New dad working from home while holding his daughter in his lap, thinking, "Preparing for fatherhood is impossible."
Photo: MoMo Productions/Getty Images

Preparing for Fatherhood Is Impossible. You Should Try Anyway.

Expect the unexpected and embrace the unpredictable as you get ready to have kids

There is an entire category of books you can find on digital or IRL bookshelves meant to guide you through the transition to fatherhood. The moment you found out about the pregnancy, you became an expectant dad, a soon-to-be father, a pops-in-waiting.

Everyone around you—family members, coworkers, total strangers who see you reading one of those books in public—will tell you your life is about to change. A lot. Forever. If you had any idea how much your life will change, they will all say, you'd lose your goddamn mind! No brain can hold it all. No heart can keep a lid on the love you'll feel. Get ready, they say. 

But you can't.

The cosmic joke of it all is that the more you try to prepare for fatherhood, the less ready you'll be. You will create a false sense of preparedness that won't serve you when the birth, and everything after (including the afterbirth), comes. That's not to say you shouldn't save money and go to breathing classes with your partner and build a crib ahead of time. It just means fatherhood is such an unknowable journey full of curveballs and shocking right turns, as well as unsurprising things more overwhelming than you could possibly be ready to experience, that to over-prepare is a fool's errand.

There are infinite things that can happen. So many variables. Here are five pretty common fatherhood changes you may think you're prepared for. Spoiler alert: You won't be.

The Sleep Thing Is Real

The first two years of parenting, if you are present and involved, are a marathon of sleep deprivation. Some parents get lucky and get a kid who learns in a few months to sleep through the night, but that's rare. For most of us, entire months of parenting life are a blank memory space because getting up to comfort or feed a crying baby every two hours leaves holes in your brain.

You begin to crave sleep the way you used to crave good barbecue and sex. You seek it out—even if it's a measly 15-minute nap—wherever you can. You won't remember much about this period and you shouldn't be making any major life decisions in this state. But we do, often starting with, "Hey, how about we have another kid while we're already in this sleep-disappear-changing phase?" Then you've got two more years of patchy memories and exhaustion ahead of you.

Your Social Life Will Change

Before I became a parent, I thought my social life would only change from doing stuff without a baby to doing stuff with a baby, carried in some sort of Swedish sling that didn't get in the way of drinking beer or riding roller coasters.

That stuff changed, obviously. Post-baby, I went out a lot less, missing concerts and birthday parties and trips to Vegas with buddies and staying up late to do whatever.

What I didn't expect was that the makeup of my social life would change. I lost friends because I was a dad; they had no interest in seeing pictures of or hearing stories about a drooling infant, and I could no longer relate to their childfree single life. Social life began to revolve around birthday parties for toddlers, trips to Legoland, and scrutinizing children's TV programming for the best shows I could enjoy, too. My new friends were other parents, and the only thing those parents had in common with me was, you guessed it, parenting.

Your Priorities Shift

They say you become much less selfish when your heart opens to a child, and that's true in some ways. Maybe you will resent that a little; you miss your old life, you hate how tired you are, you feel like you never have a moment to yourself.

But you learn pretty quickly that this is all part of the package. The discovery of your baby's laugh, of their quickly expanding vocabulary and understanding of the world is worth it. You make decisions not just based on your own preferences and desires, but on what you think your kid might enjoy and need. That becomes second nature after a while. The universe shouldn't revolve around your kid all the time—that's helicopter parenting. But making them an important part of your decision-making process is a sign you're maturing.

Everything Will Be More Expensive Than You Anticipated

I've written about the high cost of daycare, but that's just one thing. Diapers cost a lot. Toys cost a lot—even the ones for babies. Clothes for children are a lot less expensive, generally, than clothes for adults. But then again, adults don't outgrow their entire wardrobe every three months.

Being on a soccer team—or, God forbid, cheerleading—is pricey. You pay for uniforms, you pay for competition trips, you pay for trophies and team photos and post-loss consolation ice creams.

It seems like the older kids get, and the more independent they become, the less you'd have to spend. That's dead wrong. Older kids need money for movies with their friends, insurance for a used car they'll want to buy, a cell phone plan. The money train never ends; try to remember how long it was before your parents stopped spending any money at all on you. If they're still giving you money, you can start to imagine your future.

They Won't Turn Out How You Expect

When your kids are born, you think you've got them pegged. This one's gonna be a tomboy. This kid is a natural athlete. This one is hilarious; they'll do stand-up one day! But whatever you think about your kids when they're little, you won't predict who they'll be when their adult personalities start to form.

That's good news, actually. Not for you, maybe, but for them. Life will be unpredictable for them, too, and they will navigate it with or without your help. You will influence them, but ultimately, life will form them, too, and their personalities won't ever conform to what you were hoping or what you thought was going to happen.

That's a feature, not a bug. They will like their own music, which you will either embrace or hate; they will have friends you wouldn't think they'd get along with. They will remind you of yourself sometimes, but more often remind you of an alien from another galaxy. 

The joy of fatherhood, ultimately, is that you will raise a person, an actual person, who will be separate and autonomous from you. They will love you, they will need you, but they won't be the person you were expecting they'd be. 

Maybe you won't see it at first, but they'll be better and smarter and more complex than what you imagined and you will love them more and more for it.

That's the biggest joy and delayed surprise of fatherhood: Someday, you get to meet that person you helped create.