I had no idea how mind-spinningly confusing this “dad” job was going to be when I clocked in for duty 24 years ago.
The job started off quite smoothly with one cute baby boy who slept through the night, cooed on command, and was always a good attention-getter at the local grocery store. He never complained about the over-starched clothing he was forced to wear and seemed peacefully content in his magazine-perfect nursery filled with an assortment of stuffed, furry bears, ducks, and monkeys. And after he got a little meat on his bones, he fit nicely in a backpack that was almost always attached to my back as we spent our days exploring the big, new world around him.
Life has certainly changed in the last 24 years.
For starters, that cute little baby multiplied. What was once one is now three. I am outnumbered and have been for years. Baby number one is a college senior with the ability to grow a full beard in 11 hours. Baby number two arrived innocently disguised as a sweet, curly-haired girl — but I’ve learned that girls have magical powers that can make normally sane guys act like crazy men. It’s a protection thing. And baby number three, the secret weapon in this trio of siblings, is their little brother who, at 14, spends his days doing a perfect imitation of a cyclone. You know when he’s around.
Pastel nurseries have been replaced with bedrooms spattered with piles of dirty clothes. Rides in packs on Dad’s back have been replaced with comments that start with, “Dad, the car is out gas.” And, the idea of sleeping through the night has evolved into crabby kids who prefer to sleep till noon.
Things have changed. And, the longer I am a card-carrying member of the “Dad” team, the more confusing some things get. There are, however, a few things I know with certainty.
1. I know the little kid who repeatedly wanted you to sing ‘Hush Little Baby’ over and over again somewhere along the path becomes the teenager who cringes when you try to sing along with the radio.
2. I know those carefree days of summer T-ball, where everyone is handed a trophy, evolve into competitive sports where kids can lose their spirit, their zeal, and their passion.
3. I know that cute little boy down the street named Adam or Patrick can grow up to a young high school boy with a car that needs a new muffler and has the ability to break your daughter’s heart. Watch out for him.
4. I know grade school projects, those late night runs to the drugstore to get a presentation board, and refrigerators full of artwork are way more fun than the stress you see your kid going through with college applications, personal essays and ACT tests.
5. I know a kid will survive if they eat ice cream for breakfast every once in a while.
6. I know when you punish your child, you punish yourself. Be careful with the sentence you hand out. And, trust me, a six month grounding is stupid.
7. I know that with each child, there is a day they no longer want to be tucked in or read to in bed. And you’ll miss it.
8. I know that there is no compliment more meaningful than one coming from your child. No boss or supervisor’s praise equals a thumbs-up from your own kid.
9. I know that the helpless feeling you have at 2 in the morning when your child has a temperature of 102 and you can’t comfort them is pretty much the same feeling you have when your teenager is mad, sad, or upset about something and they won’t tell you what’s wrong. Those are the moments you’d give anything for a parenting magic wand.
10. I know each day as a parent has its tough spots. Some days are all tough. But I know somewhere in each and every day is a gift waiting to be found.
11. I know that, no matter how big they get, when you look at your child sleeping peacefully, you marvel.
12. More than anything, I’ve come to know that being a good dad has nothing to do with being the best, being flawless or being perfect. Rather, I’ve learned — and just in the last few years — that it’s all about being accessible to your kids. Accessible physically. Accessible emotionally. And accessible spiritually. The more I focus on that, the better I think I get at this job.
I kind of miss those simple days before this dad journey started. I had time to myself. I enjoyed a lot of sleep. And I still had use (and need) for a comb. But life is full of tradeoffs, isn’t it?
I cherish being a dad. I really do.
That, without doubt, is the most important thing I know.