There’s nothing that makes a father feel more complete than Father’s Day. Through a barrage of cards shaped like neckties, you read about all the wonderful things you’ve done for your children and can’t help but feel like you have it all figured out.
The thing is, though, you don’t have it all figured out. Even if you are awesome at every aspect of parenting, it’s only true until this particular point in time. The scale of what being a father means changes drastically by the day and never lets up.
When Olivia was first born, my responsibilities centered on baby things. Bottles, naps, and pacifiers made me Dad of the Year. I could rest my hat on the fact that I, a father of one year, had already figured this whole parenting thing out.
My wife would write the Father’s Day cards for her in pretend baby talk. “Thank you, Daddy, for taking such good care of me!” I knew that my one year old wasn’t proficient in cursive writing. Come on. It was a forgery but the sentiment was right.
As the years have gone by, those cards have changed. Now my daughter definitely writes them herself and they’re specific to things we’ve done together and events we’ve shared. Rather than doing the routine duties like when she was one, I create the memories she takes with her. It’s not about what I do for her as much as who I am for her. That’s a pretty significant change and it’s been a slow build that doesn’t end.
Reading this year’s card made me think about the subtle evolution of who I am here. Fathering used to be about diaper changes and lullabies. Then it became about playing and teaching. Now it’s about encouragement and companionship. The days keep going by, though, and soon there will be discussions about life, love, and ambition. It made me a little sick to think about. I know nothing about parenting any of that.
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that all the dad-duty left to do is completely different than anything I’ve done so far. It’s like being the best barber in the shop and finding out that, in six months, your job will also include competitive Frisbee and candle-making.
That freaked me out a bit. Sure, I’m getting Dad of the Year cards now. But will I deserve them when she’s 15? Will my aptitude for parenting a nine year old translate into proper parenting for a teenager? Beyond that?
Eventually being a father could be about helping to plan a wedding or showcasing grandfather skills (a completely different job title altogether). This goes on and on and, scary enough, it never ends. If I live to be 100 and my kids are in their 70s, my job as a father will be to teach them about AARP membership. What the hell?! That’s nothing even close to anything I’ve done so far. The little worried dad voice in my head keeps trying to push me to Google “teaching your kids about retirement”. It’s coming.
The good news, though, is that I’m not really worried about any of this. That’s not to say I have amazing faith in myself. It’s not. I just know I’ll roll forward because, well, I already have and I remember going through this before.
When Olivia turned three, we had a party at the house and invited some of her friends from the early days of day care. One of the girls, Bella, was barely in pre-school when I first met her years earlier. By the time the party came around, she was seven. It bugged me out. I told her that it bugged me out.
You’re seven?! Wow.
It wasn’t said with that feigned sense of surprise that you say to a child either. It wasn’t one of those fake, “Wow! Did you draw that? Are you sure that’s not a professional picture? That’s amazing!” No. I was genuinely shocked that she had grown up since I had seen her. As someone so new to fatherhood, I had never really contemplated the fact that they do that. They get bigger? I mean, I knew it, but I hadn’t really seen it in practice until then. My kid was doing it, but I saw her every day. That didn’t count.
I wondered how I would be able to interact with a seven year old child of my own when the time came. I knew nothing about seven year olds at the time. I watched in astonishment as Bella easily unlocked the gate barricading the staircase to get herself a drink. There was no way Olivia would ever be that old and, when she was, I wouldn’t even know what to say to her.
Eventually she did hit that age… and beyond. Now at nine, our relationship is stronger than ever. The same can be said for Lucas. Even though most of the “Best Dad Ever” greeting card skills I had six years ago haven’t come into play in a long time, I was able to transition into what I need to be now. Because of this, I still get “Best Dad Ever” cards and I still feel proud.
They’ll keep rolling forward and I will too. Wherever my children end up – good or bad – I’ll be there. As they navigate the world for the first time, I’ll navigate each stage through the eyes of a dad. The experiences will be as new for them as it is for me…although I’ll play it off like it’s not.
Whether mother or father, there’s not set list of rules that define you. They change and you have to change with it. The earlier you build a strong foundation and the more you get to truly know your kids, the better you’ll be at any stage of their lives. That’s what truly makes you the best parent ever.