In my head, I knew I was a dad the moment my wife told me she was pregnant. And when I first saw the bump in her belly. And when I held my daughter in the hospital for the first time. I knew it, but it didn’t sink in — not until she was about 18 months old.
It wasn’t because I didn’t try. I was there every step of the way. I changed diapers, put her to bed, fed her, walked her, held her, played with her, read to her, bathed her. But I felt like I was going through the motions, just following the book on how to raise a kid. My head said I was a dad, but I didn’t feel like I was. But that changed one day when I went for a run with her.
It was August. The evening’s hot sun felt harsh. It had been a long day at work. I’d counted the minutes on the office clock before heading out for a run along the bay. I really needed to let off some steam. Stretch my legs. Clear my head.
I hadn’t run a hundred yards before my upper lip beaded with sweat. Not because of the heat. Or work frustration. Or the run. It was because of the screaming kid in the stroller. My kid. My kid. I should have been used to saying it. But she was my first. My only. Fatherhood was still new — it was exciting and I was proud. I was also tired and doubted I was doing anything right. And at that moment, my daughter’s steady flow of tears dissolved any semblance of confidence I had, leaving my fears bare.
It was not the stress release I was hoping for that day.
Running had always been my happy place. I always felt better after a good run. More relaxed. Like everything was right again. Every run whisked me away to the first time I ran when I was a kid, when I was just 10 years old. Inspired after watching Carl Lewis, Joan Benoit, and Edwin Moses in the 1984 Summer Olympics, I gave it a shot. Thirty-some years later, I haven’t stopped.
Running was an escape from my parents’ divorce back then. Now, as an adult, it’s an escape from whatever stress du jour is on the menu. It’s my time. Me time. It’s my reset button for life. But, not the day I ran with my daughter by the bay. That day she was wailing up a storm and I didn’t know why.
I pulled off to the side of the path. I was prepared for anything. Had enough supplies in the stroller to mount an Everest expedition. Bottles, snacks, diapers, blankets, toys, water, change of clothes, books, rash cream, sunscreen, pacifier, backup pacifier, sunhat. It was all there. I started troubleshooting. Ran through the list of diagnostics I’d learned over the last year. Was she hungry? I gave her a bottle. She spit it out. Thirsty? She spit out the water, too. Snack? Some yogurt drops? She pursed her lips and turned her reddened face away. Wet diaper? No, dry as a bone. Was the sun in her eyes? No, the stroller shade was pulled all the way down. Pacifier? Nope. Toy? Nope. Nope. And more nope.
People on the path started stopping to see if I was okay. If the situation was okay. I didn’t look like a dad in control of the situation. At least, I didn’t think I did. My dad came from a long line of dads who had no idea what they were doing. He passed the tradition down to me. A woman on the path asked me if I needed help. My face flushed. I’m fine, I said. We’re fine, I corrected. The lady didn’t look convinced but got the message and walked away. The crying sirened on.
I’m not very good at asking for help or even accepting it when offered. Plus, I’m this little person’s dad. I thought I should know how to fix the problem. But one needs to know what the problem is in order to fix it. And I didn’t. Minutes passed. The tears kept flooding down her cheeks. By this point, I could see I wasn’t going to get a run in. Out of desperation I unbuckled her and picked her up out of the stroller. She whipped and flailed her arms and legs around like an octopus. I set her in the grass to let her work it out.
Like a faucet being shut off, she stopped crying. She pushed herself up from the ground and made a beeline toward the path. A cyclist leaning into his drop bars sped by. I took two quick steps to pull her away and put her back in the grass. She started to wail again until I let go. She redirected herself back to the path and took several surefooted steps onto the concrete.
She started running, arms outstretched to her sides for balance. She bounced down the path like a pink ball gaining momentum. I ran after her and picked her up to bring her back to the stroller and the grass. The tearful pyrotechnics erupted again. Then it dawned on me.
I asked her, do you want to run? She made a fist and bobbed it up and down to sign yes, too frustrated at her slow father to speak. My heart raced with excitement at what this meant. She wanted to run. She wanted to run with me. Her dad! I set my beautiful child down on the path and she took off again. I scooped up our supplies strewn all over the grass and stuff them in the stroller rushing to catch up. I pulled alongside her. She was running. I was running. Dad and daughter side by side. In her steady stride I saw her independence. Her fearlessness, as if thinking, “My dad’s doing this so I’m doing this and nothing will stop me.”
In that moment, I caught a glimpse of her. Who she is. I mean, really who she is. I felt more connected to my daughter than ever before. And it made me happy.
In a half mile she started to slow down. I could tell she was annoyed that she was beginning to tire. She was grappling with her limits. Why couldn’t she just keep going and going. I told her it was OK. She did good. Really good. I picked her up and put her in the stroller. She cried, but didn’t resist. She was tired. I buckled her in and got another couple miles in, smiling the whole way. Running was forever changed for me.
Running used to be me time. And that was good. Now it had become us time. It was better. Bigger. Bigger than me. It was no longer my world. It was our world. I let go of a little piece of me and I gained a whole new universe. Not a bad deal. And then it dawned on me. I’m a dad.
Steve Lemig is a dad, outdoor enthusiast, and writer who lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and 9-going-on-29-year-old daughter. He is the managing editor at Road Runner Sports and founder of Wilderdad.com.