I got 99 priorities and my kids are #1

If you’re having kid problems I feel bad for you son ...

The New Fatherhood is a newsletter from Kevin Maguire exploring the evolving nature of being a father today, with tools, tips and hacks to help you be better dad, and a community of modern dads who are looking for something more. My aim is to make this one of the best emails that you get each week. You are one of the 750 dads (and curious mums) who have already signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, get your own one here.

“Do you have kids? Or do you have hobbies?”

I asked this to someone I recently met. Of course, it was a joke—it’s possible to have both. But the reason I think parents laugh when I ask them is because they deeply understand the sentiment behind it.

When you choose to have children, you choose to add something to your life that's going to change it forever, and mostly for the better. But it will take time from the other things that you once did—or that you might have hoped to do one day.

Parenting is all about shifting priorities. The biggest shift is when a new baby comes into your life. Squidgy, defenceless and completely reliant on its parents, who are forced to immediately make it the number one thing in their life. Everything else disappears into the background, at least at first.

But about when that doesn't happen? When the baby doesn't become a priority?

I think a lot of problems around fatherhood occur due to a struggle of where your children are in your list of priorities (or, if they’re already #1, how far above the rest of them they stand). For many fathers, "work" is obviously up there, especially in Latin cultures, where the man is still seen primarily as the breadwinner while the mother traditionally stays at home. "Friends” and "hobbies" can rank high up there for some—and can cause understandable tension at home, especially when a stay-at-home partner has no choice but to put the child first. The stay-at-home parent generally don’t get a say in how much a priority the baby plays in their life—it instantly becomes top priority and stays there, and they're often made to feel guilty if this isn't the case.

But there’s a danger inherent in making the baby too high of a priority too—for these parents, big chunks of their previous life will start to crumble away, like icebergs that calve off glaciers and fall into the sea, floating away, a piece that will be lost forever.

As with many things in life, these things are about balance.

I think there's a Parenthood Priority Needle you can imagine, that looks something like this:

Down at 0-2, your child is not number your number one priority. This is "Terrible Dad" AKA "Poor Barron Trump" territory. Dad is never home. Or he occasionally rolls in at 2am after being out all weekend with "his friends". Not a good place to be for anyone.

When the needle is up near 2-5, we're in "Clearing a Very Low Bar" fatherhood. The child is dad's top priority. But other things still matter a lot, and you're probably focusing more on getting promoted at work or planning what football games to watch this weekend than thinking about what park to take this kids to or helping with their homework. A friend who is a stay-at-home dad of teenage children—and definitely not in this territory—told me recently that his circle of friends has lots of fathers who are stuck here. They've dedicated their life to climbing the corporate ladder, with magnificently titled jobs and more money than if Scrooge McDuck invested his fortune in Bitcoin—but their children are now strangers to them, and they can only communicate when talking about football or telling them what jobs need be done around the house.

Up at 5—8 is what I'll call "The Parenthood Sweet Spot." You love your kids. Your family is the most important thing in your life. Your primary reason for being is to love them, nourish them, and help them grow into wonderful human beings. But—and this is important—they're not the only important thing in your life.

Because up at the top, 8-10, is when your child is your one and only priority. Nothing else matters. No friends (outside of baby friends). No hobbies. No interests outside of parenting. Only talking about your children, no mater the situation.

We all know parents like this. "Oh I'm sorry, I can't come out to the pub on Sunday at 3pm because "something something about their routine that means we're not leaving the house for the next three years."

There's become a trend to say "our kids are everything", to relish in becoming a martyr to parenthood. From living on both side of the Atlantic I'd say this is more prevalent in the USA than in Europe, but it's starting to become more noticeable everywhere. And while it didn't start with Instagram, it's definitely been perpetuated by it.

When I was talking to Sejal about this last night she shared a passage from Glennon Doyle's "Untamed", a book she recently finished:

Every generation of parents receives a memo when they leave the hospital with their baby.

My grandmother’s memo: Here is the baby. Take it home and let it grow. Let it speak when spoken to. Carry on with your lives.

My mother’s memo: Here is your baby. Take her home and then get together each day with your friends who also have these things. Drink Tab before four o’clock and wine coolers after. Smoke cigarettes and play cards. Lock the kids out of the house and let them in only to eat and sleep. Lucky bastards.

Our memo: Here is your baby. This is the moment you have been waiting for your entire life: when the hole in your heart is filled and you finally become complete. If, after I put this child in your arms, you sense anything other than utter fulfilment, seek counselling immediately. After you hang up with the counsellor, call a tutor. Since we have been speaking for three minutes, your child is already behind. Have you registered her for Mandarin classes yet? I see. Poor child. Listen closely: Parent is no longer a noun – those days are gone. Parent is now a verb, something you do ceaselessly. Think of the verb parent as synonymous with protect, shield, hover, deflect, fix, plan, and obsess. Parenting will require all of you; please parent with your mind, body, and soul. Parenting is your new religion, within which you will find salvation. This child is your saviour. Convert or be damned. We will wait while you cancel all other life endeavours. Thank you.

We got a terrible memo. Our memo is why we feel exhausted, neurotic, and guilty ... New memo: Here is your baby. Love her at home, at the polls, in the streets. Let everything happen to her. Be near.

People have often told Sejal and I they admire the fact that while we obviously love our children, and are giving them everything they need to survive and thrive, it didn’t mean that everything else in our life stopped the day they came into it.

Whilst of course there’s a danger to your children if you don’t make them a priority, there’s also a danger—to you, to your partner, and your future—if you make them too much of one.

It's inevitable: your new baby will demand all your attention, and can really be the only thing in your life at first. But as they get older it's important to keep other things in your life going. Find things that make you truly joyful. Things that challenge you in rewarding ways. Things that make your children question their 2D vision of you as "just a parent". That push you towards uncomfortable places that will make you to grow into a better person.

So stay interested—but also stay interesting. Your children will thank you for it. I promise.

Where are you on the needle? Is it where you want to be? What’s keeping you there? Or do you disagree with it completely? Let me know.

Leave a comment

3 things to read this week

  • If you are interested in reading more about priorities, and how to maintain your interests after becoming a father, this piece on how fatherhood steals your identity is a good place to start: "If you’d have asked me how I saw myself before marriage and kids, I would’ve said first and foremost that I played guitar in bands and I was into running and surfing. Those were the things I loved to do. But then I had kids and I never do any of them any more"

  • Self-care is more important now than ever, and book released last week introduces a new philosophy of parenting—The Scaffold Effect— which explores how to raise better children by building them up then gradually taking away the support: "To support a child emotionally, acknowledge your own emotional needs and reinforce self-care by practicing it. Your child will learn the value of restoration by watching you. I have yet to meet a parent whose fondest wish for her child is that he’ll grow up to be a burned-out miserable hot mess who treats himself—and those around him—badly." Check out some more excerpts of the book here. It also comes with a seal of approval from Daniel J Siegel, author of my #1 parenting book "The Whole Brain Child", which basically seals the deal as a must-read book for me.

  • I know we're a few weeks into 2021 already, but this list of advice from experts in psychology, entrepreneurship and economics is still worth reading, and a good salve for those of us that are feeling down about resolutions not kept: "The reason you don’t follow through with your New Year’s resolutions isn’t that you lack self-control, or are lazy, or are a bad person. You’ve simply set yourself up for failure by choosing something hard.”

Good Dadvice

Vids for the kids

This is Pigcasso, the painting pig. She was rescued from an industrial hog farm and has taken to painting in her new life living in a South African animal sanctuary. Solid work, but you may prefer the more modern aesthetic practiced by Stubby, Baltimore Zoo's painting rhino.

Hey! Listen to this!

I've been loving the Brown Baby podcast from Nikesh Shukla, author of The Good Immigrant. It's a discussion with writers, musicians, chefs, comedians and actors who happen to be parents to brown babies, with a "a frank, funny and poignant look at parenting [and] honest, self-effacing conversation about how we tell our kids about the world." The first episode with Jay Sean was a riot, and his story about spending money in Disneyland was worth the entry price alone. Looking forward to more of these.

Previously on The New Fatherhood

Last week I talked a lot about the weight of invisible labour that often falls on the shoulders of the primary parent. I should say, I talked a lot about mothers there, without acknowledging the work put in by stay-at-home dads when the mum goes back to work—sorry! I also had quite a few private messages with people telling me it sparked some necessary conversations at home.

  • "I always try to stay true to the saying: You should not be helping your wife, as helping means it is her job, you should be sharing the responsibility."Jan

  • "We moms love our kids and want to invest in the work, but we also love and respect ourselves, so having the invisible time noted (and ideally shared) by the partner is essential for our sense of well being. Cooperative family is also good role modelling for the kids!" Lynn

Those of you that follow The New Fatherhood on Instagram might have seen this graphic from @balanced.birth.couple which outlined some of the invisible load carried by fathers too.

I was also feeling grateful on Friday during an eight hour walk in the mountains, and wanted to know what you felt grateful for.

  • "As much as this year has been objectively awful, the past 12 months have been some of the best of my life because of the time I’ve had with my family. I’ve witnessed my family grow. I’m grateful for my wife who shows me how to live authentically, and for my children who take my breath away daily. Also grateful for an uninterrupted coffee."Luis

  • "I'm not religious but i grew up in a church-going family and there was an in-built operating system for gratitude and 'giving thanks' through prayer. We've tried to replicate that aspect in a secular way through our dinnertimes. So during dinner each evening we go around the table and say three things we're grateful for/thankful for/best bits of the day. it's now a bit of a habit and is our subtle way of trying to instil a bit more gratitude into family life."MJ

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This week’s issue was brought to you by the letters “C”, “B” and the number “2”. Sending all our love to Katie, Brad and Blue and wishing him a speedy recovery from his operation. Thanks to Mark, Ward, Neil and Nikhil—I owe you all a drink to say thank you for sharing last week's issue far and wide. Shoot me a mail and we'll figure it out? Thanks to the rest of you who shared it too ... and for all of you who like, comment and tell your friends about The New Fatherhood.

— Kevin