I’m 35 years old, which is to say, I’m not getting any younger. And if previous entries in this column didn’t make it clear enough already, I’d be lying if I said the march of time hadn’t begun to weigh on me the last few years. Up until only recently, it’s been hard not to feel like I’ve been frozen in time, stuck in neutral with the parking brake on while life whizzes by. My friends, on the other hand, all have their feet hard on the gas, and I can’t help but feel envious watching them settle down, adopt a dog or two, buy their first house, and naturally, pop out some kids.
At the same time, my enviousness more or less has ended at settling down with a house and a dog. Having kids was a concept that, for a long time, I was very much on the fence about. And if I’m being frank, I had at least one toe firmly on the “child-free” side. Who could blame me: I’ve never felt comfortable around small children, whether it was holding them (Are they comfortable? Where do I put my hands?); talking to them (Do you speak to them like the babies that they are? Or challenge them with adult conversation?); or disciplining them when they act out (What exactly are my responsibilities, here? God forbid they start crying, or worse, hate me forever).
But more than anything, I’m a deeply selfish person. Or better put, almost all of my time is spent in service of me — of what I want, of what I need and of what will make me happy from one moment to the next. I get so much of my energy from my own self-care that I had neither the time nor the inclination to give any of it up.
A couple of funny things, though, happened on the way to becoming a middle-aged adult with zero responsibilities. The big one was that my brother had kids, which afforded me a firsthand opportunity to spend time with that which I once feared, and a chance to hone my skills from a “fun uncle” perspective. It took some time, but I began to feel more comfortable around my nephew and twin nieces, picking them up, playing with them and even spending one-on-one (or one-on-two, in the case of the twins) time with them, which previously would have been the second most terrifying kid situation I could have found myself in (the first being diaper duty). And seeing the smiles on their faces when they saw me, or watching them hand me a book for me to read to them went a long way toward making me feel like, hey, I must be doing something right.
The second thing is that, after years of being single followed by years of being in a long-distance relationship that never really went anywhere, I met someone who doesn’t make me want to pump the brakes (quite the opposite, in fact), is crazy about kids (in a good way), makes me feel like having children wouldn’t mean the death of fun, forever, and who, amazingly, thinks I might actually make a good dad.
Yet no matter how comfortable I’ve grown around kids, and no matter how ideal the situation I’ve found myself in for having some of my own, there’s still a voice inside my head saying, “What’s going to happen to you-and-me time?”
So, I went to the people best-suited to answer that very question: Dads. Not just a random assortment of dads either, but dads at varying stages of fatherhood — Mark (35), a dad with two newborns; Eric (37), the dad of a 4-year-old boy and twin 18-month-old girls; Douglas (44), a dad to three teenagers; and Steve (71), a dad whose kids grew up years ago. I mean, who better suited to speak about the realities of personal time when you’re a parent — and how it and your attitude toward it changes depending on where you are in your parenting career — than the guys currently living it? This is what they had to say…
Mark, 35: Father to Newborn Twin Girls
Before becoming a parent, I definitely had more time for myself. I’d exercise a few times a week, a mix of cardio and weights. I made a good effort to read books, and my wife, Megan, and I jumped at every chance we got to see concerts. When you’re in a relationship with someone you love, it’s hard to separate your own time from your time as a couple — nor would I want to — and that was a big part of our relationship — hanging out with friends, going on double dates. Plus, I got a lot of my alone time by just going to work.
Now though, I don’t read. I haven’t been to a concert in a very long time. I don’t exercise, either. My back has been killing me from bathing the girls, feeding them, picking them up and changing their diapers.
My wife and I do make it a point to keep up the social aspect, and we’ve got some help at home, so any chance we get, we sneak out and hang out with friends. But the reality is, I have two newborns, so there’s no chance I’ll get the type of personal time I used to get before we had kids. I can’t abandon the other parent; it’s way too much. So yeah, I probably drink at home more than I used to, which helps with the stress. That’s part of self-care, no? If I wanted an hour for myself, I think I could get it from Megan, but it feels like a big favor to ask.
Going back to work after paternity leave, I felt a bit like I had survivor’s guilt, because Megan was still at home with the girls on her maternity leave. Work is a little like my “me” time, especially since I have a job that allows me to make my own schedule. But I definitely miss having more time for myself. Every minute I’m home, I’m beholden to their schedule. I can’t even get through a fucking meal without having to rush them to bath time.
All that said, whenever they smile and look up at me, they’re beautiful. Then I happily pour myself a drink and pretend I’m out with friends.
Eric, 37: Father to a Boy, 4, and Twin Girls, 18 Months
When I was younger, I used to surf a lot and play water polo. About a year before I got married, though, I started to get back into swimming, and I found that it was exactly the type of physical and mental release I was looking for, because it’s such a solitary sport. So I joined a masters team.
Around the same time, about when I was 30, I started seeing a therapist once a week. I’d drive up to Malibu to see him, and we’d go paddle boarding. But for every thing I was doing for my physical and mental health, there was an equal amount of self-destruction. Just, you know, unhealthy living, and a tendency toward bad behavior. Mostly, I probably drank too much. In a weird way, for me, self-destruction was a form of self-care; it was something I needed in equal parts. It all came down to a “release.”
Now that I’m married with kids, though, self-care is about carving time out for myself. You have to work around your kids lives, you know? Like, you have 1 to 2 p.m., or 8 to 9 p.m. — you can’t procrastinate, you have to maximize your time. These days I devote my time to myself to exercise or music: Buying records, listening to records, squeezing in a surf, riding my Peloton. I don’t really see friends any more. You lose touch with them because you work, and then you go home to your family. Going to get a beer with your buddies is so far down the list. It’s just not a good use of your time. It’s family, then work and then maybe some exercise. Your life becomes a lot simpler.
Honestly, there’s just not enough hours in the day for you to feel like you get enough time for yourself. Self-care in the moment is the bathroom: You go in, and you close the door. I’ll take a 15-minute shit, and read the news — that’s my “me” time. It’s weird, but it’s pretty wonderful. Anything beyond that, you can’t do spontaneously. You have to plan it out well in advice like, “Hey, I could really use a swim tomorrow morning,” and even then it has to work around family.
You have so many other responsibilities, too, like, you’re also married. Besides the complexity of being a parent, there’s also the complexity of being married, so the time for yourself is nonexistent. I always say that Mondays are the best day of the week because, unlike the weekend which are in complete service to your family, you have control over your schedule. Monday, at least, you can get a cup of coffee and go to your job like a normal human being.
The fact is, when you become a parent, you lose that selfishness where everything needs to be about what you want. I identify as a husband and father now — that’s my purpose in life, to have good relationships with my wife and kids. The trade-off isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity. There are times when, sure, I wish I had more time for myself, but I don’t even remember what that was like. I haven’t had a Saturday in years where I had no responsibilities. I see people who can still do those things, and I can’t relate to it. And I don’t want to either, all I really want to do is hang out with my kids. It’s the best feeling.
Douglas, 44: Father of a Boy, 19, and Two Girls, 18 and 14
Before I became a dad, I was always active outdoors. I loved to play basketball, tennis and go golfing. I also enjoyed picking up projects like working in the yard, planting trees and building fences. Those activities were more than fulfilling for me, both physically and mentally.
Ultimately, while you lose that independence when you have kids, you reach a point where you’re like, “This is super fun.” I tell people that the highs that I feel and the pride that I get from my kids are much more fulfilling than anything I was doing on my own. But kids can bring you super low, too, because they go through their own problems. And so you hit some low spots as well.
These days, with my son in college and my 18-year-old almost out of the nest, I can pick and choose how I use my time a lot more. I trained for, and ran, a marathon. I’ve also taken up surfing. I suck, but I have fun falling off the board. I’m always trying to do things that can teach me something, instead of watching, you know, dumb TV. I read a lot of books, I’ve picked up some podcasts and I’m taking classes online. Like, right now I’m taking a class in search-engine marketing, it’s great. And I’m much more interested in giving back. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help others, giving advice and helping out my coworkers. I’ve found that really fulfilling, too.
No doubt, I get more than enough time for myself and time with my wife these days, way more than when the kids were younger. And we’re definitely looking forward to the next phase, and more time to ourselves, especially the travel. For example, I travel a decent amount for work and my wife’s going to start coming with me on trips. That’s exciting.
Still, it’s strange: When your kids are younger, you get so much of your energy from interacting with them, playing with them and being their source of fun. But there’s a spot between 10 and 13 where you start to lose them, and that was hard for me. While mom was a source of love and they needed her every day, they didn’t need to play with dad anymore, and it’s tough because your whole identity was wrapped up in the kids and playing with them. Then your kids need way less of dad’s time. You’re left with moments like, “Dad, I need the car,” or “Dad, can you pick me up from so-and-so’s house?”
But every once in a while, you’ll get these moments where you’ll get a day here or there where they want to be a kid again, and I’ve tried to be ready for those moments and not be upset when they’re over.
Steve, 71: Father of a Girl, 35, and a Boy, 38
My life now and my life before having kids isn’t very different. I skied as much as I could when I was younger. I played basketball and tennis, and I used to ride my bike up in the hills around L.A. I even half-assed liked to run. If I wanted to do something to stimulate myself mentally, I’d read. I was always doing a lot of reading, particularly about politics and foreign affairs.
The big change between then and now is how often I’m going to the gym. My knees are shot, so I can’t play basketball or tennis anymore. Instead, I go to the gym — sometimes five days a week to do cardio, weight training and pilates. In the winter, I continue to ski a lot, and every day, I walk the dogs three to four miles. I’m still reading a lot on politics and cultural issues, too.
I miss my kids, in the sense that I enjoy being around them when they’re here. But I don’t miss having them in the house like they were when they were younger. It’s a different stage of life now. And besides, the kids are adults and they live in the same city and I see them all the time. I’ve got a grandchild now anyway — if I want to go back to that experience — and I’ve got another on the way. Frankly, when I was in my 30s and 40s, my wife was raising them way more than I was, because I was working all the time, and traveling so much for work, too.
So no, I wouldn’t go back to that life. Well, I would go back, in the sense that I’d have another 40 years, but no, I wouldn’t do that part again.