Dads, let me share with you how I blew it with our first three children.
Becoming a dad to our first two came at a time when I was learning to be a doctor, and the third as I was beginning a practice. I bought into the philosophy of putting my career ahead of everything else. Having grown up without a father myself, I never knew how important the role of a father was for a child. Besides, Martha was such a good mother, I felt I didn’t need to be available. As with many fathers, I planned to get involved when the boys were old enough to throw a football… Big mistake!
When one of our children would misbehave, I would either overreact or under-react; but Martha knew just what to do. Most of the time she reacted in the right way, and got results. She had a handle on disciplining our children and I didn’t. And because I didn’t, she had to become the full-time correctional officer as well as the chief nurturer. I also realized that she was a sensitive disciplinarian because she knew the children so well. She knew them because she was in touch with them. She nursed them, carried them, and responded sensitively to their cries. Not only did she know them, they knew her and respected her wisdom.
“How did you know that they were about to get into trouble?” I would ask Martha.
“I just knew,” she would reply.
That’s when the light went on. Not only does the parent develop the child, but the child develops the parent. Our children had helped Martha develop her sensitivity toward them, while I was losing at both ends. I wasn’t around my children enough, so they didn’t respond to me.
In my journey to becoming a dad, I learned some important lessons about what it means to be a father. I am sharing them with you in hopes that it will help you avoid making some of the same mistakes I did.
Life Lessons I Learned while Becoming a Dad
Know your child
Lesson number one for fathers: In order to discipline your children, you have to know them. And to know them, you have to be involved in nurturing them. With the exception of breastfeeding, there is nothing about baby care that a father can’t be involved in to some extent. To respond sensitively to the various needs of my children, I needed to hold them more and be as openly available because they needed what I had to offer as their father. My family needed me.
HIGH PRIORITY – HIGH YIELD
I once attended a seminar on time management where the speaker advised trimming obligations down to those that were high-priority, high-yield. After the seminar, I told the speaker he had just described the juggling act of parenting; Rid your agenda of low-priority, low-yield tasks that suck up your energy, yet yield little return. Instead, concentrate on those which give a good return on your investment of time—being a dad.
Being available takes time. The turning point in my fathering came after several older fathers (on their second marriages) accompanied their wives for their newborn’s checkup. Many expressed regrets that they hadn’t been involved in their older children’s lives. Now being older themselves, they had the time for these children, but the children didn’t have the time for them. I wanted a “no regrets” old age. I imagined how I would feel when I was 50 years old and my children were grown, not knowing that at 50 years old I would still be fathering babies. Nevertheless, I didn’t relish the idea of feeling “I should have done this…” or “I should have done that,” so I decided to change. At first, I feared my career would stall with this change, but I realized that in my profession, I could go back and restart the tape at any point; but the tape of parenting and childhood goes in only one direction—forward. Kids pass through each stage only once, and you can easily miss it if you’re busy with other things.
A job change
My children needed me, not my resume. They wanted and needed a father to wrestle with them and play with them. They needed a father’s deeper voice to read them to sleep, not just a dutiful “goodnight.” I turned my attention toward being a father, as well as a husband. I not only had to connect with my children, I had to reconnect with my wife. I freed up weekends and more evenings by turning down the position of Chief Resident of Pediatrics, at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children; the largest hospital in the world. Instead, we went camping a lot, we took up sailing, I got to know and enjoy our two boys, and managed to finally convince Martha that we could have another baby. I would be more involved this time from the start and things were better.
A child can teach an old dad new tricks
Then came our first daughter, Hayden, whose birth change my life. This bundle of energy came wired differently than our other children. She craved being held, shunned any attempt to schedule feedings, and cried when she was put down. She inspired us to coin the term, high-need baby. Father involvement with Hayden wasn’t a choice, it was a necessity. Since she strongly objected to being put down, Martha needed me to be available to play “pass the baby.” Hayden was in our arms by day and in our bed by night. There were days when she nursed constantly and craved skin-to-skin contact. Sometimes she would fall asleep on my hairy chest, giving Martha a break. Giving more of my energy to my children, I observed Hayden developing my sensitivity. She grew to trust me and in return, I grew to know her. A paternal sensitivity was developing in me that I had never experienced before. This new-found sensitivity carried over into my relations with all my children and also with my wife. When a father is doing what is needed, the whole family functions better. My being around and involved provided the framework for family discipline, and by the time Hayden was three, I realized what it took for a father to become a disciplinarian: A dad must first know his child before he can set limits for his child.
Be a Dad – Not a pinch hitter
Mothers and fathers profit differently, and our children profit from that difference. One of the myths of modern fatherhood is that fathers are portrayed as mere substitutes for mothers; pinch-hitting while mom is away. However, there is nothing optional about father involvement, nor is dad just a hairier version of mom. A father’s input in his children’s lives is different from the mother’s… not less, just different. We thrived on these differences and added baby No. 5; Erin, and No. 6; Mathew.
Buddies from birth
With baby No. 6, I made my fathering motto the Army slogan, “Be all that you can be.” Beginning at his birth, Matthew gave me the opportunity to be all that I could be as a father. Our birth attendant didn’t make it to the birthing in time, so I got to catch Matthew—an experience greater than being quarterback at the Super Bowl. That first touch from my quivering hands Matthew may never remember, but I shall never forget. I was hooked! We were buddies from birth.
Because we thought Matthew would be our last baby, I didn’t want to miss anything. A few months after Matthew was born, I temporarily moved my pediatric practice into our house, turning part of our large garage into a pediatric office. My teenage patients called it, “Dr. Bill’s Garage and Body Shop.” This allowed me to be around Matthew between patients. Sometimes after Martha nursed Matthew, I would “father-nurse” him by simply holding him or carrying him around in a baby sling, giving me opportunities to be close to Matthew that it took me six children to discover. I knew Matthew sensed that my body was different. As he lay in the “warm fuzzy” position, his ear was over my heart, his chest and tummy were draped over mine and his body moved rhythmically up and down with my breathing while my hands embraced his soft, little body. My breath warmed his scalp as he nestled under my chin; he was discovering a warm corner in this different sort of “womb.”
The male touch
As I practiced these male touches, Matthew got used to my body: the different breathing sounds, walk, touch, and deeper voice. In fact, with the “neck nestle” position, fathers have an advantage over mothers. The male voice box structures vibrate more noticeably, and babies can feel these vibrations against their head. These touches are not better than mothers, again, just different. Matthew thrived on that difference. He liked being in my presence, like a child given two nicely different desserts. Matthew’s response to my father-nurturing, and my amazement at my own feelings, helped me discover a new level of fathering and new value in my contribution to parenting.
A sexier male while becoming a dad
Not only was my newly discovered aptitude for fathering good for Matthew and me, it was good for Martha. Because I hadn’t been around enough to learn baby comforting, Martha would get exhausted from doing it alone. Now, as I became more available, she became more comfortable releasing Matthew to me, and she realized how doing so helped all of us. She liked watching me with Matthew—and she knew that my tenderness as a father would spill over into tenderness toward her. The time I spent with Matthew also freed Martha up to care for herself. This helped her to be a better mother for all our children and a happier wife for me. This new side Martha was seeing made me more attractive to her and even improved our sex life.
FATHER TO FATHER
Watching a man nurture a baby really turns on a woman.
After a year, I closed my home office and moved into a nearby medical building. Even though I was now working outside the home, my priorities were still inside the home. I became hooked on fathering. When I was away from Matthew, I thought still about him, and when we were together, we were truly together. Our bond forced me to put balance in my life, giving priority to my family above the demands of my pediatric practice, teaching and writing. When outside commitments competed for my time, I felt stretched. But my attachment to Matthew acted like a strong rubber band pulling me back home. The rubber band never broke because I never allowed it to be stretched that far. It’s amazing how one little kid can change a grown man.
Becoming a Dad: From Dada to Daddy to Dad
Mathew and I are still incredibly close, and the attachment continues. As he developed from one stage to another, my development as a parent—and as a person—grew up a notch. When he began Little League, I wanted to be involved, so I signed on as coach. When he entered Boy Scouts, I volunteered to be the scoutmaster. These are roles I might not have found the time for if I hadn’t been hooked on my kids. Even though I was becoming more involved as a parent, my career hadn’t stalled one bit.
My kids are not finished with me yet
Adding two more children to Sears family pack, my total of eight children continue training me to be a better person and father—because I’ve been there for them. Attachment fathering pays off; in disciplining children, we become disciplined persons.
Discipline comes more easily to an attached dad
It seems less strained and more intuitive as I guided our children because I knew them. They obeyed me because they trusted me. My learning process as a dad has convinced me that many fathers have a tough time with discipline because they are not connected to their kids. Unconnected kids may obey out of duty or fear, but they don’t have a dad to be close to and trust.
Attachment fathering opens up a dad to the child and visa versa
I noticed a difference in disciplining Mathew because we connected during each interaction. For example, when I asked him to do something he looked me straight in the eye and without hesitation saying, “Yes, Dad.” The combination of eye contact and direct address personalized his response, and this reflected a mutual trust between us. He trusted that my request to do something was right and I trusted he would obey. Mathew wanted to please me. He understood the authority in my body language and tone of voice. Harsh words and heavy hands were never necessary to discipline Mathew. How much of this was his temperament and how much was due to our right start together, I will never know. But what I do know is this style of fathering gave me a handle on discipline I did not have before. As Matthew progressed from “Dada” to “Daddy” to “Dad,” our relationship grew more valuable.
I realize that because family and career situations are different, many dads are not able to rearrange their lives around their children. But whatever path you choose, take time to get connected with your child. This will prove to be your best long-term investment, I guarantee it!