Pieces of … fatherhood

3 minutes / 590 words

A few weeks back, my wife, Mat, was talking to my daughter Sarah (they/them), and while I don’t remember the specifics, it went something like, “yada yada yada, dad and I, yada yada yada …” I heard “dad” and instinctively thought of my father before realizing a split second later that Mat was talking about me.

Dad. I’m a dad. Sarah calls me Dad. Mat refers to me as Dad. What? 

You would think this fatherhood thing sank in long ago, but sometimes it feels as surreal as the day Sarah was born. They stopped crying in the delivery room when they heard my voice. Wait, you mean to tell me that I refused to do the Garp thing and talk to Mat’s belly or draw on it with a Sharpie, yet my voice was calming? Bizarre. At that moment, I understood what a new dad had mentioned to me, that he knew “a love like he’d never known” when his daughter was born, and it was instant. This is what it means to be a dad. Two days later, love was replaced by fear and helplessness on our first night at home. Honestly, I remember thinking, “What did I do? We can’t give it back.” That night, I felt more like a misplaced bachelor than a father.

If it’s true that children develop self-confidence by the time they’re 2 or 3, have I already screwed my kid up beyond repair?

Several months later, a teenager at a nearby high school committed suicide. Obviously, the community was devastated. I was at the gym when I had the epiphany that it’s probably too hard for a child to know to their innermost self just how much they’re loved until they become a parent. Before then, “I love you” might seem abstract or like a parental obligation. It’s like when your nana compliments you for something; “She has to say that; she’s my nana.” As a dad that day, I understood more about the fragility of life and wanting to hug your kid.

Sarah at two days old.

The reality of parenthood is best described with that cliché of clichés: kids don’t come with an instruction manual. Oh, how we all fumble through it, one curveball after another. When to fix things and when to let them cry it out. Hormones. Homework. Relationships. Responsibility. Boundaries. Drama. ‘tude. As a parent, I questioned so much. What if I get this one wrong? If it’s true that children develop self-confidence by the time they’re 2 or 3, have I already screwed my kid up beyond repair? None of this even begins to touch the very human tendency to wonder whether other parents are better at it than you! Let’s not go there.

The parenting style I’ve adopted is to be approachable and vulnerable. My father said things like, “I just don’t want you to make the same mistakes I made,” i.e. don’t do what you’re doing. I chose to say things like “Yeah, that happened to me, it really sucks, doesn’t it?” If I am not a know-all, be-all, “Grand Poobah” like my dad, if I let my kid see my humanity or my frailty, then how can I be “Dad.” If my kid is comfortable telling me about doing shots for the first time (true story), which I would never in my wildest dreams have said to my father – how can I be “Dad.”

It dawns on me that being a dad is not my own identity. I’m also a husband, son, brother, uncle, friend, employee, manager, colleague, and lots of other things. No matter how surreal fatherhood may seem, even today, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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