In October 2013, a few months after my 22nd birthday and during my final (fifth) year of college, I became a father to a beautiful, but unplanned, baby boy. And over the past year, for reasons that aren’t quite relevant here, I’ve become my now-toddler’s primary caregiver. I’d always imagined living out my twenties holding onto my youth and very slowly embracing adulthood. Instead, let’s just say there’s been a steep learning curve.
I think that curve is something every parent experiences; it just comes as more of a shock when your wardrobe is mostly sweatpants and your diet mainly consists of George Foreman–grilled chicken, Taco Bell, and Keystone Light. Pre-fatherhood, every priority in my life was fairly short-term: Show up in class enough to continue to charm/beg my way to my marketing degree. Try to improve my ability on the baseball mound from Division 2 scrub to Division 2 adequate player. Find a way to get drunk on $4.57 this weekend.
But from the moment my son was born, my top priority became as long-term as one can be: to make sure that this little bundle in my arms had the best life possible, and that the college kid holding him would become a grown man and father that his son could be proud of. Nothing gave me a kick in the ass to morph into a full-blown adult like having my son — and eventually becoming a devoted father and caregiver.
Here are a few of the most significant ways this experience has changed things for me.
1. My daily routine has done a complete 180.
Three years ago, my average weekday and weeknight consisted of roughly the same routine. Around 7 p.m., after class or baseball practice for my small-college team, I’d lounge around my house enjoying my lack of responsibility. My roommates and I would discuss if and when we would be going out for the night; more times than not, we went out. The only thing we had to be worried about was being in respectable shape by the time afternoon practice rolled around the next day.
Fast-forward to the present day, and things look very, very different. Tonight around 7 p.m., I’ll start my son’s bedtime routine: maybe a bath, lots of reading (Pete the Cat again? OK, buddy, whatever you want), and then brush teeth and bed. Once he’s down, I’ll make his lunch for preschool tomorrow and start laundry, as both of us seem to be in constant demand of clean clothes. This is just the new normal.
2. The worrying is constant.
The few months I had to prepare for my son’s arrival were filled with excitement, but also self-doubt. I was fortunate to have great emotional and financial support from my own family, and I did have help from my girlfriend at the time and her family while I finished out my last few months of school. But question after nervous question kept me up at night as the due date approached. How can I be responsible for a helpless human being, considering I just started cooking and (sort of) cleaning for myself a couple years ago? At this point, am I even someone my son can look up to? Can I be a mature, stable influence? What happens when I change a diaper and I get poop on my hands?
That uncertainty doesn’t just evaporate once your child graces you with their presence. There’s the constant wondering of Am I doing this right? — and it feels like every day I read some new article that makes me terrified I’ve already scarred my child for life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve second-guessed myself about whether he’s eating the right things, or how much TV he should watch, or when to be lenient and when to be firm. But the great thing about parenting is that it teaches you as you go along. Sometimes you’ll just have to step back, take a breath, and tell yourself that trying your best is the most important thing.
3. But doing the hard things comes naturally.
No one is really ready for everything that comes with being a parent for the first time, at any age. And anyone who says they are is a liar. But as soon as I held my son, I knew I’d try my damnedest to make sure I was every bit the father and grown man he needed me to be. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.
After a few months of parenting, I found it almost amusing that I once worried that I wouldn’t hear my son cry at night; instead I was now wondering if I’d ever get through a night without hearing it. I spent nights trying everything possible to help him sleep at least two to three hours at a time, followed by what felt like the earliest wake-up call ever to get to my 8 a.m. on-campus job.
It’s one thing to deal with the pain you cause yourself by inhaling one too many 99-cent burritos. But my son dealt with colic and stomach pains; it took lots of trial and error to find a formula to ease his struggle. It broke my heart watching him contort in pain when I couldn't find the answer to fix it. As tough as dealing with a lot of these things are, though, the motivation to do them comes easily.
4. I've become a master of scheduling and organization (or at least better at it).
One thing I didn't appreciate enough about my formative years is the way everything was laid out and scheduled for me. I might have had to pick my own college classes, but even then an adviser was helping to guide the way. A year before my son was born, I fondly remember trying to perfectly work my 21st birthday night out around my baseball schedule. To this day it’s still hard to fathom that I’m now trying to fit his dentist or pediatrician appointments around my job and his preschool commitments.
It’s amazing how much adding the schedule of one other (small) person to your plans forces you to consider every second of every day in advance. You may have three big errands to run on a Saturday, but you have to make sure they fall in between your child’s gym class, mealtimes, and naps. What I’ve learned is that one of the most important things for children is keeping a routine, so you better figure out how to work your schedule around it. And that, in turn, has made me more mature and organized about my own plans.
5. I'm way more terrified of death.
I preface this by saying that I was never the “I ain’t afraid to die!” daredevil type before having a kid. I’m not that brave or naive. It’s just that now I look at it in a whole new light: If something happens to me, it won’t just be about the things I don’t get to do with my life. Now it’s about the person I won’t get to see grow up. Each day I watch my son learn something or make a new special memory. It’s terrifying to imagine leaving him behind and missing all of those things in the future.
I also worry about what would happen if I disappeared, especially as a single parent. Who would raise him? How would he turn out if I weren't around? Once you’ve dedicated your entire life to the happiness of someone else, you can’t help but ponder what things will be like when you’re not there for them. I now feel like it’s my duty to play things as safe as possible, because someone else is counting on me.
6. I do miss things about my old life.
Parenting, regardless of age or situation, is going to be a strain and require you to be a bigger person than you ever imagined yourself being. And going at it as a single parent is a whole different ballgame in itself. Don’t get me wrong — I have help, and plenty of it, starting with an extremely supportive family. But a lot of the time it’s just you and your little one, and that really limits the ways you can spend your time.
I don’t go out much anymore, and dating has been completely on the back burner. There are things I see my friends doing that just aren’t in my playbook anymore: the bar nights, fun trips, the all-day hungover Netflix binges with brunch mixed in at some point. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
If I’m being completely honest, sometimes that kinda sucks. I love my kid; I love him more than anything in the world. But sometimes I really wish I could just be a drunken bum all day, or go on that last-minute golf outing with my buddies. So I won’t lie, it’s not a 24/7 "This is the greatest life!” kind of deal.
7. But my son is, hands-down, the best part of my new life.
For me, there are sacrifices that come with being a young parent every single day. But even calling them “sacrifices” isn't really accurate. I’m not taking one for the team here, or wishing something were different. What I think being a grown-up really means, and what parenthood has shown me a hundred times over, is that a real adult makes decisions for the future and with the people they care about in mind.
It’s the small things that make fatherhood incredible. Each time I drop my son off at preschool, we walk from the car to the door, with him holding his lunch box and me holding his bag, both of us holding hands. And I can’t describe how special it feels; his energy, his happiness, his eager anticipation to get into school because he loves it so much. When we walk he’s practically bouncing up and down, and being a spectator to his joy and exuberance warms my heart in a way that’s impossible to put into words. It’s 20 seconds twice a week, and it’s amazing.
That feeling that your child can give you simply can’t be beat; it tops anything I’ve ever done and will do with my life. It makes long nights, long days, tantrums, potty training, and anything else all worth it. Being a parent is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me, and it's shown me that being older than my 24 years is right where I want to be.