Surprises of Early Fatherhood

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to have children. As an adult, the glow of some-day kids grew into the burning hope of a right-now family. Then the triumphant excitement of a positive pregnancy test was followed by the overwhelming joy of my daughter’s birth.

There are plenty of posts by reluctant fathers who are surprised by their love for the child and the change in their worldview it brings. This is not that post.

A useful framework for thinking about motivation is to break it down into three subcategories: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Whenever people talk or write about why they had children, they focus on Purpose. This is understandable. As biological life, reproducing is perhaps our most fundamental purpose. But nobody talks about Autonomy or Mastery!

Being a first-time father is structurally very similar to a single-player story-based video game.

The tutorial starts in an unfamiliar, bewildering place. Something big and important is happening, and lots of people are rushing around. A woman is there who gives you very important instructions on a new set of skills you are expected to quickly learn. Then you are thrust into battle (childcare) and you learn by doing.

Heyyyy so I know you haven’t slept in two days but I need to show you how to wash one of these baby things….oh and by the way they poop tar

You leave the tutorial shortly thereafter with a new companion. This companion provides difficult-to-interpret feedback, but it’s all you have to go on. The choices available to you quickly widen. You try out your new found powers and see what works, what fits your style. Your companion lets you know when you really mess up.

The core gameplay loop emerges. Sleep is the objective. New obstacles to sleep are produced constantly and without warning. The player must read the signs and react accordingly, weighing the pros and cons of each intervention. Do red cheeks mean she is cold? Teething? Fevered? Nothing in particular? Choose wisely player, and endure the consequences!

Every so often you reach a checkpoint known as The Well Child Visit. You visit a guru who assesses your progress and introduces new mechanics, like tummy time or chewing. Statistics comparing your companion to other players are produced. A few needle sticks in the leg, and your companion is returned to you. Now it’s up to you to keep your companion going and growing for another few months.

My biggest surprise as a father has been how fun and fulfilling this game has been to play. Correctly reading the sign and choosing the right response is rewarding.

Interpretation of baby signs is difficult, but not impossible or unfair. There are less signs than you have fingers and you internalize them quickly. The signs may combine into a single ball of screaming fussy, but you can almost always work them out one by one.

The signs change as quickly as the child. In the first year, that has been fast. New signs emerge (tooth hurts!) as old signs fade (need to burp!). Keeping pace is another challenge, but it also provides a sense that each trial is fleeting (4 teeth down, 16 to go!).

Each intervention is a skill to learn. The feedback is immediate and the rewards feel monumental in the moment. There is surprising nuance. Giving a bottle may seem like a straightforward activity, but there are an array signals to process and decisions to make. How much milk should I make? How should I angle the baby to encourage intake and discourage dribble? How should I angle the bottle to deliver some milk, but not too much? Do I want her to sleep, or not? A contented baby in your lap is a fine reward.

Perhaps you are considering your life and how children might fit. You’ve imagined looking back on life from your deathbed, and how that might feel with or without children by your side. You’ve lamented the sleepless nights and lost freedoms. Make sure you imagine the fun and fulfillment of actually doing parenting too.

Leave a Reply