Life of Dad recently published a list called “Real Advice for New Dads.” It was a few nuggets of wisdom from their dad community, and one quote in particular really gave me pause.
“Not everyone had a great dad, unfortunately, so Lewis Hundley recommends that you ‘Be the dad you needed when you were a kid.'”
When my first child was born, I was terrified that I didn’t know how to be a father, and I can still remember holding this little boy with auburn hair, sleeping and swaddled, and wondering how I’d ever be able to be the parent he needed when I didn’t have much of a father myself. My father left when I was 9 and died when I was 19. He was in and out of my life through most of my teen years, and I really struggled with that when my wife suggested that we have children.
It was late at night, in the hospital. Tristan hadn’t been sleeping most of the night, and I remember looking down at him, and saying, “I’m going to be the father I never had.”
And at the time, that felt really good to say. I felt like I was breaking a cycle. But now, when I think back on what I said, it makes me wonder if I was setting the bar too low. Or perhaps I was setting it too high. I don’t know what kind of expectations I was setting, because I didn’t really know what kind of father I wanted as a child.
Sometimes I just wanted a father that remembered my birthday. Sometimes I wanted a father that would take the time to help me fix a car. Sometimes I wanted a father without a drinking problem. Sometimes I looked at my friends’ fathers and wondered what it would be like to have a father that smiled when he saw me. Sometimes I just wanted someone that I could talk to about the struggles I was facing in high school. Sometimes I just wanted a friend.
To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted from a father as a child. When I think about it like that, I realize just how challenging it must be for all the other parents out there, the ones like me, who grew up in the 80s and 90s, when it suddenly seemed to become more socially acceptable to walk out on families and children. All of us are now faced with the greatest challenge of our lives — being the parent that we wish we’d had as a child.
I still don’t know exactly what that looks like. At times, when I wonder if I’m doing a bad job as a parent, I tell myself at least I’m here. At least I come home every night to my kids. And when I think about that, it feels like I’m setting the bar very low comparing myself to zero. But at other times, I almost overcompensate. Just a few nights ago, I was sitting next to my oldest who’s 9 now. He was in bed, reading a book. I had to work late that night. Tristan’s younger sisters were already asleep, so I decided to declare my love for my son. “Tristan,” I said. “I want you to know that I love you. I’m sorry I had to work late and didn’t get to see you until now. I hope you understand.”
Tristan looked up at me with big blue eyes, and I thought about myself as a child, and how many times I’d wished my father had said something like that. Then he curled his lips and said, “Duh. I know you love me. You say it like a million times a day.”
I paused for a moment. Was I saying it too much? Can you say it too much? Perhaps all I’m doing is saying that I love the kid, and nothing else. Maybe I’m actually half-assing this whole father thing. Hell, I don’t know. I should probably pause right here and say that maybe all parents feel this way, even if they had a good mother and father in their lives growing up. Perhaps this is all very normal. But this is the really scary part of being a father (or a mother) when you never really had a good example to pin your expectations on. You just don’t know what it looks like. It feels like I am drifting into unknown territory as a parent. Flying blind, that sort of thing.
It’s a scary feeling.
That night, when Tristan rolled his eyes and said, “Duh,” I looked down at him and said, “Do you know why I do that? Tell you I love you so much?”
“Because my father wasn’t around all that much, so I know how much it means to know that a dad loves you. I didn’t hear much from my father, so I want to make sure, 100% sure, that you know I’m here for you. I guess it’s really important for me to know that you know that I love you. I hope that makes sense.”
He didn’t say, “Duh,” again. He didn’t say that he knew I would never leave him. He didn’t tell me to settle down, or that he understood what I was saying. He just put out his arms and I bent down, and gave him a hug.
I sat back up and he said, “I know you love me, Dad.”
“Thank you,” I said. “It’s good for me to hear that.”
In so many ways my father’s absence has made me more determined to be a significant part of my children’s lives. I refuse to let them go because I know how difficult it can be to navigate life without a father. And for that, I am grateful, honestly. It has given me firsthand experience. But at the same time, it has made me so insecure as to my position and responsibilities as a parent that I constantly question my actions, motives, and level of involvement.
Nevertheless, I press on. I look to my wife for advice, and I try harder than I’ve ever tried at anything else to make sure that my kids know that I do, indeed, want the best for them. And the really sad thing is, I don’t know if these feelings will ever go away.