A new father reflects on the joys and challenges of his first year of parenthood.
Six months ago, my wife and I boarded an airplane with our daughter for the first time; we were visiting my family for the holidays. Our baby was four months old. About 30 minutes into the flight, our daughter became frustrated — she was having trouble falling asleep. It was my turn to try to get her down, and by this point, she was in full-on baby scream mode. I bounced her while walking up and down the aisle in desperation. I felt like all eyes on the flight were on me. As she started to relax and nod off, a woman looked up at me, smiled, and said “nice job, Dad.”
As much as I appreciated the comment in the moment — not least because airplanes have become such hotbeds for vitriol — I knew not to take it personally. Cultural expectations, though they may be changing, are low for dads. Would my wife have gotten the same acknowledgment in that moment? Besides, I was just doing what needed to be done.
That idea basically sums up my approach to these nascent days of fatherhood. Sometimes what’s needed is to get the kid to sleep, sometimes it’s diapers, sometimes it’s dinner, fixing the leaky faucet, or walking the dogs. Fatherhood, to me, is about embracing whatever my family needs from me.
Read more: How to Help Your Child Sleep Better
This is my first Father’s Day as a dad. My daughter — a confident, brave, and curious little explorer — is about 10 months old now. Since I’m new to the papa club, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a father (or a father figure), and what I’ve learned along this brief, but life-changing journey. I have some notes.
But before I hop into them — a quick disclaimer: What I describe below is what works for me, my partner, and our baby. Of course, every parent and every kiddo is different. Parenting is hard enough without a toxic culture of shame and judgment lurking around every corner — particularly online. This article is written with the best of intentions and is merely the experience of one father. If it doesn’t resonate, that’s okay.
They eat, they poop, they sleep. That’s what they tell you. And they’re not wrong. But there is way more going on, too. My daughter is so into absolutely everything — especially if it’s new. She’s gripped by her own curiosity. The only thing I can compare it to is that it’s like she’s on a really heavy drug trip. Everything kind of blows her away. Of course it does — she’s witnessing the world for the first time. Lights and fans are incredible, not to mention rushing mountain rivers and Douglas fir forests. She’s also already developed such a personality. She has a sense of humor. She’s brave and thoughtful. I didn’t know much about babies going into this, but I did not expect to be so fascinated, and have so much fun, during these early days.
Read more: How to Help Your Child Connect With Nature
What I mean by that is that it’s pure, intense, radical. Have you ever changed a poopy diaper in the middle of a hike with a thunderstorm looming and no backup onesies? That is hardcore! You’ve got to be quick. You’ve got to be smooth.
You know what’s comparatively pretty easy? Tuning out, shutting off. But parenthood doesn’t leave a lot of space for that. The best example is air travel. We recently flew to Costa Rica. Typically, I’d watch a crappy movie on my phone or read a magazine. With a kid, you have to pay attention the entire time. Even if my daughter is sleeping, I have to make sure she continues to sleep by covering her ears when the captain comes on, or slowly rocking her. It is relentless and intense!
With a kid, you can’t just not show up. They require attention — they thrive with it — and sometimes, if you take your eye off the ball, even for a second, she’ll pop something in her mouth that really shouldn’t be there. Collectively, we’re generally pretty terrible at really slowing down, listening, and paying attention. Our phones have only made that harder. It’s hard work and it takes a lot of practice. But paying deep, focused attention feels fundamental to this role.
My wife and I live in a tiny mountain village with about 300 residents. We’re pretty independent and solitary by nature, and we don’t have family nearby. For us, having a kid has emphasized our community and required us to broaden it and let go of our “Oh, I got it,” tendencies. Our daughter loves seeing new people — loves to smile and be held by, well, pretty much anyone she meets. What’s more, my wife and I can’t fulfill our roles as partners to each other, as well as our professional obligations, without support. Asking for help doesn’t come naturally to us, but we’re getting better at it.
Read more: How I’m Parenting In a Wildfire Zone
Pain is inevitable. That doesn’t make it hurt less. Every time my daughter takes a tumble — and there are many at this point — it hurts me in a place I didn’t know existed until I had a kid. It’s a nasty mix of guilt, shame, and fear. But just like I try to dust my daughter off and help her move forward, I have to tell myself to move on, too. Accidents happen. Terrifying moments happen. We try to do our best. We learn from our mistakes. And we move on.
For me, being a good dad means recognizing what needs to be done and doing it, regardless of what that role is. I love playing with my daughter, but often where I’m needed more is to be picking up groceries, cooking, or doing the laundry. I embrace those roles, and I’m practicing and getting better at letting go of the to-do list when what my daughter needs most is my attention.
Parenthood hasn’t required that we change much. Before I was a parent, I’d hear a lot of “before” talk — ya know, “well, before we had kids…” But our life looks pretty similar. We know what makes us happy — for us that’s skiing, mountain-biking, traveling, reading — and it’s essential for us to still make time for all those things. My wife and I have to take turns skiing or riding and don’t get out together as much, but we are committed to continuing to do the things that bring us joy and a sense of wonder. What better gift to share with a kid?
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