “daddy sabbatical,” I sat gazing at my children with delight as they bounced in unison between mouthfuls of blueberries. Being there, fully there, grounded and grateful, afforded me a simple moment of joy which full availability can open to us. And my daughter spoke her first phrase: “No more monkeys!”
To her, it was a refrain from a favorite song; to me, it was a reminder to tame the monkeys in my own head, even for the moment, and be a present Papa.
A native of Montana, Michael Downs now lives in the Bay Area where he serves as Religious Studies Department Chair and Assistant Cross Country Coach at Bellarmine College Preparatory, an all-boys Jesuit high school. An alumnus of the University of Notre Dame (B.A. ’00, M.Ed. ’02) and the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley (M.A. ’07), Michael served as a classroom teacher in Texas, campus minister in Europe, volunteer in India, and outdoor educator in the Northwest before settling in California.