There’s a demarcation familiar to every father. There’s even a birthday associated with it. Because life before kids is different than life after kids. It just is. Before kids, there was endless brunch, the Sunday New York Times, and wall-to-wall football on the wall-sized TVs. Free time meant tee time, fishing trips, or kickball in the park. The default answer was yes. Yes to happy hour. Yes to pub crawl. Yes to late-night dinner reservations. Yes, yes, and yes to spontaneous sex.
Then your first child arrives, and there is a seismic eruption of exhilaration, fatherly pride, and family bliss. We did it!
This period of unbridled euphoria lasts about 24 hours before the shit makes contact with the fan. Life devolves rather quickly into a mumble-jumble of diaper blowouts, colicky bedtimes, and burping disasters. There’s still joy in Mudville, but it’s tempered a bit over time with crazy soccer carpools, schoolyard dramas, food fights, and epic temper tantrums in the ice cream aisle.
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It’s all good — except when it’s not. One day you wake up thinking: There’s no there there, meaning, there’s not much there from your previous life. Your life before kids is erased and gone, no longer relevant. You could be the most fantastic father in the world, a Superdad, but there are days when life after kids is about missing part of yourself, a valuable piece that existed before kids arrived.
All hope is not lost. You don’t have to give up everything you loved about your life once you’ve settled down and bought the minivan and Winnie-the-Pooh costume. You can still make room for baby, for toddler, for kid, for tween, and for yourself. The key is to make compromises rather than wholesale changes. Yes, you’ll have to give some stuff up, but maybe not entirely. It turns out that you can keep doing a lot of things that you love if you’re just willing to compromise. Here’s how I’d suggest making sacrifices without giving up all your pre-baby vices.
Keep Playing Golf
Golf is as much a social outing as it is a sport, but unfortunately, in fatherhood, it is usually one of the first pursuits to get the ax. It’s not just the huge chunk of time that 18 holes swallows up. It is the kind of sport that you don’t want to play half-assed, and to be good you have to make a long-term commitment to the game. Yet how many involved dads can spend their weekends duffing at the local course? It’s a catch-22.
Solution: Cheer up, you don’t need to sell your coveted Titaniums just yet. You can still get your swings in — at the driving range. In a fraction of the time it takes to walk 18 holes, you can tweak your drive, work on your backswing, practice your chip shot, and best of all, you don’t have to look for the damn ball in the trees. If you hook a shot into the next county, drop another ball and take another whack. When your kids are old enough, bring along a miniature putter and hit the putting greens on the way out. Either way, at the driving range you can still spend quality time duffing with the guys, and quality time hanging with your little guys.
Keep Watching Football
I know — I miss this too. I grew up playing football, watching games with my father, and daydreaming about racing down the sidelines for a last-second touchdown. I love the drama, histrionics, and unpredictable nature of the gridiron. Football is a beautiful and sometimes brutal interplay of choreography and chaos (heightened with the imminent threat of physical calamity). There are few moments in sports that can match the adrenaline of a running back exploding through a hole or a kickoff returner zigzagging across the field and diving into the end zone.
After I had kids, my relationship with football changed. First of all, the average professional football game lasts three hours — that’s a lot of time to be camped out on the couch glued to the TV noshing on Doritos and Double Stuffed Oreos. Secondly, while I was asleep there was a massive cultural shift away from iconoclastic, all-American football to a more fluid, nimble, and less violent sport: soccer. So even if I did want to own the living room couch all weekend, my kids are not even remotely interested in watching with me.
Solution: You can still follow football, but here’s a thought: Skip the first three-quarters and tune in for the last 10 minutes. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you catch up on the fever of the game. And don’t worry about missing that amazing Hail Mary bomb before halftime — the replay will go viral before you can say “we’ll be back right after this commercial break.” With the time you save, you can take your kid (or kids) to the park and play football catch, or who knows, maybe kick around a soccer ball.
Keep Going to Games
If someone were to reinvent the sport of baseball, they’d make the games last seven innings, install two 24-second clocks (one for pitchers, one for batters) and a tie game would never go into extra innings. Instead, there’d be a home run derby to determine the winner, kind of like the tie-breaker shoot-outs in soccer and hockey.
Until then, we’re left with baseball clocking in at three-plus hours (add another hour for commuting and parking if you’re going to the stadium). I live in Denver — I could fly to either coast in the time it takes to finish a baseball game. The point being, if you want to be a better dad, you might need to ration your professional baseball consumption.
Solution: You can still your nurture your love for America’s favorite pastime without sitting on your can for hours watching professional ballplayers sit on their can for hours (baseball players burn the fewest calories of any major sport — you can look it up.) Consider this: Volunteer to be a youth baseball coach. Baseball teams, with their individualized fielding and hitting stations and specialized drills (catching pop flies, lead-offs, and stealing bases, etc.), are always looking for parents to help out. What’s more, baseball is infinitely more enjoyable to play than watch. Even a simple game of catch or “pepper” (soft-tossing to a batter who hits it back to you) can be more rewarding than growing restless in the bleachers and thinking about the 4 a.m. wake-up call you might get from a child who is sick/having night terrors/hungry/needs to pee.
To all the dads with young children who say they need their “alone time,” let me make a suggestion. Check your calendar and do the math. You don’t have 18 years until your kids move out of the house. The window of time for you to be “present” is much shorter than you think. Every parent with an older child will attest: By a lopsided margin, teenagers prefer to hang with their school-age peers than their old-school parents. When your son or daughter turns 13 you’ll get your first demotion notice. And remember that cliché about being your kid’s chauffeur? When your kid gets their driver’s license, you’re fired.
Solution: When your offspring hit the teenage years, you’ll have more alone time than you bargained for. So if you like to hole up by yourself and binge-watch Bob’s Burgers, rock out to Pink Floyd, or grow your Twitter army, you might want to break that habit. Put your “me time” on hold for a few years and make time for your son or daughter before they have no time for you. And, yes, that may mean turning your cherished man cave into a playroom or game room. When they leave for college or a job, you can turn your man cave into a man-temple. You’ll have plenty of time for that.
For ultra-athletic fathers who maintain rigorous and time-consuming training schedules while raising children — well, the pie is only so big. If you’re competing as an amateur, you’re choosing a self-centered, time-consuming pursuit that leaves little room for family time. It’s like the dad who buys himself a two-seater sports car. Dude, calm down.
Here’s the thing: Child-rearing is kinda, sorta, a joint priority and shared responsibility, and if you’re devoting a significant chunk of “leisure” time to the grueling training regimen demanded by high-octane run-swim-bike marathon competitions, then something’s missing from the picture. How much time and energy is left for fatherhood?
Solution: Here’s a suggestion coming from your future self — dial it back. Continue to compete, but maybe not like you’re the reigning Mr. Universe. There are plenty of 10k’s and Half Ironman events to kick ass in. It’s all about balance, limited time, and carving out space to be a better dad — while staying in great shape. You can do both, but maybe not over-the-top “Ironman shape.” There are more important things in life.
One day in the near future you’ll blink and your day-to-day parenting responsibilities will be over. You’ll have all the time in the world to stroll down rolling fairways on your way to fishing a small white ball out of an oddly foaming creek, or spend lazy afternoons in the cheap seats getting sunburned while the home team makes its fifth pitching change, or turn your cherished man cave into a frickin’ man palace with strobe lights, a monstrous-screen TV, and arena-sound.
A few years back, I was deep into the woods of child-rearing. I had three kids in diapers, mealtimes were a madhouse, and bath time was sheer bedlam. One day an elderly neighbor walked by while we were unloading groceries from our SUV and as usual, one kid was melting down, one kid was laughing, and one kid was probably pooping. I apologized to the neighbor for the loud ruckus we were causing. Without missing a beat, he responded, “Are you kidding? I miss the sound of kids’ voices. Reminds me of when my kids lived at home. They all grew up and left — and now there’s nothing but quiet in the house — like a mausoleum. So enjoy the noise while it lasts.”
Those were prophetic words.
Jay Solomon is a writer, restaurant owner, and father of four living in Denver, Colorado.
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