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I used to dole out all kinds of dad advice about sleeping and diapers. Now if somebody asks me about parenting, I just talk about time. More importantly, I talk about why dads should waste as much of it as they can with their kids.
Admittedly, it’s not a lesson anybody teaches new parents. Nor is it one I learned right away. In fact, it wasn’t until one ‘perfectly planned’ father-son Saturday that it hit me. You see, one weekend a month my wife works, and I’m on the clock with our 2-year-old son. And on this particular weekend, wanting to be the best dad I can be, to show the world that I can do it all, I planned a ridiculously full day. I had written it out and everything: 5-mile race in the jogging stroller, IHOP ⏤ IHOb? ⏤ for breakfast, swimming lessons, niece’s birthday party, grocery shopping. Red-letter day.
Only one of those things happened. It was raining, you see, and while we were able to get our run in, we were way too wet to go to breakfast afterward. Then we both fell asleep. Which meant we got to swimming late. And by the time I got his little butt into those swim trunks, I realized that I was still wearing pants — I hadn’t even changed yet to go in the pool with him. There in the changing stall, tears were shed. From both of us. The day was shot. I was a failure.
What happened? Part of it, I trace back to an obsession with spending time with him. With work and all, sometimes I’m so desperate to make it quality time that little of it ends up being so. Even if we have a day where everything gets checked off the list, it’s usually just a blur. In the car, out of the car. ‘Hold my hand.’ ‘Can’t you have more than two fries?’ ‘No, that’s not our toy.’ ‘I don’t know where Mommy put the wipes!’ Dads worry about this. Pew found that most dads — 63 percent — feel that they spend too little time with their kids. That’s a lot. That’s way too many.
And that night, I realized I had it all wrong. From the jump, his mother had an inherent, dependent connection. I always figured that it was a disadvantage I had to overcome. I’ll never enjoy that bond, I thought. It’s all dad jokes and important life lessons for me.
But I was thinking about it as a bug, when maybe it’s a feature. As a dad, the whole road is open to you. You get to form a different connection, a spiritual one, one that helps instill their values and affections. It’s that connective tissue, the gears of their moral compass.
The next day, we went to a playground. That was all I put on the ledger. For 75 fairly uneventful minutes, we played. He fell, I picked him up. He pointed something out, we ran toward it. We came upon a turtle and marveled at it. “Whoa,” he said. “Whoa.” We got tired and raced back to the car. He won. He napped for the longest time in a while.
On paper, it was an unremarkable day. No swimming was learned, no errands were done. (We did have the pancakes.) But I think about it all the time. It was one of my most rewarding days as a dad. We don’t just spend time together now. We waste time together. No stress, no structure, certainly no screens. It’s a luxury, I know, but one I do not pass up. Sometimes, it only lasts 15 minutes, sometimes 50. Doesn’t matter. These little moments happen, and they’re all ours.
Even at bedtime ⏤ where I was once obsessed with perfecting a nighttime routine down to the minute, reading X books, rocking for Y minutes ⏤ we sometimes just sit and look out the window together. I can feel his mind whirring. What’s he thinking about? Probably Paw Patrol. But still, we’re just together. We’re there.
I like to think he appreciates the contrast too. When we go back to Mom, he knows the good stuff is going to happen. There will be sustenance. There will be big hugs, and warmth. Pure joy. Wasting time together has only increased his reverence for his mother, and nothing is more critical to his development than that.
I’m sure many other fathers have thought of this. I know the ultimate father, the Holy Father, has. Pope Francis has asked fathers “if they had the courage of love to waste their time with their children.” I sure hope I do, but realize it’s a work in progress. It all is. I may still sweat those Saturdays, but at least I’ve found the sweet spot where my personality and my son’s meet ⏤ and now we are well on our way.
Mike Ricci is a writer, runner, and the communications director for House Speaker Paul Ryan. He lives in Potomac, MD, with his wife, Kirsten, and their nearly-2-year-old son, Tiberius.