The Exorbitant Cost of Great Fatherhood
I am very clear about my personal values - they guide my life. And the value that sits at the very top of that list is this:
Being a Great Dad.
I grew up in the 1970s and 80s in a series of .. ahem .. "modest" apartment complexes, in a household run by a single mother. We lived precariously from one meager paycheck to the next, with inconsistent financial support from my father. Though I didn't understand it so well at the time, I now realize that the inconsistency of his support spanned more than just the financial aspects of life.
On Sundays my sister and I would eagerly wait by our bedroom window for my father's car to roll up, so we could head off for the day with him, not having seen him since the prior weekend. (Assuming he showed up, which he occasionally did not.) We loved to go to our grandparent's house with him to eat donuts, read the Sunday comics, and play in their oddly swampy yard at the top of a giant hill. We had fun with our Dad.
Those gauzy memories are now - thankfully much like the healthy relationship I share with my Dad these days - a lot more clear, though. I can see that, while he was fulfilling his obligation, he was not really there. My Dad cleared the minimum threshold for creating fun for his young kids. However, he did not have it in him to provide us with other types of support. As I grew up, I was left on my own to figure out on my own a man's perspective on the moral, emotional, social, ethical, and sexual aspects of life. (That was really hard and I didn't do nearly as well as I thought I had at the time.)
For my Dad, wholly unprepared for it and broken by the divorce that robbed him of the full experience of it, the cost of fatherhood was simply too high for his means.
Becoming a Dad, Part I
Seventeen years ago I began to realize what it's like to be a Dad myself. In those first wobbly, joyous years I reveled in the innocent purity that my kids brought to their little worlds. I quickly committed myself to creating a different type of Dadding experience than the one I had. I made meals, did laundry, cleaned up, changed diapers, and did A LOT of playing with my kids. It was a ton of work, but the payoffs were enormous!
Here's the thing: I didn't even realize I was only scratching the surface of the "real work" of parenting. I was great at the "doing" aspects of parenting - all of those tasks and activities. But honestly, I wasn't so good at the "being" aspects. Being with my kids when they were sad. Being vulnerable with them - within reasonable developmental boundaries - about my own feelings. Being willing to stay with uncomfortable moments for them, the times when they were growing through changes.
It was only several years later that I realized, through a lot of work that I did for myself, that I lacked some critical abilities with tools like empathy, emotional self-expression, adaptability, positive outlook, and more.
My kids were acting up because they were feeling upset with one another?
I'd do something to "fix" the situation.
One of them was sad or confused or angry about something that happened with a playmate?
I'd tell them that everything was alright and to forget about it.
And if they ever challenged my "authority" as their father?
Look out! It was a one-way street and they were being rerouted to follow my way.
In my early years as a Dad, I paid the easy part of the fare, but the full cost of fatherhood felt too expensive for me.
Paying Up, Every Day
Today I am a half-time Dad. According to the custody agreement in my divorce decree, I have my children 50% of the time and their mother has them the other half. Yet I am absolutely a full-time figure in their lives. Though I may not see them every day, I show up in every way that I possibly can for them.
This is a partial list of how I do "Dadding" these days:
Taking the time to understand how my kids are feeling, without trying to change that
Sharing my own challenges - within developmentally appropriate boundaries - so they can see me as a full human
Challenging them to develop discipline and skills so they can prepare for independent life - and specifically discussing what that's like!
Discussing the social and societal pressures (holy shit, is that list endless!!) so they have a space to question the world and develop insights for approaching it courageously
Talking to my teens about sexuality and sex (egads...)
Having the humility and willingness to create a new type of loving relationship with their mother, so we can coparent powerfully and lovingly together
Making damn sure we laugh every day - because I've never stopped being a fun Dad
It hasn't been easy to develop the skills to parent this way. I've stumbled plenty of times and will continue to do so, I'm sure. But when I think about the cost of not doing these things I realize it will have an enormous cost to them if I don't.
Will it leave them unprepared for healthy romantic relationships, like it did for me?
Will it prevent them from having the confidence to speak up for themselves, just like me?
Perhaps it will cause them to accept whatever default path appears before them, no matter how stultifying it might be, rather than chase their dreams.
What other ways will it cost them?
The cost of great fatherhood is exorbitant - for fathers.
The cost of not "going all in" as a Dad is exorbitant, too - for children.
Jim Young is the father of three wonderful humans who are learning every day to be fully themselves. They bring curiosity, compassion, kindness, critical thinking, joy, thoughtfulness, and love to the world. And to their Dad.
Jim lives in a family-focused community in Western Massachusetts, one that promotes good food, good music, and good Dadding, among many other things. Jim values that, a lot.
When he's not focused on his most important work, Jim coaches men to build the skills that will lead to a life that feels both successful AND happy for them. He especially loves working with Dads, because Dads are awesome and it's not easy to be great at it.
Jim's latest passion is his 3-D Men program, which brings groups of men together to create fuller, more balanced, and "daring" lives for themselves and those they love. If you know a man who could benefit from some of that, please send them Jim's way! He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via this very website.