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Five Dads Describe How Fatherhood Changes a Man

From bedtimes to less beach time, and everything in between.

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This is the second installment of The Dad Diaries, a three-part series in which we’ll grill five American men from unique familial situations on the greatest undertaking of their lives: fatherhood. You can view Part One here.

No matter how many diapers you change or IKEA cribs you build, you will never be prepared for fatherhood. It’s not just about learning to keep a child upright and breathing — it’s also about coping with the ways it changes you.

So for the second installment of The Dad Diaries, we’re asking our panel of dads about número uno. What do they miss about life before kids? How much do they sleep? And what was the moment they knew they were turning into their own fathers?

Their answers — like everything involved with being a parent — will surprise you.

Chip H., 36
Los Angeles

Profession: Music Supervisor
Kids: One boy, 2 years old
Marital status: Divorced
Dual income? No

How old were you when you had your first kid? How planned or prepared were you? I was 33 years old. I was planned in terms of having all the necessities. Crib, clothes, a stockpile of diapers. Being prepared myself was an entirely different effort. I don’t think anything prepares you for the realities of becoming a father.

What is one thing you never noticed about the world until you became a dad? How dirty it is! Suddenly, the gutters were more filthy, parks had more litter on the ground. I am sure it was all the same before, I only just started noticing it once my kid was instantly attracted to picking up the filthiest thing in his line of sight.

What is one thing you never noticed about yourself until you became a dad? I was more fearful once I became a father. A lot more anxious. Worried he would run into the corners of a table, or fall down and hurt himself. It takes everything in me not to be a “helicopter parent” and just let him take his falls. I’m always there to pick him up; I never fail at that.

How has your relationship with your partner evolved since having children, for better and/or worse? Ultimately his mother and I did not stay together. This is only for the “worse” if your opinion of what makes a “family” is dated; today I can honestly say that the divorce has made us better parents to our son. We each show up in our own ways, and he’s constantly loved and protected. We are better as co-parents, and I’m convinced he is better for it.

What did you think you were prepared for — as a father — but weren’t? There is a work-life balance that is required as a parent that I thought I was prepared for. Turns out, I wasn’t. In the beginning, I poured myself into work, thinking it was the right thing to do for my child’s well-being. Ultimately, I tipped too far in that direction and felt a disconnect from my family as a result. Thankfully I came to the realization that no amount of money is a substitute for spending time with my child. Sharing a book with him costs very little money.

How has your relationship with your own parents changed since you became a parent? I call my mother all the time now. Sometimes to apologize for any hardships I put her through when I was a mischievous child, but mostly just to confirm what temperature I’m supposed to cook chicken at.

What’s one moment you’ve had with your kid(s) where you realized you were turning into your father? My dad had a tendency to be startled by loud noises. Now I am experiencing the same, and there’s no shortage of opportunities to reaffirm this with a two-year-old.

What financial changes did you make to prepare for (or after having) kids? The big financial change came when I decided to stop freelance-working for a living and commit to a single office job. I could no longer live paycheck-to-paycheck because it was not only me depending on that income. I needed the stability to feel secure as a parent. Saving is still a big challenge, but at least I know where my next paycheck is coming from. Grateful for that.

Is there something you especially miss about your life before kids? Of course! I miss the freedom of having my own schedule. Traveling when I wanted to, not thinking of how I spent my money. Having less responsibility. Find me a parent that disagrees and I’ll find you a liar.

What do you feel is the single biggest compromise you’ve had to make for the benefit of your kids/family? The biggest compromise has probably been where I choose to live so I can stay in close proximity to my son. I do love Los Angeles, but it is difficult to get financially ahead here. I choose to stay here because I can’t bear the thought of being apart from my son, or expecting his mom to raise him on her own. So I settle for having a little less money, but I get a lot more time with him in return. Worth it.

Before vs. after you became a dad, what was your …

Ideal Saturday night? Dinner, a concert and an after party. Now I’ll settle for playing in the park during sunset, home and in bed by 9PM.
Your ideal lazy Sunday? Listening to records, having brunch, riding bikes. Nowadays I still listen to records, but brunch is replaced with doing laundry and riding bikes.
Wakeup time? Then: 8 or 9 AM. Now: I pray for 7 AM. Feel blessed for 6:30AM, but it’s usually 6 AM.
Bedtime? It used to be whenever I felt tired. Now, if I am not asleep by 9PM I know I am going to regret it in the morning.
Perfect vacation? Then: some place new and unfamiliar. Now: I need to know the place down to where the nearest public restroom is.

*****

Nicholas L., 64
Vail, Colorado

Profession: Retired high-school English teacher
Kids: One daughter (34), one son (30)
Marital status: Married 38 years
Dual income? Yes

How old were you when you had your first kid? How planned or prepared were you? 29. I was ready: I had converted a 49-square-foot closet into her own private nursery.

What is one thing you never noticed about the world until you became a dad? How utterly another human being could be so dependent on another.

What is one thing you never noticed about yourself until you became a dad? I knew I was loved, but not this loved.

How has your relationship with your partner evolved since having children, for better and/or worse? I have always believed (in my children’s lifetime, anyway) that the most important thing a father could do for his children is to love their mother.

What did you think you were prepared for — as a father — but weren’t? I thought I might overcome my tendency to be impatient. I’m still not sure how well this worked out.

How did your relationship with your own parents changed after becoming a parent? I only wish they were alive to see how well their grandchildren turned out.

What’s one moment you’ve had with your kid(s) where you realized you were turning into your father? Probably when I faced the fact that I was drinking too much and had to do something about it.

What financial changes did you make to prepare for (or after having) kids? We lived paycheck-to-paycheck and sort of hand-to-mouth. We never needed for anything because I taught English throughout the school year and exterior painted or taught summer school after that.

Is there something you especially miss about your life before kids? Yes … I was still a kid myself.

What do you feel is the single biggest compromise you’ve had to make for the benefit of your kids/family? Raising children takes up all of your time, if you’re really paying attention; however, it’s time well spent.

Before vs. after you became a dad, what was your …

Ideal Saturday night: A nice romantic meal followed by a nice romantic interlude. Same with kids, only the latter was typically interrupted.
Ideal lazy Sunday: Skiing with my friends then apres-ski. This changed dramatically with kids in tow.
Wakeup time: I’ve always been an early riser.
Bedtime: I’ve never been able to stomach nighttime news, so I guess before that.
Perfect vacation: My wife and I made it away for good beach time before the kids were born. But there are no beaches in Colorado, so the mountains became our getaway (which isn’t a bad trade-off).

*****

Gavin L., 42
New York City

Profession: Designer, actor, writer and entrepreneur
Kids: Two — ages 5 and 6
Marital status: Partnered
Dual income? If you can call the inconsistencies of a C-rate acting career and fostering a nascent fashion startup “salaried,” then yes — we are dual-income. My partner’s a conductor. He’s more stably paid than I am.

How old were you when you had your first kid? How planned or prepared were you? 36. I was ready. Plus, going through surrogacy, there was a lot of mental planning for a year in advance. That said, I was in total denial about the realities until we went to register for a bunch of supposedly necessary baby gear at Babies-R-Us. The sheer breadth and depth of stuff we had to consider sent me into a panic.

What is one thing you never noticed about the world until you became a dad? Just how many playgrounds there were around my home. I’d had blinders, to that point.

What is one thing you never noticed about yourself until you became a dad? My lack of tolerance for make-believe play. As an actor, I figured I’d be genius at it. But I loathe it. Also — I didn’t realize I’d have deep instincts about what my kid needed. Just before my first kid’s birth, I started panicking to a friend, “What if I don’t recognize he has a fever? What if I don’t know why he’s crying? What if I feed him something he’s allergic to and I don’t recognize it?” She reached out, squeezed my arm and said, “You’ll know.” And I did.

How has your relationship with your partner evolved since having children, for better and/or worse? It’s a lot more work to re-invest in each other, rather than just float by. Suddenly, weeks have gone by and you stop and look at each other and say, “Oh. Uh — how are you? Let’s just sit and look at each other.” But we’ve also really upped our TV binge-watching game, to the detriment of getting out and enjoying restaurants and nightlife. But who needs that?

Also, I realize I can’t do it myself and I appreciate my partner all the more for picking up the slack when I’m at my wit’s end.

What did you think you were prepared for — as a father — but weren’t? The mind-numbing boredom of spending hours with a toddler.

How has your relationship with your own parents changed since you became a parent? Sadly, both are gone. But having my kids has actually made me less nostalgic for their absence. Kids have filled the gap left by the passing of my parents. And I feel like my parents are with me, manifest in my kids.

What’s one moment you’ve had with your kid(s) where you realized you were turning into your father? All those ‘isms that so naturally come out when I’m pissed: “All I do for you and this is how you thank me?”; “Do you think I’m made of money?”; “If you’ve got room for dessert, you’ve got room for dinner.”

What financial changes did you make to prepare for (or after having) kids? Not nearly enough.

Is there something you especially miss about your life before kids? Being able to eat meals whenever the hell I wanna — especially on vacation.

What do you feel is the single biggest compromise you’ve had to make for the benefit of your kids/family? As an actor, I’ve not been able to take out-of-town jobs. I miss carefree travel, eating a bowl of cereal at 9:30 pm and calling it dinner, or taking airplane trips that aren’t nauseatingly angst-ridden as I wrangle two over-stimulated monkeys in seats next to me. But these were all choices and haven’t hampered my life. I regret that I haven’t shopped for myself in years and my wardrobe is seven years out of date. I also regret that that’s so trite. But I work in fashion, after all.

Before vs. after you became a dad, what was your …

Ideal Saturday night: Before: dinner party with best friends and bottles of wine. After: same thing … but usually with kids melting down and fighting/crying/whining by 9:30, which is a serious buzzkill.
Your ideal lazy Sunday? Before: bottomless mimosa brunches with friends. After: I just want 30 uninterrupted minutes to read the newspaper with marginally palatable coffee. I usually only get the coffee.
Wakeup time? Before: 8:30. After: 6:30
Bedtime? Before: 1 AM. After: Never early enough.
Your main source of transportation? Before: Biking in NYC. After: generally avoiding anything that isn’t within walking distance.
Perfect vacation? Before: backpacking across India. After: all-inclusive Cancun resort with free, educationally stimulating kids’ camps — a complete compromise of my former snobbily adventurous spirit.

*****

Barney R., 47
New Jersey

Profession: Consultant
Kids: Two boys, 15 and 12
Marital status: Married
Dual income? Sort of

How old were you when you had your first kid? How planned or prepared were you? 31. On a scale of 1-5, preparation was a 4.

What is one thing you never noticed about the world until you became a dad? Having a child helps put into perspective the pathetic cruelty that human beings perpetrate against each other and especially against children.

What is one thing you never noticed about yourself until you became a dad? I can’t think about something that I never noticed about myself, but the moment of birth surfaced emotions that I have never experienced before or since. It is simply overwhelming to see life at its first moments.

How has your relationship (with your partner) evolved since having children, for better and/or worse? Our bond has strengthened because we support each other through the trials and tribulations of child-rearing. Our time together (alone) has decreased and we are patiently awaiting, while simultaneously semi-dreading, becoming empty nesters. We will miss the kids when they fly the coop, but we are incredibly excited to spend more time together again.

What did you think you were prepared for — as a father — but weren’t? Not sure if I can provide an accurate answer to this question, but I can say that I was surprised by how emotional I become when I read about, discuss stories or experience situations where a child is hurt or under duress. The spate of celebrity suicides of Chris Cornell, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain hit me hard, because I felt so bad about the children that were left behind.

How has your relationship with your own parents changed since you became a parent? I now understand what they have been through and it allows me to be more empathetic. The things that they used to do that would annoy me, I completely understand now. But, more than anything I speak to them less, simply because my life has become so busy.

What’s one moment you’ve had with your kid(s) where you realized you were turning into your father? My father was my soccer coach from K-6. I fell in love with the beautiful game. When my kids were old enough to play, I signed up to be a coach. I’ve definitely seen myself in pictures where I see my Dad in me.

What financial changes did you make to prepare for (or after having) kids? No major preparation, and since they were born, it is just a matter of staying on top of bills and being smart about how we spend.

Is there something you especially miss about your life before kids? Yes, I spent more time being active and I miss that. Whether it was mountain biking, surfing or hiking, I spent a lot more time exerting energy outdoors on activities that bring me great joy. The cool thing is that you can still do those things with your children, but I am looking forward to the day of doing it again on my own or with kids my age.

What do you feel is the single biggest compromise you’ve had to make for the benefit of your kids/family? Just spending less alone time and less dedicated time with my spouse.

Before vs. after you became a dad, what was your …

Ideal Saturday night: The same: Movie, cookies, popcorn and bourbon.
Ideal lazy Sunday: The same: Beach
Wakeup time: Before: 10:30. After: 7:00.
Bedtime: Before: 12:30. After: 10:00.
Perfect vacation: The same: Hawaii

*****

Reese G., 37
Brea, Orange County, CA

Profession: Stay-at-home dad
Kids: One boy, 29 months old
Marital status: Married
Dual-income: Not currently. When an opportunity presents itself, I occasionally engage in business projects.

How old were you when you had your first kid? How planned or prepared were you? I was 36. It was a total surprise, he was unplanned, and neither of us had prepared for children. I scored points with my wife by buying a selection of how-to parenting books the next day without being asked. Spent the next nine months reading the books and a million articles about being a dad. By the time he was born, I was feeling pretty prepared.

What is one thing you never noticed about the world until you became a dad? That I hate politics. I used to find it fascinating but now it just pisses me off. All the bullsh*t and games that results in the world being a little worse off for my son than it was for me drives me crazy. You certainly can feel a little helpless at times when you can’t control things that negatively impact your kid.

What is one thing you never noticed about yourself until you became a dad? I never realized how anal I could be. I always thought I had a relaxed, casual attitude. But as soon as I became a parent, when it came to my son, everything had to be right, as perfect as it could be.

How has your relationship with your partner evolved since having children, for better and/or worse? The evolution of our relationship can be tracked by how we’ve learned to communicate. Things have constantly improved. Every day, we get better at talking through things and resolving disputes. We were not good at that in the beginning.

What did you think you were prepared for — as a father — but weren’t? Feeding the baby during the first three months. I don’t know if I ever had more than two hours of sleep in a row!

How has your relationship with your own parents changed since you became a parent? My parents and I have definitely become closer. They love having a grandson and enjoy spoiling him, the trickle-down effect being that I get spoiled a bit, too. We talk a lot more and sharing our parenting experience has really given me insight into how and why they did things with me as a kid. Our relationship has never been better.

What’s one moment you’ve had with your kid(s) where you realized you were turning into your father? Sometimes I find myself telling my son to, “Go ask your mother.” I remember my dad saying this to me occasionally when I was a kid, never knew why he didn’t just say yes, now I get it. Raising kid(s) with your spouse is a team sport and the first time I did this, I realized that my dad was being a team player. I knew then I was becoming more like him.

What financial changes did you make to prepare for (or after having) kids? We really didn’t need to make any big changes. We’ve set up savings and college funds for our son. I quit working to stay at home, so if anything we took a financial hit, but it has been totally worth it. Being a stay-at-home dad is the best job I’ve ever had.

Is there something you especially miss about your life before kids? Adventure travel. Before my son was born I regularly spent months at a time abroad. I loved exploring people and places: Asia, South America, Europe … Now that we have a kid, I can’t just pack a bag and go. We have family outside the United States and have done a few trips but it’s just not the same. When you travel with a young child you’re restricted to child-friendly activities on their schedule. As long as there are still wild places to explore when our son is older, I’ll be looking forward to the day when his old man can show him how it’s done.

What do you feel is the single biggest compromise you’ve had to make for the benefit of your kids/family? Time for myself. When you have a kid, your time no longer belongs to you, it belongs to them. I try to sneak some back at the end of each day by staying up a few extra hours after the family goes to bed. Otherwise I don’t think I’d have the space I need to relax.

Before vs. after you became a dad, what was your …

Ideal Saturday night? Before: Go out with friends, dinner, maybe a bar or brewery, sports event or a show. After: Good food for dinner that doesn’t generate a bunch of dirty dishes or mess up the kitchen. A beer or two. Some quiet time. A good book.
Ideal lazy Sunday? Before: Morning Coffee and breakfast, some time in the sun and at the pool, an afternoon movie and dinner out. After: A few hours to watch a sports game in between parenting responsibilities.
Wakeup time? Before: Whenever. After: Most days 7:00 am. If I’m lucky, I get to sleep until 8:00 am.
Bedtime? Before: Unless I had to be up super early for work, 2:00 am or later. After: Always midnight.
Perfect vacation? Before: Months away in exotic locations exploring cultures and peoples firsthand. After: I don’t even know where to start or if I even have a clear idea of what a perfect vacation with a kid would be.

Additional reporting by Alex Lauer