When my wife was pregnant, I was nervous. I knew I was on the brink of the most monumental transition in my life, and the men around me were not helping.
“Get your sleep now,” said one, two, three, or four. I lose count how many guys came up with this zinger.
“Get that golf out of your system,” said another, who did not know me well enough to know I did not have much golf in my system to begin with.
“Nice knowing you,” said another.
Then, laughing at their rip roaring good jokes, they patted me on the back and walked away.
By my wife’s final month, I was scrounging for answers in the baby and parenting books that were rapidly piling up in our house. One I actually managed to make progress with was Be Prepared: A Practical Guide for New Dads, which my friend Scott, a recent new dad had given me. Styled like a Boy Scout manual, Be Prepared is full of step-by-step instructions that do wonders to demystify the tactics of fatherhood – the diapering, the changing, the burping, the bathing, the swaddling, and more. It took some of the edge off. But just some.
Meanwhile, I watched women gather around my wife, guiding her gently, and wisely, and beautifully along her path to motherhood. First at a baby shower, and then at a “Red Tent” party. Inspired by the 1998 book of the same title, at her Red Tent party, a group of women from our faith community (dressed all in red), washed my wife’s feet, prepared and shared an unhurried feast, then shared verses of poetry, scripture, prayers, and best of all stories about giving birth, and about becoming mothers themselves.
When she came home, her joy filled the house. It made me realize what I was missing most was not advice. It was not pats on the back and vague assurances all would be fine. It also wasn’t step-by-step instructions about the tactics of being a dad – although I needed these too. What I was missing most was stories.
In their book, Made to Stick, brothers Chip and Dan Heath explore what makes some ideas “sticky” and others not. One critical ingredient, they argue, is stories. As an example, the Heath brothers describe a practice that is common among firefighters, who gather at day’s end to tell stories about their battles – what the fires were like, what they did, and what happened as a result. They do this because the stories are like “mental flight simulators” for the entire team. As everyone listens, they expand their mental repertoire – thinking, “That’s exactly what I’d do,” or, “Wow, I would never have done that!” The stories build confidence and intuition like no textbook can about how to react quickly, decisively, and effectively in the face of new challenges.
As my time to get it all together was running slim, my confidence was low. I needed a fatherhood mental flight simulator – something to get me into the dad headspace. And I needed it fast.
So, I decided to create one.
I bought pounds and pounds of ground beef, I cooked up a huge pot of chili, and I asked a group of dads I love and admire to come over for what I called a “Fathers Assembly.” Then, late in our eighth month, as they all filled their bellies, I asked them to fill me with their stories – stories beginning with mad dashes to the hospital; stories of the moments they knew, after their children were born, that the game had changed in their marriages; and stories about what it was about their own fathers (or other men who had been their spiritual or emotional, if not biological fathers) that most helped them become the men they were today.
In the hours that followed, I heard a story about an expectant dad waiting in the lobby of the maternity ward throughout the birth, because, as a 16 year old, he wasn’t considered a helpful partner in the process. I heard a story about a dad protecting an exhausted new mom against insistent and impatient visitors. I heard a story about a dad on a midnight feeding shift when a light bulb went on that fatherhood was “a marathon, not a sprint.” I heard stories of absent fathers, of wayward children, and of deciding, while coming home at the end of a day, to stop and pause a block away from the house, to shift gears, to shed the cares of the day, and to be deliberate about the kind of spirit you, as a father, bring into your home.
As the evening wound to a close, the fathers gathered around me. They set their hands on my shoulders and prayed for me, for my wife, and for the child we would all soon meet. It was hot in the middle of that circle. Their hands felt heavy. Yet, surrounded by those men, filled with their stories, then covered with their prayers, what remained of my anxieties melted away – not because I had finally learned “how to do it,” but because of what was so clear to me from all of their stories: that these men had all started as uncertain and clueless as I felt. And if they could all figure it out, I would too.
Guys give each other a lot of advice. Some of it is welcome. For me, most was not, little stuck, and less helped. On the whole, as men I think we fail to ask, and fail to tell our stories to each other often enough – even when stories are what we need most of all.
Boston-based Stefan Lanfer is a father of two. A year after his son was born, to pay forward the gift of that first Fathers Assembly, he began blogging his stories, and two years later he published a best-of collection as book for dads to be, The Faith of a Child and Other Stories of Becoming and Being Dad. He is also a playwright, and works on strategy for the Barr Foundation, a private family foundation committed to enhancing the quality of life for all of Boston’s residents.