When I became a father for the first time, a lot of people (who didn’t have kids) asked me things like “What’s it like being a father?” and “Did becoming a dad change you?”
In response to the first question, “what’s it like being a father?”, I found it hard to answer as I had no point of reference to compare the experience to. I always knew that I’d become a dad at some point – I wanted to have children and raise a family in the future, but I never really built it up in my head beyond that. The only thing I thought about was that I wanted to be a kick-ass dad (which I’d work out when the time came), but other than that I didn’t really have anything to compare it to, experience or expectation-wise.
In trying to come with a response to the question, I tried to imagine explaining what becoming a dad was like to my younger self. Pre-fatherhood Ben had no reference point for the joy, the emotion, the wonder and amazement, and the unconditional love that I felt when holding my daughter for the first time. He hadn’t experienced anything like the vulnerability and responsibility for something so fragile, the sudden urge to protect your child at all costs, the worry and anxiety of providing for her and learning how to parent on the fly, and trying to work out how to set an example while walking beside her as she grows. How could I explain to him that yeah, the spare time you used to have to do all those things you used to do like training, gaming etc. pretty much goes down the drain, and even when you do get time to do those things you’re operating in zombie mode, running on bugger all sleep…but that every smile, hug and cuddle, new word, shared experience with your daughter, makes it all worth it and then some?
Sure, I just used a bunch of words that I could have used to describe becoming a dad to my younger self, but while he could try to comprehend them conceptually, I just couldn’t see how he’d truly understand how it felt. So after reflecting on the ‘before and after’ experience of becoming a father, the best way I can sum it up is to paraphrase Morpheus as he describes The Matrix to Neo:
“Unfortunately, no one can be told what being a father is like…you have to experience it for yourself.”
Yep, that’s my lame cop-out – but to be honest, I can’t truly give an answer that I feel would do the experience justice. When you become a parent, you’ll get it better than I could ever explain.
As for the second question, “Did becoming a father change you?” I always felt this was a bit of a weird question. How was it supposed to change me? Yes, the birth of my daughter was definitely a life changing event, as well as adding father to all the other aspects of my identity. But did it change me as a person? Did it change the core of who I am? Did it affect every aspect of me as a person, or were there certain things that changed where other aspects of me didn’t?
Clearly it didn’t affect my tendency to over-think things, but as I thought about how I had changed and how I hadn’t, I realised that I was still basically the same person – I still had my weird sense of humour, still retained my interest in things like video games and comics, I still loved breaking and hip hop culture (although my ability to spend time on things like this was greatly reduced), and I still had a chocolate obsession that was threatening to push me past the 90 kg weight class for the first time in my life (edit: it did :-/). So pre-dad-Ben was still present and accounted for in new-dad-Ben.
At the same time, there were definitely additions to who I was in becoming a father. It wasn’t so much changing who I was at the core of my being, but more like adding another dimension to myself that strengthened and improved on my being as a whole. Becoming a father didn’t so much change me as augment me, kind of like…
…well, kind of like putting on some sort of powerful exoskeleton.
That’s right. Becoming a Dad for me was like becoming Iron Man.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Marvel Comics character (or at least the Marvel Cinematic Universe version, and if so stop reading this and go watch it right now), billionaire genius playboy (and not quite yet philanthropist) weapons manufacturer Tony Stark constructs a weaponised robotic suit of armor to help him escape capture by terrorists after they seriously wound and kidnap him so he can build weapons of mass destruction for them. After escaping their clutches, he refines his armor and uses constantly upgrading versions of it to fight evil doers as Iron Man.
So here’s how I saw my journey becoming a father, through the process of Tony Stark developing his Iron Man armor:
Iron Man Armor MK I – Enter the Dad
Becoming a dad for the first time reminds me of Tony Stark’s very first armor, the Mark I. It’s new, experimental, hastily cobbled together on the spot with whatever was available at the time, based on your prior knowledge but doesn’t necessarily mean it’s fit for purpose for this new role you’re stepping into. It’s a lot of trial and error, and half the time you don’t know what the heck you’re doing, but you stumble on, doing the best you can, and often surprising yourself with what you’re able to do given you’ve been on the job such a short time. It’s nowhere near perfect, but you can somehow make it work and get the job done.
Iron Man Armor MK II – Getting the hang of this…
Soon, you start finding your feet – or, to use the analogy building the refined MK II armor, finding your robotic jet thruster boots.
You begin to look more comfortable in your role as a dad, more ‘streamlined’, and you lose the clumsy lost look you had in the early stages of MK I. Things are getting a bit easier: you work out the routines, start to understand your child a bit better, and realise ‘hey, I can actually do this!’
However, as you’ll soon find out throughout your years as a father (saying this from my vast experience with a three-year-old!), the skills and knowledge you’ve gained will quickly become insufficient as your child evolves and adapts, and enters a new phase of abilities and challenges to test your newfound confidence.
Iron Man Armor MK III – You think you can change it up on me? I got this!
The only way to combat your child’s constantly changing needs, abilities and challenges is to adapt and learn new skills and abilities in response. Much like Tony Stark’s constant progression in developing different suits of armor to adapt to various threats and environments, as you grow and learn as a father you will need to learn new skills and abilities, and develop new knowledge to provide a guiding hand to your ever-evolving child (and that Iron Man MK XL armor will come in handy when Esme starts dating…).
Time out from the Fatherhood Armor
However, as amazing as being a father is, sometimes you do need to take time out of the role and reconnect with the other aspects of your life that make you ‘you’. The balancing act is no easy task, especially as you’re constantly upgrading your parenting skills along with trying to keep all your other responsibilities in play. In Iron Man 2, Tony showed that when you spent too much time in the ‘suit’, things can get a bit crazy…
So…did you actually change?
So after a long and winding analogy to indulge my comic book obsession, we come back to the original question, “Did becoming a father change you?” Yes, being a dad certainly changed the amount of time and focus I spent on other aspects of my life, but I still retained my interest and passion in these areas. My personality and values were largely unchanged, yet entering fatherhood added another dimension to my reality that I couldn’t perceive before. In the immortal Simpsons Episode Treehouse of Horror VI, 3D Homer gained depth and volume to his being, yet he was still at his core the donut-loving man we know and love.
To answer the question: yes, I did change. I ‘changed’ in the sense that I added another element to who I was, another aspect that fit over the top of who I was before. A suit of ‘fatherhood’ armor that didn’t come with instructions but was forgiving enough to work with an inexperienced driver. An armor that (eventually) gave me impressive new parenting abilities but made me work, sweat and shed the odd tear for them. And an armor that would allow me a new way of seeing the world and experiencing things through the life of my daughter. That’s a change that makes me feel like an Iron Dad.