3 Unexpected Gifts of Fatherhood

June 13th, 2020 by | Print

Three Unexpected Gifts of Fatherhood

Anyone who tells you fatherhood is the greatest thing that can happen to you is understating it.” ―Mike Myers

The past few months have produced a lot of time for personal reflection.

First, COVID-19 kept us isolated us in our homes. Then, the horrific death of George Floyd brought racial inequality to the forefront of our collective consciousness.

In the midst of this incredible social upheaval, my oldest son graduated from college. As he prepares for an exciting new life and career in the Big Apple, I’ve been especially reflective about the end of this important chapter in his life (and mine).

Seems like only yesterday I was standing in the delivery room of a Baltimore hospital. I can still hear the doctor ask me if I wanted to reach down and bring my son into the world. The rush of adrenaline I experienced from holding that little guy in my hands as he emerged from the birth canal was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. In that moment, my reason for living took on an entirely new significance.

OMG, I was a father!

Before I had kids, my friends would sit around and talk about the challenges and sacrifices of being a dad: “I’m sleep deprived … Kids are so expensive … My wife and I never go out anymore … We’re too exhausted for sex.”

After discussing the pains of fathering, they’d always throw me a major curveball with their final statement: “But it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me!”

“Wait”, I would say. “You just went on and on about how tough it is. And you never gave one example of the good parts. How come?”

At the time, it was maddening. But now I get it. The intangible benefits of fathering are nearly impossible to describe in words. So bear with me as I give it a try …

Those early years of child rearing were a beautiful blend of chaos and magic. Delight and exhaustion. All at the same time. They stretched my heart in new ways, and made me realize that my capacity for love was far greater than I ever thought possible.

The joy of watching each of our three children enter the world and transform right before my eyes on a daily basis has been miraculous. Each milestone renewed my sense of wonder. There was something new and incredible going on literally every day.

Being a dad awakened new feelings, rekindled old wounds, and created fresh battles — all of which took me way out of my comfort zone and brought much needed healing to my heart. I didn’t see it coming. This was the first unexpected gift — fatherhood has expanded my emotional capacity to a whole new stratosphere.

Those early years were rough, with a steep learning curve. But they seemed simple compared to what came later! As dads, we really earn our stripes when our kids become teenagers. I wrote the first edition of ManQuest when my boys were just 12 and 9 and I was only dreaming about raising teenage boys.

I mean, what could go wrong? I’d simply teach our sons my paradigm for becoming a great man. They, of course, would automatically and voluntarily follow it to a “T” … and move swimmingly into adulthood. Predictably, that’s not what happened. Instead, they pushed the boundaries and challenged my ManQuest guideposts every step of the way. Looking back, my youthful exuberance was rather naïve, with more than a touch of arrogance.

It was difficult at the time, but their resistance really helped me understand teenage boys at an entirely new level. It was rewarding. And humbling. Which is the next big unexpected gift you get from fatherhood: Learning humility.

As my boys grew, many of my preconceived notions went out the window. Teenagers are masters at exposing our hypocrisies and weaknesses. (The main reason I recently released a revised edition of ManQuest was to share the hard-earned wisdom I’ve learned along the way.)

Another gift of fatherhood is dealing with ambiguity. Men don’t deal with uncertainty very well. We generally prefer things that are rational, ordered and predictable. We like it when things go as planned and expected.

As a result, when the going gets tough during those teenage years, a lot of dads tend to take their hands off the wheel instead of leaning in. They take the easy, non-confrontational approach. This has produced a phenomenon I call the “buddy dad” — the adult who seeks to be a peer instead of a guide.

I hear dads proudly boast that their son is their “best friend.” I get that. Friendship is a great long-term goal as our sons mature into adulthood. But it shouldn’t be our driving force during adolescent years. Teenage boys don’t need 100% smooth sailing — they need obstacles to bump into so they can figure out how to maneuver around them.

Part of my role as a dad is to be their coach in life. All the great coaches inspire their players to elevate their games for the betterment of the team. They don’t worry too much about whether their players “like them” or not. The truly great coaches build strong relationships with their players and know when to push them forward and pull back when necessary.

Same goes for teenage boys.

There are times they need tough love, firm accountability, and a stern wakeup call that a friend or peer cannot deliver. This action usually creates tension, and if a dad worries too much about the “friendship” aspect, he may hold back on what needs to be said.

It’s not easy. In fact, it’s really hard finding the balance between encouraging my boys to give more, while letting them know I love them unconditionally and believe in them. On one hand, we cannot be a “hard-ass dad” all the time and still have a positive relationship with our sons. But on the other hand, a “buddy dad” just isn’t respected at crunch time. Trust me on this.

The answer lies somewhere in between, and I’m constantly trying to walk that tightrope and strike the balance. I’m convinced that struggling with this ambiguity is where fathers do their best work.

So, there you have it. The unexpected gifts of fathering are 1) expanded emotional capacity, 2) learning humility, and 3) dealing with ambiguity. These are important tools our kids have provided for our toolbelts. Fatherhood has stretched me in so many ways that I can’t imagine who I would be without the lessons they’ve taught me.

The greatest surprise about fatherhood (so far) is something nobody ever told me. I’ve been amazed to find that our kids help us grow as much as we help them. There’s far more reciprocity in our relationship than I ever imagined.

What’s the best part about fathering? It’s that our work is never done. Our kids continue to evolve and change and grow in new directions — and we get to figure out how to “stay in it” with them through the cycles of life. And in doing so, they continue to teach us important new lessons on how to become our best selves.

Happy Father’s Day!

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