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

He’s learning how to be him, and you’re learning how to be a father.

father and son
Photo courtesy of Christin Lola/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 Mike,

Tomorrow you’ll witness the single most awe-inspiring and terrifying event of your life. You’ll laugh, cry and be excited all at the same time. In the moment you become a father, the entire weight of the world will begin to press down on your shoulders, threatening to paralyze you with fear and indecision.  But the moment your son is born, and you see the look on his mother’s face in the instant their eyes meet for the first time, you’ll know without a doubt that life itself is truly a miracle and anything is possible.

In the days that follow, you’ll change a million diapers, wear spit-up to work, get peed on several times, clean poop out of the sink, promise to move heaven and earth if he just stops crying and singSweet Baby Jamesso many times, you’re worried you’ll never want to hear that song again.  Just as you start to get the hang of things, new challenges pop up, like diaper rashes, teething and ear infections, but those trials and tribulations are nothing compared to the smiles, laughs and Sunday afternoon nap time on the couch with your son curled up in your arms.

As months turn into years, there’s preschool, kindergarten and grade school, all of which come with their own tests. Your son will make and lose friends, struggle at times with school, play sports and go from being your baby boy to your little man. Occasionally you’ll worry you’re doing more harm than good, but you find solace in the late-night conversations with your wife about values, perseverance and generally just doing the right thing.

Eventually, the tween years hit, and your little man is all too often replaced with mood swings, a laissez-faire approach to school and a too-cool attitude.  You wonder what happened to the toddler who used to make silly faces and shake his head around in circles, giggling uncontrollably, any time someone asked if he was crazy.  This, by far, will be the most challenging phase so far, so let me give you a few helpful tips:

1. When your son starts yelling, screaming back does NOT de-escalate the situation.

2. The disable/enable feature for his cell phone on your family plan gives you godlike capabilities.

3. The first time he cuts the grass, pull out a lawn chair and crack open a beer—it will taste amazing.

4. When you say things like Instabook and Facechat, he gets extremely embarrassed—bonus embarrassment points if his friends are around.

5. Sooner than you ever expected, he’ll wear the same size clothes and shoes as you, but luckily, your wife buys him awesome clothes, and it’s hysterical to see how mortified he gets when you wear them.

6. He’s exactly like you in more ways than you ever could have imagined, for better and worse. You can’t change that, so embrace it and use it to help understand him.

But as a parent the things that will keep you up at night worrying about his future aren’t the one-liners you can sneak in during the day to get a rise out of him. They are the situations where you see him becoming his own man and hope you are guiding him on the right path.

One random day, driving home from work, “Sweet Baby James” comes on the radio, and you think about the past 13 years and realize you wouldn’t trade any of it for the world because your son is growing before your eyes. With every interaction and every emotion he’s going through, he’s trying to figure out who he is and where he’s going. While most of the time it might seem like you’re just along for the ride, every once in a while, he still needs you, and you know you’ll be there for him when he does. Those are the moments that define your relationship, and among all the highs and lows, he’s learning how to be him, and you’re learning how to be a father.