Father's Day: Why I couldn't write the 'Top 10 rules' for new fathers

The lessons that make you a good athlete or a success at work don’t apply. And if you love to check things off a list, you’re going to have some problems. Fatherhood is the art of being there.

In the past year, almost 4 million babies were born in America. Which means a lot of new fathers were born. Making this their first Father’s Day. So I wanted to share some lessons from 25 years on the job.

I know guys like rules. So I tried writing “The Top 10 rules for new Fathers.” (We men love Top 10 lists, too, so that would have been a coup). I didn’t get very far. I also looked at compiling a list of axioms from sports and business that might be instructive. But that also turned out to be a fool’s errand.

The challenge with being a father is that you can’t trust your instincts. The lessons that made you a good athlete or a success at work don’t apply: Set goals. Create a strategy or action plan. Work hard. It’s all wrong. Fatherhood is the least goal-oriented enterprise you’ve ever embarked on. It’s not about outcomes; it’s about process.

Fatherhood is the art of being there. And if you love to check things off your list, as I do, you’re going to have some problems. You’re about to run smack up against the inertia that is children. I remember going out and buying a bunch of great books to read to my kids. (I was an English major.) I wanted to check the classics off the list so we could move on. I started with “Good Night Moon” and got stuck there for about six months. Why would a kid want to have the same book read over and over? Has he no ambition?

Ditto for music and movies. (Once when my daughter Zoey was two and running a high fever, I held her in my arms while she dozed in and out of sleep, and we watched "Beauty and the Beast" six times in a row. Every time that last scene came up, she said, “Again.”) The only way to get through the repetition is to live in the moment. Which is the only place your kid lives. It’s not easy. Because men are taught to live in the future. To always be working toward something.

A walk to the coffee shop down the street is not a walk to the coffee shop. You may never get there. The walk may become “The Discovery of Grass.” Or “The Adventures of a Large Truck Parked Across the Street.” Or in the case of my son Zack, circa 18 months, the joy of collecting cigarette butts.

In fatherhood, nothing is at it seems. A walk is not a walk, a book isn’t something to finish, and a trip to the grocery store isn’t about hunting and gathering. But occasionally, you’ll get it right. You’ll throw away the agendas, tear up the to-do lists, turn off your phone, and the magic will happen like it did for me one Saturday 20 years ago.

My boys, Zack and Max, were five and three. Their baby sister was with her mom. And we headed out on an adventure to “The Magical Kingdom," a ravine with a creek in our inner-ring suburban neighborhood that ran hidden (sort of) between two thoroughfares. Once you scrambled down the bank, you lost the sense that you were near the city. It was magical. And we would spend hours there, skipping stones, walking in the creek barefoot and telling stories.

On the Saturday I will always remember, I proved to Zack and Max that I was the strongest man in the world, a man who could break rock with his bare hands. I picked up a piece of shale that was easy enough for me to break in two but just a little beyond their strength. And I snapped it in half like a twig.

For a few minutes – until I broke down and told them the secrets of sedimentary rocks – I was a god. And a few minutes of godliness is all any father can hope for.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising. He writes for the Monitor every other Friday.

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