Stan Brooks’ generation is rewriting the Dad Handbook. Here’s how.
My father never came to my school to make pancakes with other dads. My father never brought McDonalds to the varsity basketball team at the end of a 6 a.m. practice. My father never bunked in a cabin with nine 4th-graders on a sleepover field trip. Nor did any other fathers he knew.
My father’s generation put work ahead of family. My father and most of his contemporaries were married in their early twenties, having kids in their mid-twenties, just like their fathers and grandfathers did before them. It was expected—and the norm.
Not my generation. Of my three best friends from high school and seven roommates in college—only one was married after graduation while we were still in our 20s. He had three kids before any of us were married. The rest of us got hitched much later in our 20s or closer to 30. We all had kids in our 30s. And now this was the expected and this was the norm.
A few hours ago I dropped off my first son at college. My wife and I unpacked his boxes and moved him into his dorm yesterday and today we had breakfast together and then took him back to campus and said a very abbreviated goodbye. Quick hug. “See you in two months.” With that, our little boy walked away into a red brick building to begin his independent adult life.
None of us could handle a long goodbye. Not me. Not my wife. Not my son. I was three seconds away from a full five-hanky collapse. I couldn’t get my arms around the idea that he won’t be lumbering down the stairs tomorrow looking for breakfast. I can’t imagine that he won’t be starting another school year this week. It all seems surreal. The credits are rolling, but I really don’t think the movie’s supposed to be over yet.
This is the generation that made the choice to be Helicopter Dads. Or, at the very least, Paratrooper Dads, making sure to parachute in for all the key battles and moments. We don’t miss much. We don’t put work ahead of being a dad. We see more games than we miss.
And we love it. Even with no role models in the generations ahead of us, we are certain this is the right choice and we get enormous fulfillment from it. My own personal journey took me through the paternal looking glass and back again. My father didn’t show me how to be this kind of dad—I had to find my own map and let my sons teach me how. Each new day and new moment I experience as both a father and son.
My father didn’t even take me to college. I traveled the same distance as my son did today. But I don’t remember my father saying goodbye at home or giving me a speech or note. There was no emotion, no tears, no heartbreak. Not that I remember anyway.
Lucky him. He just followed his father’s example. And so did his father. Just like all the other fathers of those generations. By the time he was ready to bestow on me the Manual, it was as obsolete as carbon paper and typewriters.
My handbook is different. I wanted to be the dad who coached the rec league basketball squad and Little League team. I wanted to be the dad who drove the kids to Sonic after a playoff game and listened as they regaled each other with an ESPN highlight show of the game they had just played. And I wasn’t alone. Most of the other dads I know are involved too. When our sons play games at the park, or do a performance at school, nearly all the dads are there. It isn’t just a Mom-fest. Dads are there in big numbers.
I remember the moment when my self-worth and self-image shifted from my success at work to my accomplishments as a father. I know when I turned the corner to have more satisfaction from my boys’ triumphs than my own. But with all of this warmth and fuzziness comes this big despair when it’s over. And I don’t have a how-to guide to prepare me or teach me how to handle this. What am I supposed to do tomorrow? How am I supposed to walk down the hall to his empty room? How do I stay in touch? Will he text me or Skype me? Will I hear from him once a day, once a week, or—please, no—even less?
It’s time for a new Dad Handbook. Time for us to inform our fellow dads and the fathers of this coming generation and those to follow. There’s no turning back the clock. The Mad Men generation of martinis at lunch and work before kids—they’re in movies and period TV series. They’re as anachronistic as rotary dial phones and smoking in meetings.
Enjoy every moment with your kids. Don’t miss them. Don’t make excuses to yourself that this one conference call or sales trip is more important than your daughter’s playoff game or your son’s piano recital.
Don’t be afraid to be the dad that volunteers. Read the stories in kindergarten. Be the first base coach for Little League. Be the chaperone for the field trip. Drive the carpool.
Allow yourself to take pride in your children. Don’t be afraid to let everyone know you’re that goofy dad. Appreciate the little things and the big. Put the silly drawing up in your office. Frame the ballet recital photo and put it on your desk.
Know that you’re not alone: all the other dads are just like you. You don’t have to share your kid’s stories or successes with everyone (or, likely, anyone). Let it be enough that you’ve shared it with yourself.
Be prepared. It’s a marathon. But there is a finish line. It may take lots of weekend training and you may have to hit every water stop along the 26.2 miles—but there will be a big clock with your time at the end, and lots of family and friends to congratulate you when you’re done. There may be a new marathon to run after they leave the nest—but this race is over.
With all the love you put in, you’ll be getting 10 times more back. It’s not in the I-love-you-Dads (those are few and far between). It’s in the little things—the tiny moments you need to notice. Like when your eldest son decides to travel 3000 miles away for college in the same part of the country as you did—in the same size college as you did—even when he’s saying he’s not doing it because Dad did. And then he sends you a text to say he’s bored and having a tough day just a few hours after you drop him off at his dorm. Turns out he misses you as much as you miss him.
When this part of the journey ends, it’s gonna hurt. All that time and effort and love you’ve invested to create this great kid, this independent person, who gives you more joy and delight than work or friends or anything else—it’s a big, gnarly void when it’s over. You can’t really brace yourself for the tidal wave of immediate sadness. It comes with the transaction. It’s the fine print in the new contract between dads and kids.
It’s all in the new Handbook. The one all us Paratrooper Dads are writing every day, with every journey. From beginning to end. And it’s all worth it.