There used to be a show on the now-defunct WB called Dawson’s Creek. Anyone who was a teenager in the mid-90s is familiar with its cast of characters – a group of Cape Cod high school students in a coming-of-age tale that was filmed in Wilmington, which looks nothing like Cape Cod. Its cast members grew up to become an Oscar-winning actress, Tom Cruise’s ex-wife, the cheated-upon husband in The Affair, and James Van Der Beek.
In my early college years I watched the show with friends because none of us had fake IDs and we needed something to watch while drinking beer on a Tuesday night. I stopped watching after a couple seasons but, later, in our 20s, we gathered with the same group of people in an apartment off Morehead to watch the final episode. The series finale was a flash-forward to adulthood, when one of the characters was diagnosed with a fatal heart condition and recorded a video offering advice to her infant child. It remains the only time I’ve cried in the company of people wearing sombreros and drinking tequila. I think.
Sunday is Father’s Day. My eighth as a parent. I don’t think I’m qualified to dole out life advice other than never rewatch the final episode of Dawson’s Creek – it does not age well. But I often wonder what parenting advice I would offer my children if they ever ask? What advice would I share to ease their transition, and what advice would I withhold because there are just some things in life that have to be experienced to fully understand?
Do I go topical? Every day brings a different challenge. Or do I go more tactical? Cargo shorts might be lame but they are perfectly designed to hold one diaper, a bag of wipes, a pacifier, a small toy and your phone.
Do I go big picture with a lame cliché? Cherish every moment because it goes by quicker than you’d expect. Or do I focus on the small picture? Never check a diaper by sticking your finger down the back. And in later years, keep extra underwear in the glove box because your kids will shart at extremely inconvenient times and places.
Do I even offer advice? I don’t know what the hell I’m doing as a parent and neither do any of us. I used to stand back 20 feet and let Kid #1 roam through SouthPark mall just to see how far he’d go before he wondered where I went. Kid #2 slept in a storage container that was padded with a bath towel for her first three weeks – I called it a portable baby bassinet and laid it on the ottoman while I watched the NCAA tournament.
Perhaps someday, when our kids are grown and I’m an old man, they’ll have kids. Perhaps they’ll wonder what I was thinking when I was their age and they were small children. Perhaps they’ll wonder what advice I have for them as new parents. Here’s what I think I’ll say:
Raise kids with someone you love
I can’t imagine how anyone does this with a person they don’t love to be around. And by love I don’t mean the kind of love where you get married and buy monogrammed things and pose for annual photo shoots that you post on Instagram (and should be tagged #LooksLikeAHerpesAd). I don’t mean lust. I mean the kind of love where you would prefer on any given night to have drinks on the back porch with each other rather than do anything else (within reason – if I get Masters tickets my wife can hang out alone all weekend).
Having kids isn’t easy on a marriage. It’s like a TV episode when one kid’s best friend returns from summer camp with a new best friend, and everyone spends the first few weeks of school trying to figure out this new reality. In the end, all three realize there’s plenty of friendship to go around, but by definition that friendship has changed. Not for the worse, but different. Things get weird for a while and it helps to have someone by your side that you genuinely enjoy.
You know those babies who sleep 12 hours a night and have parents whose laid back demeanors make you wonder if they smoke pot all day? There’s a reason those kids are so calm, and it ain’t a contact high. Our kids were both tightly wound balls of insanity that couldn’t be corralled without an actual corral, which I ascribe to our (my?) fairly high level of nervousness that if we strayed too far from various parenting guides that we’d ruin our kids. Calm down and don’t stress over all the garbage that every book and magazine and website and pamphlet and guru and nutritionist shares with you at every turn. Wiping down everyone who enters your house with antibacterial spray is ridiculous (and yes, we did it too). Chances are that playing Mozart in your kid’s room isn’t going to get her into the Mensa Society if you could barely get through algebra. And that’s ok.
The saying goes, “Less is more,” not, “More is more”
Walk into the homes of your friends who are new parents. Take mental stock of their baby inventory – diaper bags, two bouncy chairs, four types of blankets, Baby Bjorns, Moby Wraps, dye-free detergent, scent-free wipes, sanitation stations, sanitation racks, cribs, basinets, wipe warmers, walking strollers, running strollers, teething giraffes, sound machines, light boxes, pacifiers, changing tables, pee pee tee pees. Buy exactly 25 percent of what they have. You need a crib, clothes, food, blankets, pacifiers, toys, diapers and wipes to take care of a child. And the pee pee tee pee if you don’t want the occasional golden shower. Everything after that is about convenience, and at some point becomes a burden. More stuff doesn’t make your life easier or happier as a new parent.
It’s OK to be boring
Most parents struggle at first with grasping the new life that comes with raising a new life. In our early days there was a car seat tucked under restaurant tables because it was Thursday, and on Thursday we hit N.C. craft beer night at Brixx, child be damned. There was a kid sleeping in the bedroom of a friend’s house because it was December and we weren’t missing his annual epic holiday bash even if the babysitter canceled. At some point you’ll realize that you’re a parent and it’s OK to act like one. Put on your dad khakis and your mom jeans, yank up those tube socks, and be proud of it. There’s a time for everything and now is the time for you to focus on something other than your social life. Plus it makes Saturday and Sunday mornings a lot easier to navigate.
Put down the phone
A picture or recording of something is never better than the experience itself. There’s nothing you can physically do with 11,000 iPhone pictures of your kids. You don’t have enough time to relive the hundreds of the hours of recordings of them at recitals and games and parties. In the words of Louis CK: “In a million years you’re never going to watch videos of your kids doing s***t you missed the first time it happened!”
It always amazes me how quick people are to whip out a phone to record their kid come down a slide, and then spend the next 30 minutes posting and flipping through Instagram while said kid asks for the 200th time for help building a sand castle. Experience the moment; don’t record it in the hope you’ll get to experience it later.
It’s harder than you can fathom
It’s often said that parenting is the world’s hardest job; a phrase I think is misunderstood. It’s not hard in the sense that most jobs are hard. Roofing houses is a hard job. Parenting is hard because there’s no training. There’s no certification. The only thing that qualifies you to be a parent is functioning reproductive organs, which has no bearing at all on your ability to actually be a parent.
Even the books are suspect. Generations of children in the 20th century were raised on a parenting book written by Dr. Spock, who at some point flip-flopped on whether a boy should be circumcised. Seems like one issue you might want to stick to your stance on, no? Today’s baby bible – What to Expect the First Year – is a 704 page opus that purports to contain all the information you need to bring the next Einstein into the world. Chapter one, page one: “Being 100 percent prepared for your baby’s arrival probably isn’t possible.” Wish I knew that before I read 615 pages of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
You are going to feel you are failing as a parent, even when you succeed
I generally feel that I fail at parenting more than I succeed, regardless if the opposite is reality, or whether there is even a gauge to measure success or failure as a parent. More often than you would like, you are going to go to bed with the feeling that you have failed your children.
Yesterday I failed Kid #1 because I flew off the handle when he wiped toothpaste inside a power outlet. Last week I failed Kid #2 when she asked me to read books before bed and I declined because I wanted an extra 30 minutes of peace and quiet. The month before that I failed each of them a thousand times for reasons I can’t remember, and they probably can’t remember either. To me, their lack of recollection doesn’t make my failure seem any less important. I’m still early on in the parenting thing, but I’m hoping the amount of effort is more important than my perceived quality of the performance.
So that’s the advice I would offer my kids if they ever come asking about the early years of parenting. If they ask others, I’m sure they’ll find people who will tell them the exact opposite on every single point, which is all the proof they need that none of us truly have any idea what we’re doing. And neither will they.