My best friend and his wife recently found out that they will be welcoming their first child into the world this spring. At his invitation I sent him the following thoughts about fatherhood, having endured loved it through nine years and four kids. The remarks have been edited to remove personal information.
#1 – Congratulations! You are no longer in control of your own destiny.
Here’s the thing: you are now 100% responsible for another human being in this world. You have established a relationship that, short of death, cannot be severed or broken. (And I’m not even sure death breaks it.) You have to make sure that this little person is fed, cleaned, clothed, educated and loved. Every decision you make from here on out will have to include this as part of the equation — everything from “Should I take this new job” to “What type of milk do I buy for the family?”
So forget about the myth of the autonomous individual making his way in the world. It’s not true to begin with, and now that you have a child it’s even less true.
(By the way: Your wife is 100% responsible, too. It takes 200% to raise a child.)
#2 – You will be amazed at what you will endure for your child.
Let’s just get this one out of the way: within the first year of your child’s life you will be graced with the following bodily fluids flowing from your child onto your person: urine, poop, vomit, regurgitated milk, mucus, and a couple I still haven’t identified. If you have a boy, you’ll get it within six months. (Our oldest was so consistent about trying to pee on us that we had our own little maneuver when changing him: we’d take his diaper off, then immediately use it to cover him back up because you could be sure that as soon as fresh air hit him there would be a stream shooting up.)
The thing is, you won’t care one bit. I know I was worried about how I would handle these things, but the first time our oldest looked into my eyes, smiled, and vomited all over my shirt, I didn’t give it a second thought because I was so much more concerned about him and how he felt. The “oh-my-God-my-child-just-unhinged-his-jaw-and-spewed-on-my-leather-upholstery” reaction gets pushed out of your mind because you’re so focused on making sure that your child’s OK.
#3 – The most important thing you can do for your child is put your wife first.
This may seem counter intuitive, but I believe that your relationship with your wife is more important than your relationship with your child. It only takes a few minutes on Google to find statistics on how divorce and broken families screw over kids in major ways. You and I are both fortunate enough to come from families that, despite lots of trials and tribulations, have remained intact. I don’t know about you, but seeing my friends who have parents who are divorced, I’m extraordinarily grateful for that. Not that they aren’t decent, well-adjusted people, but I also know that they’ve had to endure a lot more crap in their lives than I’ve had to, even given my family issues. Having an intact family has been a great blessing in my life.
One of the promises I made to myself when my first child was born was that I would do everything in my power to ensure that he had that same advantage. Which, ironically, means that I invest more in my relationship with my wife than with the kids. Which, again, isn’t to say that I come home, throw some food into their room and say goodnight. But I want my kids to know that I love their mother and that they are a result of that love — and are loved as a result.
#4 – Decide now what your values are.
This is important for two reasons: a) so that you can pass on your values to your children, and b) so you know where you priorities are. The first is pretty straight forward: start thinking now about the lessons you want to impart to your child so that you won’t be reacting later on to lessons he’s learning somewhere else. (Children are sponges that soak up everything in their environment, whether you mean them to or not. This was hit home to me the first time my oldest started talking about Star Wars, even though I had never tried to intentionally pass it on to him.) And start thinking about what values you will and won’t allow into your house (via tv, the internet, etc.).
The second is a little more subtle. One of the things I’ve had to come to grips with is the things that I have to give up in order to be a halfway decent father. There are so many conferences, classes, and other opportunities out there that I would love to participate in that, if given the chance, I could be gone every other weekend. But I know (and my wife reminds me) that doing so would be a very bad thing for the family. So we compromise and work out what things I do and what I don’t.
The point here isn’t that I’m “paying the price” for putting my family first, but that my wife and I make those decisions together. If she thought we could maintain a happy home life together even if I was gone more often, then I’d be packing a lot more suitcases. But that’s not a decision I can make on my own. By talking through our values and how we’re going to put them into practice, she gives me a level of accountability that keeps me from doing anything to the family that would compromise my stated values. That’s a good thing.