Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Reflections after two years of fatherhood (I still have no clue what I'm doing)

Tomorrow morning I'm going to have a 2 year-old [or at least I did when I started writing this post. It took a few weeks for me to reflect and figure out what I wanted to say.]

Two years ago, at 1:42 AM, my world was forever changed when my daughter came into the world. This is one of those handful of life moments that I will never forget and can recall with perfect clarity. This little person lay on her mother's chest, not screaming, not crying, but perfectly calm and exploring her new world. She looked directly at my wife, blinked once, before turning her gaze to me. The little girl held my eye then blinked twice, which in my mind was her way of saying, "So you're Dad? Okay, you'll do."

My life has not been the same since we met. I think my current writing situation can testify to that. I'm propped up against an over-sized stuffed blue rhinoceros, with a fuzzy owl staring at me from the side table as I barely notice the mess of Legos strewn across the living room floor. Ironically enough, after two years as a parent, it's the modern Ikea furniture from our old apartment that seems out of place, not the baby doll whose head is poking out from underneath the couch or all the Doc McStuffins pull-ups scattered throughout the room.

I've found fatherhood to be simultaneously the hardest and easiest thing I've ever done. On the one hand, being a parent is hard work. VERY hard work. Being responsible for another little human being's livelihood with all its meal times and snack times and diaper changes is challenging. More than anything, I think it's the constant awareness - always being on alert -  that is truly taxing. Where is she? She's being quiet - that's no good. What did she put in her mouth? Is she taking too big of bites? She's going to pull that over on herself. No, honey, we sit down when we're on the couch. No, I don't know where you found this fork but it's mine now... The truly interesting thing is that all of my know-how on how to keep this little girl from getting herself killed in a house I foolishly thought I baby-proofed before she was born required absolutely no training. I walked into my role as Dad like a fish to water. I've noticed that my friends, who began having their children around the same time as me, have made this seamless transition into Dadhood in their own lives.

It seems God pre-programmed most of us for parental care, which is probably for the best since a steep learning curve would likely prove ill for the species. But that doesn't mean we always get it right the first time. As I sit here on the eve of my daughter's birthday, I want to reflect on three things I've learned on this journey through babyhood and toddlerdom. And here's the deal with kids: there are no do overs. It may be cliche, but I think it is a truism of most parents to say that I wish I could have this time back.

1. My kids are my life's work

Like a lot of guys, I want to make some kind of impact on the world. Leave my legacy. For me, that vision has always included my writing. (The Great American novel is still out there waiting for me.) Whether it's building a company, preserving the family business or trying to rid the world of all its social ills, a dad will have no greater opportunity for influence than with his kids. The best thing I've learned is even if I never publish a single book my entire life but my kids grow into adults who can remember their years with me fondly, I've succeeded. Since I live in a materialistic society that continually reinforces its definition of success, it is a daily challenge to keep this in perspective.

2. If I'm not acting like a fool I'm doing it wrong

My daughter and I have built our own little world that exists both at home and when we go out. Last week, we were at a store and I was playing with her on the ground with these light up frogs while we waited in line at the check out. I looked up to see annoyance on the face of the lady behind us. It saddens me that I get that look a lot on our Daddy-daughter adventures. Likely, some of these can be chalked up to over-stressed folks having bad days, but even taking that into account I still see a pattern. To me the annoyed look communicates, "Why is this idiot playing peek-a-boo with a woman's floppy hat? Why is he sword fighting with a roll of wrapping paper? Why does he every once in a while sprint with his cart down the aisle [after checking for pedestrians!]?" Because it makes her laugh. It communicates to her by example the important lesson that we should be ourselves and our relationship is never going to change no matter where we are or who's around. I'm ashamed to say that when I first began this journey I put the floppy hat back on the rack.

3. Those diapers are my privilege

No, I don't like changing diapers and I don't want to change more than I have to. I don't think anyone does. But I had this thought when changing my daughter's pull-ups, after another fruitless day of potty training. The time of changing my daughter's diapers is coming to an end, and on its most basic level this is cause for celebration. However, this signals a major impending change in our relationship. Just like when she learned how to walk and no longer wanted Dad to carry her or when she figured out how to use a spoon and began slapping my hand away when I tried to feed her, this is another step on her road to independence and eventually adulthood. One day, I will inevitably become a much more marginal figure in her life. If I'm any good at this parenting thing, we will have a lifelong close bond that is rich and rewarding for both of us, but right now is the only time when I (and her mother) get to serve as the foundation for all of my daughter's needs. There is something special and enriching, perhaps even sacred, in the act of caring for this little person when she is at her most vulnerable. The opportunity to caring in that capacity is shrinking everyday. Embrace it, don't avoid it.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Please let me know your thoughts below or share with a friend!

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