Q: People always say that life will never be the same after having a child. How, exactly, does becoming a father change a man?
A: There’s an old saying in the Talmud that a man has three names: the one his parents gave him at birth, the one that others call him, and the one he calls himself. A person’s identity, according to the rabbis, is a rather amorphous thing. What the rabbis don’t talk about is that all three of those names are subject to change over time-especially the one you give yourself. So who are you these days? The same person you were a few years ago? Probably not. And one of the biggest reasons you’re not is that being a father has changed you.
Over a period of nearly two years, University of California, Berkeley researchers Phil and Carolyn Cowan asked a large number of men to draw a circle and divide it up into sections that reflected how important each aspect of their life felt-not the amount of time in the role. Over the study period, childless men showed a significant increase in the “partner/lover” aspect. But young fathers were squeezing “partner/lover” into a smaller space to accommodate the significant increase in the “parent” piece of the pie.
As the parenting pie grows, other things happen too. Here are a number of ways that the men in my survey (and several other studies as well) said fatherhood changed them:
- Confidence and pride. Having a close relationship with your child helps build his confidence and self-esteem. It also helps build yours. Being able to stop your child’s tears, making him laugh, or knowing how much he idolizes you can make you feel incredibly competent, and the pride you feel when you see all the great things he can do becomes confirmation that you’re doing pretty well at this whole fathering thing. For a while, at least, your child is going to share all your tastes-in music, literature, movies, art, career, politics, and food (as long is it’s not too spicy). A lot of these things will change as your child grows up. But I can hardly describe the feeling of pride I get when my kids start discussing Hitchcock movies with my adult friends, belt out a few Janis Joplin lyrics, or pop in a CD of Elgar’s cello concerto while they’re doing their homework. But beware. Confidence and pride are often made of pretty thin veneer: any misbehavior-especially public-can suddenly make you feel you feel as though you’ve failed as a father.
- Patience-and a better sense of humor. Things are going to go wrong, whether you like it or not, and you have two choices: take everything seriously and try to change the world, or roll with it and laugh. Learning to laugh at yourself can rub off in other areas and might make you more understanding of the mistakes other people make.
- Flexible thinking. At this point it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between your child’s needs, your needs, and your partner’s needs. In a perfect world they’d mutually reinforce one another. But on this planet, these needs “are to varying degrees in opposition, imposing frustrations and sorrows and forcing mutual adaptation,” says the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP). As you get more experienced as a parent, your ability to prepare for the future and come up with contingency plans will grow. You’ll also learn the incredibly valuable skill of being able to see a variety of different points of view at the same time. For example, most new couples say that having children brought them closer together. At the same time, though, they say that labor around the house has been divided along traditional lines.
- Return to childhood. Having kids gives you a great opportunity to reread all those great books from when you were a kid and disappear back into the world of King Arthur and the Hobbit. It also gives you a rare chance to say words like “poop” and “pee” in public again.
- Creativity. A lot of parents suddenly get inspired to create. A. A. Milne (who wrote the Winnie the Pooh books) and J. K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame) are just two who wrote for their kids. If you’re giving your kids music or art lessons, you might develop a talent you never thought you had or rediscover the urge to perform at school talent shows.
- Reordering priorities. Having kids contributes to a heightened awareness of other’s perspectives, says researcher Rob Palkovitz. A lot of guys admit that they were somewhat selfish and self-centered before having kids. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing; it’s simply an acknowledgment that having people depend on you and putting their needs before your own isn’t something that comes naturally to most people before they become parents. What’s especially interesting is that, according to Palkovitz, getting married didn’t trigger this same realization.
- Changing values. Becoming a father will make you take a long, hard look at your fundamental beliefs and values. Things you may have thought were harmless when you were younger, such as not caring about money or material possessions, promiscuous sex, and even smoking a little dope, look completely different now that you’ve got a family to support. You’ll start seeing the world in different terms. You may have thought about issues like pollution, terrorism, energy policy, Latin American debt, homelessness, AIDS, poverty, and even cloth vs. disposable diapers before, but now, instead of being abstract things that happen to other people, they’re possible threats to your child and your family.
- Having children will also help you clarify a lot of your beliefs. Teaching your child to say that the guy you didn’t vote for in the last election is a jerk is one thing. But try explaining to your child-in terms he can understand-what war is, what the death penalty is, why some people are rich while others live on the street. You might find yourself changing your mind about a few things now that they might affect your family.
Interestingly, older fathers report doing less soul-searching than younger fathers. The older guys come into fatherhood feeling more mature and having had more of a chance to hone their philosophy of life.