How My Father Prepared Me To Be A Modern Dad

You haven’t lived until you’ve had one of my dad’s cheese omelettes. They’re known as “cheesers,” and they’re always worth a drive from Brooklyn — where I live with my wife, Lindsey, and our toddler, Desmond, — to my parents’ house in suburban Connecticut. It pains me to think of how I wouldn’t try them as a kid, when I evidently missed the point of Green Eggs and Ham. But that’s okay — my dad made plenty of other delicious stuff I would eat.
My father cooked a lot when I was a kid. He also shared the cleaning and childcare duties and took time to make spaceships from refrigerator boxes. These things should be automatic for dads, but we all know they’re not. They certainly weren’t in the 1980s, when movies like Mr. Mom and sitcoms like Full House played male domesticity for laughs. Even as women entered the workforce en masse, the notion of the male breadwinner was harder to kill than Rambo. According to the Pew Research Group, only 13% of women in 1980 earned as much or more than their male partners. (The number reached 31% in 2017.)
My dad’s all-in approach to parenting is perhaps more impressive when you consider his age. When I was born, he was only 22 and years away from transitioning from hotel line cook to house painter, the job he’d eventually turn into a successful small business. If my father even had a résumé in 1980, nothing on there would’ve screamed “qualified parent.” And yet he took to the job like a pro.
Looking back, my dad’s parenting style seems pretty ahead of its time. As per a recent Pew study, the average dad in 2016 spent eight hours per week on childcare — more than triple the 2.6 hours that men with kids reported in 1985. Visit any Brooklyn playground on a weekend morning, and you’ll find proof of these findings. Last Saturday at Carroll Park, it was a total dad-fest: tattooed men with strollers as far as the eye could see.
In a 2015 Pew survey, 57% of dads said parenting is “extremely important to their identity.” Speaking with The New York Times in 2010, Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the Hastings College of the Law at the University of California, described the “new ideal of the good father as a nurturing father, not just a provider father.” This “new ideal” is one I’ve strived for since my son arrived in 2016. It’s also one I’ve been familiar with my whole life, thanks to my dad. Prior to becoming a parent, I’d never thought much about my father’s role in my life. He was just always there. That’s one of the unexpected perks of having a kid: you begin relating to your parents in ways you never imagined.
So in honour of Father’s Day, I decided to interview my old man about why he was such a devoted dad. It was partially a matter of necessity — daycare was prohibitively expensive when I was a baby — but that’s not the whole story. I also wanted to know whether he worried about the same stuff I do now: career stability and growth, work-life balance, and being a good parent while maintaining some degree of independence. Even though I was 36 when I my son was born, I’m not sure I was any more ready to become a father than my dad was at 22. I often feel woefully unprepared for the job of co-producing a well adjusted, empathetic male humanoid.
Chatting with my pops made me realise how much I learned from watching him. Now if only he’d teach me to make a cheeser.
Lindsey and I agonised for years about whether to have kids, and when I found out she was pregnant, I freaked out a little. Okay, a lot. When you learned mom was pregnant, what was your reaction? Were you more nervous or excited?
It was obviously a surprise. But in my mind, there wasn’t any doubt about the next step. It was just “Okay, let’s get started. We should get married and get things in order.” The first reaction obviously is being nervous. The excitement factor is what comes later.
At that point, did you give any thought to what the role of a dad should be?
I was just trying to do my best to make sure I was taking care of you with whatever limited knowledge I had. It was learning on the fly, making sure you were keeping up with what needed to be done developmentally. Trying to keep you healthy, just winging it. Some of your mum’s friends had kids, so we had other people to bounce things off of.
Did you have a sense of how mom’s friends’ husbands were handling fatherhood? How did you think you compared to other dads in your social circle?
I didn't deal that much with the other dads. It was more the mums that got together. I didn't know them very well. I didn't really have too many friends who had kids. It was more a solo effort.
Over the last couple years, I’ve learned how expensive daycare is. Actually, I tell Lindsey to hide the numbers from me, so I’m not really sure how much we’re spending. How did you guys figure out daycare in the early days?
I was in the restaurant field, so I had some leeway as to scheduling shifts. Your mom, who was a nurse at the time, had that ability as well. I might work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and she might work 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. There was never really any thought of daycare. We weren’t making much money. My oldest sister took care of you a little bit, just to supplement the times we couldn’t swing it. It was, “You’re working this shift, I’ll work that shift.” One would come home, and it would be like, “Okay, have fun at work, I’ll see you later.”
Was it tough to not really see each other? Lindsey and I are lucky enough to have dinner together almost every night. Was it lonely?
It was different. When I worked for the Hilton, there was a guy there I was friendly with, and he would come by, and we would play football with you. There were people that weren’t averse to the idea of hanging out with a kid. It wasn’t like it was a total solo venture.
How did you divvy up the cooking and cleaning and make sure there wasn’t a pile of dishes in the sink?
You pretty much took care of what was needed to be done while we were taking care of you. If you were home during dinnertime, you were making dinner, cleaning up, making sure you got to bed. If it was the other way around, you did daytime things. Whatever shift you were on was what you were doing.
Before we had Desmond, one thing I worried about a lot was changing diapers. But it turns out they’re one of the easier parts of being a parent. What are your thoughts of diapers? Was there anything that you found surprisingly hard?
Diapers are just something you get used to. Obviously, there’s times you’re somewhat amazed what you’re dealing with. Not every change is solid nugget that’s easily tossed away. But as far as things I wasn’t ready for, I guess just the expectations you have for your kids. We did the karate thing when you were about 5. You would have these great aspirations, “Oh, he’s going to be into it.” I tried karate, too. And I found out it was not something either one of us was going to be able to do. You have to kind of realise as much as you may want your kid to succeed at something that’s always going to happen.
Eventually, you ditched shift work and went to work full-time as a painter. Did being a father change your work priorities?
That’s when we bought our first house. You were of elementary school age. You were old enough to carry yourself a little bit. I would be home in the late afternoon, shortly after you got home from school. Your mom might’ve been working 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. It wasn’t a necessity to have both of us working different shifts. We could both work during the day, and at least one of us be home for you when you got home from school.
And when you guys weren’t around, I had MTV to raise me. Mötley Crüe did their part.
Right. It was a different time, too. There wasn’t as much craziness as there is now. There always seemed to be a bigger comfort level. You worried about your kids, but you didn’t worry about them the way people worry about their kids now.
What do you mean?
Obviously, there was crime and everything else, but it seemed like at the time, where we were living, there wasn’t a huge concern about those kinds of things. Now you worry about somebody snagging your kid off the street if you turn around for five seconds. When we first bought the first house, you were in school. Things were a little easier. You were a responsible kid for your age. Our schedules were gelling. It was becoming more of a normal situation.
People talk a lot about work-life balance these days. I remember you doing a lot of side painting jobs on the weekends, before you started your own business. Did you ever worry that you were missing out on things?
I didn’t feel like I was missing out. It was extra money. It wasn’t that I had to do it to survive. But it would’ve been foolish to not take advantage of it.
From baseball cards to T-ball to basketball to running to ska, you always took an interest in what I was doing. I don’t feel like that was the case with all the dads in our neighbourhood. Why was it so important for you to take an active role in the stuff I was doing?
When you were younger, it did seem like there weren't that many fathers who were that into what was going on with their kids. You don’t know what your kids are going to get into, but you got into sports and things I was already interested in. I was always into basketball when I was a kid. I didn’t necessarily hope it was something you’d follow through with, but it was something I had some experience with. It seemed like a pretty natural fit. With T-ball, obviously I played baseball as a kid. When you did the karate thing, it wasn’t something I would’ve done on my own, so it was a good opportunity to see if we both would follow through with it. Obviously, that didn’t turn out that well.
What about watching me with Desmond? Is there anything you see me doing differently than you did?
There’s no template. Everybody is going to go in their own style. I think you’ve probably even surprised yourself as far as how you’ve adapted to the situation. I think you’ve come to grips with it pretty well and realised that now that you have a son, you’re responsible for him. You’ve got to love him and do the best you can for him. It may get in the way of things but in the long run, you’re responsible, and you gotta do the best you can.
I know a lot of new dads that have read tons of parenting books and stuff. But it seems like it’s not something you can learn that way.
Well no. You have to see how kids are going to adapt to what you’re trying to do. You can’t go by somebody else saying, “Oh, my kid was walking when he was 8 months. He said his first word when he was 10 months old. And he was doing this, and he was doing that.” Look at how you were with Des when he was younger: “When is he going to walk? He’s doing everything but walking.” And then he’s walking and running and now you’re at the next step. Now you have to run after him. It’s gonna be a changing game plan every day.