How a letter from my dad prepared me for fatherhood

Some timely advice from our own fathers can be all the reassurance we need.

Millennial Hispanic father holding his newborn son, side view, head and shoulders, close up

I was slightly petrified about becoming a father. Joyous and awe-struck and excited, of course, as having kids was something I always wanted. But I was also anxious beyond belief.

I don’t know what I’ll be doing! How will I cope with the dirty nappies, sleepless nights and overflowing emotions? Is it the ‘right time’ to start having kids? Am I actually cut out for being a dad?

It felt like I was about to step off a ledge, the fear of the unknown palpable.

I was confident, of course, that everything would work out fine – that my wife and I would be able to offer our new arrival the security, safety and love that every child needs.

Still, the anxiety wouldn’t budge. I Googled a lot. I watched videos and started following parenthood blogs and websites – yes, this one included! I asked a steady stream of questions to friends who had kids, but frustratingly, the most regular advice was along the lines of “you don’t know what it’s like until it happens”. Great!

In my search for somehow finding my feet among the shifting sands of impending fatherhood, I also attended an informal childbirth education class at a pub, but that only left me with more questions than answers (the beer tasted great, though, so it wasn’t a total waste of time).

Deep down, I knew it was probably a natural emotion to have, among all the others, but I just felt a touch lost and confused.

During this period of internal struggle, an idea popped into my mind which ended up being one of the best things I did as I waited for my world to be turned upside down (in the best way possible, it turned out): I asked my dad to jot down some notes about his experiences in going through what I was going through some 40 years earlier.

“It felt like I was about to step off a ledge, the fear of the unknown palpable.”

My dad has softened over the years but my childhood memories are of him being a pretty hard, but fair, father. As I matured from boy to teenager to young man to the almost middle-aged man I am today, our relationship improved from respectful yet sometimes frosty to one of warmth, sensitivity and trust.

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Still, I was a little apprehensive about asking dad to delve back into his memories of first-time fatherhood (it was almost four decades ago, and considering I often can’t remember things that happen hours earlier, let alone going back 40 years, I assumed some of his recollections were a bit hazy). He said he was more than happy to.

A week or so later, I received a hand-written letter in the post from my dad – three pages of some family history that I’d have never known, some self-reflection and some excellent, loving advice.

His letter also offered an insight into the different dynamics of parenthood in the 1970s – after my older sister was born, dad spent just a couple of hours in hospital with my mum and newborn baby before heading straight to the pub to celebrate.

He also mentioned only taking a week’s leave before going back to work, which having enjoyed six weeks of paternity leave when my son was eventually born, is a staggeringly small window of bonding with your new arrival and helping your wife with the complexities and difficulties of motherhood. But I guess that’s what happened back in those days.

“On reflection, I could have paid more attention to the physical and emotional concerns your mum was going through, especially during the first months,” dad wrote. I made a mental note to do everything I could to support my wife once our child arrived, which I’d like to think I did, and still do.

As I got towards the end of his letter, dad’s words helped deliver some much-needed reinforcement, effectively stating: You’ve got this, son.

“So, as to being a new father, your days will revolve around the little guy being fed, changed, held, sleeping and worrying that everything’s all right with him. Life will change – it’s a journey of discovery and you’ll be a terrific father to him. Be there for each other – you’ll need each other’s support. But it’ll all be good.”

Dad was right – it was all good. It was by no means easy – parenthood has got to be the hardest job in the world — but the rewards are infinitely greater than the challenges and difficulties that are thrown at you.

I still read his letter every now and then. There’s no doubt it added an extra layer to our relationship. Not only did it answer some questions about fatherhood and calm my anxieties, it allowed me to picture him as a young man – about to go through, and then experiencing, the most profound thing anyone will ever experience. Just like I did a little over two years ago.

The author has requested anonymity for this piece.

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