Fatherhood and the Love of Sauna

A little boy pouring a small spoon of water onto his dad's head as the rest of the family laughs
A little boy pouring a small spoon of water onto his dad's head as the rest of the family laughs

One of my first memories is being a curious three-year-old building a sauna with my father in our basement. The smell of cedar must have lodged that memory deep in my mind. In every house we lived in growing up there would need to be a sauna. If the home or cabin didn’t have one, we would build one. 

This was a tradition from my father, his father, and generations before them. Our family immigrated from the forests of Finland in the 1880s. And for the past 140 years, we have built saunas on the farm, in the home, and at the cabin. I suppose the steam is in my blood. 

Here are a few things I’ve learned about fatherhood in the sauna together over the years:

Good fathers make space for their kids

It’s hard to overstate the importance of a father’s attention for his kids. In the sauna we always had dad’s attention. The sauna is inherently about being present. The heat does that, it focuses on the here and now. It focuses us on those we are with. 

Growing up we knew that sauna meant we were with family. The distractions of work and other responsibilities were left at the door. Especially now, with our world of devices vying for our attention, the sauna is a space to both physically and digitally detox. 

The sauna was a space where dad was present to us. It was where we got to share our lives. It can be hard to talk with kids at many stages of life. It’s a bit easier when you create spaces for them to experience life together. Our space for that was the sauna.

Telling stories is essential

My grandfather Rodney is the best storyteller I know. He was a barber for over four decades. Any good barber should be a good storyteller.

If you ask grandpa about his experiences growing up on a small farm in Northern Minnesota,  he will surely tell of the experiences in the sauna with his family. It was a regular practice multiple times per week. 

“Sauna was the place the stories were told.”

As a young boy, he would always join for sauna sessions with his father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins. 

Rod says, “I would always stay as long as I could in the sauna, no matter how hot it was, because sauna was the place the stories were told.”

Rod is still telling some of those stories to his great grandchildren seventy years later. 

Good fathers can make chores fun

I come from a family whose home life included all of the normal chores you would expect, but ours had one more than some: the woodpile. 

Many weekends consisted of buzzing chainsaws, swinging axes, and stacking wood. If you were old enough to carry one piece of wood to the woodpile you were old enough to help. Only later, after years of apprenticeship, could you graduate to the usage of axes and chainsaws with dad and grandpa. 

Yet, what was a chore while growing up has now become a pastime. Cutting wood is a shared hobby and care for the land. It is a stewardship of the warmth of the home in long northern winters. 

In this, I was taught both discipline and care from dad. There is an unspoken version of the phrase “I love you” that comes with providing warmth for the home as well as the fuel for the sauna. 

Learning to tend a fire is good preparation for life

Our family didn’t discriminate between wood-fired or electric stoves for the sauna. In fact, we often had both. At home, the convenience of a high quality electric stove allowed for quicker access to the sauna after a long day at work. At the cabin, where there was time to linger and tend a fire, a wood stove was preferred.

The work of cutting wood was especially rewarding when it was used to heat the sauna stove. There is a romance to the wood stove. The smell of birch wood burning, the crackle and hum of the fire.

Here is where I was taught how to tend a fire. 

Fire is powerful, especially as a kid. I was taught how preparing to light the fire is often the most critical step. Hint, you should always chop more kindling than you think you’ll need. The fire needs the most attention at the beginning when it’s delicate. 

I was guided to build a fire correctly so it could give the most warmth. When to use the hardwoods to keep the fire burning longer. And maybe most importantly how to build a fire so as not to burn down the sauna. Grandpa was also on the volunteer fire department, so safety was always a priority. 

Fire building is a lot like life: if you tend things well, they will grow. Tend them poorly, and they will quickly get out of control. The former is much better for life and saunas.

Good fathers invest in their family’s wellness.

The tradition of the sauna my forefathers and mothers brought with them across the Atlantic is a cultural treasure. All immigrants protect their valuables, just as the Finns have. This treasure has been stewarded by families like mine here in North America for the last 150 years. 

Looking back now, I realize how much my father invested to provide my family with high quality sauna in our homes growing up. Time, money, and effort given so my family could enjoy the treasure of the sauna. That investment has proven to be one that has formed and shaped me, in many more ways than physical wellness.

Now I’m passing these values on to my kids, and I hope they are better for it as I am.

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