What happens when a millennial becomes a father

How nail polish and joy capture the essence of fatherhood

I used to be just a guy. Then a husband. Then a dad. Then a dad of two.

No one prepares you for these stages of life. The two little ones start to grow up. They learn to crawl and then to eat broccoli. They start substituting the word poop for almost any word in the dictionary. The boy realizes that his sister’s body doesn’t look like his. The struggle is real.

I never prepared for this. My wife and I never talked about what this might look like. Before we became parents and into the first few months of our new lives as a mom and a dad, I read everything I could about Brussels sprouts and potty training, thrush and vaccinations — but not how to manage our own feelings, our own emotions, how to cope when our kids start to grow up and find their intoxicating independence. All while we still reminisce at night over grainy iPhone videos of their first breaths.

After seven years of being a father, I am still figuring out how to be one. Sometimes I feel like if I start crying I won’t ever stop. Sometimes I want so badly to protect them from stages that I know can cause heartache.

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Often our life feels like something spilled and all we are doing is simply cleaning up the mess. We chafe at progress and we agonize about the now. I worry about the dishes, sleep regression and sports burnout. We spend half our evenings teaching about consequences and responsibilities and the other half explaining the difference between tornadoes and tsunamis and saying “stop sitting on your brother.” We both wonder if our daughter will be content living in her own skin and if our son will ever think he’s too cool to hold the door for strangers.

But then, there are days when a grown man with a full-time job is getting his toenails painted by his 3-year-old daughter. One color for every toe. And moments when I’m seeing progress in our son’s reading comprehension.

Those are reasons to stop, acknowledge and cry — if you do that sort of thing (which is my way of saying I do that sort of thing). I try to squeeze the most out of those times. We relish in them and we take pictures of them.

Fatherhood can be the joy of toenail polish on a rainy day

Being a father of young children, those moments come and go. There will be more firsts. But more firsts mean growing up and these firsts will be further away. Yet, just when we think they are growing up too fast or we can’t relate, something happens that seems purposefully designed to set our hearts aflutter.

According to a recent study conducted by the Boston College Center for Work & Family, the real ticket to happiness for millennial men might be fatherhood. Researchers discovered that millennial fathers, those ages 18 to 32, reported a much higher satisfaction with their lives — at work and at home — than their single co-workers. These men were 20 percent to 40 percent more likely to believe that their lives were “excellent” and that they were living near their ideal state.

If I’ve learned anything in seven years of being called a dad, I’ve learned that parenting is based on one thing: joy. Not everything about parenting brings joy. But it’s the joy part that makes the rest of it palatable.

And joy? It’s nothing more than a smile in the morning, a second helping of a vegetable, toenail polish on a rainy day or reading a book before bed.

Right now, however beautiful and cluttered our lives might be, we are full of joy. That’s the message.