Ten years ago today, my life changed forever. I became a father. A decade has passed, and it seems like yesterday and forever, simultaneously.
I’d thought about being a father before I became one, but I didn’t fully comprehend how much it changes you once it happens.
For one, you’re ready to die for them. Seriously. You know how in movies there’s that parent who covers up his kids when the bullets are flying? Before I had kids, I’d see that type of thing and wonder if I could ever do that. Now, I haven’t a doubt. They come first. You sacrifice for them. You lose your independence. You have a small child that fully relies upon you, from being provided for to seeking a role model.
In particular, I’ve probably felt the role of provider more heavily than any other. Since we decided to have children, I’ve worked and my wife has cared for the kids — and make no mistake, that is indeed a full-time incredibly difficult job.
We’ve been fortunate, in this way. They’ve blossomed having one parent around all the time. But as the sole breadwinner, so to speak, I’ve always felt a tick-tick-tick of whether I’m saving enough. Are they covered for college? Are they covered for a roof over their heads? Can I provide for all the assorted things that children seem to require?
And so I would dive into work, to play that provider role. Of course, it’s also because I have loved my work, and it’s easy to think (or at least for me, so I have thought in the past), that your children will still be there after a deadline you’ve needed to hit has passed. That they’ll wait the “five minutes” that’s my constant refrain about when I’ll finish with something, then end up taking an hour or two instead. My oldest son about a year ago showed how much he’s grown by calling me out on it. “You always say you’re just coming, and you never are.”
Of course, after having done all this work, I’d be exhausted both physically and mentally. I’d spent so much time trying to be provider dad that the roughhouse dad the kids really wanted was nowhere to be found. And therein lies another problem — even at the best of times, I’m not much of a roughhouser.
The boys love it, just love it if I smash into them, “steamroller” by rolling across them, pick them up — you name it. They’re boys. They want to be tossed around. But that’s just not really me, and I find myself feeling guilty when I don’t do more of it. I feel even guiltier when I see other fathers who DO do it and clearly love being that way. What’s wrong with me?
There’s a scene from Jersey Girl that also makes me feel like I’m a bad dad. It’s where Will Smith (playing himself) is talking to Ben Affleck (not playing himself) about being a father. He’s talking about how his kids just want him to play in the dirt with them, rather than be off working all the time. And I see that with my own kids, and I feel bad for not making more dirt time.
I realized only last year that to be a better dad, I ironically had to be less of one. My children are part of my life, but they can’t consume it entirely (however I let that happen, such as working too much).
In talking with my wife about this, she’d had some similar feelings. While I’d been lost as provider dad, she’d felt consumed as caretaker mum, shuttling the boys around to activities, making sure they’re ready for school, watching over the homework and slowly losing her identity as a person.
In trying to be good parents — what we we’ve thought good parents should be — we’d given up too much of our independent identities. We’d been parents first and adults on second, when we’d had time to be adults at all.
As I’ve talked to some other parents, I’ve seen similar nods of agreement — especially when I joke about trying not to let the kids suck the life out of us. Last fall, my wife came across a Wall Street Journal article on the same topic — that to do the best for your kids, you might do best not to center your life around them.
Things have been changing. As we’ve become more aware of how much we were getting lost in our children, we’ve worked to stand apart from being just parents. It has meant giving the kids more independence (which is also easier as they’ve gotten older). It has meant a lot more of making time for ourselves. And ironically while I feel bad for even thinking about being apart from my kids, for not wanting to spend all my time with them, I also think that it’s an important part of being a better dad when I am with them.
With the move back to California and this greater awareness of needing more time overall, my work habits have dramatically changed. I’m around a lot more. With school being close, not requiring a drive, I can bicycle with them most mornings. And while I might not still be a roughhousing dad, I’ve come to accept there are other things I do enjoy that they also like: building sand castles, shooting tin cans with BB rifles or even just bicycling up to get some tacos. In the end, as I’ve always known, they don’t really want things. They just want my time. So I try to make sure they’re getting that time, but I’m also working to make sure I feel like more than just a dad.
And to my oldest son, who doesn’t read this blog but will someday, don’t interpret your father’s struggles with being a better dad as regret for having become one. I love you and your brother dearly; you bring joy into my life. The loss of independence comes with the gain of interdependence. We are forever bound together. And on this your 10th birthday, know that you’ve always made me so proud and happy.