When I was getting ready to be a dad, I was freaked out. You may be too…at least a little. However suave, and un-phase-able, and competent a guy you know yourself to be, however many new and unusual life-changing circumstances you’ve come through with your cool still intact – there is something about the transition into fatherhood that is enough to send you off begging for advice from every dad you know.
“How do I do it? Come on, man, I need some advice!”
That’s what I did. And wow, guys really like being looked at as experts, to be asked for advice. You always get something. Unfortunately, what you mostly get is one lame cliche after another:
“Get your sleep now.”
“Get that golf out of your system now.”
“Nice knowing you.”
Then the pat on the back, a laugh, and they were on their way. Not very helpful. So, while your wife is surrounded by women – throwing baby showers, and long conversations that add up to deep, and beautiful, and supportive counsel and companionship along her way to becoming a mom, you are basically alone. You do your best to absorb some of the parenting and baby books that are piling up in your house. But if you are anything like me, these end up adding to the overwhelm and general anxiety more than they help.
MADE TO STICK
Thankfully, at some point along my way to becoming a dad, I came across Made to Stick. Written by two brothers – Chip and Dan Heath – it’s not a book on parenting at all. But it held the one and only piece of dad-to-be advice I actually needed.
Made to Stick is about what makes some ideas stick, while others (like my growing collection of dad “advice” and our library of parenting how-to books) are made to be forgotten. How many of us have sat through lectures or presentations where heads are all nodding in apparent agreement and understanding – but then ten minutes after it’s over we can’t remember a thing? The Heath brothers talk about how to avoid this – whenever we are the ones giving those lectures or presentations, or whatever, where we actually want our ideas, our argument, our point to stick.
STORIES THAT STICK
One of the tools they talk about is stories, which are stickier than any set of advice or tips or step-by-step instructions – no matter how neatly, or cutely packaged (“the four S’s” to successful whatever, “the three T’s,” or pick your mnemonic flavor of the month). This is why, after a day of fighting fires, many fire fighters will assemble to talk about the fires they encountered that day – what they were like, what they did, what happened as a result. No advice or training manuals or lectures, just stories.
Stories are like “mental flight simulators.” As you listen, you actually place yourself in the story, in the circumstances. You think, “Wow, I would definitely do that,” or, “Woah! What a stupid move!” Stories help you build your own mental repertoire even for situations you’ve never faced yourself. They help you sharpen instincts you never even knew you had.
I STOPPED ASKING FOR ADVICE
So, when we were waiting for our oldest to be born, I stopped asking for advice. It was the best thing I did to get ready to be a dad. Instead, I made a big pot of chili, bought a case of beer, and I invited a bunch of dads over to my place. As they filled their bellies, I asked them to fill me with their stories – the ones that began, “My wife’s water broke and then…” or “I knew the game had changed in my marriage when…” or “The first time I really blew it as a dad was…”
It was awesome. No canned advice. No cliches. No pats on the back. No stupid laughs. Just stories. Listening to them, my anxieties melted away. I finally felt ready. I realized all these guys had started out about as clueless and freaked out as I felt. But now, they were dads who were experienced, who knew what they were doing. They had figured it out – and they were still figuring it out. And if they could, I knew I could too.
This post was adapted from The Faith of a Child and Other Stories of Becoming and Being Dad by Stefan Lanfer. Stefan is a Boston-based dad of two, a playwright, and he works on strategy and communications for a private foundation making grants to public education, arts, and environment nonprofits – mostly in Boston. Stefan blogs about “the big mysteries revealed in the small moments” of fatherhood at www.dadtoday.com.