This week my oldest daughter turned 10, which also means I have been a dad for 10 years. I’d like to think I learned some stuff about dadhood during that time and that I haven’t lost all that hair for nothing.
10 Lessons Learned about Fatherhood
Sleeping Infants are Awesome
To be honest any sleeping kid is awesome, especially if it is at night when I also want to be sleeping. We had the good fortune that our first two kids started sleeping through the night at around 2 months old. Our youngest did not learn that lesson and at three she still gets up during the night and tries to keep us up with her. That isn’t really the lesson learned though, since I could probably have predicted that getting sleep at night would be a great thing.
What I learned on my first day as a dad, and had the opportunity to experience with all three kids, is the pleasure that comes with having your kid, especially those fresh baked babies, fall asleep on you. It is better than a purring kitten. When my kids were babies and would fall asleep on my chest, I felt like everything was right in the world and that nothing else mattered outside of the two of us. It is one of the few experiences I have had in my life where I was truly living in the moment instead thinking about what else I could/should/needed to/wanted to be doing.
I had no idea how amazing this experience would be.
While I had done quite a bit of babysitting when I was a teenager, I had never had the opportunity to snuggle with a baby like this. As a teen father I had the opportunity to hold the twins we placed for adoption before we left the hospital, but that was an entirely different experience full of a mix of pride, happiness, self-preservation and a hint of the feelings of loss that were to follow.
Becoming a dad and holding my infant daughters gave me time to soak in the emotion and satisfaction of a job well done – until I could no longer ignore the diapers that needed changing…
Reading to Your Kids Makes a Difference
We read to our kids every night. I don’t remember whether I read to my kids in utero or not. I do remember hours and hours of reading to my now ten year old when she was a baby in the hopes that she would fall asleep. Breastfeeding didn’t go well and our daughter wasn’t good at falling asleep, especially early on before we started supplementing with formula, and I would sit on the floor of her room reading to her. I read until she feel asleep and then crawled out of her room in the hopes I could get out quietly without waking her. Sometimes I fell asleep on her bedroom floor before she did.
Now the same kid can plow through a 300 page book on her own in a couple of days. I actually have no idea what books she has read because she goes through them so quickly I can’t keep track. At most I get to read a chapter or two of a book with her one night and then the next night it will be a totally different book. I don’t know how most of her books end.
All three of our kids have full bookshelves and pick books from those shelves regularly. We are also very regular visitors to the public library and everyone takes out as many books as we can carry.
Every night before bed, we read to each kid, usually with the others listening to the choices of her sisters. This is dedicated time. It is time where we are all forced to slow down, sit or snuggle together and travel to other worlds together. It is quality time that everyone enjoys and depending on what we are reading, we often have conversations resulting from what we are reading together. We make this time even though our oldest two now love reading on their own as well.
The Way That Kids Think is Fascinating
Kids obviously have a different perspective. They are shorter than adults so they look at the world from closer to the ground. They explore and inspect things that I would never even notice. They are excited to see the moon during the day when the sun is up, they are alternately interested in and terrified by bugs.
I generally expected all of that from reading I did before we had kids, and having a kid show me their world was something I was looking forward to once I became a dad. What I didn’t expect is how their logic works. I first experienced it with my oldest kid when she started to figure out math. I would ask her math questions and then I would ask her how she came up with the answer. She would walk me through a completely different pathway to the answer than I would have taken.
Now I experience their interesting thought patterns and pathways through the questions they ask me and the follow ups that come, sometimes weeks later. I am constantly amazed at what they remember and how they piece together different and seemingly unrelated experiences in their lives.
Kids Stuff Grows Exponentially
I think it starts with grandparents. They bring the first gifts and they shower your kids with gifts at every opportunity. Sometimes it is trinkets that they pick up in passing and other times it is large gifts for birthdays or Christmas. Add in hand-me-downs, garage sale finds, presents from friends, etc. etc. etc.
You try to cull and reduce and minimize the amount of detritus that has taken over your living room, bedrooms, bathtub and playroom, but it just keeps coming. I built a playroom in our basement and we moved all of the toys to the basement and reclaimed our living room, for about five minutes. Now the playroom is so full of stuff most days that you can’t get in and our living room requires a moving crew every evening to come in and move enough stuff so we can see the floor and have a pathway out.
We regularly clear stuff out and dispose of it, pass it on and put things into hiding and it never seems to make any difference in the amount of stuff on the floor in our house. We just went through all three kids’ birthdays so we now have a whole new batch of stuff.
Anyone have a dumpster you could drop off so we can make some more space?
Loft Beds and Vomit Don’t Mix
You only need to learn this lesson once.
Before our third was born we moved our oldest two girls into one shared room and I built them loft beds, so that we could put their dressers and desks under their beds and make more space in the room. A couple of months after we moved them in together they each got sick and we learned that when vomit falls from a height and hits the floor, there are splatter issues.
Now, whenever there is any hint that someone could possibly not be feeling well, we make a bed for them on the floor. It was a messy, but very very valuable lesson learned.
Kids are Resilient
I have had numerous opportunities to learn or perhaps be surprised by my kids’ capacity to absorb information and experiences that I would expect to be shocking or scary or traumatic and move on. They have lost great-grandparents, our cat, and a grandfather. My middle daughter fell off the monkey bars at school and broke her arm and had to have surgery to install pins in her arm. They have heard all kinds of stories on the radio about terrible things that happen in the world. I told them about their half-sister and brother who they didn’t previously know about.
In all cases they took in the information and adjusted. Sometimes they ask additional questions to get the information they need and want to know and then they move on. In every case I expected more reaction, more response and I girded myself for possible reactions from them and it never went as I expected.
I find I want to go back to them and ask questions to explore how they are feeling and thinking about any of these episodes because I am curious to know if they have thought more about the experience and how it has shaped their perspective of the world. At the same time I am a little concerned about opening up a can of worms since it seems that they haven’t really been phased by these experiences.
People are Generous
With the birth of each of my daughters we were reminded how generous people can be. Friends and co-workers brought food and sent gifts for us and our kids. As our kids have grown we have found friends who often volunteer to take them for a day or more to give us a break.
We moved away from our hometown and so our families are many hours away and therefore not available for a few hours of childcare, so having friends who are willing to play that role for us means that we can afford to leave the house together without children from time to time.
People are also generous with their parenting advice, although that isn’t always helpful.
Roll With It
Here’s this thing – nobody knows what they are doing as new parents or as veteran parents. We are all just doing the best we can with what we know. When we had our second kid we figured we had things sorted out. We knew how to change diapers and feed a baby. We knew how to interpret a baby’s cries we knew to never buy infant and toddler clothes that made it difficult to change a diaper. We were set.
It turns out that no two kids are alike – not even when they are cooked with the same ingredients. Breastfeeding with kid one, did not work. Breastfeeding with kid two, was very successful. Temper taming with kid one, solve with a big bear hug until kid falls asleep in your arms after a few minutes. Temper taming with kid two, bear hugs result in headbutts and we are still trying to figure out how to get things under control eight years later.
We had figured out patterns and approaches that worked for both of our daughters and then after a five year hiatus from baby production we made a new one and out came daughter number three and we were back at the starting point all over again and we had to learn how to work her too.
In each case it would be more accurate to say that each kid trained us to respond to their needs in individual ways.
Through all of our parenting journey to date, we have learned to roll with it. We try one technique and if that doesn’t work we try something else. Parenting is really just a big game of improv where we are constantly trying to figure out what we are doing and respond to the actions and words of the kid(s) in the ring with us. If we refuse to bend and shift we will get knocked over.
Don’t Rush Kids
I like to be on time. Actually I really, really don’t like being late. I schedule my time to be sure that I am going to arrive places on time. On time for me means that I arrive 15 minutes early. I’d rather spend 15 minutes sitting at or near the place I am supposed to be than arriving just on time or late. There aren’t many things in my life that cause me anxiety and being late is the one that is the most regular cause.
I don’t know why.
As you can imagine, having kids has put a dent in my desire to be on time. It is usually when I most want to get somewhere on time that at least one of my kids decides that is when they are going to be the most resistant to leaving. Either there is always one more thing that they need to get done before we leave or we get to experience a full on temper tantrum.
I have learned that 1) I need to give them lots of warning about what we are doing and leave lots of prep time for getting out the door. I have also learned that 2) sometimes I need to walk away when my stress level starts to climb because the more I push my kids to get moving, the more they resist. Sometimes I walk away physically and do something else like load the car or go to the bathroom and sometimes I walk away psychologically. I sit on the stairs and disconnect from the process for a few minutes. I focus on breathing and stopping the rise in my blood pressure and think about how important it really is that we get out the door in five minutes instead of ten minutes. Usually I realize that it doesn’t matter that much and that helps me refocus. Then I can look for ways to help instead of cajoling and pushing.
I used to think about this as ‘work-life balance,’ until I realized there is no balance. There are only shifting priorities. I have been fortunate to have jobs for the past seven years that allow and enable me to work from home and also to shift my work hours as needed. It is a privilege to work in jobs where the focus is more on work product than it is on face time in the office.
I have three kids, an awesome partner, a house that needs looking after, a blog, a side woodworking business and periodically charity and community commitments. All of that is in addition to my day job. The only way I manage is by juggling. When I work from home I am more productive on all fronts. When my brain is turning to mush and I need a break from email and other computer work I can take 15 minutes to unload the dishwasher, go to my shop and to sand or cut wood or if my kids are home I can sit on the floor and play with them. The opportunity to take a mental break to do something completely different means I can return to my work with a refreshed mind and have accomplished something towards another priority in my life.
I try to map out annual, monthly and weekly goals that a realistic so that I can work on achieving something towards each of my priorities that year, month, week and day. This year I have five goals which include smiling more and spending more time with my family. I have found that setting these goals helps me to figure out what is important in my life and that enables me to shift around my priorities to accomplish what is important to me.
Dads Can Do It
Women are not naturally better parents than men. In most cases they just get more practice at the outset and are therefore more confident parents. Everyone develops their own style of parenting and the earlier you start parenting intensively, the more confident you will be. I was able to take parental leave after my first two kids were born for two and seven months respectively. That time with my kids and partner made me a much better parent, and gave me the time to build a foundation for me as a dad and for us as a couple to adjust our reality to adapt to the new kid. When our third was born I wasn’t able to afford to take parental leave, but I was able to spread out my vacation time and work part-time for a couple of months, and while that wasn’t as good as full parental leave, it did allow me and us to adjust and be a full partner in our expanded family.
I have met many men over the years who are working at doing a better job of parenting. They are getting involved and engaged with their kids. They are changing diapers and walking their kids to school. They are being stay-at-home parents or demanding more flexibility in the workplace. I have met these guys at school drop-offs and online.
We learn from each other and we talk to each other about our kids and families. We look for opportunities to make things better and more accessible for dads. We are building community and challenging stereotypes. I learn from other dads all the time and am grateful to have found other men who have the same perspective on fatherhood as I do.
If you’ve followed along this far you will have discovered that there are actually 11 lessons learned. I figure that is ok since we are now into our eleventieth year of parenting.