You are a father. It looks like such a simple sentence. But your new role is actually profound; one you are a father, you can never be “not-a-father” anymore. By becoming a father, you’ve embarked on an amazing and fulfilling journey, powerful from the moment of birth.
The day you bring your newborn or your adopted back home with you is exciting and overwhelming. It’s a cliché, but your life will never be the same. Even if this is not your first child, he is different from your others and you are different than you were before. Heck, my identical twins were born 14 minutes apart; they are markedly different from one other, as is my relationship with each of them. Each father-child bond is unique and continually evolving.
The child is not the only one being influenced here. As James Joyce once said, “People talk of my influence on my daughter, but what about her influence on me?”
No one has ever been so completely dependent on you as this baby. It feels wonderful to be so needed, but also a bit scary. Fortunately, you have more resources at your disposal than you may think (for example, Dsds & Daughters).
That said, I think every prospective parent should watch the movie Parenthood before getting pregnant. The film could easily be called Fatherhood, since the main character is a dad. That movie makes clear some central truths about fathering:
- It is like a roller coaster.
- You can’t know for sure how your actions will affect your children.
- You can guarantee that your actions do affect your children.
My favorite line from Parenthood is when Keanu Reeves’ character Tod says, “You need a license to buy a dog or drive a car. Hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any [expletive deleted] a**hole be a father.”
With a bit of earthy humor (the kind guys like, right?), Tod explains the biggest dilemma a new father faces: No one trained me for this job. The child doesn’t come with an operator’s manual, plug-and-play attachments, or downloadable upgrades.
Despite this, dads today have more freedom than ever to take “nontraditional” approaches to fathering. Many men take time away from their careers to stay home with the baby while their partners return to the workplace. Other men work part-time or telecommute so they can commune with baby every possible moment. Some men even teach Head Start and early childhood parent education classes!
In other words, you don’t have to father the same way your father or grandfather did. You can be your own kind of Dad. That opportunity is liberating and exciting, but can also be disconcerting. After all, it’s harder to find examples to follow when you’re doing things in a new way.
But did you know that nature provides tools that you may not yet be conscious of? For example, from the moment of birth, you and your baby can instinctively communicate with each other, even though it’ll be a year or more before she uses words.
A pioneering pediatric psychologist, the late Dr. Lee Salk (brother of Jonas, creator of the polio vaccine) urged parents to trust this kind of natural connection. As a new dad, I took comfort and confidence from Salk’s What Every Child Would Like His Parents to Know (Warner, 1973-now out-of-print).
In a refreshing departure for a parenting author, Salk argued that we shouldn’t worry so much about what the latest parenting book says. His book wisely encouraged me to trust my heart along with my baby’s sounds and body. If I “tuned in” to my deep fathering instincts, and the signals my infants “broadcast,” I’d have most of what I’d need to be a good father. As fathering expert Will Glennon says, “The key is to father from the heart.”