A little while ago, the younger of my two children, an eleven-year-old girl, let me know it was time to remove her booster seat from the back seat of my car. Though she is a small kid, so small that I can always pick her out from her peers on the playing fields, I was impressed by how big she could make herself look back there – exaggerating her struggle to get her arms through the shoulder harnesses, and so on, so I agreed. I pulled out the seat, swept a couple of years’ worth of snack debris out the door with my hand, and my daughter settled into her new place with a sigh, feeling, I don’t know, less like someone who requires a car seat? I sighed, too, seeing her there, plenty big enough.
I flashed back to a moment ten years before, when I was walking through an office building on the way to the childcare center, and saw a man coming toward me down a long corridor. I was loaded up with the stuff one carries when you have a baby – a bag full of diapers, blankets, clothes, toys, board books, food (always food), and bottles with and without formula in them. The guy produced a little whimper, and shrugged, and I could tell he missed carrying all this stuff around! He missed needing to carry it around.
If you’re new to all this, it may seem premature to begin thinking about what you’re going to get nostalgic about in the future. But what everybody says about kids growing up quickly is one of the few things everybody says that’s also true. Here are a few suggestions about things that you should pay close attention to as they happen, because when they’re over, they’re really over, and you will miss them.
1. The big move from paternity to fatherhood.
Newborns belong to their mothers in some deep way, and a father’s job is to help with that. Some of the time you’re actually pretending (with baby’s consent) to be the mother—late at night with a bottle, at dinner when you walk the floor with baby in a snuggly, and whenever Mom has to sleep or be away. A new baby wants only his or her mother, but in the interest of peace will let someone else be the mother for a bit. As you do your best in the role, eventually baby comes to love you for that. Then one day, without warning, your son or daughter will look up at you, and directly into you, and it’s at that moment that you become a father.
2. The shift from baby to toddler.
When infants gain a command of their own physicality, they start to move around, and your job gets trickier. My son, a swift and avid crawler, had to wear knee pads to keep from beating up his knees, but his little sister skipped the crawling business almost entirely, and opted for cruising around holding on to stuff: the furniture, the dog, whatever was going her way. The remarkable thing about this time is that the instant your baby (and I suppose baby’s a toddler now) feels comfortable with an advancement, he starts looking for the next stage. That means the stage you’re currently admiring is about to be abandoned. Sigh. And since your son or daughter is exploring primarily to feed his or her need for intellectual stimulation, you should ready yourself for all that. But first, take a moment to appreciate how, when a toddler is toddling alongside you, his hand finds its way naturally into yours – the physical equivalent of that first serious eye contact so many months before. I think that might be my favorite thing about being a father.
3. The joys of mispronunciation.
I like that kids are naturally expressive. I like that, before they can really say anything, they point at everything in a dramatic way and call out some gibberish. I like that they squeal at the sight of almost any animal. When they start to talk, they each seem to have a different word they get hold of immediately after Mama and Dada. My son’s was turtle, and my daughter’s was strawberry. And why not? The whole language acquisition business is wonderful to be around, and kids master it quickly. I remember a day when my daughter hurt her thumb, and as she told me what happened, I realized she no longer said, “I hurt my flumb,” and I felt a little sad. No more “basagna” or “pwaygwound.” And a moment of silence, please, for the passing of the number “eleventeen,” a father’s lucky number.
4. The wonders of story time.
Apart from being the foundation of a free society, and easily the best thing you can do to enhance your child’s educational prospects, it’s the sweetest, most fulfilling time of day for everybody involved. You go to the library every Saturday and bag your limit of fifty books. Every evening, after dinner and a bath, you lie in bed and read through a few books. Please – remember story time.
5. The power of imagination.
If you’re done with that box, my son would like to fly it to the moon. Kids are wildly inventive, and supplying them with raw materials is an important part of fatherhood. I found I started appraising everything for its imaginative utility before tossing or recycling anything. I think the ability kids have to reinvent the goal of a project just before it fails is a skill any team leader might emulate. Not a good pirate ship? Then it’s a cave!
My wife’s a weeper, and I’m kind of a weller-upper, so opportunities for emotionalism appear all the time, even in a reasonably tragedy-free family like ours. My point is, if you feel like you’ve already missed some of these milestones, there are many more to come: first steps, first haircut, first bike ride, first sporting event, first piano recital, first play performance, first day of school. They all drive up the tissue count.
So welcome to the brotherhood of fatherhood! Its members are the ones who all look up – at the playing field, or pool, or amusement park – the moment any kid yells, “Dad!” My own kids, just 11 and 15, are suddenly old enough to be adults in some cultures, and even in our own have settled into doing pretty much the kinds of things they’ll do until they graduate from college and get jobs: school, sports, chores. And just as suddenly, I’m the guy you meet in the hallway on your way to childcare. Sigh.