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The First 15 Years
Rather than link up the 100s of articles I’ve written on parenthood, I am going to create long form articles with extracts from my writing.
These tips work:
For me as a father
For my marriage as a husband
For my children as developing individuals
Ultimately, each of us makes a choice.
WHO do I want to be?
Feb 2012: Daughter 3, Infant Son, Wife Pregnant
I have two book recommendations that helped pull my thoughts together on parenting: How to Love by Livingston; and Beyond Religion by the Dalai Lama. Neither of these books is a how-to-manual for parenting.
The books helped me figure out the sort of father/husband I wanted to be. My longest term friend told me that I'd make a good dad because it will be OK when my kids find out who I really am. I enjoyed the statement but didn't understand it until six years later.
As a baby, my daughter didn't challenge my identity. With my wife, a part-time nanny and family available - our first child represented a scheduling challenge (for Dad). Create space, ensure you get enough sleep and life can roll along, pretty much, as before.
In many dual-career households, you could parenting becomes a scheduling challenge. Daycare across the week, creche at the gym for workouts, babysitting coverage across the weekend - all designed to create space for mom/dad to live their pre-kid lives. Now that I'm on the inside, I understand why many parents go down that route.
Here are some principles that have been guiding me:
Like your marriage, your parenting style only needs to work for you. Over the last year, I considered, "Who is Dad?" I'm fortunate to have shifted away from an identity as an elite athlete before my daughter arrived. For me, the constrained years of early fatherhood are incompatible with elite performance.
TIP: If your spouse tends towards anger (or any anti-social behaviors) then the constraints of parenthood will enhance this aspect of their personality.
Stress makes us more of what we are
Don’t like what you discover? Change it.
We are free to change at any moment
The media, and our in-built sentimentality, are poor roadmaps for parenting decisions. The books I recommend are about healthy love and secular ethics. Livingston also discusses people we don't want in our lives. Love and ethics are rarely discussed in Western education, but essential for young people to navigate their lives.
TIP: I have a recurring sentimentality that the family should sit around in a loving circle and sing Kumbaya. The media-driven ideal of a perfect family distracts me from being an effective parent inside a functional family.
My sentimental instincts can make me miserable. I’m best 1-on-1 in nature. What’s your best environment?
You can't do it all. In my coaching business, I remind athletes about choices and tradeoffs. From the time your first-born turns two until your final child enters first grade, dad is going to be constrained. That's 2010-2018 for me (42 to 50 years old) and over a decade for my wife (mom's life changes from conception).
I got this spot on! Then the pandemic hit. 2022, with our youngest 9/10 and the kids trained up during lockdown. I’m getting much more self-directed time.
The young family "constraint" will be determined by the role that you choose to have in your kids' lives, as well as your choice in spouse.
I'd been on the planet for 40 years when my daughter was born and had failed to come across clear writing on this constraint! My wife and I are glad we waited but I was an accident, rather than foresight.
I'm changing my life to embrace the realities of fatherhood.
As always, I approach the issue via questions that are used to guide actions, and what I decide not-to-do.
#1 - Am I going to have a role? While I was figuring out the sort of parent I wanted to be, there were days where I considered (briefly, very briefly) checking out. I certainly understand why many parents find themselves overwhelmed, or uninterested, in the job.
#2 - If I am going to have a role then how to build trust? Just like all areas of my life: clarity, reliability and love - built by shared experiences over time.
The relationship we build with our young children sets the basis for our capacity to guide them through their school years and into young adulthood.
#3 - Why am I doing this? When I gave myself freedom of occupation in my 30s, I didn't choose to open a preschool. For personal sanity, my role is going to be limited but consistent and material.
#4 - What am I good at? In Hawaii, once a week, I spent the day with my daughter. For my daughter, Daddy Day was about getting ice cream after nap (that's how she describes it). For me, it was a chance for conversations about the world with a three-year old. I've found one thing where I can be exceptional - I'm looking for others.
TIP: I suspect that the greatest value to me, as a parent, may be minimizing regret - our ability to impact situations is consistently overstated. Regret often stands out when my friends talk about their parenting experiences.
Quote from a parent in her 60s, "my relationship with my kids is mixed but I know, in my heart, that I did my best."
April 2012: Clearing the Decks
My ever expanding family acts as a catalyst to help me focus on:
My goals for the core aspects of my life (marriage, kids, professional, self)
My desired outcome when faced with challenging situations
Saying no to myself, and others, to create space to achieve goals and outcomes
Before I was married, my capacity to strip away and create a sole focus served me well. It was easy for me to create long periods of serenity in my life. With my life filling up with dependents, periods of serenity have become more valuable.
Over the winter, I asked myself what I could give up to create space. I'm going to share my list but the real value is knowing your own list.
Over the last year, the following have gone:
Sold my most visible self-indulgence, my SportsMobile
Cleared out my race schedule so I could spend more time with my athletic friends - one of the ironies of racing is how little time we spend with our buddies on the course
Ditched running so that I could ride more - it's more enjoyable to be a superior masters cyclist than an undertrained triathlete. Solo rides are serene and cycling is my main interaction with my buddies.
Invited a friend to partner with the operations of a company that I founded - I realized my mission is writing and teaching, rather than admin and financial return.
Cleared half of my personal stuff - this was surprisingly easy, which may mean that it's time to do another 50% reduction!
Facebook - I took a break in March and I don't think it's coming back.
FB came back, then left again. Too. Much. Drama.
Everything that I gave up had value to me. Most importantly, it's difficult to value serenity, lack of clutter and time to think. So the payoff is difficult to see immediately. Six months in, we've made real progress.
The key moment, that caused me to accelerate change, was the realization that I could live with being far less externally successful, so long as I was internally successful.
What can you give up to create the life you desire?
March 2014: We were “in it” with a 5yo, a 2 yo and a 1 yo
Best advice from the smart women (and one man) that have been helping me navigate fatherhood.
Roll With It - my 30 years of writing are a shrine to over thinking.
Don't Postpone Joy - it's OK to have fun, love each other and enjoy time together - this balances the inevitable periods of difficulty as we learn to live together.
Success Is Love - I have friends that have become successful adults despite growing up in crazy home environments. Across the insanity of their home lives was a deep understanding that they were loved.
Don't Act on Anger - it's easy to get caught in a cycle of being angry at my anger. It's a lot more useful to make a habit of not acting on negative emotions. Deciding that I don't yell, don't hit, don't respond... creates a habit that gets ingrained over time.
Balance life with mindfulness - the crazier my home life becomes, the more valuable my mindfulness practices become. I need to take responsibility for creating space in my schedule, serenity in my mind and removing unnecessary sources of noise. This keeps me off autopilot, when I am at risk of acting on anger or creating a habit of self-pity and misery.
See Me Beautiful - there are times when it's easier for me to see the beauty in kittens, puppies and nature than my kids. I was given a copy of this slogan and stuck it beside two favorite pictures of my kids. I see the slogan many times a day. When I see the beauty in my kids (and my wife) the love flows naturally, without effort.
Share Adventure with the one's you love. Create memories of sharing joy.
August 2014: My Greatest Success As a Father is Something My Kids Will Never See, Breaking A Multigenerational Chain
The concept, of a continuous chain, is a teaching in Eastern Philosophy. One aspect is we do good works when we DON'T pass along the pain we receive from another person. The gift of "not passing" is something that I practice at home.
A few years back, I made a decision to leave a group of friends rather than engage them over their cruelty of their language to each other.
I thought it would be more productive for me to change everyone's names and write blog posts instead...
I'm laughing as I type that because it's true. We all dig in when confronted directly.
Tips that help me be part of the solution for friends and family.
Statute of Emotional Limitations - I got this from Gordon Livingston. He recommends deciding on a statute of limitations for our childhoods. When we turn 25, 35, 45, 65 or 75... ...we decide that we've grown up and we're leaving it behind. it's never too late to decide that you've grown beyond the slights of the past.
Young kids are fantastic teachers of this point. A baby holds nothing from her past. Even my three-year old, doesn't retain emotion for more than a couple minutes. It's a wonderful way to be and somewhat confusing to a father (me) that's prone to holding a grudge.
Making time - a useful coping strategy if you're prone to self-pity.
A favorite book is Tuesday's With Morrie - Morrie is living with ALS and one of his coping strategies is to really experience his sadness each morning. Being completely sad for a few minutes enables him to live the rest of his day.
Recognizing Limits - there's some stuff from my past that I might never get past. Some relationships that might never get sorted. Some episodes that will tag along for what remains of my life. I have a choice to own that reality.
Going further, in cases of abuse and trauma, the magnitude of the stress might have permanently rewired how we respond to certain situations. In my own case, just-the-right-mix can knock me off kilter.
As a result, I need to forgive myself for falling short of the idealized image in my head. Take fatherhood, at the end of a challenging shift with my kids, I might never be Christ-like, or tap my Buddha-nature, or whatever I happen to be shooting for at the time.
To deal with my shortcomings, it helps to think about the chain that led to me and understand that I'm going to leave a few loose ends when my time is done.
My choice was to focus on my duty to the present, my wife and my unique role in the lives of my children.
March 2015: 2 yo, 3 yo and 6 yo
I'm told that 2010-2013 were often awful. I wouldn't know for sure because I have ZERO memory. It's amazing. Aside from the photos, the early years of my kids are gone.
My wife carries emotional trauma from these years and will flashback when something triggers her. She tells me it's a really unpleasant sensation.
The memory I have is wondering why I couldn't transcend my daughter. I used to carry around the difficulties of parenthood. Even when I was away from her, I would hold the difficulties in my mind.
My wife's the same way - both with her 2010-2013 experience of our daughter as well as with her own childhood memories.
I suspect we're all prone to carrying around the past.
This might help you let go of the past.
The first step in letting go of an image isn't letting go, snapping out of it, or moving on...
...my mind doesn't work that way.
Whether you're coping with an unpleasant emotion, an addiction or a compulsion...
...far better to give your mind something to grab on to.
Decide on a series of images that you can feel in your body. The feeling you're looking for is one that mimics joy and love - in my case the sensation in an opening of my heart.
I walk in the forest and contemplate my favorite images.
When I started, I struggled to generate the feelings with the images of my daughter. I kept coming back to images of pain and frustration.
Then, I got the idea to start with images of my son and transfer the feelings over to my daughter.
It didn't work well at first but I stuck with it.
I also spent a lot of time with the source of my discomfort.
A very old teaching => moving towards discomfort is the best way to release it
...and my daughter grew up
...and I got better at it
...and I realized that what I was doing was training my mind to be able to conjure up a sensation, a feeling, an emotion
...that was different to my prior habits of anger and frustration
The difficult moments remained challenging but I was no longer carrying them around with me.
It was a form of freedom.
I found myself laughing more often and I had a bit more patience, which can be VERY useful when dealing with a cranky three-year old!
Anyhow, if you find seeking dominance to be an ineffective strategy then I hope you remember this post.
Replace your suffering by thinking about things that make you smile.
October 2016: When You’re Struggling With A Family Member
After eight years, I've come to the realization that my limitations are OK and I pay attention to them.
When I am struggling with someone then it's a sign that I'm spending too much time with them. So, it's better for me, and them, if I stay under the irritation threshold.
Related, if your prone to acting on anger then stay well back from the edge.
One of our family values is, “All family is optional.” It reduces resentment before it has a chance to build to the breaking point.
March 2019: Great Advice From The Smartest Dad I Know
Recently, I took advice from a father, who’s been at it for twenty years.
On the subject of family governance, he is the most believable person I know. So, I was listening carefully when he shared ideas about what he wished he knew.
No judged sports
No phones, alone, in the bedroom
Read: iGen by Twenge and Coddling of the American Mind
Optimize your family's life for the family, do not create a series of "micro lives" for the individuals
Schools, Activities, Geography, Holiday time => make it work together.
I know a lot of readers have kids even younger than mine (6, 7 and 10).
Somewhere between six and twelve, your family rules are going to get set
There's a lot of pain involved (for everyone) if you wait until high school to change direction.
Choose wisely and be the brand.
I owe my friend more than he’ll ever know. A short coversation with him, resulted in superior choices. Social media, my decision to stop drinking and my decision to set a good example in person.
September 2019: Our youngest is about to turn 7, a big shift begins
I have a quirk => I "see" and "feel" the risk of future regret.
Due to my quirk, I will usually choose the path of least regret, regardless of short-term pain.
My thinking went like this... having been through one divorce, is my avoidance strategy moving my marriage towards where I would like it to go?
And this... you know, my friends tell me that parents have very little impact on their kids, even if that's true... Do I want to spend the last twenty years of my life wondering if the kids would have had a better outcome with me around?
Once I re-framed, the choice was obvious.
A key parenting principle:
if you show interest in something I enjoy then I will reward you with time and attention
In offering myself to my family, I seek to offer my best self:
We do it their way - their speed - their level of competence.
I don't teach, coach or instruct. We simply spend time together.
We do the activity one-on-one.
My primary goal is to establish the link between:
fun - Dad - camping
fun - Dad - skiing
fun - Dad - biking
fun - Dad - hiking
No agenda with regard to pace, duration and difficulty. No agenda!
Keep the trip short. The pictures in this blog are from an 18-hour mid-week camping trip. As another example, our youngest has precious memories of skiing with me => initially, the skiing took less time than the driving!
Train before the training. The world gets a better version of me if I've done a workout first.
So if you're feeling bummed, or avoiding life altogether, then get out of the house and start making the association between fun and what you like to do.
As I tell Axel in the backcountry...
It's self-rescue or sit down and die.
By the way, if you look deeper then you will see the association of "fun" is really between you and your kid.
...or you and your spouse.
July 2020: Under duress, people’s negative childhood experiences leak out
Here's a technique I use to motivate myself to give extra effort to my kids' childhood.
Listen to people talk about the way they see the world.
When we're under stress, and we're all under stress right now, our deepest mental habits leak out. When it comes to deeply felt emotions, not much is deeper than negative childhood experiences.
So when you hear someone say things like: nobody likes me, I'm treated very unfairly...
...it is a reminder that our actions will endure long after we are gone.
I can’t fix someone else’s situation. I can do what’s right for my family.
March 2021: Setting Priorities
The moms who interact with our family (pediatricians, teachers, coaches and tutors) notice our kids have a different attitude towards work.
Recently, my wife was asked "How do you do it?"
She explained it's a mixture of leading by example, high standards and routine.
To gain useful insight for you, I took her answer and flipped it.
What's different about my household?
How does our approach vary from what's used by others?
For 25 years, I have acted on this belief...
Only rarely will the biggest problem in my life coincide with what I need to be doing.
Problems, toxic relationships, habits of self-harm - intractable issues and people.
Let them go.
Stalkers, trolls and neurotics - I ghost without seeking to prove I am right, without seeking to justify my actions, without seeking to turn their community against them.
COVID and things I do not control - eliminate their ability to cause further harm.
This saves energy and frees my mind.
I have another quirk.
I enjoy inconveniencing myself to do what I think is right.
Now, the sensation inside of me is not enjoyment. In fact, I spend a lot of time feeling pissed off.
However, I've been around long enough to know there is a hidden payoff in every repeated action. Perhaps, I'm hooked on being true to myself. Frankly, I don't know the cause. I do know it's useful.
I believe both of the above are trainable.
If you're prone to fixating on problems then you need to let it go.
Letting go is what's going to help you get past the distractions preventing you from consistently moving your life forward.
I'll end with an observation on 360-degree fatherhood. It's how I choose friends, mentors and coaches.
Spend time sharing positive experiences with exemplars, while they sustain their good habits.
Me to my spouse. My spouse to me.
Me to my kids. My kids to me.
Let the best of others rub off on you.
January 2022: Final Words, for now
Focus on avoiding the big mistakes.
Don't act on anger => easier than... be patient all the time
Focus on de-escalation => easier than... seeking to fix whatever seems to be the problem
Wait until the energy leaves the situation => better than... heated engagement
Schedule time together => better than... expecting my family to serve me
Avoid those who bring out the worst in me
Place myself in my best environment, especially with those I love
Lots of guys, and it is mainly guys, get themselves into unnecessary trouble with regards to sex. Tactics that have proven the test of time. I encourage these in my son...
Strength & Endurance Training - useful for anger modification. Like everything, I tend to over-do-it.
Consistently work out and you'll make less mistakes. Just seems to work.
As a young man, I used (extreme) endurance training. At 53, extreme fatigue removes too many of the filters I use to manage my family life.
About those filers... I've come to realize that the greatest risk my family faces isn't some external shock. It's me. Specifically, the personality traits that I burnt off in my 30s will resurface and screw up an enviable situation.
Life gives each of us opportunities to start fresh, take parenthood. Not easy, often not much fun... very rewarding in hindsight.
My kids have an experience of me that starts in my mid-40s. I love what they see in me. Fatherhood is a reminder that we can change, for the better, at any stage of our lives.
Pick a habit, learned young, that might be useful NOT to pass along.
Break the chain.
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