A two years ago I wrote a blog about fatherhood and my father. My dad was undergoing knee replacement surgery and I was thinking a lot about him and his influence on my life. I was newly married and four months from my own first days of fatherhood. A few months later, I wrote a Father’s Day post celebrating my Dad and Grandpa as active role models, men who taught me by example, men of their generation who taught me how to be a man of mine. I was thinking about how to be a father (with Kate’s birth close at hand) and reflecting on the wonderful set of fatherly guide posts that had be set out before me. In time, I also thought about the other part of the parenting equation, and that it wasn’t just fatherhood, it was parenthood. How I parent is as much a reflection of my Mom as it is my Dad. Both were integral in helping develop as a person and provided wonderful examples of what it means to be a parent (perhaps there will be a Mother’s Day post this year 😉 ). For this blog, I’m going to focus solely on my own experience and my own goals (hence fatherhood). I know Sara has her own thoughts, experiences, and goals. And together we will work to mesh those into one cohesive parenting strategy. At the moment, my reflection is about my own experience, my own goals in being a parent, in being a father.
In the two year since I wrote those posts, and the 20 months in which I have actively been a father, I’ve thought a lot about my own fatherhood path. Actually, I haven’t spent a lot of time actively crafting my fatherhood, mostly just reacting to each new situation. This brings me to today, where I want to reflect on my 20 months as a father, and think/write about what kind of fatherly goals I want to set for myself.
I have had now twenty months with Katie. It has been like no other time period in my life, alternatively stressful and joyous, heart wrenching/warming. I’ve had some ludicrous chapters in my life: 1989: brain surgery-transition to high school; 1997: graduate college-brain surgery-start grad school-move into own apartment; 2002; 2011: finish PhD-move 1350 miles north-start postdoc. Those were all great and terrible years. But not much compared to the last stretch of time. March 2013-14: Met love of life-epic baseball trip-engaged-cohabitate-pregnant- married. July 14-15: Katie/new job offer arrive same day-responsible for baby-adjust to family life-baby-move South 600miles-new job. Talk about stress induced anxiety. A quick look back and it seems as if all these things just happened, but of course that is not the case. I actively pursued most of them. I wanted someone to share my life with so I sought a like-minded partner, and found one in Sara Lee. The cohabitation, the engagement, the wedding, these were things I actively sought and worked hard to bring them to fruition. The pregnancy was a surprise blessing for two people in their late 30s, something that we both wanted, but had long waited until we found the right partner. The new job and the subsequent move were actively pursued and interviewed and agonized, in hopes of making a good decision. The wild card in all this was Katie. My time with Katie has been reaction, action, and very little planning or active pursuit (except now that she is walking running). From the moment we threw away our birth plan to the exact moment you read this Katie has been every superlative adjective I could have imaged and the greatest thing to happen in my life.
Fears and Tears and Anxiety. One thing I didn’t expect was the fear. Is she breathing /eating/ sleeping/ (insert biologically important activity here)? What made it worse was that for the first few months as the non-milk producing partner of a breastfed baby I was pretty much superfluous to Katie’s happiness. I did all the things I could, but being honest there is little more useless to a hungry, crying baby than a man (see Shussher and The Boob). It was also the million tiny “is she” questions that pop into your head. The internet is little help because while it holds the collective knowledge of the world, it also holds the comparatively larger ravings of lunatics and zealots, hucksterism disguised as advice, and bloviating advocates for idiotic ideas. Eventually, the fear subsides to manifest as a basal anxiety that hangs around and pops “Is she” questions into my head every so often. That transition happened at the first “crisis”, the tall skinny baby. She was fine and healthy, she just wanted to eat faster than Sara could produce, so we made adjustment. A 50/50 blend of mom’s best and Gerber’s best. And it worked out. She plumped right up. It wasn’t the perfect solution, but it worked well for us. Afterwards was when the fear regressed. It was like hitting a baseball to me. The first swing was always a monster, overpowered and aggressive and 90% of the time a whiff, a strike. But what that did was calm me down, re-center my thinking and bring my concentration back into the moment. That next pitch would come and my becalmed self would smash the ball somewhere. The smashing the ball part at the end is where the analogy starts to fall apart, but the calming part still holds. Those first few months were tense and fraught with fear, and it was only when we got past the first crisis that I could settle down into being a father unafraid.
Transitions, Transformations, and Transcendence. Every moment since Katie arrived has been a transition. For both her and us everything was new. Each little moment bleeds into the next and before my eyes is Katie walking and talking. The passage of time seems both slow and fast. Days pass slowly with mundane and monotonous daily routines, while weeks and months seem to pass so quickly I hardly recognize the season. But even in that I’ve recognized the transformations of Katie. The first meaningful smile, sitting, standing, crawling, walking and all the other firsts that come bounding through developmental milestones. But there are also moments of transcendence. The first spark of recognition in her eyes that I was her father. Moments of peaceful rocking, and silent promises. The joyful heart leaping at the moment Katie connected me to what had been abstract sounds, Dadadada. The scary moment of letting her fall so that she can learn, but not too far or too hard lest my heart be rent by her plaintive cries.
The Mirror, The Ghost, and the Expectations. When I look at Katie I see a reflection of myself. It is not just because we look so similar. It is the vast expanse of hopes and dreams laid out before her. I see the things I want for her. I see in her the things I want for myself. I don’t mean that I am going to foist my dreams upon her, I seen in her my own mirrored of introspection. How do I become a good father? How do I teach you the right things? How do I allow you the freedom to learn, to fail, to stumble without interceding. How can I show you about loyalty or fortitude or honor or any of those other intangible traits that we strive for in our best selves? How do I shelter you from the expectations of others? You, Katie Brophy, bear a generational name, of women who were well loved and lived lovely lives, if too short. And from the moment you were named I was afraid of their ghosts. Not of spectral manifestations, but unconscious expectations, subtle hopes that you reflect a glimmer of your namesakes. But from the moment you were born and I looked into your eyes, I was no longer afraid. I knew that a name is just a thing, that you my daughter would be yourself. And that nascent resemblance were reflections and a celebration of the love felt by those who knew the Katie’s before you. And we all have expectations for you, my dear Katie-Kate. We want you to grow, to be health, to be happy, to be kind, to be loving, to be smart, to be independent, to be… to be… to be… But I will never let those expectations stifle who you will be.
Thought both Profound and Silly. What a time it has been. Even with nine months to prepare I was not able to fathom the depth of love that would emerge, almost spontaneously with your arrival. I am constantly amazed. Your mastery of technology is unnerving. You open apps, you switch programs, you do things could not fathom in my teens. Having spent countless hours helping my parents with their computer issues, how long will it be till you just ask me to get out of the way and let me fix it (with the snarky twinge of someone who knows what they are doing). I’m betting that occurs around age 8. I see your joyous running outside with Rio or kicking a ball. I see you piecing together the alphabet through songs and puzzles. I see you interacting with the world around you. I hear your imagination kicking in when you talk to your stuffed animals. I’ve seen your attention span grow, seen your focus. I’ve seen tiny schemes and plans. I’ve seen your emotions. I’ve seen the frustration when thought and desire outpace language. I’ve seen love expressed in deeds and now words.
I’ve been thinking about my goals as a father for a long time. They are not a distinct and goal-oriented as those in other parts of my life. I think the key to any goals I have in being a father is that they must be passive and adaptable. By passive I don’t mean to suggest that I will sit idle or not participate fully. Rather, I mean to think about how I support, encourage, and nurture Katie rather than demand and control. Thinking about all of those things, here are my goals for being a father.
Be supportive. I think this is my main goal in being a father. Be supportive. When she is passionate about something, celebrate her exuberance. When she is frustrated, allow her to vent and then talk out the problem. How can I support her in this (insert action/activity here)? This should be my first question.
Be demonstrative of love. Katie should always know I love her. She should always know I love her mother. She should see that love in gestures.
Participate actively in all parts of her life. Sara and I are in this together and there are somethings that she is going to do better. That doesn’t mean I should sit back and not be a part of that. The good things and the bad, the fun and the tedious. My goal as a father is to participate fully.
Demonstrate my values through action. My baseline moral code was instilled through watching the actions of my parents. It wasn’t taught from a book; it was learned by example. If I want Katie to be a good person, I need to be a good person. Sure, we also learn from negative examples, but those are hard lessons. Plus, these are my goals, idealized versions of what I hope will happen, what I hope I can manifest. So I will lead by example.
Instill in her a love for the things I love. Reading, learning, nature, animals, fish, water, science, sports, and Legos. I will show her how much I love those things. My hope is that in some of these things we will find a shared experience. This doesn’t mean she has to love any of these things. I will always allow her to develop her own likes and loves, and I will love those too. I just want to be able to have a common shared experience, to show her that it is OK to be passionate about some things.
Allow her to make mistakes and be there to catch her. This will be hard. I can tell her about my life experience, my successes and failures, but ultimately she will need to make mistakes. My goal is to keep them small and meaningful. While she is small this means letting her explore the world and occasionally fall down or pinch a finger or skin a knee. Then I will pick her up and let her know that it is OK and help her try again. Hopefully, in these small actions she will know that I will always support her, pick her up, give her freedom and a safety net.
Show her how a man should treat a woman, through my relationship with Sara and the other women in my life. I’ve never thought of my actions and interactions as they might be interpreted through someone else eyes. I’ve thought about how others perceive me, but mostly as one adult to another. With Katie, my actions are helping her form a social framework. I need to remember that for a good chunk of her life I will be the most important man. I don’t think this knowledge is going to cause me to behave too much differently. I think just being aware of tone and behavior are as important as words. It is interesting to think of my behavior as a man and how it will be filtered into the next generation. Like every generation before mine, some of my actions will eventually be questioned and refuted. But I will do the best I can, striving every day to be better. What that really means is being open to change.
Show her how to argue with someone you love. Hopefully, this one doesn’t occur directly between us too soon. I think it is important that we disagree in front of Katie. It is weird to think about, but knowing that it is OK to disagree is important. What also might be important is to make sure she sees the resolution too. That people who love each other disagree and still love each other is important.
Try to understand what it means to be a woman in the world and prepare her for that. I think in many ways this will be Sara’s role in our family. I don’t know what it means to be a woman. For me it will be about being able to look at situations from a different perspective. My role will be to provide some insight into the male psyche. This kind of goal is really far off in the future, but by thinking about it early it will help me moving forward. Maybe the goal here is to help her understand what she can expect and what she should expect and how to spot the difference. The world is more equitable today than it ever has been, but there are still dangers and power imbalances. (push for and support a world in which it safe and equal for girls and women)
Be demanding, do not demand. I don’t know if I can clearly explain this one. I think my natural inclination as a parent is to push. I want her to succeed, I want her to be smart, I want her to be strong willed, I want her to be educated. There will be high standards and high expectations. This again is how I am feeling now, while Katie is still little. Being demanding now means that she learns that she can’t throw things off the dinner table. The demand that she not throw things off the table is different. That is a rigid thing, without understanding. Knowing that developmentally, Katie is not fully in charge of her emotions and does not yet understand consequences or punishment. The same can be said for things later. If she wants to participate in sports, I will push her to be the best she can, help her strive to the best of her abilities, but I’m not going to demand that she be perfect. This will be a complex thing for me and something I’m going to struggle with. Hopefully as she grows I will be better able to articulate this feeling/goal/idea.