A Supposedly Bad Thing I Said I’d Never Do
Daddy, what’s a star war?
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When fatherhood shifts from a possible future event to an actual calendar date you get smart fast. You may have been trying for a while. It might have happened all of a sudden. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll have felt the pressing need to become an expert on all thing parenting: the most recommended books, the most cited articles, the most viewed YouTube videos, the most upvoted Reddit posts—everything you think you need to know. You get skilled up, you do it fast. Not unlike those times you’ve started a new job, completely underqualified, feeling like you’ve somehow slipped through the net, arriving on your first day expecting imposter syndrome to be waiting in the cubicle next to yours.
Before your first is born, you naively think you can be “prepared” for what is about to come. You’ll form opinions across the spectrum of parenting. You’ll spend long evenings with your partner discussing the type of parents you want to be. What will your approach be to discipline? Sleep routines? Mealtimes? Just three of the dozens or-so topics you may never have spoken of before. You may begin to question your own beliefs, ones you’ve held your whole life, passed down from generations that came before. Other beliefs will have developed later in life, watching other people raise their kids in ways that rankled you. It’s easy to exorcise these ghosts, and draw them out—simply complete the following sentence: “When I have kids, I’m going to [blank]” or “I’ll never let my kids [blank]”.
And then you become a parent. And no matter how many books you’ve read, how many hours of podcasts you’ve poured over, how many hundreds of reviews of products—cribs, audio monitors, car seats, prams and more—everything is different. Those sacred cows you worshipped, those iron-clad promises you made to a future version of yourself, those things you swore you’d never do—letting them sleep in your bed when they’re older, enlisting the iPad as a digital babysitter to find a precious few minutes of peace, relying on sweets as a bribery currency—they’re all in play.
Last weekend I waved goodbye to something I thought I’d never let my children do: a belief held so strongly I’d shared it with dozens of friends, a promise made to others in an attempt that I’d keep it to myself. I let my children watch Episode I—The Phantom Menace.
Wait, wait. Before you archive this email, unsubscribe from everything, and start to construct a voodoo doll in my liking, let me explain. I know I shouldn’t have. I know exactly how I wanted to introduce my kids to the Star Wars universe: Machete Order, the generally aligned upon superior way to watch the series for first-time viewers. You start with Episode IV (A New Hope) before moving on to Episode V (The Empire Strikes Back)—preserving Darth Vader’s “hey Luke, I’m yer old man” reveal—before skipping back to Episodes II and III, cutting out (hence the “machete”) the shitshow of Episode I. You retain one of the greatest twists in the history of cinema, whilst simultaneously cleaving out all the nonsense about midichlorians, young Anakin (terrible rap name, even worse actor), the “virgin birth” nonsense, and never having to sully your eyes with Jar Jar Binks.
But here’s the thing. I’d tried Episode IV with the kids. More than once. But “A New Hope” is a tough place to start. It was a great movie when you first saw it, still in single digits, your first foray into a galaxy far, far away; a simpler time before movies were made to maximise dopamine hits via quick cuts and flashing lights (a trick later mastered by those cunning Cocomelon folks.)
“A New Hope” can—dare I say it—be a bit dull. Especially for young children who’ve grown up watching almost thirty years of Pixar, storylines honed to the hilt by their famous Brain Trust, pushed to pixel perfection by a render farm filled with 2,000 machines and 24,000 cores. Those movies look stunning, from the very first moment, and they don’t let up. And every parent knows, if you don’t get their attention fast, you might as well throw in the towel.
So after trying Episode IV a few times, I decided to take a run at Episode I. 51% on Rotten Tomatoes—way below the point where I’d make an excuse to watch something else. And here comes the rub: we kinda enjoyed it?! I mean, it wasn’t as bad as I remembered, thinking back to my first viewing: a midnight showing at Manchester’s Odeon Cinema, opening night, the entire place sold out with smatterings of Jedi, Sith, and Wookies dispersed through the audience. After the initial whoops of excitement subsided, watching a new stream of iconic yellow text disappearing into the vastness of space, we collectively wondered why on Earth (or on Tatooine, for that matter) we were being subjected to endless debates on trade disputes, occasionally interrupted with the whinings of an annoying child. The disappointment in the audience gradually increased over 2 hours and 13 minutes, until John William’s score played a cinema full of deflated faces out.
23 years later, my pain for the prequels is something I’ve been able to let go of. I’ve been doing the work, people. And it was an entirely different experience watching it with the kids. We bought the Little Gold Book retelling of the series. The last few weeks we’ve been reading them at bedtime, so I suggested we might try and watch it. A few scenes really stand up—the pod racing, and the final fight with Darth Maul, dual red lightsaber iconic as ever, “Duel of the Fates” thundering along in the background. “Is this me?” Padme would ask throughout the movie, as Natalie Portman popped in and out of the storyline. “I can tell you, but it’ll spoil the ending” I offered.
We remained curled up on the sofa, happy knowing it only gets better from here.
3 things to read this week
“The Stay-at-Home Dads Who Don’t Stay Home” by Julie Beck in The Atlantic. We’ve been talking in the community this week about making friends as adults, and how to find other like-minded dads in our local area. I’ve got a whole essay coming up on this, but in the meantime, why not chew on some of the ideas here—a conversation between a group of dads who have been friends for 14 years, after meeting through a stay-at-home group for dads in Kansas. “It is really hard for a dad to go to a playground and not be seen as a threat. Guys in the group have been yelled at just for being there. When I go to storytime, no one sits near me. Alone, you’re either the hero or the predator. When you’re in a group, it’s not like that.”
“Big Feelings, Small Thoughts” by Katie Hawkins-Gaar in My Sweet Dumb Brain. One of the reading highlights of my week was this piece from Katie, on the feeling of watching the rapid growth of our children right before our eyes. “This is a breastbone-aching, throat-tightening, tear-welling week for me. Maybe it is for you, too. But I’m with [John] Green: I want to feel it all while I can. Here’s to big feelings.”
“I Was a Screenager Addicted to my Phone” by Lola Shub in Insider. Loved reading this story from a New York teenager who felt like her relationship with her phone was out of control, so was driven to set up a “Luddite Club” with her friends: “You don't have to get rid of your phone to join the Luddite Club. Some members, including me, have switched to flip phones. Others still have iPhones but are trying to spend less time on them. When the club gets together, the only rule is: No smartphones here. We usually meet at the big public library at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, New York. We discuss books or our plans for the club. A lot of people draw. Some people read. Mostly, though, we just spent time not on our phones.”
Bumper spooky season special
Here comes a quote break
"When we adults think of children there is a simple truth that we ignore: childhood is not preparation for life; childhood is life. A child isn't getting ready to live; a child is living. No child will miss the zest and joy of living unless these are denied by adults who have convinced themselves that childhood is a period of preparation.
How much heartache we would save ourselves if we would recognize children as partners with adults in the process of living, rather than always viewing them as apprentices? How much we could teach each other; we have the experience and they have the freshness. How full both our lives could be."
— John A. Taylor, Notes on an Unhurried Journey1
One thing to watch with the kids this week
We are eagerly awaiting the new season of The Dragon Prince, coming at some point next month. It’s from some of the minds behind Avatar: The Last Airbender, another TNF favourite (no, not this Avatar. Or this one either.)
Last week on TNF
Some great comments on last week’s essay on the middle:
“Bruce Feiler's "Life Is in the Transitions" is a perfect fit for this post. A great deal of how well people navigate major life transitions is whether they have strategies for the "messy middle." He also debunks the notion of an actual middle, which I think you're doing here to some extent. There is no single mid-life crisis. There are many disruptions, ups and downs, and some of them are lifequakes. The number matters less than the foundation built under it.” Joshua
“This hit hard. I've spent a lot of time with Dante, and I find myself (obscured) at the age he was when he was exiled from Florence and began his poetic journey. The beginning of the middle makes life feel like such a long time. Oy, it's a long time. But having been here (or rather "been here") before, I do know two things: "The way upward and the way downward are one and the same" and "When you're going through Hell, keep going." So I keep going.” Andrew
“Reading this exactly a week before my 40th birthday and it really resonated. I’ve also been very contemplative about the milestone. I’ve been fantasising about where my life would be had I made different decisions and realised how easy it is to fall into the trap of only playing out the positive fantasies. Wondering where I’d be had I not become a father made me realise how much parental responsibility made me push for better pay, move to a better neighbourhood, insist on work-life balance, eat healthier food, essentially quit drinking, and more […] it’s been a worthwhile thought experiment to realise that even a lot of mundane stuff has improved in my life because of them.” Paul
Every week I add a few links at the bottom of this newsletter so you can tell me what you think. It’s powered by a company called Sprig, and earlier this month they kindly offered me a free upgrade so I could continue using it. It continues to be one of the places I receive the most heart-warming messages about The New Fatherhood.
Here’s one that came in one Sunday night, in response to this essay:
“I adore your writing and your world ethos. It’s a joy to witness your flourishing as a dad and a writer. It’s odd having never met you, yet I sense a safety about you, a safe pair of hands, a sturdy familiarity, like a friend I wished for at school, like a lighthouse in a stormy sea, like a farm shop and pub after a long walk. There is great comfort and support in knowing you are there being a dad and writing about how it feels.
Thank you as always for the nourishing yet challenging posts. I feel totally on board with rituals, connection, community and belonging, yet my relationship with religion is fraught with suffering, guilt, shame, fear and punishment, being raised catholic by a family who suffered for their beliefs while living in Belfast during the early 1970’s. I have witnessed incredible joy from other religious practices and value the great love they bring to peoples lives. So I don’t dismiss or deny it’s power to transport and transform. Have a boss week, look forward to reading more of your work soon. 🙏🏻”
I did indeed have a “boss week,” and your message kicked it off. Thank you, kind stranger.
How did you like this week’s issue? I do read these, see?!
Cheers to Ivor who shared this bit of food for thought in the community earlier this month