Getting the news that I was going to be a dad was unlike anything I've ever experienced. I felt a lot of emotions simultaneously. I was elated, and reminded of my faults. I was overjoyed that there was going to be a person out there that was half of me, but at the same time I realized that there were parts of me that I didn't necessarily want passed on to my child.
I spent a lot of time in those nine months of anticipation trying to learn how to be a good dad. But the truth is that there is no way to be fully prepared. No amount of books or classes can make a person ready for the moment when they first meet their son or daughter. And especially not for being discharged from the hospital and expected to take care of that tiny person without the aid of an entire hospital staff. I'll be honest with you: it was scary.
If anything ever required training, it's being a parent. Unfortunately, on-the-job training is the only kind that really works. The good news: it gets easier. Eventually you fall into the role in an amazingly natural way. But until then, here are a few tips that I had to learn during my training that will help any of you soon to be (or aspiring) fathers.
Be OK with Not Knowing Everything
This requirement actually starts before the baby is even born. The amount of literature on pregnancy, childbirth, and raising a child is astounding. My wife and I spent hours before my son was born becoming “experts” by reading this stuff, only to find out that everything we thought we knew couldn't prepare us for the real thing anyway.
Of course it's important to have a cursory knowledge of what you're about to go through, but don't kill yourself trying to understand everything. Not only would your time be better spent taking care of the woman about to have your baby, but you'll save yourself from worrying about various scenarios that most likely will never happen.
Forget About You
There is truly no greater joy in the world than being a father. But having a child means giving up a certain amount of personal freedom that is always going to be hard for some people. No amount of warning can prepare you for such a massive life change. Suddenly life is not about you anymore. It's about this little person that requires constant care and attention.
As your child grows, you begin to get some of that freedom back. But it's a slow process, and can be frustrating for those used to being able to do what they want when they want. This is a major reason why I caution anyone thinking about having kids to understand the implications. It really is a daily exercise in self-sacrifice.
That's right, I said it. The sooner you make mistakes, the sooner you'll realize that the world doesn't end when you do. Then you'll actually be able to enjoy being around your kid.
Learn How to Stay Calm
The first three months of parenthood are defined by chaos. You, the mother, and the baby are all trying to adjust to a new reality together. Everything is a learning experience for all parties involved. The only response your baby has to anything is to cry. And to top it off, your baby is not sleeping, which means neither are you.
In those first few months, it is really easy to let your emotions get the best of you. That's why it's so important that you figure out how to keep yourself calm. How to do that will differ from person to person, but as long as you have some coping mechanism, you can keep yourself from lashing out or breaking down.
Learn How to Play Again
This requirement doesn't come until your child is actually moving around on his or her own, but it's definitely the most fun. You don't realize how “adult” you've become until your children want you to get down on the ground and play with them. You have to learn how to get dirty again. But when you do, you'll wonder why you ever stopped.
Also Be a Good Husband
Or partner. Or whatever relation you are to the mother of your child. I cannot understate this point: your child needs you to guard that relationship jealously. A week after my son was born, my wife and I went out on a date. We didn't make a big deal about it. It was just dinner. But we made sure it happened. And we've tried to do so every week since.
When you have a baby, it is so easy to suddenly shift focus entirely to taking care of him or her and forget about each other. You have to cultivate that relationship if you want it to survive. A few nights away from your child will benefit him in the long run if it means a stronger marriage for the two of you.
Let's face it: the bar for being a good father is pretty low, due to the precedent set by so many absentee or apathetic fathers. Having to raise a child alone is a sad reality for too many mothers simply because a man thought he wasn't up to the task of being a father. Those of us who do show up, who try to be the best fathers we can be everyday, are already way more successful at it than those who don't show up at all. And if you're anything like me, the moment the nurse places your little one in your hands, you'll know there's no where else you'd rather be anyway.
If you find yourself in the happy position of expecting a baby, then I congratulate you. If you came here seeking advice, I hope you found some words of comfort. But I mean it when I say that nothing can fully prepare you for becoming a father. It's one of those things that only other fathers can truly appreciate.
So take this list for what it is: the story of what one man had to learn to be a good father. What some of you had to learn may have been completely different.