I worked for several years with a non-profit community agency whose mission was to promote the optimal health and development of children and families. The foundational belief was that the parent-child relationship is the most critical factor in the development of emotional, cognitive, physical and social health of children.
One aspect of my role as a home visitor was to work with young prospective parents and help them develop secure bonds of attachment with their unborn child. I would meet with the pregnant mother and the father and facilitate conversations between them to explore and identify their hopes and dreams for their baby. This conversation, without fail, seemed to bring tenderness to the interaction between the prospective parents. Many of the parents were unmarried teenagers who often felt embarrassed and awkward at first but who invariably embraced the idea as the prospect of parenthood and its responsibilities became more real to them. As their ideas for their unborn child’s future were explored, and their own value systems became more clear, the father was asked to place his hand on the pregnant mother’s abdomen and each parent in turn shared their hopes and dreams for their baby. This conversation was videotaped and a copy given to the family.
This same scenario was repeated soon after the birth of the child and each parent was recorded holding their new born as they again expressed their hopes and dreams for their infant. These were powerful, deeply meaningful interventions in helping to establish secure attachment between parent and child.
Some time later I came across an article/essay written by a young prospective father in which he shared his values and his hopes and dreams for his child.
I share it here without knowing the writer’s name. I would love to be able to acknowledge and give credit to him for his thoughtful and meaningful writing and will happily do so if I discover his identity. For now, I think his words speak to many parents, those of us whose children have already grown, those who are in the midst of the busyness and challenges of bringing up a family, and those who are about to embark on the path towards parent-hood. Enjoy!
When I found out, I was holding a six-pack of beer.
“I’m pregnant,” she said. Words I knew would be coming one day soon, but not this soon.
I always pictured hearing them on a sunny front porch, wind gently rocking a wooden swing back and forth. Or something like that. And there’d be music. Something upbeat and hopeful like what plays before the final credits of a Zach Braff movie.
I never thought I’d hear those words standing in the doorway of our dark, half-packed apartment, weary from a long day. My wife, Sarah, eyes puffy and mascara-soaked from her own shitty day, and then again from crying tears of joy, holding not one, but two pregnancy tests as proof.
My first thought was that we were about to miss our fantasy football draft.
My second thought was to open a beer.
My third thought was, “I can’t believe those were my first two thoughts.”
It takes a moment like that to realize how woefully unprepared you are to be responsible for another human being. How terrifying it all is. And I’m not talking about waking up in the middle of the night to sooth a crying baby. I’m not talking about changing a dirty diaper or saying goodbye to your “raucous” social life (Sarah and I watch, on average, ten thousand hours of TV every night; so, that ship sailed a while ago).
I’m talking about when your child learns to talk and what you say to him or her actually matters. When you have to start really thinking about how you want to raise them. What you’ll tell them when they get picked on at school. What you’ll say when they take a philosophical stand against the concept of homework.
It makes you question your values. Or wonder if you even have values to question.
And this line of thinking has led me to believe that I am already a terrible father. Because when I think about the things I want to instill in our first child, I realize that I embody exactly none of them.
But here they are, anyway:
I’ll say, listen, kid, not everyone has to like you. Speak your mind when you know you’re right. Tell friends the truth even when they don’t want to hear it. Don’t just nod and “see both sides” and give pity laughs to people who make bad jokes.
I’ll say, work hard in school. Not so you can make money and not for the bragging rights, but because if you don’t, one day you’ll look back and wish you’d made yourself proud.
I’ll say, clean your room. I’ll say, you see this 6-inch pile of dirty clothes next to my bed? It makes me feel horrible every time I look at it. You’d be surprised how accomplished seeing your bedroom floor can make you feel.
I’ll say, always finish what you started. There’s a reason I can only teach you to be “pretty good”, and not great, at guitar, or photography, or card tricks, or any number of things I picked up and abandoned. If you have a talent for something, don’t ever waste it.
I’ll say, don’t wait so long to get comfortable in your own skin. Phases are great and all when you’re a teenager, but there’s a fine line between exploring things and getting caught up in fads. Don’t ever feel like you need to fit into a mold or a category to be accepted.
I’ll say, take care of your body, because you only get one. Floss every day. And don’t drink so much soda and Red Bull. You can’t ever undo the cavities they’ll give you.
I’ll say, force yourself to experience new things. I know that people who studied abroad in college are obnoxious, but I don’t care; you should do it. Because when they’re yammering on about their summer in Madrid, you’ll roll your eyes but you’ll really just be jealous that you spent your summer watching TV.
I’ll say, don’t get so uncomfortable around homeless people. They’re not going to rob you. Be better than that. Treat them with respect. Buy them a sandwich if you can. And give to charity as often as possible. You’ll always have a few bucks to spare.
I’ll say, pay attention to the news. And politics. Don’t spend all your time on social media and TV and movies and sports. Devote your attention to things that actually matter. Be informed and well read. Don’t ever be forced to stealthily object from conversations about current events.
I’ll say, be ruthless. Don’t go with the flow. Find something you want and put in the work to become exceptional. So many people dream big, but they’re afraid to sit down and do the work. Don’t be one of them.
I’ll say, don’t text and drive. Seriously. There’s nothing that can’t wait. I mean it.
I’ll say, put your family first, above everything. When they need you, be there. Don’t ask questions. Don’t let being tired from work become an excuse. They’re all you have.
I’ll say, don’t ever wish you were anything or anyone else. Embrace your flaws, because everyone has them.
And I’ll say, if you fall short of anything, even everything on this list, that’s alright.
I’ll still love you. I’ll always love you. People keep asking me if I’m scared. And I guess — even in light of everything I said above — the answer is no.
I know that there’ll be times when I have no idea what to do with this kid. When I reach into my bag of morals and values and come up empty. And for times like that, I’ll look to my wife. I’ll remember how, standing in our dark, half-packed apartment, on one of the most important nights of our life, she put the pregnancy tests down on the table, smiled, and said:
“Of course we’re still doing the fantasy draft.”
A small reminder of why we fell in love in the first place. That what we’ve created together didn’t happen in spite of our flaws. It happened because of them.
And knowing that, there’s really nothing to be scared of.