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  • Writer's picturetimothy martiny

The Role of a Father

They say time flies, and I guess it does; I can remember, like yesterday, the day she was born. I remember holding her in my arms for the first time before she was rushed off to an incubator for 10 days due to complications.

I can remember the love I felt in my heart looking at her, so tiny yet perfectly made. I can remember thinking that I wanted to give her the best I could, that she would never lack for anything, and that all her needs and wants would be met.

I was 17, newly married, and had spent a large portion of my childhood institutionalized. From a young age, I was required to work to support my family. I knew how tough life could be. We were 11 siblings, plus several step-siblings with us on and off over the years; we had food and clothes, but not much more. I still remember buying my first pair of new shoes when I was 15, right before I left home. They were LA Gear and cost $9.99 at Kmart. I was so proud of them and wore them till the soles wore out. My education was sparse, and I needed to be equipped for life.

Needless to say, I didn't have much in my childhood. So, as a young father, I wanted her to have everything I hadn't had, and I was willing to do whatever it took to give it to her. I worked long hours to provide for my wife and daughter. Getting up at 5 am to work 12 hours and then rushing home to spend the with my baby was worth it. No job was beneath me, not even digging ditches in the sewer. While I gave her love, played with her often, and read her Bible stories every night. I was practically a kid trying to figure out how to parent a kid.

I remember her first birthday party, a windy day at Lafreniere Park in Louisiana. We had a barbecue, invited all our friends, and spent way too much money on Fisher Price "Little People" toys. Thankfully, they ended up being used by her 5 siblings that were to come.

We went all out for her birthday and looking back, I see nothing wrong with that; it was more that I didn't know what mattered in my child's life.

Things did not turn out the way I had planned. I went from installing doors for Home Depot to a job in tech support to taking my family to live in Guatemala for what I thought was going to be three months of volunteer work.

When we boarded the flight to Guatemala that would change our lives forever, she was three years and seven months old. What had started as a short trip to help some missionaries we knew turned into a life of service to orphaned, vulnerable, and disabled children.

Something about seeing others in dire need can fundamentally rewire the way we prioritize our lives. I still wanted the best for my daughter, but as time went on, I was no longer convinced that what I thought was the best for her was really the best for her.

Now that I have spent over half my life raising kids, I've come to the conclusion that parents have four fundamental obligations to their children:

  1. Keep them safe

  2. Provide for their needs

  3. Make them feel loved

  4. Prepare them for life.

Most parents intuitively understand and work towards meeting them. Yet how things play out, based on our culture, beliefs, resources, and how we were raised, varies.

The more time I spent working with children in orphanages who were lacking in many of these things, the more time I spent thinking and praying about what it actually took to meet those needs. Reflecting on how to provide these things to those I served changed the ways I thought about meeting them for my own children.

I knew I didn't want her to be raised like I was. Besides leaving home at such a young age, I didn't have a solid education. I didn't know what a healthy relationship with one's parents looked like.

As time passed, my philosophy of meeting the fundamental obligations to my children evolved.

Keeping them safe looked different in a less developed country like Guatemala than it did in the U.S. She didn't grow up in a perfect suburban neighborhood; she grew up spending time with me visiting the places I worked, driving across Mexico to the U.S. and back every few years, and often times, just being in my company. The safety came from being with a dad who was always alert and looking out for her, yet simultaneously exposing her to beautiful new places as she served alongside me.

Providing for her needs changed as well. There is something about seeing others with so much less than us that can impact what we think we need. Many of the things we classify as needs are actually wants. Instead of mountains of new toys every birthday, I started making presents for my children, from wooden flower planters with their names carved into them to refurbishing and rebuilding old bicycles; we met their needs and many of their wants yet tried to demonstrate a clear difference between the two.

Making them feel loved. My efforts turned from loving them with things to loving them with time. I would come home from work for most of their childhood and take them to the park daily. We played in forests and fields and spent time together. I can't say that I have always succeeded in loving them perfectly in every way. God knows I have my failings, yet I believe our focus on spending time and resources on experiences with my children rather than on things has paid off.

Preparing them for life. This is where some people might disagree with me. How could I throw away the "lottery of birth" my children had been given by being American citizens? The opportunity to grow up, live, attend college, and find a career in what is probably one of the safest, wealthiest countries in the world, with limitless options at their disposal. In exchange for a life in a largely impoverished country, where crime and violence are a daily companion, where they don't have the same fast-track educational prospects, live away from their relatives, and possibly suffer from the innate challenges that come from their parents being missionaries?

I have given it a lot of thought and grappled with it, and I don't know I have a perfect answer. I may not have given her the typical things that are so highly valued by most people, but I have given her something more.

I have exposed her to the world, not just to her country. I am proudly American, yet the world is more significant than my home country. Raising her in Guatemala showed me the greater scope of humanity beyond one race or culture. She speaks a second language and quickly engages people from different walks of life. Her education, while a mix of home and local schools, has been much more than book learning. It has been the places we have worked where she has served alongside us and developed a heart of compassion. From volunteering at church to willingly helping with projects in our ministry to assisting her younger siblings, I believe that service has become part of her DNA. She may not have had access to AP classes and been able to get college credits while in high school. Still, she has constantly been faced with learning opportunities and real-world problem-solving challenges that have continuously pushed her outside her comfort zone, and, of utmost importance, she has learned to learn.

She has had excellent opportunities to see God do amazing things. While stuck at the border a few years ago facing a problem with immigration, she told my wife, "I wasn't worried because Daddy always gets us through". While I was encouraged and touched that she had such confidence in me, I could only point her to God as I knew Him had saved us repeatedly in our travels, from our car breaking down in the middle of nowhere in Mexico to dealing with corrupt cops and seemingly impossible situations in foreign countries. She had seen God do miracles for us and for her, and it had grown her faith.

Most importantly, however, I have seen her develop her own personal relationship with God, from making the decision to be baptized to aligning her activities, friendships, and lifestyle with what has become not just ours but her belief system and personal convictions. I could not be more proud of her. Her faith is her own, which is her true preparation for life.

More than anything I could have done to prepare, I gave her a path to God where she could develop her faith, and she did. Could I have done that back home? Certainly! Yet seeing God's word come to life when you desperately need it and there is no other solution is a precious gift to give your children.

Did I do a perfect job raising my children? No. Would l do things differently if I was 17 and starting out again? Perhaps! The only thing I know I did right in raising my children is that my desire to do it "right" led me to God, His word, and His principles.

In truth, when I look at her, at the amazing woman she has become, despite all my faults and failings as a father, I don't know that I would change a thing.

As she finishes school this year and begins to make her own way in the world. I know that while her life may not always be easy, she has the tools, character, and connection with God to make the most of the life she has been given.

She is more than I could have hoped for, but everything I prayed for.

Julia Taylor Martiny, I love you and am so proud of you.

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