It's not what you look at that matters; it's what you see.
On transformation and the power of a new perspective
The New Fatherhood explores the existential questions facing modern fathers, bringing together the diverse community of forward-thinking dads who are asking them. Here's a bit more information if you're new here. My aim is to make this one of the best emails that you get each week. You are one of the 1,750 dads (and curious mums) who have already signed up. If you've been forwarded this by someone else, get your own one here.
Why are you signed up to The New Fatherhood? And why did you open this email today?
It's a question I think about incessantly. It doesn't keep me awake at night—I have kids for that—but I ask it to every reader I talk to. And as I get the chance to do that more—over email, Zooms, FaceTime, phone calls, and the occasional coffee with a few of you here in Barcelona—I'm starting to see a set of consistent themes emerging.
Wanting to be more present, and less tethered to a phone or laptop. Thinking about a how to redesign your life, and the role that work plays in it. Trying to do a better job of holding things together and remaining calm in the face of chaos. Thinking about how to instil good values and make a positive impact on your kids’ lives. Finding ways to be a great father whilst trying to manage the other spinning plates in your life.
If I had to sum it all up in one word, it'd be "transformation". Fatherhood transforms us, giving us permission to explore the emotional depths within as we work to become the best fathers we can be. Some of these transformations are fundamental, some are more minor. Some happen overnight, others creep up on you when you least expect them.
I've found one of the biggest transformations for me was around perspective: not just the obvious cliché of "having children puts everything in perspective" (even though it's absolutely true), but more an “un-narrowing” of my worldview that comes from a complete perspective switch in your lived experience.
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is perspective, not the truth.”
Presenting three pieces of evidence on the power of new perspectives:
Exhibit A: February 2014. I'm on a plane, flying London to SF, 3 years into a high-pressure job at Google, heading away for my last work trip with my 5-month-pregnant wife sitting next to me. For some insane reason, I decided to watch Finding Nemo on the plane. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Watching that film? As you're about to become a dad for the first time? On a plane? Where you’re scientifically more likely to cry at any film? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
I cried more during that 1 hour and 40 minutes (including credits) than in the 3 months previous. You could blame the high altitude, or the fact I was drinking for two, “taking one for the team” while my wife wasn’t. But looking back, the tears were driven by the first complete perspective shift I experienced as a soon-to-be father. I thought about the first time I saw Finding Nemo: 20 years old, after falling out with my own father, having not been on speaking terms for a few months. Back then, I saw the movie from Nemo’s perspective: Why wouldn't his dad just leave him alone? Let him live the life he wants to live? To go and experience the world outside of their tiny coral home? To see what adventures the great sea could bring?
Flash forward, Lost-style, 10 years later, and I experienced a completely different film. A man who was working through the trauma of losing his wife, just as their son was born. Navigating that grief by being overprotective of his only child—all he wanted to do was protect Nemo! To keep him safe, knowing the danger that was clear and present out there. You better believe I was in bits.
Exhibit B: I grew up in Manchester, one of the UK's wettest cities. It rains around 190 days of the year there. You get used to it. Now I live in Barcelona, where it rains only 55 days a year (and many of those days it only rains for 15 minutes, versus non-stop days of rain back home.) When it rains here? Well, my brain wants to see it as a bad thing. But I look at my kids, and see it through their eyes. They're excited. Straight out in their wellies. Jumping in puddles like Gerald and Piggie in "Are You Ready To Play Outside?" (Quick sidebar: If you don't know them, the Gerald and Piggie books are pure gold. One of my all-time favourites to read with my kids.)
Exhibit C (”As we proceed to give you what you need”): If you’ve not watched PEN15, get on it. Right now. Created by and starring Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, two actresses in their 30s who play 13 year old versions of themselves. They star in the show alongside actual 13 year olds as they explore the awkwardness of adolescence. One of the most magnificent things about watching the show as a parent is it's ability to trap you between the conflicting viewpoints of adolescence and parenthood—just like the actors in the show—as you remember how difficult life was as a teenager while simultaneously understanding the perspective of the parents dealing with it.
Developing the tools for changing perspective
After my daughter was born, I remember calling my mum in tears (see a theme developing here?), excited to introduce her over FaceTime, and overwhelmed by emotion. For the first time ever I had an appreciation for what my mum went through to bring me into this world. “I can't believe you went through all of that—for me,” I sobbed down the phone.
This was a perspective shift that came instantly, understanding in a moment what she'd done for me. Other shifts take longer to pay off but these can generate some of the biggest transformations.
I’ve been meditating daily for almost 18 months now, recently hitting 150 hours on the cushion. It’s provided me with another new, internal change in perspective: an understanding of my own emotions and an awareness of the actions they're pushing me towards.
The brain is a pattern recognition machine. It's how it learns to interpret the world, and help you navigate it. When you get into a car (even one you've never driven before), your brain knows how to start it, how to drive off, when to stop, what hazards to look out for. It's programmed to react to various stimuli and generate the right response.
As we get older, these patterns help us. It’s why after a few years in a job it becomes second nature: you see the inputs, interpret them based on previous things that have happened, and (hopefully) create an ideal output. But these patterns work against us too. That one thing that your kid does that always makes you lose your temper, the defences you raise when your partner criticises something you do, the way you start acting like a teenager again during an intense interaction with your parents or siblings. There are patterns everywhere. And they make us react in boringly predictable ways.
A constant and consistent meditation practice helps you reprogram these patterns. To step back from the hamster wheel of stimulus / reaction / response. You develop the ability to see these patterns from another perspective—feelings that are occurring, but not overwhelming you—and begin to take a step back, to observe them, and make decisions based on the father you want to be, not just driven by whatever emotion is at the wheel at that moment. You learn to look at your feelings uncritically: not to beat yourself up for losing your rag, but to dig deeper into why that same thing might be causing it to happen consistently. To lean into the spikiness, and to see what you can learn from it.
If you go far enough with it you can start to let go of things completely, and begin the job of wrestling control back from your ego. But that's a discussion for another time ...
“It's not what you look at that matters; it's what you see.”
Henry David Thoreau
3 things to read this week
"How Vampire Weekend guided me into fatherhood". Fantastic article, ticking so many of the boxes of what I love to write about here: parenting, music, emotion and vulnerability. "I could see that with a little luck and a lot of work, fatherhood might bring a sense of perspective and contentment; that, if I let it, it would allow me to be vulnerable and have intense conversations about personal failings, relationships and love."
Arthur C Brooks has been writing a phenomenal series for The Atlantic on "How to Build a Life", a way to feel happier and bring more happiness to others. Last week he wrote about "How to stop spending time on things you hate": "These instances of wasted time can be a source of anxiety and regret, but in reality, they are a valuable resource: If we train ourselves to avoid wasting our minutes, we will have discovered a new reservoir of time that we can use in joyful and productive ways."
Next time someone asks "how are you?", try being a little vulnerable: "Studies show we actually perceive acts of vulnerability — such as admitting a mistake or revealing romantic feelings — as strength in others but weakness within ourselves. Vulnerability is a bonding tool — and after this hard, lonely pandemic year, we need bonding more than ever."
One thing to watch with the kids this week
Everyday in downtown Tokyo Mr. Mitani takes his African spurred tortoise Bon-chan for a walk. Watch this with your kids, then prepare the following response: "No. We can't get a pet African spurred tortoise. Not even for a joint birthday and Christmas present."
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last weekend I asked "What surprised you most about fatherhood?"
"Fatherhood made me reappraise my attitude to work. And I didn't see that coming. Up to the moment I held my daughter in my hands for the first time, my attitude to work was entirely selfish. To be the best. To win awards. To jump up that ladder. But all for my own satisfaction and self-validation. But when my daughter was born, as well as feeling utterly out of my depth and bewildered, I also felt a significant and permanent change in my attitude to work. It was no longer the be-all and end-all. It wasn't my way of proving my worth anymore. It's made me a better human being." Graeme
"How quickly my anxieties that existed before just melted away. We move around a lot, and I get quite fixated on belonging and community, and having a 'home' (whatever that means). But as soon as my daughter came along, it just kind of fell away like stewed meat off a bone. Now I feel like: wherever we are, we belong. I am not so worried about where we are, because we're together. It's brought me such existential relief." Ivor
"How much your kids are like you. And how frustrating that can be. And how beautiful." Jeremy
Branding by Selman Design. Illustrations by Tony Johnson. Thanks to Dante, Kenneth, Jack, and everyone else who shared this newsletter last week. Want to help? Click the forward button and send this to someone who might find it useful. Next week I'm excited to pull back the curtain and share the future of The New Fatherhood. Until then!