I have some casual pals at Starbucks, where I like to write. One of them is, like me, a father and a grandfather. He reads my blog once in a while and we talk about our kids. Not much. Just in passing. Today he told me that one of the baristas, Jose, is about to become a father. Jose was behind the counter and my friend said loudly, in that jovial way of comradeship, that he and I should take Jose under our wings and give him the benefit of our combined wisdom as fathers.
I had a kind of instant flash through all the things I might say and what came out was "Run." Jose, going along with the laughter, said that occurred to him, but he stayed. His baby is due in June. He's in for a ride, one we've all taken, as parent or child, or both, and yet one that is unique to each of us. Call it the ride of life. After all, what is life all about if not perpetuating the species? Today we don't use such a clinical phrase. We say life is all about family. Certainly it seems to get that way from time to time, especially those times when you would rather be alone. Maybe just to have a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom without being on high alert for incoming.
Of course I was kidding when I suggested that Jose run. It's a male cliche. A mandatory joke about the yoke being slipped over his young neck. Fatherhood changes you forever, no doubt about that. Most of us say the change is for the better, but maybe Darwin makes us say that. Maybe we don't have any real choice in how we feel about being fathers.
So now that I'm not joking around with Jose, terrifying him, what would I say to him or to any new father.
1. Join a feminist group. Be active in feminist causes, especially workplace equality and childcare. The main thing you have to do as a father is be there. Nature takes care of a lot of the rest. You can be there more if your partner shares roles with you, both work and child-care. This has the added benefit (which pays off in numerous ways) of making your partner happy. Indeed, as things now stand in our culture, you will be seen as a saint. Try not to abuse your halo.
2. Take a deep breath. The biggest mistakes of fatherhood are made when we're angry. Go for a walk. Cool off. You can't teach a child to be loving and patient by being the opposite.
3. Let him fail. Follow the maxim of the technology world: "Fail early and often." Techies know we learn from our mistakes. Tech venture capitalists don't even want to invest in someone who hasn't failed. Children are the world's best at making real-time course corrections. But you have to let them make mistakes for them to learn. Don't expose them to danger, but don't be overprotective. And start young, when the failures don't mean they won't get into college. By that point, they will have learned the lessons failure teaches and you won't have to hire a tutor to write their college essays.
4. Be there. I said that already, but it bears repeating. All the rest will come naturally. You'll give her what you have to give and she'll know she's loved. That's the foundation for everything. Your job is to get her ready to go off on her own. She needs to feel safe and valued, respected and loved. She'll figure out the rest. You can teach her. You can tell her stories. But mainly she'll figure it out herself as long as she knows she's on solid ground at home.
That's all. The rest is just the way we live. Be a soccer dad if you want. Camp out. Take him to ball games. Whatever you want to do. What you do with him doesn't matter. It's the doing, the being there, that makes all the difference.
How do I know all this? What makes me such an expert? Simple. Look down the list. I've done every one wrong. I've learned from failure. Maybe that's the only way. Or maybe Jose will be spared the big mistakes and only have his own small ones to look back on with regret. That would be my last bit of advice, I suppose. What I tell myself anyway. Do your best and don't look back. Don't beat yourself up when you slip. Get up and keep trying. That's one of the best lessons you can teach.