A letter to my younger self, from my older self, on being a Dad.

Dear Mark,

First, you need to know this and I’m going to tell you even though it will hurt: that receding hairline is not going to reverse course. I’m sorry. I know you have been hoping. Abandon all hope.

And now on to happier topics…

A day will come when you will have only memories of being a father, so make lots of them, the kind of ‘remarkable’ things that are worth remarking about, and that stick in your mind during the humdrum that is most of life. Do things spontaneously. Take the family on ‘short’ hikes that wind up being painfully long, because decades later you will all still laugh about it. Do weird things just to see how your kids respond, and so they will figure out that it’s good not to be just like everyone else. Take time off work to attend their painfully slow ball games and their off-key band concerts and their interminable school award ceremonies. One day you will treasure these mental snapshots more than almost anything else you own, and infinitely more than the long forgotten memory of whatever project you worked on at the office that day.

Ask your kids their opinions about random things (“What’s the best kind of bear?” or “Why do you think God made both men and women?” or “Who is your favorite Bible character?” or “Do you think you will want to get married or not?”) and really listen to what they say without trying to correct them. You will enjoy it and they will adore you for giving them your time and interest. Let your kids see you messing up and admitting that you were wrong; instead of making them respect you less, it will only make them love you more, and they will learn that even grown-ups blow it, and that mistakes are just part of the ride, and are rarely fatal.

There will be times you really don’t deserve much respect from your kids, because you’re as messed up as everyone else on the planet, but young kids are, thankfully, pretty forgetful about that stuff, and like dogs (large friendly dogs, not those little yappy ones) they forgive quickly and forget fully. In a world where grudges can last for generations, and forgiveness is hard to come by, cherish those second (and third, and fourth) chances they give you.

Do thing that surprise your kids and yourself. Try new things just because you can. Share the mystery and the wonder and the awesomeness of discovery with them.

Your parenting will be just like everyone else’s: a mix of good and bad, successes and failures. You love your kids deeply, and they know it, and that love will cover a multitude of your faults in their eyes. In return they love you beyond description, and they can’t even say why, but that is a treasure for you in a world where such devotion is rare.

Don’t forget to let them be kids, not just tiny adults. And individuals, not just clones of you. And if they choose to take a different path than you took, no matter how you feel about it, love them without measure because your love is not about what they do, but about who they are, which is what real love is always about. And make sure they know it by telling them and showing them and giving them the thing you are often most stingy with: your time.

Accept that even former Honor Roll students like you struggle just to pass ‘Parenting 101.’ Many of the questions have multiple right answers, and a few have none, making this perhaps the worst test ever. There is no study guide provided, and everything you think you know from raising the first one may turn out to be useless with the second. In my experience, not knowing whether I am doing it right or wrong is among the hardest parts of the job, so just own that reality, right now, because the parenting game is hard (and at times quite confusing) to play. Keep suiting up and running out on the field every day anyway.

There will come one particular day, the utter low point of your journey as a father, when you will stand on your back porch, with tears streaming down your face, and tell your wife, “I don’t think I’m a very good father.” Even years later you won’t know for sure why you felt so utterly defeated on that particular day, but I can tell you that you will be wrong, and that the feeling will pass and you won’t ever be that discouraged as a dad again. So don’t give up on yourself.

All the data says you will probably find this phase of life harder and more frustrating than anything you’ve done before or will do after, which will make you about like every other father since the day Adam couldn’t get Cain to pick up his dirty clothes.  At times, parenting feels like it will never end, but know that from this end it looks much shorter, and instead of wishing it would go faster it now feels like it ended just a bit too soon.

Choosing to be a dad is one of your best decisions ever. Make the most of it.


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