Happy Father’s Day! So, you’re a dad now. Congratulations are in order. Now, sit down and grab a drink; you’re going to need it. From the first moments after birth to several years after becoming a father, my role has changed drastically from a support role, to primary caregiver, wrestling partner, teacher, and a hide-and-seek guru. Everyone has some preconceived notions about how a dad should act, but almost no one talks about how a dad feels. Below, I discuss the way it feels to be a dad, from first moments to sleepless nights, to the often times infuriating toddler stage. The rewards of this duty are endless, but you’ll be tested along the way.
Your baby was just born. Happy Father’s Day. Your hand is still sore from the crushing grip of your partner’s near superhuman strength during what is probably the most painful thing she’ll ever experience. The doctor turns around and hands your newborn to its mother. You stand there, waiting, breath held, to hold this precious miracle that you’ve been waiting to meet for the past three quarters of a year. Then, after about 10 minutes on mommy, it’s your turn. She looks up at you as you pick up your child, and for that precious second, time stops. The moment that you first touch your newborn son or daughter is forever burned into your mind, and you feel the enormous, wonderful, terrifying, beautiful responsibility that you are now entrusted with: welcome to fatherhood.
Let’s be honest: for the first few months of life, babies aren’t that fun. They cry, poop, pee, sleep and eat. I used to joke with my wife and often said that “It’s a good thing they’re cute, or I’d want a refund!” Don’t worry, if you’ve ever felt like all you do is support mommy during the first few months, you’re doing exactly what you should be! Getting her a drink of water, tea, coffee, rubbing her feet, giving her a back massage, or cooking dinner are all examples of being a great dad during this time. It sounds counter-intuitive, but often times, being a great dad has less to do with your “dad skills”, and more to do with being a great partner, especially at this early stage, when baby needs mommy 90% of the time. Sometimes, this made me feel like a third wheel, especially after my first, when there were no other kids in the house who needed me. I found myself getting jealous of my wife at times, because she had these magical things attached to her that would instantly pacify our crying child: breasts. Indeed, not much makes a man feel as useless as a crying infant.
I still remember the first day my wife went back to work. I was so nervous. What if TJ started crying and I couldn’t get him to stop? What if he got sick? What if i needed my wife and I couldn’t get in touch with her? What if I couldn’t do this? What if no one on God’s Earth answered the phone if I got overwhelmed? Okay, that last one was unlikely to happen, but, you get the point: I was afraid; afraid of not being good enough, afraid of not being able to keep up with the growing list of responsibilities, while maintaining existing ones, such as keeping the yard mowed (TJ was born in July, and in the Philadelphia area, the grass needs cut well into September), doing the dishes, keeping the house clean, etc. In reality, all the existing responsibilities come second to your number one responsibility as a new dad: Keeping your wife and your child alive, happy, and healthy. As long as that is done, you’re doing your job as a new daddy.
This is the first year of the rest of your child’s life. By the end of his first year, my firstborn was able to walk, and he would say “Dada!” when I walked in the door from work (still one of my favorite memories). He learned to laugh, learned the basics of hide-and-seek, and he took his first steps. We played games such as, “Where’s TJ…. There he is!” (I would hold him, and look over his head or around him while asking where he was, then, pretend that I just noticed him, and act overjoyed at “finding” him while shouting “There he is!” which he found incredibly entertaining.)
All of this was extremely fun, but there were countless nights where my wife would wake me, frustrated because she couldn’t get him to go back to sleep after feeding him, and ask me to put him to bed. I became very adept at “gliding” him; the term I coined for sitting in the nursery on the gliding chair, and rocking him to sleep while singing or humming a little melody. This was my first “dad is better at this skill.” While I wasn’t always happy to be woken up for this duty, it did feel good to be needed. For me, this marked the end of the “third wheel” phase of child rearing.
By his second year, TJ was running around the house like a madman, had a younger brother, Rowan, and enjoyed helping with Rowan whenever possible. He was developing an increasingly robust vocabulary, and I enjoyed teaching him, watching him learn new things, and watching him incorporate this new knowledge into his repertoire of skills and abilities. There are times, however, that I feel overwhelmed with Rowan, and it can be difficult to remain patient with TJ when Rowan is crying. I learned from watching my wife, who is an incredible mother, to include TJ and ask him for help. He is, after all, an individual who wants to be included in the goings-on of the household, and he can be counted on to complete simple tasks to help with Rowan, such as getting a diaper and wipes, holding Rowan’s bottle for him (with supervision; as he will soon become distracted, stop holding the bottle at the correct angle, thus infuriating Rowan and leading to more screaming), and cleaning up after himself.
Any man can father a child. It takes a special kind of man to be a “dad.” If you’re reading this, you are most likely in the second category. From first moments and supporting your child’s mother, to having a second child, drafting your firstborn into the duty roster, and proudly watching him or her acquiesce to the task, I can promise you that your journey as a father will be unlike anything that you have ever experienced before; beautifully unpredictable, at times incredibly frustrating, tiring, and trying, but always rewarding. I hope you find the journey full of fun, laughter, and love. Happy Father’s Day!