Dear New Fathers: You Won’t Feel Like a Real Dad Until This Happens

At least, this is when it happened for me.

When I look at pictures of myself from roughly a year-and-a-half ago, I see the face of someone who is sort of pretending to be a dad. The guy in those pictures is doing a great job, but he’s like Luke Skywalker in 1977, clumsily turning on a lightsaber to see what it is. That guy may be a father, technically, but he’s not a Jedi yet. Not even close.

Now, this isn’t to say I wasn’t very present in my daughter’s life when she was born and now I suddenly am; that’s not the case at all. I was very present. I took the job of being a dad very seriously and restructured everything in my life to be as present as I possibly could. I was just, well, apprehensive. But now, I’m not nervous at all. And it’s a great feeling.

So, what happened? After my kid turned 2 this past May, I realized I had transitioned from intellectually knowing I was a parent in my brain, to feeling it in my blood. If I was a parent-in-training when she was born, now I am a master. Of course, even Jedi masters make mistakes, and of course, all parents have imposter syndrome the second their kids are born — and I don’t think that sneaking feeling of being a fraud ever really goes away — but, I’d argue it does get a helluva lot easier after your kid reaches this age.

If your experience with a newborn is anything like mine, it often means a lot of waiting around. In fact, one thing I was thrilled to discover about caring for my wife and daughter in the earliest weeks was that I was really glad I had a background waiting tables. I had a month of paternity leave so I was home with her and my wife every day. Basically, I was their waiter. I’m not complaining. I liked waiting tables when I was younger (and older!), and I liked doing it for my wife and daughter. But that’s what it feels like: You’re always on your feet; you’re constantly cleaning bottles and breast pump pieces; you’re carrying car seats and folding tables and bassinets; and then, once it’s all done, you just start prepping for the next rush… It’s exhilarating and seemingly never-ending, and at one point early on, I really wished I had kept some of my waiter’s aprons so I could just have all the stuff I needed — burp cloths, diapers, wipes, bottles — all readily accessible the second I needed them. They also would’ve helped protect my pants from the many, many stains of early parenthood.

Soon, however, the phase of feeling like I was caring for a little fussy animal started to fade. In real time, you won’t notice this. Nothing will feel different about being a father until very suddenly, it will.

Part of it, I think, is that when little kids are still babies, and they can’t talk, you’re doing a kind of fake-telepathy to figure out what they want. Your wife has a sort of telepathy with the baby, and there’s nothing you can do about that, but it does mean you feel a little outside the whole parenting process a little bit, even if you’re there every day. I understand this isn’t everyone’s experience, but it was mine. When it was just me and my daughter in the first year, for instance, I was often using a kind of Ouija board in my head to divine what her different cries actually meant. Sometimes, during the days when my wife went back to work, and I worked from home in fits-and-spurts, this meant other people would discover that I tragically didn’t know how to speak baby. Other experienced parents would tell me what it was that my 7-month-old was trying to say.

Sometimes those people were William Shatner.

I interview people a lot for a living, and one day, when I squeezed in a phone interview with Mr. Shatner during my daughter’s nap, she woke up suddenly and cried out in a way to rival Shatner’s famous scream from The Wrath of Khan. I couldn’t tell if Captain Kirk was pissed or not that I had my kid with me during the phone interview But, Shatner was something at that point that I was not: an experienced father.

“That’s… a… hunger… cry,” he said, his classic pauses creating valleys between words. “She’s… hungry.”

Naturally, Shatner was right. And that’s not because he’s Captain Kirk. It was because I was still acting like a dad and not yet really conversant in my own learnings as a father. It’s not like I didn’t feel any paternal instincts, I’m just saying I wasn’t used to being a parent. Every father has an adjustment period of feeling confident enough to know what their kid needs. For me, that lasted exactly two years.

These days, I don’t have to guess what my daughter needs, and I certainly don’t need Captain Kirk to help me out. My daughter can talk and walk and point to things, and grab my hand and lead me to what she wants when she wants it. She is hungry and she can say, very specifically, “Do you want some raspberries?” Sure, the “you” in that sentence should be “I” but right now, she’s in this phase of putting her answers to what she wants in the form of a question. Hopefully, this means she’ll be great at Jeopardy! Either way, she’s not as much of a puzzle as she was when she was a squirmy little creature who couldn’t yet walk and talk. I’m not great with animals as a rule, and I don’t think I was great with my infant daughter for the same reason. But, I am pretty good with people, and now that my daughter has become a more recognizable person, I can, for lack of a better word, relate to her.

Children are really cool people, it turns out. But I don’t think they scan as people for many dads until they start having preferences that they can articulate. Or, in my case, until kids start making jokes. Once, when telling my daughter bedtime stories, I read one word wrong, and she started laughing hysterically. Not only has she not let me live this down, but now, there’s this kind of routine where she expects me to say things wrong in storybooks on purpose, which then allows her to correct me and laugh and point. “Oh, daddy,” she’ll say.“It’s not the ocean… it’s the sea.” The person who jokes around with me now didn’t exist when she was an infant. Now, she does.

There’s no way to prepare for the moment when you see your child’s personality start to really emerge. It is truly one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened to me, mostly because I didn’t really ever know it was going to happen. And the greatest side-effect of having your child become a walking-talking person isn’t just that they’re often hilarious. There’s something else to it even more important. For the first time in two years, I can relax a little. I’m not just a biological fact, a perpetual waiter cleaning up messes and worrying. I finally feel like I’m a dad. All it took was a little time.