How to be a Dad

I’m no authority on Dads.  As father of five myself I’m probably a little subjective – but I’m no expert.  Saying that, I’ve been a Dad for 20 years,  and a son for 47 come Fathers’ Day this year, so I guess I know a little more than some.

What is a Dad?  How do you best be one? If you didn’t get on so well with your own Dad, how do you Dad? 

Being a Dad comes naturally to some people.  The first image that comes to my mind is the stereotypical Super-Dad: Sports coach, cub-scout leader, or club organizer. But Dad’s come in all shapes and sizes, and I’m betting pretty much all of them started life as a Dad in a similar way: in tearful wonder looking down at a newborn. 

From there on out is the journey.  Wonder at the outset, and then—Parenthood begun—each Dad begins charting his own course, hopefully alongside a partner who will help to pull the weight of family along through the marathon of early childhood, and the Rose ‘n' Thorn patches of the years to come.

In my own experience, Dad’s are sidelined a bit at the beginning.  We all know Mom’s do most of the heavy lifting during that early phase of pre-dawn parenthood: while the baby’s developing Dad’s role might be to support Mom at a prenatal visit, or re-decorate a room, or work out the technical details on car-seats. And after the big day, Dad’s duties continue to be supportive. Helping mom and baby settle into their new routines, growing into the immediate realities of broken sleep, irritability, and constant availability. Meanwhile, for most Dads, the pressures of work don’t go away–at least not for long–and building one’s own life around the life of family becomes the norm for the foreseeable future. 

At the end of the day, Dad’s “make space” for Moms and kids.  Some Dad’s actually build it, as physical space—like a house, a room or a treehouse.  Other Dad’s provide it by making time to nurture their young family and to do things together.  Some do both.  And in “making space” they hold a place of safety and security for a family to grow in. And then there are some who just don’t.  Who make mistakes, or fail as Dad’s.  As a carpenter friend once remarked to me after I realized the extent of a mistake I made working on my deck, “A good carpenter is only as good as his recovery.”  I think the same rule applies to Dads, which leaves the door open to possibility—albeit sometimes at the expense of going back and starting all over again. 

I had a great relationship with my Dad.  Not so much as a teenager and young adult, but certainly once I became a father myself and had that “Aha!” moment where the bottom fell out of my stomach when I first realized just what my parents had lived through with me.  At that point, we began to rebuild our relationship, and I am thankful for the way it worked out. That being said, I knew from the start I wanted to be a different father from my own, and I was encouraged to choose two Dads that I respected, and approach them to speak with them about what they had to share about being a Dad.  We had some great conversations–one even ended up buying me lunch. I would strongly recommend this to any new Dad: finding allies in what seems like a new world can be enormously helpful, and where moms have groups and commonalities that build this naturally,  we dads aren’t always very good at it, nor are our communities always designed for it.     

At the end of the day, the best Dads seem to be able to “make” family space in a way that manifests happiness. They may be that soccer coach, that community leader, or they may make a mean cinnamon toast. They take it on though. There’s commitment in it. And although that can be the scariest sticking point–looking a bit like a life-sentence on a roller coaster – once you’re in the car and the ride is rolling there are thrills aplenty and, well  . . . it’s pretty difficult to get off!