A collage of a mug that says "Dad," two shoes with little kids, a pacifier, a baby bottle, a toy rubber duck, and a stuffed animal

Rewriting the Stories We Tell About Modern Fatherhood

Parenting is often framed as a struggle, especially by other parents. In this essay, one dad reflects on the cynical tone of modern parenting—and how he's rejecting it.

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Just before my daughter was born, I was sharing the news with another dad who exasperatedly exclaimed, “Welcome to baby jail!” From his perspective, I was about to serve time rather than savor it. This attitude is pretty consistent with how popular culture portrays raising kids. There is a refrain common to parenting that the moments are long but the years are short. The implication is that the present is a struggle—something to endure—yet the experience is over in a flash, leaving a wake of nostalgia or regret.

What if there were a different way? Rather than succumbing to the stories we are told, what if we could reorient ourselves toward process, remove the stigma of struggle, and learn to enjoy the flow of momentary experience—even when that flow coincides with the spit-up flowing down our shirt? 

I’ve seen how my experience is often shaped by the intentionality and wonder I bring to it. Once we had a kid, I was surprised by how readily this lesson transferred to fatherhood.

In George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, a book that is ostensibly about reading and writing fiction but really about the way stories inform our lives, this notion of narrative and expectation is unpacked with typical Saunders humor and insight. “A story (any story, every story),” he writes, “makes its meaning at speed, a small structural pulse at a time. We read a bit of text and a set of expectations arises. You’ll be pleased if the story takes that expectation into account, but not pleased if it addresses it too neatly.”

The advice we get before our children are born are like these expectation-forming bits of text, from which we attempt to extrapolate what the future will hold. “Trust me, they’re easier on the inside,” is one such fragment that I commonly heard, and yet another one that seemed to serve only to arouse my suspicion that my trepidations weren’t trepidant enough. The thematic through line of these conversations made me feel like my wife and I were the last holdouts in the evacuation zone of an incoming natural disaster, yet too stubborn to seek safe passage. Another common warning was, “You better get your sleep in now,” which did actually seem preferable to the doomsday parenting conversation I was in the midst of.

As opposed to the implication that I was naively surrendering my personal freedom, my wife bore the brunt of the logistical lessons. She was showered with proscriptive platitudes, featuring tips and strategies that seemed either so general as to be useless (“Calm parents make calm babies.”), or so singular that the odds of them applying to our kid seemed infinitesimal (“Your baby will love it if you sing Golden Oldies songs to them while changing their diaper!” Or they’ll just impassively shit on the changing table…).

Yet once your child arrives, the story begins to make its meaning at speed, one squealing structural pulse at a time, and your expectations will not be neatly addressed. In March 2019, our daughter, Ciel, was born. My wife and I quickly realized that our new roommate was what might euphemistically be termed a “spirited” baby. She was stubborn from the start, and protested loudly if things weren’t going her way, which—compared to the comfort and satiation of the womb—they usually were not. Begrudgingly, we had to admit that she was easier on the inside, but what a paltry and unhelpful summary of what it was like to have her on the outside. It’s like telling an astronaut that life is easier on the ground.

Being a dad has been an experience of radically rejecting such narratives, and accepting that what is happening before our eyes is going to be far richer and more nuanced than the stories we were told before the big event. 

Take, for example, our new normal as it relates to dinner. With Ciel in our lives, we went from being foodies eager to try every new establishment in the city to under-appreciated chefs feeding an increasingly mobile and opinionated diner. We didn’t want to invest in a plastic mat beneath Ciel’s high chair, so we watched as the space on the rug beneath her slowly turned an impressive menagerie of colors, featuring purple streaks from dropped blueberries, red bursts of tomato sauce, and beiges and greens that remain a mystery. Despite reading French Kids Eat Everything and giving our daughter a French name (though neither of us is remotely French), Ciel confidently rejected everything she didn’t feel like eating. “Try it,” I would encourage, holding up a piece of broccoli. “No, you try it!” she would firmly counter.

The above anecdote is why I don’t offer any unsolicited parenting advice. How to encapsulate all that into a pithy phrase? Eating with Ciel is maddening, messy, and delightful. What salient tips could I give other than, “Buy a really dark carpet,” or, “A French name won’t save you”. Should I encourage expecting dads to enjoy decadently paced meals now as dinner will soon become a harried process? Actually, that might be the most salient advice of all, having nothing to do with the kid and everything to do with joyful appreciation of the present.

The problem with the apocalyptic pep talks is that they only stress the potential stress and don’t really highlight the hilarity. I have a nightly appointment with the most unpredictable dinner guest of all time and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Don’t get me wrong, I crave nights out and appreciate them all the more when they come, but to call my current situation baby jail is to flatten fatherhood into a binary of pre- and post-, one being preferable to the other.

Of course, the trite narratives offered to prospective parents are merely conversational, and I fully admit that my approach—a wry smile and a knowing nod—might be even more annoying than just using the filler on offer. But I prefer to let people see for themselves, in large part, because there really is no other way. Maybe they’ll have a little gourmand who patiently samples everything presented to them and says “Merci!” Probably not. Their story will unfold regardless, and it will be far more engrossing than they could possibly imagine, so why plant those seeds of struggle? 

“The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world,” writes Saunders. “It can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.”

In May, my wife and I welcomed our second kid, our son Julien (also not remotely French). Naturally, we heard some narratives about our newest addition too, such as, “Man-to-man defense is a lot harder than two-on-one!” We’ve filed that particular tip away should we ever challenge our brood to a basketball game. We’re appreciative of the narratives that have been shared with us and mindful that what will be most helpful is to let them go and to allow ourselves to be active, curious, and alert readers of this new chapter. I have no idea where this story will go, but I’m captivated nonetheless.

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