When expectant fathers or parents who just had their first child ask me for my advice as a father of three, my first recommendation is to be prepared to go with the flow.
Some parents are determined to make their own baby food or not allow any screen time until the child turns 2. They have read all the books under the sun and developed a game plan with specific rules for ensuring that their child will flourish and avoid the various pitfalls of growing up in the 21st century. And sometimes these particular plans and goals are feasible.
But often, parents’ expectations and best-laid plans run into problems when confronted with reality. The mom who was determined to exclusively breastfeed simply can’t make it work and has to use formula. The dad who wanted the family to sit down for dinner together every night has to switch his schedule to afford childcare that costs more than college. Letting a toddler watch a Doc McStuffins episode suddenly seems like the only way a working mother can respond to an urgent work email.
As fathers, we can beat ourselves up over these changes to our plans, clinging to past formulas and expectations, or we can adjust and go with the flow. Even with the best preparation, something might blindside us or we may run into a previously unknown and immovable obstacle. In these moments, resilience means modifying our expectations while remaining committed to the values that inspired them.
One of the biggest challenges fathers face is balancing being present for one’s kids and providing for them. For some, this may mean dialing back career ambitions rather than working 80 hours at the office or traveling frequently. For others, it may mean switching from a job they love to another that pays more. It may mean “leaning in” for a time, then “leaning out” — it may even involve radical changes in caretaking responsibilities, depending on a spouse’s career. If we can seek balance and refuse to cling to plans that cannot be reconciled with the most pressing needs of our families, dads can do their best to make sure they are loving, present fathers and responsible partners, and that their kids’ needs will be met.
Balance is important in many ways. If my kids are being too rough or not including others, I can surprise other parents with how sternly I respond. And parents have definitely been shocked when my daughter is tripped playing soccer and I tell her very directly to get up and go after the ball. These same parents might be surprised, though, by how warm and affectionate I am with my kids just moments later — for instance, if I carry my daughter to the car from the soccer field not because she’s tired, but because I can and she wants to be close. And they might think I’m too lax when I let my kids climb on a random rock or get quite loud playing a silly game.
But what could look like incoherence is a calculated attempt to find balance. I try to instill discipline where it matters, particularly in treating others the right way. At the same time, I don’t want to be a helicopter parent — I want my kids to fight through adversity and accomplish things on their own. Too often, kids are not given the chance to make mistakes and grow or to take on tasks that children in other contexts have been perfectly able to handle.
Alongside this, I also often see parents stifling the joy and fun of being a kid for no apparent reason. The very same kids who aren’t allowed to grow up and accomplish things on their own are treated like mini-adults, forced to conform to the senseless rules and etiquette of a soul-crushing bourgeois culture. So I do my best to avoid these pitfalls by being strict and intervening when necessary, while being relaxed where more space can help them to flourish.
I’m stern when something really matters for their character development or to protect others, while being warm and affectionate far more often. I seek this balance so they know I’m not their friend who lets everything slide or an uptight taskmaster, but their father who always loves them, even if that occasionally calls for some tough love.
I don’t always get that balance right. I don’t always adjust to changing circumstances well. It can be really hard when something unexpected derails what we planned. It can be hard to not let emotions upend our balance. But in these areas and so many others, by recognizing the need to adjust and go with the flow, while keeping the big picture in mind, dads can be better equipped to react to these changes and chart a steady course forward for their kids and the entire family.