My oldest son turns 5 this week. I’m particularly prone to reflect on big milestones like this and this seems an apt time to reflect on fatherhood.
I’ll start by saying that I don’t consider myself an incredible or even “very good” father. The coffee mug celebrating “world’s greatest dad” will always go to Bandit Heeler and anyone who genuinely attempts to put in practice those same parenting principles.1
Honestly, I’m not really sure who I am writing this post for. In part, it’s for myself – to remind me what I’m striving for as a father. In part, it’s for my father – to thank him for all he’s done for me. And in part, it’s for my boys – to show them everything I hope and wish they become and to promise them my best efforts in helping them achieve that. I hope this post can fill all those goals.
Before I get started, I’d like to give a few disclaimers. This presentation of my thoughts and feelings toward fatherhood is in no way comprehensive. My thoughts are also not intended to prescribe or define an ideal father or parent. I recognize that each family operates under a distinct set of constraints and as such parents meet the needs of their children using whatever resources are at their disposal. Lastly, this focus on fatherhood does not downplay the importance of motherhood or more generally parenthood. We all know that Chili Heeler keeps the Heeler family on the rails most of the time.
Fatherhood Link to heading
Answering the questions of “what is fatherhhood?” and “what role do I fill as a father?” first requires understanding what it means to raise a kid. In short, I desire that my kids get to experience the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I want them to fully self-actualize and experience all that life has to offer. To put these desires in more concrete terms, I want my kids
- To live in a home where they feel safe
- To have access to proper nutrition and healthcare
- To feel seen, understood and loved in their home
- To experience happiness, joy and a care-free childhood
- To feel supported in their interests and hobbies
- To become upstanding citizens
- To receive a comprehensive, hands-on and well-rounded education
- To develop marketable skills
- To become financially stable
- To become emotionally independent
- To experience love and companionship
- To develop a deep sense of gratitude
- To become the masters of their future
- To become better fathers than I am
I don’t think any of these should come as a surprise nor as a particularly unique point of view. I believe most parents desire the same things for their children. As a father, I see it as my responsibility to provide as many of these points as I can. You could distill my view of fatherhood as a “providing role.” I generally equate provider and father in my mind.
I’ve presented these points more or less in the order I intend to help my kids achieve these goals. When I look back at my own life, I can see how my father has guided me in living these points.
My Dad Link to heading
I remember my dad working long hours as a CPA during tax season so that we could have a home as a kid. I have fond memories of watching my dad chop and haul wood and light fires in our wood stove. My dad and I spent many hours doing projects around the house and he taught me many life skills during my formative years.
Periodically throughout my childhood, my dad served as scoutmaster over my troop.2 In this environment, he taught me citizenship, “scout skills” and the joy of achieving goals.
My dad taught me the value of money. Sometimes, that meant driving me to Wal-Mart to buy my first Timex watch after shoveling snow all day. Sometimes, that meant talking to me about the cost of education and encouraging me to get scholarships. Always, that meant helping me do my taxes.
My father’s acute perception of my skills opened many opportunities for me. I received a handful of jobs and internships due to my father’s influence. Sometimes these jobs developed deep skills and knowledge leading eventually to my engineering expertise. Sometimes these jobs showed me what a life of manual labor could be like.3
As I entered my junior year of high school, my dad joked “now, I can’t help you with your homework anymore,” implying that my STEM skills were beginning to pass his own. He always encouraged me to give my education my best efforts telling me that the opportunities were “mine to lose” and that I had already achieved great things if I would just stay on the course. This culminated in my graduating as valedictorian of E.C. Glass in 2011. Although I no longer think much about the moment I was announced as valedictorian, I often contemplate those long conversations we’d have regarding the topic. We’d contemplate my future and my dad would encourage me to continue to give my best in those final weeks of high-school.
In the following years as I pursued my education, got married and started a family, my dad has served as a confidant and guide. He’s guided me to make great decisions, hearing all my scattered thoughts and providing effective advice in the correct moment. In everything, he’s encouraged me to take the leap when I may have lacked confidence in myself and my own abilities. He’s taught me some of what it means to be a father myself. My father wasn’t and isn’t perfect, but I’m glad I got to grow up with him as my dad and I’m glad for all he has provided for me. For all of this, I’m inclined to thank “the founder of the feast.”4
Me as a father Link to heading
A key insight I’ve had regarding this list is that the goals toward the end of the list are the skills that enable you to begin the list of the next generation. There is natural coupling between
- Achieving financial stability -> Providing a home where children feel safe
- Achieving emotional independence -> Providing a home where children feel seen and understood
For me, the requirement to provide for my children has served to develop the skills in myself. In other words, to be the father I needed to become, I had to become better myself.5
When Harvey was born, I was in my first year of graduate school. We were far from being financially stable. Just a year prior, Brianna and I had been living in a basement, eating hot dogs and turning the heat down to save for a car since I had crashed our ‘91 Subaru Legacy. Honestly, we were a bit crazy to have our first kid in these conditions.
I’ll always recall that something changed in me the day Harvey was born. When he took his first breath and screamed his lungs out, I cried tears of joy.6 There is something deeply moving about looking into the eyes of a helpless baby and knowing that you’re on the hook for most everything that child needs for the next two decades.
Having Harvey changed everything for me. I was no longer satisfied with the status-quo of how I was living my life. He needed me and I knew that. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much I needed him.
Lots has changed in the last 5 years. So much has changed that it’s difficult for me to fully imagine the life I lived 5 years ago as a poor graduate student at BYU. Every move, every job change, and every large decision has ultimately served to help me become a better provider for my familiy. Even goals regarding health have ultimately come down to my desire to be able to engage with and be there for my kids.
To date, I’m probably the best incarnation of myself that has existed during my 30 years on earth and that only begins to qualify me as a good father. Fortunately, I’ve succeeded in providing the 2-3 levels of Maslow’s needs.
I hope to be able to provide even more in the next 250 weeks as a father and become the father that my kids need.
I’ll finish my thoughts here with some open letters to my kids. I hope to preserve a memory of this time for both them and I to look back to over the next years.
To Harvey Link to heading
You turn 5 this week. It’s crazy how quickly the past 5 years have gone. I remember carrying you out of the hospital and thinking “they’re going to just let us keep him!?”
I’m impressed with the little social guy you’ve grown to be. I’m glad you’ve made so many friends throughout your short life. I’m further impressed with your ability to talk to adults, like the time you asked Matt “what’s in there; got any toys?”
You’re absolutely crazy at this age. You run around playing and jumping and shouting as any kid your age would. I can tell you have lots of thoughts running through your mind and you’re beginning to connect different concepts. This is really exciting to see as your dad.
Over the next few years, I’d encourage you to find moments to slow down and think deeply about things. Upon trying something new (and perhaps failing) take a deep breath, slow down your heart and try again. You’ll learn by avoiding the initial emotional reaction to dissapointment, you open yourself up to achieve success on the 2nd, 3rd of 100th time. Know that you’ve never failed until you throw in the towel.
I hope I can connect with you more as your dad in these next 5 years. Establishing my career and finishing my education has taken a lot of time. I hope that I can learn to see things from your eyes and give you the skills to overcome the obstacles you’ll face. I hope we develop hobbies together and hope you can teach me to relax and have fun like a kid.
I love Harv. Happy 5th Birthday!
To Xander Link to heading
You turn 3 next month. Since the day we found out we were bringing you into this world, you’ve surprised me. You arrived quick on the day you were born and I’ve been happy to have you as the youngest member of our family.
Your command of language is incredible. At 18 months you started talking and you haven’t slowed down. At only 3 years old, you’re putting together complex sentences and expressing your insights about the world. You also have worked very hard on escaping the “COVID baby” phase. I’m glad that despite staying inside and socially distanced your first two years of life, you’ve learned to make friends and play with others.
You get your craziness from your brother. You jump and stomp and shout when he’s around, but when you’re on your own I can tell you have deeper thoughts. It’s been very exciting recently to see you express those deep thoughts. You’re going to be a thinker just like I am and I can’t wait to have deep midnight conversations with you as you grow up.
Over the next few years, I’d encourage you to continue putting yourself out there and step from beyond your brother’s shadow. I hope the nascent personality you’ve begun to show grows and I get to really know you. I hope you learn a lot in school and begin your lifelong learning journey.
I hope to spend more time with you after I finish Georgia Tech this year. You’ve spent a lot of 1:1 time with your mom since you were born but we haven’t spent as much time together.
I love you my Xan-Man. Happy 3rd Birthday.
If you’ve never watched Bluey, do yourself a favor and watch a few episode of this wholesome show. ↩︎
Yes, this was also his hobby. It wasn’t all work for him ;) ↩︎
I spent a summer in Agricola, VA building a barbed-wire fence. That summer, I learned the pastoral life wasn’t one I wanted to live. ↩︎
In my own self-actualization, I’m probably somewhere around the bullet points “develop a deep sense of gratitude,” so I hope the preceeding paragraphs reflect my desire to develop that skill. ↩︎
I’m not the first to express this idea. My father commonly talks about how “I made him a dad 30 years ago” and how that encouraged him to pass the CPA exams. ↩︎
For some reason, this is a big deal for me. Since leaving my childhoom home, I’ve actually shed tears only 3 times in 12 years. ↩︎