A friend of mine is expecting his first child. Becoming a parent is a huge life event. For him it’s even bigger, because they’ve been trying for a long time. He asked me what it’s like being a dad.
I’ve spent eleven years as a parent and five years deeply exploring fatherhood through BeingDads. I’ve spent lots of time thinking and writing about what being a dad means, how to be a better one, how it changes you, why it’s amazing and what makes it hard. But until he asked, I’d never thought about describing it. Which is strange, because one of the reasons I started BeingDads was to scratch my own itch. I couldn’t find anything on what it means to be a good dad, so I set out to find out. The 26 points that follow don’t state the observable and obvious, it’s hard earned wisdom from a whole host of dads.
It’s not about you anymore.
The signs are there from the beginning. Your partner is focused on the baby, less on you. As they should be. They start going to bed early, because they’re growing a new life. As they should be. You’re left sitting on the sofa at 9pm wondering what’s coming. How’s my partner doing? How’s my baby doing? What do I need to do? How will it change me? These questions don’t stop after the birth. But as the months pass, the first question often gets lost in the mayhem of keeping a newborn alive and well. Don’t let it.
Your priorities become clear.
Before kids, I had too many priorities. Things I wanted to achieve, jobs I wanted to be doing, money I wanted to be earning. Then I had kids. My priorities were like a triangle that had spun 180 degrees. I still wanted those things, but they came after my family, then my health and sanity. It was like a weight coming off my shoulders.
You’ll be exhausted but you’ll cope.
I didn’t know how powerful being motivated by love is until I had kids. The early years are exhausting. You know this because people have warned you. It’s true, but don’t be too intimidated. You’ll be fine, tired but fine. You’ll look back and laugh at what pre-parent you thought tiredness was. It’ll take time, but eventually you’ll realise the reason why you cope is because of how strong your love is.
Magical moments do actually exist.
You’ll find them, together with your baby, in the early hours, when everything is still and the moonlight’s painting shadows in the silence. Their soft breathing, warm, tiny little body cradled in your arms, their velvet-soft cheeks. Just you and them, feeding and soothing in the silence. Years later, you’ll find these memories and realise the magic of them as they fill you back up with love.
You’ll give more than you thought you could.
In the early months, until they start smiling, it can feel like a one way street. Give, give, give. You give your time, energy, love, sleep, money, time with your partner and, at times, sanity up to this child. The one you chose to create. Then, slowly, they start giving back. First with smiles, then giggles, then it speeds up. And before you know it they’re not climbing into your bed at an ungodly hour to be with you. And you miss it.
Time matters more now. Kids grow up quickly, even though, in the early months and year, parents seem to be more concerned with hitting the next milestone — crawling, walking, talking — than enjoying the moment. Don’t fall into that trap. Make the most of the time you have together. Make more time to be together by ruthlessly prioritising. Now you’ve got something to get back, or stay at home, for. You’ll find yourself chairing the meeting that always overruns so it finishes on time, changing the way you structure your day and work with others. And, once you’re passed the worst of your exhaustion, you’ll find yourself getting better at your job.
You’ll need to boss those boundaries.
There’s no such thing as work-life balance. It’s a term that sets you up to fail because it implies control over each, which you don’t have. You do have control over the boundaries though. It might mean finishing work at 5, logging back on at 8, or getting up early and finishing early. It might mean changing your hours, working part-time or flexibly to share childcare with your partner. If you learn to set boundaries clearly and stick to them, you find work gets done and quality time gets had.
You’ll become a master at reframing.
‘Do you want to brush your teeth before or after your bath?’ doesn’t give them a choice about whether their teeth are getting brushed, just when. You’ve changed the frame to avoid the conflict. A skill that you can apply to every area of your life. Instead of getting angry at the person who just cut in front of you, because they think they’re better than you, forgive them because they’re just as likely rushing to get to a loved one in need.
You become a better partner.
Last night they did the night feeds so you could be well slept for that important work meeting. Tonight, you’re doing it so they can recover. Raising a new life is a team game if you’re fortunate enough to have a partner. You realise communication is key. And that communication isn’t just talking and listening to each other. It’s empathising with each other, putting aside any entitled thoughts that involve words like deserve, earn, should and didn’t. It’s looking out for each other, so you notice how they are. It’s about being honest with yourself about your failings, strengths, expectations, standards and things you need help with.
You find you’re the privileged one.
‘Just tell me what to do’ is a phrase you’ll hear yourself saying to your partner. Watch out for when you do. It’s a signal that they’re carrying the mental load, not you. Most of us men don’t shoulder that burden. Society doesn’t expect it. That’s why most correspondence from doctors, nurses, nurseries and schools defaults to mum. Dads have the privilege of choosing to do that life admin, to think about the new shoes that need buying, dentist appointment that needs organising and so much more. We haven’t earned our privilege, it’s not deserved, nor sensible. It’s unfair and unjust. You’re the one who gets to choose how to deal with it. You get to choose what kind of man, dad, partner and role model you want to be.
You become a feminist.
How can you not when the system you live in works against the women in your life? If you want to work less and your wife more, you’ll have to face up to the gender pay gap. If you want to keep working but get a better blend and more flexibility, your work has to understand and value your caring responsibilities. Either way, it means you’ve got to stand up for women because that’s what people with privilege do for those that have less of it.
You realise where you need to pull your socks up.
Stopping smoking, drinking less, actually starting to exercise regularly instead of just talking about it. You realise changing wasn’t a timing problem, it was a motivational one. Now you’ve got the motivation, making change is easier. Something you can use in other areas of your life too.
You’ll realise just how much your parents love you.
Until you start parenting, you don’t know how hard it is. You don’t realise what your parents went through for you. You’ll likely feel guilty when that realisation finally dawns. Take this feeling and flip it. Be a better son, and help them to have the best experiences being grandparents as they can.
You become a hero.
When was the last time anyone repeatedly ran to greet you with open arms? It doesn’t happen in normal life, but when you’ve got children, from as soon as they can walk to around the time they turn six, you’ll be greeted like a hero every single time you come home. Enjoy it while it lasts.
But don’t believe the hype.
When you’re out with your kids, you’ll get the odd smile, older people, they’re always older, might say to you what a great job you’re doing. People you work with will say they admire how you put your family first. Your ego will grow, but it’s a trap. They’re only saying those things because society has such a low bar for being a good dad, that doing just part of your fair share is celebrated. This isn’t OK, but it won’t change until we change it. Here’s a secret — changing it means spending more time with the people you love most in the world, and making sure people know it.
You don’t need to buy everything.
‘We have things you didn’t even know you needed’ said the strapline above a blissful mum and sleeping baby. The ad was in a magazine I picked up in the hospital waiting room, waiting for our second scan. Being a parent puts you in the target market for SO many firms. Here’s a secret, kids grow so quickly that baby things, toddler things, little kid things don’t wear out after the first, second or even third time. Parents pass clothes, prams and toys around. Make the most of it and pay it forward. Then you can spend your hard earned money on more fun things.
You’ll learn what real responsibility is and rise to it.
I’ve always hated talking on the phone, asking for directions, haggling in markets. I’d actively avoid things that could be construed as one on one confrontation. I still do, but now, if there’s a problem at school, or with the kids’ friends, or a doctor that’s not really listening. I’m there, I’m in. I don’t like it but now I’ve got something that matters more than my own discomfort. And it’s amazing what you can achieve when you have that.
They’re watching and learning from your every move.
Lee’s been reading my writing for years. His son is four. He emailed me saying his son had started getting angry at his toys and clothes when he didn’t get his own way. Lee said it’s like looking in a mirror. That’s how Lee deals with his anger. Long story short, with my support, Lee’s more patient. He emailed me again recently. His son’s calmer now too. Kids are like sponges, they soak everything up.
If you didn’t know already, you realise everyone has their own issues.
I interviewed a dad who worked in the City, finance, a high flier. He described his world as ‘dog eat dog’. I asked him how being a dad changed him.
It’s a shame it took him so long to realise, but at least he did.
You become a teacher.
Kids have to learn everything from scratch. How to eat, sit up, crawl, walk, talk, regulate their emotions, consider others, wipe their own bums and a lot more. Helping them learn means trying lots of things until one works. You’ll feel a special kind of pride in seeing them succeed. There’s nothing quite like this feeling.
Then you become a curator.
My dad tried to teach me to drive. It didn’t go well. I got a driving instructor. Parents aren’t the best teachers for their children as they get older. But even when they’re little, it’s often easier not to teach them, but instead motivate them, get them excited about doing something. Then curate the right conditions and watch them go. It’s hell potty training a toddler if they aren’t motivated. But when they are, you can pretty much let them get on with it. There are many things we have to directly teach our children. But they learn much better if we create the conditions so they learn for themselves.
You will be overprotective.
It’s logical to protect the most precious thing in the world to you. It happens with every new parent. It’s understandable, but don’t let it slip too far into neuroses, just look at parents with two, three or more kids. They’re a bit more chilled out. They’ve been there before.
You realise miscarriages are quite common.
One in five couples have one. We did — they’re horrible. Chances are you know someone who’s had one but hasn’t said. Us dads aren’t great at talking about emotional things like this, so if it happens to you, do the good thing and go first, open up. It’ll help you and other dads too.
You get to play again.
I used to love LEGO as a kid. And drawing, and stories, and cartwheels and building things out of blocks. I forgot about all that until I had kids. Now I get to play again. Sometimes it takes more effort to shrug off my adult inhibitions and constraining self-expectations. But when I do, it’s like being a kid again.
You’ll find you’re more creative than you thought.
When our first child was one, I invented ‘What’s on daddy’s head?’ a game of me going out the room and coming back with a new thing on my head. For a month or two, the bananas/tea cosy/bag of rice on my head distracted him enough to get a few mouthfuls of food in for dinner. Hardly peak creativity, but it was fun, made us all laugh and a magical memory. You’ll make up countless silly games, family jokes, drawings and stories that fill your world with fun, wonder and love. Even if you tell yourself you’re not creative.
If you do it right, it makes you a better man.
I’d like to have more money, be a bit taller and able to sing. I’d like to visit Iceland and have a big garden with a treehouse. A few of those things might happen, which would be nice. But they’re all surface level aspirations. Whether I achieve them or not, what I really want it is to be a man who’s self-assured, calm under pressure, a clear thinker, dependable, considerate, someone who stands up to injustice, puts others first, someone other people are proud to know. Being a dad for the last 11 years has made me so much closer to being that man.
This post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: David Willans