When a baby is born and a man becomes a father, the future is nothing but potential.
This is the time to be a superhero to a child, to do things better than you might feel past generations did parenting, to earn the coffee mug that reads "World's Greatest Dad."
It's easy to fantasize about this upon your child's birth. But the reality is, once that kid is walking and talking and ruining your expensive new headphones by dropping them into the toilet, is that being a perfect dad is as hard as being a perfect child: neither exists.
Dads make mistakes. Dad yells when he doesn't mean to. Dad sends his kid to school with a fresh PB&J sandwich when they are basically outlawed at this point. Dad forgets his kid's favorite Paw Patrol character. (It's Chase; how dare he not remember.)
The mistakes—like toys on the floor of the child's bedroom—accumulate. When the kid is still an infant, it's easy to think you've still got a shot at the coffee mug. By the time they're in school, the weight is heavy, exhaustion has set in, Dad has seen some s**t.
Modern parenting prepares you for this a little bit. Talking to other parents and reading social media or blog posts reminds you that you're not alone—that other frustrated parents are messing up too, and that kids are resilient. There have always been clueless moms and dads. Parents have made mistakes since the dawn of time, and somehow the species has survived.
But just because other people say your mistakes are relatable and unavoidable, that doesn't always absolve you in the face of Dad's worst critic: Dad. Dad Guilt is a real thing. As I think back over the years of raising my now-teen daughters, I remember their birthdays and the fun trips we took together. But I also can't forget the times I royally f**ked up.
There was the time my daughter was jumping on my bed and spun out; before I could grab her she sailed right off the side and landed hard on the floor, wailing. Why didn't I stop her sooner?
There was the time I lost my temper getting the kids ready for school and slammed down the coffee carafe I was carrying. It shattered on the counter, sending coffee and glass everywhere, scaring me and my daughters. (Luckily none of us got burned from the coffee; they weren't in the kitchen.)
There was the time I got divorced and wondered how badly it would hurt them and if they'd ever get past that hurt.
When I'm feeling insecure about my legacy as a dad, when my kids get angry with me for whatever reason, these are some of the memories that pop into my head.
Dad Guilt can be debilitating. It can make you feel like all you've done is made wrong decisions and screwed up your kids; that you've left them with bad memories and traumas and lost the hero worship you enjoyed when they were younger. It can cause you to distance yourself emotionally; you may feel that you'll do less damage that way if the kids don't see Dad as vulnerable and hurt and without all the answers.
The best cure for Dad Guilt is really simple: Acknowledge that the past won't change, no matter how much regret you carry, so stop being so hard on yourself. Work to make the present and future better. That's it. That's all Dad can do.
Related: My Son Failed the Chicken Wing Test
And while your actions always have the potential to go awry—or at least not exactly like Dad planned—there's a lot to be said for good intentions and leading with a good heart. If you're honest about how you parent your kids, can you pass The Dad Test?
The Dad Test is not hard; you don't study for it. You just have to be honest. Think about these seven questions and whether they reflect you as a father:
The Dad Test
- Do you care about your kid(s)?
- Do you spend quality time with your child(ren) and think about them when you're not with them?
- Do you set boundaries and act as a parent instead of just trying to make your kid(s) like you all the time?
- Do you try to fix and to avoid repeating your past parenting mistakes?
- Can your kid(s) depend on you?
- Do you try to set a good example for your kid(s) with your treatment of them and others (especially and including their mother)?
- Do your kid(s) know you love them?
It would be great if you could answer all of these with a "Yes." But if you couldn't, if you know that you fall short in one or more of these areas, that means you have some work to do.
Doing that work, I promise, is a really, really good way to get rid of some of that Dad Guilt and create a lot of new, better memories with your kids.