Becoming the Father I Wanted to Be

It took six years and a minor crisis to make a big change

On my 34th birthday, my pregnant wife wrote me a card that lovingly set me on a very high parenting pedestal. It read, in part:

You will teach her kindness and humor, inquisitiveness and gumption, curiosity and critical thinking skills. You will role model bravery and ethical behavior. You will share wisdom and insight. You will show her how to play and be truly open to what the world has to offer. You will challenge her and set high expectations, but I know you will let her find her own way to meet them, even if it means fumbling now and again.

There was more – all describing the kind of amazing father I also thought I'd be when our first daughter was born two weeks later – but that's not exactly how it played out. The truth is that I was the one who fumbled now and again while challenging myself with high expectations. And it took six years to begin to find my own way to meet them.

I see now that becoming a father is more like slowly turning up a dimmer knob rather than flipping a switch. Beyond adjusting to the sleep-deprived nights, endless diaper changes, and learning how to soothe an enraged little being, it is ultimately, for many (and me), an identity crisis.

Fatherhood immediately competed with the parts of myself that were separate from being a parent: career, friendships, time alone to recharge, even intimacy with my wife. The tension between these compartments of life, plus all the minor, daily challenges of parenthood (not to mention life in general), left me standing in the shadow of the heroic fatherhood portrait my wife and I painted before our daughter was born.

I wasn't fully aware of it at the time (part of the problem) but instead of modeling bravery and ethical behavior, I found I often modeled impatience and annoyance. Instead of sharing wisdom and insight, I found myself leaking disappointment and discouragement when my daughter grew old enough to act up. I wasn't doing the best job showing her how to be open to what the world has to offer as much as I sometimes showed her that I would shut down if I didn't have enough breaks from the stress of family life.

All of that complicated our decision three years ago to have a second child. For me, one of the arguments against going back down the rabbit hole was that I didn't feel I was being the best father I could be to the daughter already in our lives, and I was worried about losing what little time I did have to myself to another member of the family. But we decided to take the leap. And our capacity to love more than doubled with her birth, but my capacity to become that ideal father didn't. In fact, with other stressors on my plate, I found I was moving farther from it.

A week ago, and a few days after my wife, editorial director of Seleni, asked me to write a piece for Father's Day, I found myself getting sucked into a movie on TV I hadn't seen in years: Regarding Henry. The main character, played by Harrison Ford, is basically a world-class jerk, which stereotypically makes him a successful lawyer but a terrible dad. But after being shot in the head during an attempted robbery, he goes in and out of a coma, relearns to walk, and then re-emerges as a warm and kind father to his daughter.

My own bullet to the head hit me about six months ago. After a difficult family vacation (during which my wife and I uncharacteristically fought a lot), she asked me to sit down with her therapist. She told me that lately I had been distant and disengaged with her and the kids. She felt they were all competing with the time I needed for myself. Even when I was with them, I was partially checked out, my hands busily writing in a journal, my eyes glued to a phone or computer screen. That conversation was my catalyst to commit to change.

The first thing I did was read several parenting books that had been gathering dust on my nightstand (including No Regrets Parenting by Harley A. Rotbart and The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler). I honed in on the lessons that resonated with me most – becoming more mindful and present with our girls and my wife – and put them into immediate practice.

The shift in our individual and family rapport improved even faster than I expected, which immediately reinforced my new behavior. I stopped hurrying through the bedtime routine and slowed down to enjoy reading to our oldest. (A search at the library for great books I would also enjoy helped.) I significantly reduced how frequently I checked screens at home, especially while talking to anyone. And now, when I feel my patience quickly slipping away, I try to breathe a few times first, which is often all I need to handle a trying situation with empathy and patience. My older daughter began seeking me out more often to play, and we had fewer conflicts when we did. I was even getting numerous spontaneous exclamations of "I love you so much!"  

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes about asking a father of two young children about the transition to parenthood. The man replies:

In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey [his son], another part was for Sue [his wife], another part to help with Ana [newborn daughter], another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.

But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!

I too have folded family time into my time, and doing so means we all have a much better time together. Of course, I still fumble now and again, but the lesson is already learned. The more attention I give our daughters by being undistracted and present when I'm with them, the closer and happier we all are when we're together. But something bigger is developing too. I can feel the lines of demarcation between the aspects of myself erasing. I feel more whole, less a sum of disparate parts.

As a writer and thinker, I still value opportunities to be by myself, and I will get some of it on Father's Day, a chance to reflect and recharge and return to my family refreshed.

One of the things I know I will marvel at this year, is that this Father's Day will be my best – not for plans we have that day but because I have found my own way to getting closer to the parent I want to be. And I'm so grateful that I will always have the opportunity to make a change, break unhealthy patterns, and improve. My girls and I will grow up together.