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What Is a Dad and What Is It Like To Be One? American Men Have No Idea.

Even prepared guys head to the maternity ward with unrealistic expectations. And as the average father gets older, the problem is only getting worse.

As a child, Kevin Hughes loved being part of a big family. One of four kids, he had tons of cousins. There were gigantic get-togethers and hours-long games of Ghost in the Graveyard. Hughes took it as writ that it was his job to look after his younger relatives and was comfortable babysitting by the time he hit middle school. He filed away information and ideas about how he intended to approach fatherhood in the future.  

Today, Hughes, now 37,  lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son, who will turn one this summer. He credits his upbringing for how comfortable he feels around his infant son. But even though he was about as prepared to be a dad as any man could reasonably be, Hughes admits the transition has been a shock to the system.

“You pass this threshold where there’s no going back,” says Hughes. “He’s always going to be around, and you can always be doing something as a parent to improve his existence.”

Tautologies can be profound. Parents have kids. Everyone understands this. But that doesn’t mean everyone understands the nature of that experience. Few do prior to having it and that number may be decreasing: Newly released CDC data shows that United States birth rates are in a record slump, which doesn’t simply mean fewer babies. It means people are waiting and acclimating to a kid-free adult lifestyle. The average age of first-time fatherhood has climbed steadily upward, from 27.4 years in 1972 to 30.9 in 2015, according to data released in 2017. That research also revealed that, during that same period of time, the number of first-time dads over 40 more than doubled, from 4.1% to 8.9%. This all means modern fathers have more time to contemplate what is might be like to be a father and less reason to take their expectations, informed by lifestyles that aren’t sustainable with children, seriously.

Even men like Kevin Hughes don’t know what’s coming until it hits them.

Accepted notions of paternal behavior have changed considerably since millennial fathers were millennial kids. Still, says Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, older ideas inform what men expect. The idea that men are obliged to be financial providers while women act as caregivers may be less accepted than it once was. But that doesn’t mean that monolithic notion, still common in mainstream representations of American families, doesn’t obscure men’s views of potential caregiving roles.

“We tend to have a narrative that raising a child is a mom’s domain, and moms do it better than dads,” says Tamis-LeMonda, adding that this is why it’s still not “cool,” societally speaking, for young men to think about wanting a family or talk about it. Not only are men’s views of themselves as potential nurturers blocked by cultural constructs, it’s blocked by internalized ideas of masculinity.

Those ideas can also lead men astray even when they do make the effort to consider the sorts of parents they could become.

Before he became a father, Thomas Gonnella assumed he would have to become his family’s de-facto disciplinarian. He dreaded this development, which felt against his nature and inevitable. It never happened. Gonnella has two kids and a wife who doesn’t mind being “bad cop.”

“In our culture, we have ideas about what fathers do and what mothers do. Even though 99% of it overlaps, we think of it differently,” says Dante Spetter, a licensed clinical child psychologist who teaches at Harvard on child and adolescent development, as well as developmental psychopathology.

Spetter observes that both men and women enter parenting with unrealistic ideas about what it’s going to be like, in terms of the work it actually requires and how parenthood fits into the rest of life. “I think the unpredictability is the part of it that nobody anticipates, and when it comes to how to deal with that, moms and dads have different ideas,” she says.

Another fact of the expectation gap, Spetter explains, is that typically when people think about parenthood, they’re imagining little kids younger than five years old. “They don’t think about a teenager, they think about a baby–nurturing is the part of parenting that people are thinking about. It’s not ‘how do you get someone dressed and into the car to day care.”

When Sean Sullivan, who has a four-year-old, first became a dad, he remembers a process of figuring things out but can’t recall spending time looking too far into the future. When his wife was pregnant, “I had not looked beyond the now you have the baby part,” Sullivan says. “Then it was like, all of a sudden, ‘What do I expect with this child?’ I just sort of thought it would be a lot of work and really busy. I didn’t really go into it with a lot of preconceived notions about what being a father would be like, other than the fact that I liked kids.”

Men sketch their concepts of fatherhood based on popular culture, perceived social norms, parenting manuals, peers, and even social media, explains to Tamis-LeMonda. But approaches to parenthood are often forged in the molds–or against the molds–of their parents.

“However fatherhood worked in their family and their own close community, that’s where they’re going to get their ideas,” says Spetter. As a clinician, she often hears men talk about how they want to be different from their own dads. Often, it comes down to: “When it comes to men thinking about being dads: What do they see at home?”

Rick Fordyce was 41 when he and his husband adopted their son in 2017. Raised by his grandparents in West Virginia, he grew up cooking with his grandmother and working in the garage with his grandfather, and knew he wanted to be a parent from a very young age.  

“I don’t think society prepared me at all. If you look at TV from when I was growing up, the mom was the main character. As I thought about becoming a father, I never wanted there to be typical roles,” he says.

For Fordyce, developing his own style of fatherhood has meant letting go of preconceived notions about how he intended parent. “The part I wasn’t expecting as much was how I was willing to allow everything else to take a backseat: He takes priority always,” he says. “You compromise in relationships a lot. But there’s more compromising in being a dad that I had ever expected.”

One unanticipated point of compromise: Coparenting. Both Spetter and Tamis-LeMonda referenced the concept of gatekeeping, which among other behaviors, describes mothers micromanaging dads. “Often what happens in a dynamic in a male/female couple is that the mom has very clear ideas about how things should be done–must be done–and if the father sees it differently, he’s either pressured to do it her way or pushed aside, not trusted,” says Spetter.

At 32, Jorian Arneson isn’t a dad, and he’s not sure he wants to be–mostly because of concerns about how parenthood would impact his marriage. Arneson and his wife have been together for 13 years, since college, and he cherishes their relationship the way it is. “Everything changes for some people when they have kids, because they can’t deal with the stress,” says Arneson. His fears are far from unfounded: Research shows that having kids irrevocably alters a relationship dynamic, as pillow talk is replaced by diaper-related discussions and kid-related everyday to-do lists. As for the adage that kids bring a couple closer together: That might just be a myth.

On the other side of the threshold, Hughes also spoke about how fatherhood impacts his own marriage. One thing he didn’t think too much about prior to his son being born was how approaches of fatherhood, and motherhood, can collide; after witnessing peers struggle to get on the same page with parenting, from the “right” way to swaddle to the right moment to introduce solid foods, he feels fortunate to be in sync about those expectations. It wasn’t a given.

“I won the lottery,” says Hughes. “It’s so important how to your experience how your partner deals with it individually, and how you deal with it as a team.”