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Nervous New Father: Becoming the Dad You Never Had, Spit Rags & All

The closer a man gets to becoming a new father, the clearer it becomes: This is not going to go as planned.

Times have changed, and so has fatherhood. What worked in the past is potentially a blueprint for disaster in the years to come, even if you had a great childhood. So how does a new daddy-in-training quell the nervousness of 21st-century fatherhood when it’s impossible to use the past as a how-to guide?

No matter how good of a dad you had, there’s no repeating it, no matter how hard you try. Yes, some learned habits and cherished traditions will live on, but they will appear across a completely different landscape. Imagine spreading peanut butter on a slice of 30-year-old bread — the basic structure is there, but it’s not going to end well. It’s time to get yourself a new loaf. Maybe it’s full of gluten, or maybe it has cinnamon and raisins or something really cool you didn’t even know could be in bread, but at least now you have the opportunity to decide for yourself.

You start to see this doesn’t have to be the same, rather you can be the dad you always wanted to have, even if the old one was perfectly fine. Because there’s no one kind of dad that’s right or perfect. Each new dad has to find his own way, and it likely involves a nuanced approach to adapting as you go, embracing the past without being too rigid, staying open to possibility and unpredictability and, most importantly, not taking yourself too seriously.

And definitely remembering to carry a spit-up rag, no matter what the age.

Embracing to and Adapting the Past

Every great book that gets a movie seems like a good idea at first, but as we know, the movie rarely follows the exact path as the original pages. That doesn’t mean it can’t be unique or great, but it does require a little creativity, loosening your grip on the wheel and riding a little closer than comfort to the guardrails.

Great childhood moments never die off, but they do get harder to find as they change with time, some enough that they become unrecognizable. Pottytraining in the kitchen while everyone eats their green beans, little league games and missing front teeth — that’s all par for the course. But some of your fondest memories might be less ubiquitous today.

Newer doesn’t always mean better, just different. I can remember washing and waxing our ’53 Chevy in the warm Saturday mornings, going to car shows and sipping lemonade in my little jean shorts and a t-shirt with an embroidered bear on it, a kelly green trucker hat shielding my ears and velcro keeping my shoes on my feet. While trucker hats and velcro may be coming back around in the fashion cycle, the rest seems a distant past, another lifetime.

But if you look closely, some things still hold today — my father’s unwavering support, interest in my life and desire to spend time with me. I can’t remember the last time we went fishing in the woods, fired up that old Chevy engine and went to get ice cream to spoil our dinner. Hell, I can’t remember the last time I had ice cream made from an actual cow, but when you break down the specifics of those places we went and things we did, you can see what’s at the heart. And those are things you can keep close and keep going for lifetimes.

That’s what good fathers do. They take the things they had with their father and they adapt them to their lives today. It may not be antique cars and fishing on a lake, but there’s a quality of growing together as a father and son. It can’t be so rigid as to attempt to replicate a great childhood or control a repeat of a bad one, but you can create a world for your child that is unique and special if you so choose.

Creating a World of Possibility

There’s something to be said about the uncertainty of parenting that we get ideas about how it should go stuck in our heads. If we’ve learned nothing else about this year, it’s the certainty of uncertainty.

The reality is you’re likely to spend all of your time reacting to what’s happening and getting exhausted in the process, a neverending parade of puke and other bodily fluids like a fountain that has no plug to yank from the wall. But that shouldn’t stop you from keeping it special in between. Pillow forts and sandcastles, they’re building blocks for creating unique worlds, and they teach about adventure, originality and the impermanence of life.

Like any good book, there’s limitless possibilities. As a father, it’s your job to teach your kids about boundaries and when to break through them. And that there’s nothing the imagination can’t grasp if you put your mind and your heart to it.

Never Taking Yourself Too Seriously

Most men spend their entire lives trying to be cool enough, smart enough, tough enough and man enough. Many of our fathers did a decent job instilling the confidence in us we needed, but many of us were also misled. What it means to be man enough is changing and maturing with time, but something very important to keep in mind is that you don’t have to be tough enough or cool enough for your kid. You can be your genuine self, and you can show them it’s OK for them to be, too.

By letting your guard down and showing them it’s not only OK to cry, to be sad, to be silly, to have bad days, to be different, to be weird, to follow their heart, but that it’s exceptional and appreciated. By dressing how you want, no matter what people may think, by leading with example, you create a safe and special place for them.

We spend so much time taking ourselves too seriously, we forget the playfulness of life. Kids are here to remind us of that, and they’ll teach us more than we could ever teach them. But by never taking ourselves too seriously — our work, sure, but not ourselves — we show them they don’t have to take themselves too seriously, giving them the opportunity to freely become who they want to be.

And in the end, we can look to our fathers and appreciate the world they created for us as we pass along the great tradition of fatherhood, spit rags and all.

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