Trying to be a good dad, but falling short

From screentime to dinner standards, Chris Ryan has discovered it's hard to meet the lofty standards you set for yourself as a new father.

failing as a father-web

When my kid was born I had no doubt that I would be an awesome dad: at least in the top five per cent, possibly the top one per cent.

My son wouldn’t be plonked in front of the television for hours on end, plied with junk food, or bought shitty plastic toys to shut him up mid-tantrum.

There’d be educational day trips and wholesome home-cooked meals. Playtime in parks – footy drills optional – would be followed by painting and puzzles at home.

My wife and I would be fun but focused, providing an environment where our boy would thrive. He would pretty much grow into the perfect child.

What a fool I was.

I’m tempted to blame my parents for my unrealistic expectations. I assumed raising one kid would be a piece of piss, seeing they coped with six children born eight years apart.

Mum was 21 when the run started. She did the lion share of the housework, even when she went back to a fulltime job; dad “cooked” but his repertoire was limited to burnt sausages and toasted sandwiches.

On weekends the two took us to the city to visit art galleries and museums (it was free) or dad would take us to watch the Eels run around at Parramatta Stadium (which was also free – he got passes for coaching our rugby league team).

My parents weren’t perfect but by 80s standards they were top notch. If dad drove a carload of kids home after a day of drinking at a Grand Final barbecue, he was responsible enough to take the backstreets.

On road trips in the Ford Falcon station wagon, pillows surrounded the two kids travelling in the boot – airbags in the event of a collision.

I was sure I could do as well as my parents then better. For a start, I had enough sense to have more car seats than children.

But my son turns three in November and I fear I’m not a frontrunner for Father of the Year.

Despite trying to be engaged whenever my kid wants to show me something “exciting”, there are times I’d prefer to drink, watch television or punch myself in the face rather than watch him shout, “Toot toot”, as he pushes his Thomas train round the tracks one more time. I really hate Thomas the Tank Engine. He’s a smug bastard and his bigotry against the Diesels is a disgrace.

Flat out with work or laid low by a hangover, I’ve let the kid watch Peppa Pig marathons that stretch for hours.

Tired of battling over dinner, our definition of healthy food has expanded to include ice cream (an important source of dairy) and sausage rolls (an important source of iron-rich offal).

Struggling fathers could feel better about their failings by visiting parenting forums online.

If someone asks, “Is it alright to give my three-year-old a Happy Meal?” there’ll be a burger-loving mum who reports her two-year-old smashes Big Macs for brekkie, and “it hasn’t done him any harm”.

Ask about television and someone will admit their child watches six hours of true crime a day and is fine – as long as you hide the kitchen knives. Like anti-vaxers, the less evidence they have the more willing they are to give advice.

I’ve found a simpler way to deal with falling short of my own expectations: I’ve lowered them. I’ve also reassessed how my parents managed when they were raising their six children.

There was a song my dad sometimes sang in the car: “Right or Left at Oak Street” by Roy Clark. The character in the tune fantasises about escaping his dull life – and his wife and children. He asks himself, “I don’t know which takes more courage: The staying or the running away.” I suspect dad wondered the same thing.

While us kids were oblivious to it, our parents must have pulled their hair out with the frustrations they faced in a house crammed with kids. There were times they totally lost their shit, not without reason. The passing of years has turned those chaotic moments into slapstick scenes we can laugh about.

When you were a child you assumed the adults knew what they were doing because, well, adults are meant to: they’re in charge of stuff. As an adult you look around and see that most people are making it up as they go along.

I’ve found that when you have a kid it’s unlikely that you’ll discover you happen to be the world’s greatest dad. Surprising, I know. But I’ve decided if you put on a brave face and put your best foot forward you might just convince your kids that you are.

It won’t be until they grow up themselves that they realise what an Oscar-worthy performance you pulled off – and then they’ll be even more impressed.

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