Ten years ago in my "crazy" bachelor days, I was so busy chasing lingerie models (or rather watching SportsCenter in the back of the bar) that I never thought I would have a family of my own. As the calendar took me into my 40's, I fell in love with my trophy wife (two years my junior) and suddenly, children entered the discussion (though I worried about being called "Grandpa" by mistake). When I first learned "we" were pregnant, I became a nervous wreck. Granted, I had spent tons of time rousing up my nieces and my buddies' little ones, but I was always able to go home and fall asleep on the couch, while their parents dealt with their late-night tantrums. I had never really been responsible for anything in my life and my mom would probably be doing my laundry if I was still single.
But the first time I held my daughter, the first time she opened her eyes and gave me the once over, the first time she grabbed my finger as if to say "hey daddy"... all that freaking out, it was so worth it. Five-and-a-half years later, the worrying never ends, but is far surpassed by the fun, the joy, the pride and my unconditional love for her (most of the time).
Since the first day she entered our lives almost six years ago, I made it my life's mission to be an involved dad. I have rocked her to sleep, wiped many a sniffle (and many a tushy) and carried her so often I may have delayed her walking. I have prepared chicken fingers, mac and cheese and spaghetti to her liking and hypocritically begged her to eat veggies (unlike her dad). I cried from a distance as she (and Froggie) struggled through those first days of nursery school, overflowed baths with more bubbles than necessary, became an expert on Dora, Caillou and SpongeBob (which I find myself watching after everyone is asleep). I have dropped her off at school, jumped in bouncy houses, held her hand and dried her tears during several rounds of stitches. I celebrated milestones as unused overnight pull-ups got tossed, baby teeth were exchanged for tooth fairy gifts and caps and gowns were donned at pre-school graduation.
I have served as Coach on sports teams, much to the chagrin of others dads who soon wrote off their kid's professional futures. I have grown frustrated over her listening skills (or lack thereof) and apologized moments after every argument (in contrast to the advice offered in every parenting book). I have watched her make friends, gain independence and prefer their company to mine. Lately she shies away from holding my hand in public, gets embarrassed when I kiss her goodbye at school and rolls her eyes at the same shenanigans that used to crack her up. Yet at the end of most days, she still wants me to lie down and tell her a story. During those late-night talks, I learn most about her day, her friends, her likes and fears, her school work and play time. And I remember she's still my little girl.
Since the day my oldest was born, I have been totally obsessed with her. So much so that I worried I could never love another child as much as her. Then the baby came along four years later. She gave me that same initial stare, that first smile (maybe it was gas?) and we bonded in an instant. A friend once described to me that it's as if your heart just opens up to make room for another. Now I am obsessed times two (and still in a constant state of worry). I forgot how much I loved the 3:00 a.m. feedings when the house is totally quiet and we simply memorize each other's faces. Her colic gave me the opportunity to come to her rescue with a warm shoulder, a bottle and a made-up song in which she was the star. In time, the tears were replaced by smiles, then laughter and finally conversation that few besides a father and daughter could truly understand. Now she converses with the world, though I still like to think we maintain our own little secrets and I relish those early morning calls of "Daddy, Daddy!" (as long as they are not TOO early).
Elmo has become a fan favorite since his friend, Zoe, shares my little one's name. I love watching her emulate her sister and follow her everywhere, despite the constant tormenting that I assume older siblings are required to dish out as a right of passage. While I often defend the baby, I try to understand the challenges of going from "totally spoiled only-child" to "sister of a toddler who can do no wrong." I seek out special time to spend alone with my oldest as we enjoy father-daughter trips to the movies, the pool and the park while her sister naps.
To date, I have avoided throwing out my back when I lift them and have welcomed new friendships with parents 10-plus years my junior (though I wish they would stop calling me Mr. Brounes). While "older" friends are beginning to enjoy their twilight years as empty nesters, they rather enjoy seeing how I am screwing up my kids, much they same way they did theirs years (decades) before. They warn me to relish these days as they pass too quickly. They tell their teenage kids goodbye on Friday mornings and don't see them again until Sunday nights. They worry about things far scarier than runny noses and loose teeth. They spend Father's Day on the golf course because their kids have made other plans (or that's their excuse). They hope their kids have learned right from wrong because their friends have become more influential.
I am excited (and nervous) to participate as they grow up and walk through life. For now, I will enjoy the night-time rituals, endless SpongeBob episodes and weekly toddler gym classes. I will brag about routine accomplishments, stress about insignificant issues and agonize over the silliest arguments. I will (try to) enjoy each moment with my kids to the fullest and am hopeful that they will keep us young or, at least, young at heart. Then again, isn't 50 really the new 30?