On becoming the father of a toddler: A letter to myself

So you think you are through the hardest part? Just as the basic biology part gets easier, the psychology part of parenting begins.

dad and daughter
Photo courtesy of Katya Naumova/Adobe Stock

Ahead of this Father’s Day, we’re asking Northern Virginia Magazine’s husbands to write letters to themselves as young dads with the knowledge they have now.

Dear Jon,

You have made it through the first 24 months of parenting. Not always easy. In the first few weeks—the “dark days” as your insightful neighbor only half-jokingly dubbed them—the mere task of feeding your baby and getting her to sleep seems more daunting than first-year law exams. The feeling of sleeplessness that cannot be simulated from your pre-fatherhood days affects your ability to think, do and persist. And, of course, there’s the fear that you are now responsible for the survival of another human being, and you may not be up to the task.

Well, that part is (largely) over. She can eat without your spoon-feeding, and each day you are less and less concerned that she will choke on a piece of cereal. She runs everywhere, and though she still falls a lot and your heart stops when the tears begin, she is always fine a few minutes later. And when she goes to sleep at night, you no longer hover over her crib like the Shirley MacLaine character in the opening scene of Terms of Endearment, peering at her in the dark to find every sign she is still breathing without waking her up and starting the whole bedtime process over again.

So you think you are through the hardest part?  Well, in some ways, yes.  But as you will learn, Jon, just as the basic biology part gets easier—she can eat, walk, sleep and soon even go potty by herself!—the psychology part of parenting begins. You see, Jon, your precious little baby is becoming an actual little person. And people are complicated. They can be wonderful and loving and life-fulfilling; they can also be difficult and frustrating and emotionally draining.

This means that she can defy you. She’s already been experimenting with the concept of “no.” Now it becomes a negotiating tool. Will you hold the line when she refuses your request that she finish her dinner? Or will you cave to her demand to avoid the fit that is looming on the horizon? Well, here is some advice: patience, patience and more patience. She’s 2 years old. This isn’t about you or your parental authority; it’s just part of her natural development. While it is important to (try to) start establishing some ground rules, you don’t need to use every potential confrontation to teach a lifelong lesson. Like a rainstorm in the tropics, the fit will pass. There’s no point in jacking up your blood pressure during the process.

It also means that she needs to start making friends who aren’t you. The days of parallel playing, when your kid and the other babies circle around each other without actually interacting, are coming to an end. When you go to birthday parties or pick your kid up from day care, you might observe or hear that somebody pushed your baby or, heaven forbid, she was mean to a classmate. The temptation to worry or intervene will be immense. But, barring any persistent issues, let her work it out. You have to trust that you are teaching her the basics of getting along with others: sharing, kindness and making a joke once in a while. The experience of making friends at this early age will condition her well for doing so when she has to go to camp or a new school or a different playground.

Finally, you have to be there. Not just physically there but mentally, emotionally—all of you. You are going to be busy, no doubt. Both you and your wife work, traffic is awful, and there’s always something buzzing on your phone. But it’s no longer enough to make sure there’s food on the table and that she’s tucked in the right way in bed. She’s going to start to notice when you’re distracted and when you’re not playing with her. And you will notice how much she wants to learn from you and how much more meaningful that experience is when the phone is put away and all of you is there, in the room, with her.

You are a lucky guy being able to live with, learn from and love this beautiful little girl. Enjoy it.

Jon

(Father’s Day Guide)

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