Contrary to literal and obvious definition, dads aren’t made during those unforgettable moments in which their offspring first see the blinding light of this world. Dads aren’t made when they watch their children take that first gulp of air, when they experience that first heart-melting cry, or when they first get to hold their seemingly breakable infants in their suddenly massive arms.
Dads aren’t made when their children are growing and developing inside the womb, and they aren’t made when their children are first conceived.
The reality is that dads are made much sooner than any of that. Dads are made long before any pregnancy, long before any marriage, engagement, relationship, or even first encounter with their children’s mother. They are made before the time of colleagues, before roommates, before college, and before totality of life as an adult.
In reality, the dad that each man will be is made during his entire childhood and throughout his adolescence.
He is made in those first moments of his life when he experiences, or doesn’t experience, loving touch. He is made as an infant, as he looks eagerly into the eyes of parents who are beckoning him to walk. He is made as a toddler, sitting on the laps of those he loves the most, listening to stories and falling asleep to the raspy voices of his sleep-deprived parents.
He is made in his first days at school, both as he leaves the constant companionship of his guardians and as he encounters a new world filled with friends, peers, and teachers. He is made on the playground during school recess. He is made in the lunchroom as he starts making some of his first personal choices such as selecting his own food and making trades with his classmates. He is made in the hours after he returns home each afternoon, as well as by the people that are there (or not there) when he does.
He is made in every awkward moment as an early adolescent. He’s made by the acne, the pubescence, and the sudden emotional, physical, and sexual urges he’s never felt before. He is made by the advice, or lack of advice, that he is given to survive those often stressful, self-conscious, and difficult years.
He is made in middle school and high school by his hobbies, his activities, and his many life’s undertakings. He is made by the level of his popularity, the degree to which he secludes himself, his bullying of others, or his moments as a bullied child. He’s made with every school event, sporting event, school play, concert, and extracurricular activity of which he gets to be a part both as a participant and as a spectator.
He is made in the individual instances in which he impulsively tests his independence, both minor and major. He’s made in the lying, the cheating, the skipping school, the sexual encounters, the drugs, the pornography, or by his discipline and ability to refrain from any or all of it.
He is made in the moments in which he inevitably fails, and he is made in the aftermath and consequences which inevitably follow each and every time that he does.
He is made by the empathy and the compassion of those who surround him, and he is made by the gossip, the anger, and the vindictiveness that he sees displayed toward others.
As he grows from a child into a young-man, he’s suddenly and drastically shaped by the young-women with whom he makes his friends and with whom he develops his baby-faced romances. He is shaped with every kiss, every hug, every moment of nervousness, every rejection, every triumph, and every heartbreak that he’ll experience in his youth.
The dad that he will be is made by his teachers, the media, his youth advisors, his religious leaders, and the view of the world that he is given by each and every one of them.
He is impressively and indisputably made by his mother, or lack thereof. He is made by her words and by her actions. He is made by her ability and effort to nurture or in her inability to care and guide. He is made by her ability to demonstrate healthy gender roles as much as by any unhealthy or incorrect capacity to validate her own worth and character.
He is made by watching how she is treated, how she reacts to injustice, how she responds to his father, and how she loves men. He is made as she is dipped beneath the mistletoe for a kiss as much as he’s made as she is left to clean up the kitchen every night on her own.
He is made with each touch of her motherly hands. He is made with each whisper of encouragement that she sends his way. He is made from each bitter scolding that breaks the plane of her lips.
And as important and influential as his mother is in regards to the dad he will one day be, he is most dominantly made by the influence and effect that just one man has and will always have on his life.
He is made in the moments that his father is there, and he is made in the moments that his father is not.
If his father is part of his life, he is made by every communication, both verbal and silent, that his father offers. He is made in every reaction, positive or negative, that comes after every action he himself takes. He is made in every special and magical moment with his dad, and he’s made in every output of discipline or negativity.
He is made on the days that his father chooses to give up anything else and spend quality time with him. He’s made over games of catch in the backyard, fishing excursions, and camping trips on the weekends. He’s made in the moments in which his father helps him with his homework, and he’s made in the moments in which he gets happily lost while working together with his father on an exciting project.
He’s also made in the moments in which his father chooses to watch his favorite television shows or sports games instead. As much as he is made on the trips, the vacations, and the outings with his father, he’s made in the long spans without them. The time he spends with his dad creates the dad within him more than any other factor or force. For good or for bad. For better or for worse.
He’s made in the very moments he sees his dad respond to every difficult thing life inevitably will throw his way. He’s made in the moments when his dad chooses to wallow in self-misery, and he’s made in the moments when his dad refuses to be defined by his failures.
If his father was not part of his life, he is made by every moment that he knew his father should have been there. He is made every time he looks into his mother’s eyes wishing that the man who was once there beside her could still be there. He is made every time he successfully achieves something and every time he devastatingly fails at something, followed by looking up and always meeting the gaze of others instead.
And then one day, whether his father was there or not, when that boy becomes a man and the future dad inside of him has officially been made, he packs up, he leaves home, and he does something significant.
He starts to really digest his upbringing. He begins really looking at what was right with it and what wasn’t right with it. He experiments and he tests the waters of morality, decency, and ethics. He takes a hearty look at what he’s always been taught and decides whether or not those beliefs are worth holding onto.
In the process, he vocally and internally declares everything he currently sees that defines him as a man and as a person. At this point, he knows everything.
Throughout the rest of his life, but especially at this stage, he makes many unforeseen mistakes, and he learns two things each time he does.
First, he learns what he actually believes, and he learns what he no longer believes. He learns that what he originally decided and thought he believed when he first left home will often change with time or perspective. He learns that sometimes his parents, his leaders, his friends, or his peers were right in what they dished out to him in his earlier life. And, he learns that sometimes they were wrong.
Second, he learns that life isn’t as black and white as he originally assumed it to be. He learns that there are more complexities, more complications, and more intricacies to adulthood than he ever imagined. Inevitably, and in varying amounts of time, each man rewinds the clock and begins to appreciate the better and more powerful things that happened in his upbringing, and he latches onto and assigns those things as a part of who he is and who he will always try to be.
And somewhere in this stage of his life, he meets a woman. Then, seemingly quicker than a single beat of the heart, life happens and he finds himself holding his arms out, ready, hesitant, and eager to hold his child for the first time.
He takes the child more tenderly than should be possible, and as he sees those tiny fingers wrapped around his own for the first time, he suddenly realizes that everything he thought he knew is no more concrete than quicksand. He realizes that he knows almost nothing.
Somewhat ironically, when a father first holds his infant, he becomes an infant himself. He is given a clean slate, he must learn everything as if from the beginning, and he must learn to rely on much of the expertise and life experiences of others that before he had ignored, pushed aside, felt was unnecessary, or even scoffed at.
It is only then that a man really has the book of his life opened before him. It is only then that he will get to see which negative traits carried through from his childhood and which negative traits he is already strong enough not to repeat. It is only then that he will get to see which things his parents did that were truly remarkable, and he’ll get to see which of those remarkable things he himself will struggle with as a father. It is only after the first parts of his life are done and a child’s pupils try to focus on him for the first time that he gets to mold, alter, and dissect that reality into a finished work of art.
He suddenly sees life and parenting in a light that couldn’t possibly exist for him before. It doesn’t take long at all for him to realize that everything he’s experienced with his parents, his peers, his teachers, the media, and everyone else in his life has shaped him so strongly that if he wants any say in how he fathers at all, he’ll have to take a proactive and strong-willed approach to it. An approach that he never fully dreamed he’d have to take.
In essence, he swiftly comes to understand that being a good dad, and being a real dad, is not something that just happens. It is a path that is very deliberately chosen by men who very deliberately plan to be good, real dads.
Every father comes to this realization. And every father either makes the choice or he doesn’t.
You must make that choice. You must find the satisfaction in going down the path of fatherhood that takes extra work and exorbitant yet fulfilling amounts of diligence. You must cinch up your belt, tuck-in in your shirt, puff-out your chest, and declare to the world that you’re going to be the best damn dad to ever walk this planet’s terrain.
You must. Because your child is astonishing and incredible. Your child deserves no less than a dad who will do that.
And then, once you’ve made that decision… Start running. And don’t look back.
If you missed it and would like to read this (or other) chapters of The Real Dad Rules, get your copy today! It is available to order on Amazon as a paperback, Kindle, iBook, Nook, or Lulu (hardcover). Get it for yourself. Get it for your kids. Give it as a gift. Just get it, and get in on the conversation!
Today’s post is the first chapter in a free read-along of my new book The Real Dad Rules (which will go on through February of next year). While I wrote this book to everyday dads (from an everyday dad), I believe that its beautiful and empowering message can be applied to and appreciated by mothers and fathers alike.