My wife and I were standing in the kitchen of our home in Dallas, telling each other about our day like we had thousands of times before. It was a few weeks before Christmas and we already had some decorations up. I was by the sink. Tara was standing a few feet away by the door, her long hair still damp from her afternoon run. We can’t remember what we were saying when Tara suddenly switched subjects. 

“Well,” she said. “I’m pregnant.”

Quick, blunt, delivered with a smirk. Very much Tara’s style.

She showed me the test she’d taken a few minutes earlier and we both felt a shot of elation. We’d been together for nearly 15 years at that point. Tara’s more careful, more insightful, more disciplined. I’m more likely to crack a joke, more inclined to midday naps. Over the years, we’d had a variety of should-we-shouldn’t-we conversations, ruminating on the pros and cons of parenthood. We weren’t trying to have a baby, but we weren’t trying not to have a baby, either.

Mixed with my joy, of course, was a twinge of fear. Well, more than a twinge. Not just because we were both north of 35 and we’d carefully built a life together that somehow felt like one long, never-boring adventure — but also as safe and comfortable as a warm blanket. The fear ran deeper: I’ve always hoped I’d be a good father, but I’ve also always worried I wouldn’t know how.

Like tens of millions of Americans, I was raised without a father. My mother tried her best to juggle work and parenting. She single-handedly played the roles of provider, protector, nurturer, coach, disciplinarian. She instilled lessons about fairness, decency, the value of learning. But no matter what she did, I’ve always known that my mother could never show me how to be a good father. 

I knew I needed to learn how to become the kind of father I’d never had. And I didn’t have long to figure it out.

A lot of researchers have studied the effects a positive father figure can have in someone’s life. Studies from researchers at Columbia University and Johns Hopkins showed that with a good enough dad in the home, kids are less likely to struggle with depression, anxiety and behavioral problems in general. A U.S. Department of Education study showed that children with “highly involved fathers” were 42% more likely to earn A grades and 33% less likely to be held back a year in school. When kids have close relationships with their fathers, they tend to have higher-paying jobs and healthier relationships as adults. Plenty of people have done well in life despite unhealthy relationships with their fathers, but research from Princeton shows that, statistically speaking, growing up without a good dad means you’re also more likely to have addiction issues, commit crimes and spend time behind bars. 

I’ve been luckier than most. I’ve managed to stay out of prison, get a few degrees, carve out a career as a professional writer — something I dreamed about as a kid. I also found an amazing partner to spend my life with. For me, not having a father has been more of an amorphous gravitational chasm situated somewhere on the horizon of nearly every experience.  

Sometimes it’s just a subtle awkwardness: In elementary school, I dreaded annual events like “Donuts for Dads.” It’d be a sea of kids I saw every day, each suddenly standing next to a father — while I was all alone. I’d get quiet anytime the topic of fathers came up. I felt ashamed before I even knew what that word meant. And I’d sometimes catch myself staring whenever I saw boys playing catch with their fathers, even on TV. I’d just imagine how my life might be different if I had a dad around.

It also meant a deep, abiding fear that I might be lacking fundamental lessons on what it means to be a man. To this day, I’m self-conscious about a skill deficit I attribute to fatherlessness: I watch YouTube videos to remember how to tie a tie. I can’t fix anything that requires a solution more sophisticated than Drano or WD-40. I’ve changed a few tires and windshield wipers, but that’s it for working on cars.

There are more serious, more essential issues, too: self-discipline, confidence, courage. I worry that because I didn’t have a dad, I might not be capable of the kind of trust humans need to be happy, productive members of society. 

The rehabilitator in chief
King of the know-it-alls

A few weeks after the understated announcement in the kitchen, my wife and I were looking out a window into our backyard, preparing to open an email attachment from her doctor’s office. This is how we’d learn if we were having a boy or a girl. Some people forward the email to relatives or bakeries that do pink or blue cupcakes concealed with frosting, and the parents find out at big gender reveal parties — but that’s not us. 

My wife opened the attachment on her phone: A boy! 

We had a monumental hug — a moment that, looking back, feels like we were standing in a painting.

As we talked excitedly about our boy, about names we liked, about growing our family, we watched a flock of wintering cedar waxwings hovering around a tree. There were so many, each with smooth, shiny feathers, flecked with bits of yellow and red. The male waxwing, I’d learn later, stays with the female when she lays eggs. He brings her food, protects the nest. He feeds the chicks when they hatch and stays with them until they’re ready to leave the nest.

Looking at these beautiful, silky little birds and thinking about the tiny son growing inside my wife, I knew I needed to learn how to become the kind of father I’d never had.

And I didn’t have long to figure it out. 

For decades in America, fathers weren’t expected to play a big role in a child’s development. Stick around, make some bad jokes and enough money to keep the lights on and food on the table. If you have a boy, maybe teach him how to shave or shoot a gun. If you have a girl, threaten any boy who came near her.

Now though, society expects men to be more involved. There’s an entire industry dedicated to helping men become good dads. The advice comes in a variety of forms — books, podcasts, YouTube videos — and a variety of outlooks and parenting styles. There’s a slight choose-your-own adventure feel.

One of the earliest books in the directed-at-dads genre was “The Expectant Father,” by Armin Brott, known online as “Mr. Dad.” First published in 1995, the book focuses on the importance of spending meaningful time with pregnant partners, spending meaningful time with babies, balancing career and family, and how much sex couples can have during pregnancy. Practical advice includes: Go to doctors appointments with the mom, think about how the mom might be feeling instead of getting upset at her, don’t be a jerk.

There’ve been five editions and a series of sequels covering fathering during baby’s first year and first 36 months. Each cover features a different color dad-plaid-tastic button-down shirt.

A generation later, there are dozens of books on the same shelf, ranging in sensibilities from across the cultural spectrum: Some focus on communication techniques. Some focus on physical strength and courage — on making Men with a capital M. Some are written by clinical psychologists and acclaimed academics. Some are written by Navy SEALs or former pro athletes. Some are funny. Some are religious. Some are poetic. A disproportionately large percentage of them include cartoons and comic strips. 

There are also a ridiculous number of podcasts for fathers. You could legitimately build a house brick by brick in the amount of time it would take to listen to even just the most popular made-for-dad’s-ears content out there. Something for everyone: humor, brevity, fitness, pop culture. 

How this Seattle man became ‘the internet’s dad’

YouTube is the same way, flush. There are dozens of channels dedicated to making videos for men who want to be better dads, and they vary from gentle to militaristic to flatulence-centric. Some are framed like a free-with-ads online university. There are videos that demonstrate how to hold a baby, how to change a diaper, what to say when kids bring home bad grades.

Clearly there’s an appetite for this. Because a sizable cross-section of humanity is like me: Nervous and looking for guidance, scouring the modern world for clues about the type of men we didn’t have in our lives as children. I found at least a dozen TED Talks about different aspects and approaches to fatherhood. The comment sections have become heartbreaking forums for confessionals from men and women of all ages, all yearning to make sense of the troubled — or nonexistent — relationships with their fathers.

In 2020, a Seattle man named Rob Kenney started a YouTube channel called Dad, How Do I? It’s just videos of Kenney showing the audience how to do basic maintenance work around the house. He fixes a running toilet. He hangs a shelf. He changes a tire on his car. He introduces every video with “Hey kids!” and shares an amazingly terrible dad joke, like: “Don’t trust atoms — they make up everything.” Sometimes he gives viewers general encouragement or says they’ve made him proud. As I’m typing this, the channel has just under four million subscribers and nearly 20 million overall views.  

The deeper I plunge into this dad-advice world, the clearer it becomes that society is deeply craving something. 

In my quest to learn the good-dad best practices, I also tried doing my own field research. I made it a mission to ask nearly every father I encountered for advice on how to be a good dad. I started with friends and family. Some told me things that literally every human alive knows about being a new parent: “You won’t get a lot of sleep!” or “Your life’s about to change!” A few warned that our days of dashing around Europe or Asia were probably behind us now. 

Not helpful.

A few advised patience and trust. A few suggested that some inner-caveman character would eventually take hold and guide me. A cousin told me that the fear I already had — the terrorized concern for this baby’s welfare and future — might dissipate a little, but it would never disappear. One friend from college told me that being a dad was “like watching your heart beat outside of your body.”

Soon I was asking people I work with. An editor told me that being a father, especially when the teenage years start, means “constantly feeling like a failure.” A writer friend told me, with economic profundity: “Dads carry things.”

Sometimes I asked strangers. A friend of a friend I met at a birthday party told me to do my best to share whatever brings my kid joy. An Uber driver told me that what I do in front of my kid — what I demonstrate — will be infinitely more important than what I say. A man I met on a business trip to Houston told me, “Just love your kids for whoever they are and not who you want them to be.” 

I asked my father-in-law what he’d tell a younger version of himself if he had the chance. As far as fathers go, my wife has a pretty great one. I’ve always been impressed by how much he seems to care about doing right by his children, how involved he’s been in their lives. For what it’s worth: He can also build, fix or install virtually anything. 

He’s also funny, so I expected him to turn the conversation into a joke. But he didn’t. He paused for a moment, then poured forth in a way he almost never does.

“When you have a kid, you just instantly fall in love,” he told me. “Whatever you do, if you do it out of love for them, that’s the best you can do.” Then he paused and added one thing: “It’s also important to listen to your kids,” he said. “Even when you’re busy with work or something else, take the time to stop and listen to them as much as you can.”

While I was doing my best to learn about fatherhood, my wife, the considerably more studious of the two of us, started buzzing through the canon of mainstream parenting books. She’d often summarize them for me and want to discuss them chapter by chapter. We went over books like: “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.” “Brain Rules for Baby.” “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.” “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.” 

My wife and I agreed that so much of the research and advice boils down to treating your child with the same love and respect you’d extend toward any meaningful relationship.

A lot of the books mention the four basic types of parenting styles: permissive, authoritarian, neglectful, authoritative. (Research shows authoritative parenting is associated with more self-reliant, socially competent kids while the other three styles are more linked to mental health issues, substance abuse and low self-esteem.) My wife and I agreed that so much of the research and advice boils down to treating your child with the same love and respect you’d extend toward any meaningful relationship. 

One of the big themes that comes up frequently in these books is the suggestion that parents work on healing their own emotional wounds and familial patterns of trauma or neglect. 

That, of course, is easier said than done.

For most of my life, whenever I thought about the concept of a good father, my mind inevitably wandered back to something I saw on TV when I was a kid. It was during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. A 26-year-old British sprinter named Derek Redmond, one of the fastest men in the world, was running in a 400-meter semifinal heat. He’d already won his first round and quarterfinal races in the same event. 

A few seconds into this race, though, Redmond pulled up and fell to the ground, grabbing his right thigh and wincing in agony. Torn hamstring. Just like that: Olympic dreams dashed in front of the world. But then Redmond stood up. He began to hobble around the track, intent on finishing the race. Well after the other runners were done, as he writhed forward, the physical and emotional anguish apparent on his face, Redmond felt someone tap him on the shoulder. His father, Jim, had jumped out of the audience and fought past the security guards. Dressed like the consummate goofy dad — in tennis shoes, shorts and high socks — Jim put his arm around Derek and gently helped him across the finish line. 

As a kid, the moment was seared into my consciousness, some epitome of what I thought about dads. A dad was there to fight away the people trying to take that sprinter off the track. A dad was there to protect his son, there to help carry him across the finish line. 

After reading and watching and listening to as many explanations of positive parenting as possible, though, my perception of what constitutes a good father began to change. As I studied and researched, there were a few ideas about fatherhood I connected to most. 

A good dad should be present, and not just physically. That often means putting down the phone, turning off the TV or computer. It means being affectionate, being mindful. 

A good parent should let kids do things for themselves. That doesn’t mean leaving kids of all ages to their own devices. But there’s a strong temptation to solve a kid’s problems. Children, however, develop infinitely more skills by figuring out how to solve problems themselves. As a parent, you’re there to coach and demonstrate. 

Good parenting means modeling healthy relationships. A good dad is good to his child’s mother, regardless of whether they’re still together. Kids are watching, learning. They see how their parents treat people and they’ll take those lessons to heart. 

Emotions are OK. Good parents name them. They encourage children to feel their emotions, but also demonstrate regulating those feelings. Nearly every parenting book eventually gets to the concept of empathy: Understand that there are reasons for your kid’s behavior, even when it’s frustrating. 

I realized it’s not about the perfect Windsor knot or the ability to rebuild a carburetor. It’s about being the gentle arm around the back.

Love your kids unconditionally. The world can be complicated, hard. Don’t base your affection or approval on anything other than the fact that they’re your kids. Love them no matter what they do, say or wear, no matter the mistakes they make.

There are a few practical tips that come up a lot, too. Read to your kids as often as possible. Apologize when you’ve made a mistake. Praise effort over ability. Make kids feel safe, even when they want to test their boundaries. 

The pregnancy was complicated. The birth was complicated, too. Tara was more courageous through it all than I ever thought possible. When we finally brought our son home from the hospital, I was more petrified than ever. As I watched him sleeping in the bassinet we had in our bedroom, he seemed so small and fragile, and the world seemed so dangerous.

But seeing his little baby smile felt better than any inebriant I’ve ever consumed. His laughter instantly became the greatest sound I’ve ever heard. This tiny creature, this perfect blend of my wife and me, was a living, breathing, absolutely adorable reminder of my own mortality — but also the closest thing this planet has to the possibility of life after death. 

I learned early on that some of the advice I thought seemed unhelpful and obvious proved remarkably prescient. In those first weeks — or maybe months, it’s all a blur — I got even less sleep than I’d imagined. Our lives were, in fact, instantaneously and profoundly transformed. It’s like my capacity for emotion immediately expanded: higher highs, lower lows. The world somehow became more beautiful and also more terrifying. There might not be anything I like more than watching him experience — well, anything. It is, indeed, like watching my heart beat outside of my body.

I try to keep in mind as much of the research and advice and tips as possible. My wife still reads parenting books and we still talk about them as often as we can. Every bit of parenting advice is different, and every bit is the same. 

I started to accept that parenthood is some perpetual striving toward balance. Securing, but not over-sheltering. Setting firm boundaries, but with understanding and flexibility. Acting out of love and hoping for the best. As much as we might want to, we can’t protect our children from all the pain in the world. We can’t protect our kids from every disappointment, from every illness — and those things actually make them stronger.

I suddenly had a new appreciation for that clip from the 1992 Olympics. That sprinter’s dad couldn’t protect his son from a torn hamstring. He couldn’t protect him from heartbreak on an international stage. All he could do was be there when his son needed someone. That’s what a good dad does. I realized it’s not about the perfect Windsor knot or the ability to rebuild a carburetor. It’s about being the gentle arm around the back. 

I’ve come to realize I was wrong about a few other things, too. Yes, mothers and fathers are different, but being a good dad really just means being a good parent. So in many ways, my mother did sort of show me how to be a good father. So has my father-in-law. I’m going to take his advice and listen. I’m going to take the other advice, too: I’ll do my best to be patient, to be trusting. I’ll do my best to accept that sometimes I’ll feel like a failure, and I’ll try to demonstrate — and not just talk about — the way I want my son to live. I’ll show my admiration and respect for Tara. And I’ll love my son for who he is, whoever he becomes. 

At some point, I also realized the entire premise of my quest was wrong. I wanted to figure out how to be the father I wished I’d had growing up. But that’s changed. Now I want to be the father my son needs.  

This story appears in the June issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.