Later this year, in August, my daughter will turn five years old, which also means that I’ll mark half a decade of being a father. I’ve learned a lot about parenthood in that time, about what it takes to be responsible for keeping someone else alive and happy and making sure all that all her numbers—age, weight, I.Q., etc.—keep moving in the right direction.
Some of this knowledge has come from absorbing widely circulated “best practices”; anecdotes and rules of thumb and pearls of wisdom from my elders. Some of it comes from research, which is usually imparted to me by my wife, who has always done a lot more reading about child rearing than I do, I’m embarrassed to admit. But a lot of it has come from trial and error and just figuring things out along the way.
Early on, I felt kind of guilty about this, about sort of making stuff up as challenges were presented to me, and about not preparing more intently to be a father. I have a distinct memory from years ago of strolling my newborn daughter in our neighborhood and seeing other dads with kids who were further along, maybe a year or two years old, and being so impressed by how much they had their act together; they’d done their homework and successfully gotten their kids pretty far down the line without any apparent damage. I privately despaired that when I reached that stage, I would be an obvious, faltering mess of a father.
Then my daughter actually did make it it to that age, and I noticed that I still didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing, I was still improvising every day. And yet, in spite of that, my daughter seemed to be doing just fine. In fact, she was turning out to be kind of an amazing, wonderful and happy little person.
I thought back to those dads I’d admired from afar in the early days and reconsidered what I had assumed then: it now seemed obvious to me that they almost certainly hadn’t had their act together, at least not as much as I imagined. They too were probably just barely holding it together, juggling informed strategies with heaps of ad hoc decision-making, skating by on their wits and feeling their ways through each new crisis or milestone in their kids’ lives.
Furthermore, it was dawning on me that it wasn’t just parents of newborns and toddlers. It was everyone—new parents, seasoned parents, even my parents. Everyone’s just winging parenthood. No one knows anything for sure, because the combination of any child at any specific age and under any given circumstance is inherently novel, unprecedented, untested in its own way. You can read books and you can watch videos and you can take classes, and there is worth in those efforts for sure, but in the actual moment when parenting is done the only thing that you have to really guide you is your gut.
This is probably the biggest realization that I’ve had as a father, and maybe one of the most important realizations of all my years. Not knowing is our default state, and no one has it all figured out…and yet that’s okay. Accepting uncertainty is freeing, even empowering. It absolves you of the responsibility of predetermining things you cannot affect, and lets you focus instead on the much more urgent, meaningful task of being a father who is present in your kids’ lives. So long as you’re putting your full weight and passion and commitment into this thing we call life, and especially this thing we call parenthood, then you’re doing it right, the way it was meant it to be.
Happy Father’s Day.