10 things I learned from a year of TNF
A week of navel-gazing, a year of talking nonsense
12 months ago I decided to try something new. To commit to writing something, once a week, about the changing nature of fatherhood:
“Being a dad has been set in stone for thousands of years: provide some sperm, make sure your family is warm and sheltered, go out and find your children and wife something to eat, and then make sure nothing bad happens to everyone (dad included). But today, things are very different.”
Last week marked one year of The New Fatherhood. 48 issues. Over 50,000 words. 26 editorial illustrations. Hundreds of emails, comments and messages. So, if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I wanted to share 10 things I learned in 2021, and some thoughts for the future of this newsletter.
Normal service will be resumed next week.
Make the thing you want to see, and put it out there
2020 was a struggle. Towards the end of the year, I realised how many dad friends were finding the same things tough: How do we raise kids in this world? Will this permanently change them? What happens when we have to go back to the office? What if I don’t want to go back there anymore? Will things ever be how they were and—if not—might that be a good thing? I didn’t see these discussions reflected elsewhere, and had a hunch that were more dads out there thinking similar thoughts. Was I the right person to do write about it? Would anyone give a shit if I did? There was only one way to find out.
Learning new skills > applying old ones
I’ve been in advertising for almost 20 years so I naturally started with list of marketing to-dos: taglines, social campaigns, posters, refer-a-friend mechanics, merchandise, and more. All compelling ideas, but felt like the wrong area of focus—the urge to take a marketing hammer and use it on a literary nail was too enticing. So I spent 2021 learning to write. To treat it like a craft. To give it the respect it deserves. To commit to learning the way, like thousands of writers had done before. To read more great books about writing. To read more great books, period. To get down to the nuts and bolts of language, taking old books and interrogating every sentence, unpacking their secrets, private lessons from the world’s greatest authors, delivered from beyond the grave. I'd spend my time—as Ira Glass so eloquently put it—"closing the gap to make work as good as your ambitions." That first dollar I made from my writing? One of the proudest moments in my life.
Dads don’t like asking for help
One of the first things I wrote was about asking for help. That essay was a prelude to the story of when I needed it myself. And I’m in the middle of writing another essay on how this struggle continues. It’s one of the key themes that drives this newsletter—to provide a place to have this conversation, but also a safe space where men can feel more comfortable talking about their feelings. You’ve done that in comment threads, private members-only posts, and community discussions. I want to continue to provide these spaces in 2022 and more opportunities to go deeper.
A regular writing practice has helped me be a more present father
In “Several Short Sentences About Writing”, the author explores the idea of noticing.
“Most people have been taught what they notice doesn’t matter,
So they never learn how to notice,
Not even what interests them.
Noticing is about letting yourself out into the world,
Rather than siphoning the world into you.
It’s the catching your sleeve on the thorn of the thing you notice
And paying attention as you free yourself.”
When I shared an early version of this essay in the community, Jon asked if writing the newsletter has changed my experience as a father, “in practice or outlook.” And it has, in both. Writing TNF has opened my eyes to elements of fatherhood that might have previously passed me by. Many of last year’s essays were born in quiet moments, slowing down and being truly present with my children, and later exploring interesting thoughts that had arisen: a way we could keep the toys tidy together, the strange feeling watching my daughter navigate Google Calendar, or the shared joy in a new bedtime book we were enjoying. It has, without a doubt, brought me closer to my kids—a side-effect I hadn’t predicted, but am incredibly thankful for.
The newsletter drives private conversations, but not public ones
Connected to #3, clearly. There have only been a handful of tweets over the last year recommending the newsletter—and, interestingly, half of them have come from women. But the bulk of growth has come from private word of mouth recommendations. There isn’t a week that goes by without someone telling me they were sent the newsletter by a friend, or they’d recommended it to other dads in a parenting WhatsApp group / Slack channel. These private conversations also provide people with a space to be more open, and the vulnerability I’ve shown in personal essays has lead to people responding in kind—this year I’ve been moved to tears by some of the most heartfelt emails I’ve ever received, from complete strangers, encouraged to open up—sometimes for the first time ever.
Working with great people will push you to be better
I started TNF as a solo project, but always knew it was going to need more than what I could do, and knew I needed other creative superpowers to help me “close the gap.” So early on in the process I got in touch with Selman Design and asked them if they’d be up for building the visual identity of the brand. To say I was bowled over would be an understatement—it’s a credit to their work that what you see here today is almost exactly what was in the brand book they delivered on their first attempt.
I also knew that I wanted to push the TNF aesthetic in the weekly essays too, and was delighted when Tony Johnson, an old friend, agreed to come onboard. Tony has brought colour to this project—both in his phenomenal illustrations and his always-insightful input into the essays during our discussions. It has truly been a collaborative effort. This year he created 26 custom illustrations, regularly turning things around in 24 hours. A lot of year one was akin to building a parachute whilst jumping out of a plane, week-after-week, and due to my own lack of forward planning I’d often hand Tony an unfinished essay on a Monday morning and hope for the best. He never failed to knock it out of the park, and I’d regularly receive one of his illustrations and realise I needed to step the essay to hit the bar he always seemed to raise.
The guest posts also took things in directions I couldn’t have predicted, and will be a key area of focus for 2022. In short: surround yourself with great people, make it easy for them to get involved, and celebrate success together.
Growth hacks can work. But nothing is more important than the work
Almost all 2021 growth came organically. My initial strategy was to tap into large networks of parents who’d be likely to sign up for a newsletter. So I wrote a short post and sent it to good friends, asking them to post it into their official “family” channels where they worked: Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon and the rest. Along with a post on LinkedIn that went fairly viral, that drove an initial spike of about 800 signups.
Most of the other jumps came from writing: the essays here, writing for other newsletters that I enjoy (and assumed had potential parents reading.) In April Substack featured TNF in their “What to Read” newsletter and said it was “redefining fatherhood.” And in October Esquire magazine featured TNF as one of their 10 Best Newsletters.
I ended the year a little shy of 3,000 subscribers with 125 paying: 94 paid members and 31 comps (paid subscriptions I’ve given to people who’ve helped along the way.) 94 paid subscribers means 3% of you have put your hand in your pocket to support TNF, and I am incredibly grateful to you for it. Substack estimate that number should be between 5-10%, so I’m still quite far off. I haven’t figured out why yet.
I’m very happy with Substack. But I can see why some writers jump ship
I’ve got to know some of the folks over at Substack over the last year. They’ve been curious, kind and very smart. They’re building a product that’s a joy to use. It’s doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as other email services, but they’ve hit the sweet spot with a tight, powerful product that isn’t weighed down with feature bloat. Although I would love an API, pretty please?
I (personally) feel the 10% cut that they take on subscriptions is a worthy trade-off for the service they provide, but with Twitter’s Revue taking only 5%, and the independent Ghost taking 0% (but requiring a hefty monthly payment for anything over 1,000 subscribers) there are many options out there for people who balk at potential “lost” revenue.
The topics you like reading are as unpredictable as the ones I end up writing
The most popular early posts were my story about paternal post-natal depression, Stuart’s story about his child’s limb difference, or how we continue to define ourselves by our work. But essays I had assumed would be “slam dunks” ended up as damp squibs. In June I added a short survey at the bottom of each email and it provides invaluable insight into what resonates. Some of the highest rated stories? Hana’s essay on society’s need to default non-birth mothers to “dad” status and this essay on deep time.
Your favourite essay of the year? When I caught Covid. Not sure what to infer from that, although it was one of my favourites too ...
Finding the time to write vs. exploring experiences that inspire
Being a parent is hard. It's wonderful, don't get me wrong, and in the Kevin Maguire Multiverse I'd choose it again, every time, in every alternate dimension. It’d take me years to unpack everything I’ve learned about myself since becoming a parent. But these little maniacs take everything you can give, and when you’re done giving, they take some more. I wonder where this project would be if I could devote the free time to it that I had 15 years ago. But perhaps it’s my experiences over those 15 years that enable me to write it in a way that attracts other dads (along with curious mums, and dads-to-be.) We have found each at another crossroads as we attempt to comprehend the weight of an overwhelming responsibility: to raise the next generation, and inspire them to be better than we can only try to be.
What I haven’t figured out yet
What does success look like as a parent?
We have many indications of progress in other areas of our life. At work there are signals like salary, title, promotions. With certain hobbies we can take tests, learn new pieces, work towards concrete milestones. These signals help us on our journey, giving us an indication that we’re on the right track. But they don’t exist for raising kids. The only thing that’s truly measurable is how many kids you have, and how old they are. I received a voice note from a good friend over Christmas who sat down with his parents and talked about how they judged whether they’d been “successful” as parents or not. This is something I’d love to spend more time thinking about this year.
The social dilemma
I haven’t been shy about my feelings towards social platforms. And, at the same time, I’m actively posting on Twitter and Instagram. They’re an integral part of life for many, and a huge driver of growth for publications that manage to crack the code. But I haven’t figured out the role for TNF in those spaces yet. This year I’m working on reducing the amount of time I spend on my phone, which is obviously antithetical to more time posting social content. Clear as mud, as you can see. I want to spend this year figuring out what the solution might be—whether it’s offloading some of this to someone more willing and able, trying a fresh approach for a few key channels, sunsetting the accounts, or something entirely different.
The Goldilocks Paradox: Should there be more TNF? Less? Or is it just enough?
The number one reason I unfollow or unsubscribe to anything is when there’s too much of it. A Twitter account that posts three times more than anyone else. A newsletter that goes daily, and spreads the same amount of value over twice as many emails. I think I’ve figured out the right cadence for TNF: a big email every Tuesday, a short discussion topic on Friday, and subscriber-only essays scattered amongst the rest. But I’d be lying if I said I’m sure I’ve got it right. If you have thoughts on this hit reply and let me know.
Where is this going? And does it matter?
It’s hard not to gaze into the crystal ball and imagine what TNF might become. There’s a potential path where this grows like wildfire over the next 12-24 months and becomes my primary focus. I’ve already written about how this is the closest I’ve ever felt to having a “calling”, how it feels like my entire career has been in preparation for this project. But, if I’m being totally honest, I’m not entirely sure that’s what I want, and I’m frightened of the the knock-on effects on motivation and inspiration if this becomes a full-time job. I’m trying not to get too distracted by the road ahead, but focusing on making TNF the very best it can be today.
What is TNF, and why do people read it?
Was I really sure what this was going to be when I started it? Am I any closer today? Maybe the fact that it’s so loosely defined that makes it welcoming for many (and I will never tire of emails that begin “I’m a mum but ...”)
This might be surprising, but after a year of writing I still have no idea why you read this newsletter. I want to change that today. So (and calling back to #3) here’s a dad asking for help: please take 5 minutes and fill out this survey. Thank you.
What to expect from TNF in 2021
More essays and illustrations from more diverse voices
The Substack Grow Fellowship came with a $6,000 grant. I’m aiming to use it to elevate more voices this year: lesser heard perspectives around fatherhood, using this platform to raise awareness of these topics, and paying writers for their work. Essays are normally in the range of 500-1500 words, and writers will be paid $100 for the essay, along with an annual membership to TNF. Many of the essays last year came from writers who’d never had work published online before, and I’m here to support with editing, proofreading and guidance. If you have a fresh viewpoint on fatherhood that you want to share (or know someone who does) please get in touch.
I’m going to commission more illustrations this year too. Tony will continue working his magic, but after 6 months of insane Mondays he’s stepping away from the weekly grindstone. I’ve also got my shit together, with a monthly editorial plan, so I’m no longer need people to move mountains in 24 hours. Again, I’ll be paying $100 per illustration. If you’re interested in working together on this, hit me up.
More structure around community events
We trialled a few things for paid subscribers last year—meditation courses, coffee mornings—but I’ve realised repeatable events work better than one-offs, especially for building authentic connections between dads. So this year I’ll be doing more of that. We’re stealing the Swedish “Fika” concept for a monthly get-together, starting next week, as well as a hybrid movie / book club that I’ll talk more about next week. And I’m hoping real-life events will play a big part this year, depending on external circumstances.
Continuing the push the boundaries of what TNF is
This project is driven by a curiosity to explore what I think are interesting things in fatherhood (and, by extension, what you might be interested to read.) But it’s always been more than that. TNF scratches an itch for me. I wanted to put something out in the world that is public record of my perspective on fatherhood, and a place where I can weave my passions into a coherent whole, and invite others to take part. I was inspired by a James Murphy interview I read a while back, where he called DFA Records “a collective of people who did stuff.” It feels more and more what I want this to become.
I feel I’ve only scratched the surface so far. I’m planning on great things in 2022, and they’re made possible thanks to the support of paid subscribers. It’s never been easier to become one of them:
A few thank yous
From the very first day, The New Fatherhood had been about more than just me. This project is made possible thanks to the input of these wonderful people:
Those who guest wrote an essay in the first year: Stuart Waterman, Adam Stones, Hana Tanimura, Steve Nye, Lyle McKeany, Hunter Simmons and Erin Chen.
The friends who helped me figure things out along the way, and the conversations that made essays immeasurably better: Justin Li, Gareth Kay, Nic Owen, Cristian Cussen, Rodrigo Peláez, Kam Keshmiri, Nick Fell, MJ Alexander Scott, Neil Connolly (and Hana and Tony, again.)
The folks at Substack, who built a product that made this possible, and continue to support TNF.
Those of you who have got involved: sharing your point of view in the comments, your stories over email, sharing the newsletter with your friends. A special thank you to those who have paid to subscribe and will enable more fun in 2022.
And of course to my wife, and kids. This would not be possible without them, for all the reasons.
Year Two. ¡Vamos!