This Sunday marks my second Father’s Day as a father. If you’re not yourself a parent, that won’t mean much to you. It certainly didn’t to me. If you’re en route to fatherhood, read on to learn what “fatherhood” actually means.
My experience was that preparation for new parents focused heavily on the birth experience. What I knew of what would follow focused primarily on early childhood development and dangers with a side helping of lactation and baby-wearing. These are good things to know, but they don’t do jack for helping you cope with what having a newborn in your house means for you.
Birth as Loss
As a newborn, your kid is entirely dependent on its parents for everything. You will be eating, breathing, and sleeping baby. Your schedule is its schedule.
Eventually, stuff might get a bit saner. You’ll get nursing sorted out, you’ll find a sleeping arrangement that works for your family, you’ll find some ways to care for your kid.
But there’s an especially strong and demanding pairbond between mother and child, and you might very well feel left out, or more strongly, crowded out: You might feel like you’ve lost your wife to this child. And babies are not terribly relatable creatures, but they are very demanding, and they know no patience. It can feel like a raw deal.
I turned a corner once my son was able to laugh. I could do something, and he could respond to it, and I could relate to that. I think that’s when my baby went from “it” to “he” for me.
Say Goodbye to Life as You Knew It
When they’re a baby, their schedule is yours.
Turns out, that doesn’t really change as they age into toddlerhood.
You’ve Yielded Autonomy
You’ve lost a lot of autonomy by assuming stewardship of an amateur human. Sure, you can stay up late; but if your kid wakes up at 6 am, someone has to be up with them. That someone is likely you. So either you go to bed, or you spend a day tired and cranky, and no good to nobody. When you wake up is no longer your choice, and if you know what’s best for you, then neither is when you go to sleep, either.
More than that: What you do during the day is restricted to what you can do while watching over your child. Maybe you’ll have a quiet kid who is fine sitting and playing with whatever for a while. This won’t be much of a burden to bear. Maybe you’ll have a very interactive and active child who very much wants to do something right now thank you very much and are you watching this because we’re going to do this together. You’ll find your options in that scenario are rather limited.
Young children don’t suffer fools, or delays, gladly. If doing something involves waiting around, especially quietly, you can probably cut it out. Like dinners out with a 45-minute wait spent standing around and ordering drinks at the bar and gabbing to pass the time? Yeah - that’s incompatible with wee ones. Movies out don’t really work either. Picking up donuts to go with a kid in tow can be touch and go if there’s a line. A lot of stuff you took for granted that you could do, you can’t, at least without a sonic tax, possibly with tears attached.
Everyday stuff you take for granted that needs to happen can also become a challenge. Traveling by car means a lot more prep work. Shopping requires half a mind on what exactly your kid is doing with that produce you thought you safely tucked in the cart. And is vacuuming worth a tussle over who gets to control the vacuum? How badly do you need something cleaned, and how clean is clean enough?
You’ve Also Lost Environmental Control
That’s a good segue from loss of personal autonomy into loss of control. As an adult, you have a lot of control over your environment. If you’ve got your own place, you can pretty much stick something wherever, and expect to find it still there. You can demolish a staircase and landing, cut a hole for a new door, and take your time fitting a new door and rebuilding the staircase. You know well enough not to try to leap a storey down onto unforgiving cement. Even your cat’s curiosity isn’t enough to overcome their caution in that case.
Your kid is another matter. Even if they knew well enough that falling down that far would be a bad idea, they’re just not terribly good at moving around and keeping track of the environment in their head. They can easily accidentally walk too far, or lose their balance near an edge, or forget to watch where they’re going because there’s a housefly or a patch of sunlight. So you’ll find yourself reshaping your entire environment to fit their needs and behaviors. And you’ll weigh convenience against how big of a mess they can make if you’re looking elsewhere for thirty seconds. (A salt cellar makes a great mini-sandbox in a pinch, don’t you know?)
It’s a big step from “master of my tiny pocket universe” to “adult graciously allowed to exist as my caregiver and diviner of my needs and desires”.
A Change in the Weather
I found this stifling and isolating. It’s a very peculiar experience to find you’ve more autonomy in your work life than in your home life.
But it has its upsides. And I’d do it again.
All those losses are losses from a point of view where you’re at the center of your own universe.
In practice, they’re just side effects of shifting the center from yourself to your family. It’s no longer all about you. There’s not time for you to maintain that illusion any more. Welcome to adulthood.
Learning Patience & Humility
Children are elemental forces. You can’t reason with them for the several years. You can empathize. You can distract with counter-proposals. But you can’t negotiate.
You mostly won’t get your way. You’ll find that it doesn’t even matter that you don’t get your way. You just wanted things to go your way because that’s what you were comfortable with.
You’re going to have to relax control and work with the situation as it presents itself. You’ll leave getting your way for when it matters – when there’s risk to health or safety, or there’s something important enough that it’s worth possibly distressing your kid, stressing everyone around you out, and maybe dealing with some shrieking and crying.
One concrete way this shows up is in learning to be patient. Yeah, I get it, you want to go right now. But your kid doesn’t. And you don’t really need to go right now. You just want to. Suck it up and wait a while. Set the expectation that you will be leaving soon. When the time comes, then you can leave.
Facing Humanity Head-On
Stuff will get broken. Things will go wrong. A lot of things will go wrong. Kids are clumsy, curious, and not bridled by concern for cleanliness, hygiene, or common sense. This is OK.
If you’re a perfectionist, you’re probably accustomed to everything going to plan, and ensuring that you have a plan and execute on it such that everything goes to plan. You won’t be able to exert that level of control, that clockwork execution, when it comes to large parts of your life any more.
You might have spent a couple decades driving out the human. It’s back now in spades, and you’ve no choice but to confront it head on.
This also teaches patience. It teaches you to expect people to stumble, to make mistakes, to err. You’ve probably kind of known that was the case in theory, but it wasn’t your experience before, and it was hard to cut someone a break because you’d worked out how to run things so you didn’t need anyone to cut you a break. Now it is your experience, and theory is practice, and boy, will you be getting a lot of practice. And you’ll probably be really glad when people cut you a break for acting in weird ways, running out of line to snatch up a kid about to get in trouble, walking all throughout the restaurant courtyard following an imp climbing up and down and around things and maybe bumping into people before bouncing off and away onto the next thing.
With kids, the lows can be low, but the highs can be so high. You have a license to be silly and a new set of eyes to experience the world through. You get to look at such commonplaces as trees, birds, and squirrels with fresh awareness and naked joy at their existence and activity. And if you’ve forgotten to play, you’ll learn that anew, too.
The Traumatic Hurricane of Fatherhood
So, Father’s Day. When you were born, you destroyed someone’s world and remade it around you. As a new father, you have to come to terms with the dramatic difference in responsibility, relationships, and rituals that come with this hurricane of a change. It’s sudden and total, but you can build a new and better life in its aftermath.
Here’s to hoping having a second kid is less hurricane and more tropical storm!