If you ask me, the road to dadhood is like when I assembled an eight-drawer Ikea dresser for my daughter last year. The finished product looked really appealing in the store. The directions sucked. And the process to completion took a lot more time than I expected. But in the end everyone was happy.
Unfortunately, there’s no perfect set of instructions to being a good dad. But there are a few simple tips to make the assembly process a tad smoother:
1. Learn to Duck. At some point during the first year, you’re going to start hoisting your kid up on your shoulders to provide a birds’ eye view of life. It’s a dad ritual. Kids love it. Yes it’s cute, but do yourself a big favor and remember to duck when you’re walking through a doorway. As a bystander who has seen countless new dads come close to beheading their young ones, not ducking is my number one no-no.
2. Speak Up. You’re about to enter a 10- to 12-year period when your child will actually like the sound of your voice. Following that, you will experience four to six years when even a friendly, “Hi, there!” from your lips will be greeted with the dreaded eye-roll. Please accept this as an inevitable reality.
That means you need to do things now to utilize your voice. Start with reading stories, which is a win-win proposition in a kid’s developmental years. It doesn’t matter what you read to them—Sports Illustrated, your company newsletter, or Men’s Health are all fine, at least early on. Your kid will tell you when they’re ready for Peter Pan. After realizing I forgot to pack books for my 18-month-old son Kevin on a cross-country plane trip, I successfully entertained him for nearly four hours with the laminated emergency landing card, the in-flight magazine and the instructions printed on the outside of the barf bag.
It’s all in your voice. Enjoy it before they hate it.
3. Be Mr. Fix-It. You are the go-to guy when things are broken. You need to get proficient at this because if you’re not, you’ll spend an inordinate amount of money replacing things like dolls (shoulder connections usually), book covers (clear packing tape works best), zippers on backpacks (try some bar soap on the teeth) and ceramic tea sets from grandma (a dumb gift, no matter how you look at it). Kids break things often so, like a Boy Scout, be prepared. In the past I’d actually put a little dent or crack in a new toy before giving it to one of the kids just to lower their overall expectation of quality and performance. If it’s a little broken to begin with, it lessens the blow later on.
One of the hardest things you’re going to have to come to terms with—especially in later years—is that you can’t fix everything. This is a killer reality that you must accept. Things go wrong in life. People are mean. Kids don’t get on a team. This is painful, my friend. But you have to pay close attention to where your kid is in their evolution to adulthood. There’s a time to fix and there’s a time when you just need to hug your kid and let them know you love them and you’re sorry they’re sad. Learning how to deal with disappointment is a valuable lesson.
4. Read Home Game. Your ability to spend time reading may be limited. I get it. But do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Michael Lewis’s book, Home Game. A couple of my favorite lines include:
Here is the central mystery of fatherhood, or at any rate my experience of it. How does a man’s resentment of this…thing…that lands in his life and instantly disrupts every aspect of it for the apparent worse turn into love?
The first rule of fatherhood is that if you don’t see what the problem is, you are the problem.
Funny stuff. And also true. But if you read nothing else, read Lewis’s account of standing watch over his infant son, Walker, when he was back in the hospital with a respiratory problem. Somewhere between pages 156 and 164, you’ll find my favorite line in the book:
After every new child, I learn the same lesson, grudgingly: If you want to feel the way you’re meant to feel about the new baby, you need to do the grunt work. It’s only in caring for a thing that you become attached to it.
5. Be Available. I’m closing in on twenty-two years of dad-dom. And I still help with homework, struggle to attend school activities and go through the angst of ascertaining if this week’s fever merits a visit to the doctor or if we just tough it out one more time. The most important thing I can tell you about being a dad is that you need to be available to your child 24/7. Available with your presence. Available emotionally. And, if it’s your thing, available spiritually. Be there. Always. Give it everything you’ve got. They will feel it and develop a relationship with you that will surpass anything you’ve ever known.
If you do nothing else, you must master #5.
Above all, don’t worry. You may be the kind of guy who likes to read all of the Ikea instructions first. I used to be like that—including taking a full inventory of every nut, washer, dowel and specialty wrench. In recent years, I’ve gotten comfortable just digging in and figuring it out along the way. The truth is both ways have their benefits. Likewise, there’s no perfect path to being the dad you want to be. Find your own style and raise your child in the way that is uniquely you.
And don’t forget: while it only takes a brief moment of passion to become a father, it’s a lifelong journey to become a dad. I hope you savor every moment.