My wife, Indira, had tried to help. She gave me piles of books on parenting, but they remained in piles, their knowledge never imparted. There were other fathers in my life who I could tap for info — friends who had already started families, my uncle Peter, whose parenting I’d always admired, and a few others — but I believed my own father’s counsel would be the most honest and informative.
Unfortunately, Dad was no help. I'm not being hyperbolic. On our first day in Costa Rica, during a three-hour road trip from the airport to the house we were renting, I asked him for tips on fatherhood.
“You'll figure it out,” he replied. “To be honest, your mother really did all the parenting.”
I waited for him to continue. He said nothing more.
“You must have at least changed a diaper,” I finally spluttered.
“I must have,” he replied. “Right?”
Over the course of our week-long vacation, I tried asking for advice in four dozen ways, but Dad never shared a single insight. Nothing. Nada. As always though, Dad was Captain Adventure, ensuring we took the roads less traveled at every turn. The highlight was a pre-dawn fishing expedition to a lake at the heart of an extinct volcano where UFOs had once been spotted.
I came home exhilarated by the trip and determined to always embrace adventure like my Dad, but disappointed by the lack of “dadvice” I received. I promised myself I was not only going to be the best father I could be but also remember everything I did (good, bad and downright ugly), so I could one day share insights with my son if he became a father.
There was a certain sense of liberation and self-empowerment that came with this forced course. I would be a father of my own making, a tabula rasa of dads. I would forge fatherhood into an experience uniquely my own, one I felt would best serve me, our son and our family in the best ways possible.
As soon as my son, Zephyr, arrived, I realized my autonomy had an unexpected downside: It felt like going up a certain creek without a paddle. I needed a lodestar to help guide me through the process. I had so many questions and so few answers. Sometimes, I even considered reading all the books still taking up space on my nightstand. But, nah. Too much work.
And then, my mother came to live with us for several weeks to help us transition into parenthood smoothly. Whenever Indira needed a break from holding Zephyr and I wasn’t there, my mom swooped in to take him before she was even asked. I’d be feeling tired, and my mother would magically ask whether I’d like a cup of the coffee she was thinking of brewing. Zephyr would be on the verge of getting fussy, and she would suddenly be rocking him while cooing and making cute faces. She seemed to anticipate everyone’s every needs, often offering help before we even knew to ask.
As she parented all of us, she doled out anecdotes about my childhood, a verbal highlight reel. There were the inevitable comparisons between me as a baby and Zephyr. She sprinkled in memories of her own upbringing.
When I had a moment to process her stories and observations, I realized many were allegories hiding helpful bits of wisdom: Never stop telling your child you love them unconditionally. Hugs make almost everything better. A thoughtful compliment boosts confidence. True authority doesn’t require yelling. Be on the same page as your spouse when it comes to rules and enforcement. Give presents that mean something. Don’t think of cooking as a chore, think of it as a way of expressing your love. Mistakes are inevitable, so learn from them.
There was so much to absorb about being a dad, so much to process. Google could only help so much when I was at a loss. I did consult some fellow fathers, but most of them seemed to be in the similar canoes. They, too, were figuring it out as they went along, trying to avoid mistakes their fathers made, going it alone without a guide to follow. Though I took comfort in the solidarity of our parallel questing, sometimes I just felt more adrift.
I still talked to my mother constantly after she went home. Sometimes I bluntly asked for parenting advice because I was at my wit’s end and didn’t know who else to ask; sometimes she just realized I needed it and gently gave it to me.
The one thing I didn’t want to broach with her was my lack of a fatherly guide for my journey through dad-dom. My parents divorced decades ago and are on good terms, but I still avoid conversations about one with the other if I can help it. Why walk across a minefield when there’s a perfectly good path around it?
Despite my lack of a parenting sherpa, I was loving fatherhood and throwing myself into it with sometimes reckless abandon. I told my son I loved him unconditionally an almost uncountable number of times every day. Cooking for the family became one of my chores, but I vowed it would always be something I loved to do for them. My mother was right, I did make lots of mistakes — but I did my best to learn from them.
One day, I had one of those revelations that seems like such an obvious thought in hindsight. Why was I so fixated on having a dad as a touchstone? I didn’t need a father to guide me on how to be a good father. I needed a parent to guide me on how to be a good parent. An obvious role model had been with me my entire life: my mother.
That epiphany gave me the confidence and guidance I had been lacking. I wouldn’t say fatherhood became instantaneously easy, but much of my anxiety and fear about it melted away. Not only was I able to query her when I needed aid, but I could rewind the tape on my own childhood to figure out how she parented with such grace.