Ahead of Father’s Day, we'll be sharing stories of everyday Christian fathers, and how knowing God and the gospel has shaped their perspectives on children and parenting. In this reflection, Chris Thomas shares how God has been at work in his family as he parents children with special needs and chronic health issues.
1. Tell us a little about yourself!
My name is Chris Thomas, a fairly average guy who grew up in QLD but has called NSW home for over 20 years (but I still chant QLDer come State Of Origin time). I’m 45 years old, that strange age where I still forget I’m not a kid anymore, but am legitimately feeling the years starting to pile up on my body.
I often tell people that I’m the father of three and a dad to 5—a short way of saying that the Lord blessed my wife and me with three children who entered our family the old-fashioned way, and then two more who entered our family via the Foster system. Our five kids range between 20 years old and 5, so I feel like I’ve been changing dirty nappies for two decades!
When I’m not changing nappies (and can choose how to fill my time), you’ll find me either writing, sitting beside a fire somewhere near a secluded creek, or researching the ultimate property on which to live ‘off-grid’ (hey, we can all dream, can’t we?).
2. What are the joys and challenges of being a parent to a child with special needs?
We never intended to specialise our Foster Care journey in Special Needs, yet a little over 12 years ago, when Master M* entered this world, we first met him in NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) — early, small, alone, and though we didn’t know it yet, profoundly broken. Miss I* entered the world five years ago, only halfway through the time she should have spent in the womb, and spent the next three months of her life in NICU, and will spend the remainder of her life with significant health challenges. Both of these children have severe brain damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol, which they feel the effect of every minute of every day.
The obvious challenges that come with being a dad to children with special needs are wrapped up with the particular challenges that our kids have. Every dad dreams of seeing their kids grow and thrive, but the challenges my kids face mean that thriving will look different for them, which also means that my dreams have needed to look different as well. In some ways, life becomes simpler, so many of the choices we make are dictated by the restraints that special needs bring. Yet, life is more complex as well—even simple tasks, simple errands, and simple outings, are from ‘simple’ anymore. Living in this tension can be exhausting.
But raising my children has also been the source of some of my greatest joys. There is joy in seeing the world through different eyes. There is joy in celebrating the hard-fought wins our kids have. There is joy as I see my biological kids develop insight and compassion for kids different to them, and even choose career paths that will serve the neediest of our society.
Being a dad is complex, filled with a unique blend of joy and sorrow, yet all held securely within the cup of God’s sovereign love.
*Names in this story have been changed to protect the children's privacy.
3. What does being a Christian father mean to you?
I know many great dads, some of whom don’t know Jesus yet. So being a ‘Christian’ dad isn’t just about being a ‘better’ dad—in fact, the quest to be better, or define our worth by our achievements, may, in fact, be an example of everything that stands opposed to the gospel. No, being a Christian dad has meant that I can find my value ultimately in Christ. My failures, of which I have many, don’t define my identity, instead they drive me evermore into the arms of a saviour. Being a Christian dad means that grace flavours and reshapes how I discipline and train my kids, preparing them for what God has in store for them, not to carry the burden of being my legacy to the world.
4. What do you believe to be the ultimate purpose of fatherhood?
In a sense, being a father is akin to being a Steward of Gondor; we sit on a borrowed throne for just a few years. When my kids were young, they would gaze up at me with eyes ablaze with trust and adoration. But that trust will eventually be broken, the adoration tarnished by reality. Fatherhood is holding those brief years on the throne with soft hands, with fingers willing to open and release. Fathers are shepherds, but shepherds who love the flock owned by another. A greater king will return, a greater shepherd will call our kid’s names. My job as a father is to tune my children’s hearts to recognise the ‘true and better dad’.
5. How does knowing God the Father change the way you parent your kids?
I hope it has left a fingerprint on every aspect of parenting, but the sphere I’ve been most aware of is how grace is applied to parenting. I want my parenting to demonstrate something of the grace of God. Not only that, but I want my kids to experience what it means not to have to ‘earn’ my love, or my trust, or my attention. I want, when faced with a tension or dilemma, to lean toward grace rather than law, and if I err, then I will err on the side of grace.
6. Can you share something that God has been teaching you, since you’ve become a parent?
That’s easy. There is nothing like parenthood to expose your selfishness. A day has barely passed over the last 20 years when God hasn’t gently placed his finger on some treasured corner of my heart, and little piece of me that I am reluctant to relinquish. The often read passage relegated to weddings has been a constant guide to me—love is many things, but self-centredness isn’t one of them!
Being a dad can be lonely; mums tend to have much better developed networks of support. I’ve found that being deliberate in my friendships with other dads, searching out older men who’ve walked the paths I’m navigating, as well as opening up your life to younger men just stumbling into fatherhood, are all essential relationships to invest in. You might be blessed with many friends, or maybe just one, but whatever you do, don’t isolate yourself in your role as a dad—you’ll need a band of brothers.
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