Fatherhood in America is changing. Many dads today are more involved than were their own fathers, as they help around the house and take a greater role in childrearing. Here’s what four contemporary dads—Elisha Cooper, Kent Johnson, Steve McKee, and Ethan Stewart—have to say about the joys and challenges of being a father.
Four Dads on Fatherhood
Is being a dad all they expected? Four dads dish.
What surprised you most about becoming a dad?
Kent Johnson: I was amazed at how one can function with so little sleep! It also surprised me how much effort it takes to be an involved dad, yet how rewarding and how much fun it can be. Ethan Stewart: I discovered how much I enjoy simply being with my kids and appreciating those little moments of tenderness. Plus, it has made me a better person. Steve McKee: My wife and I were unable to have our own baby, so we turned to adoption. It was an extremely difficult birth. I just remember this wave of emotion that came over me when I first held him. Elisha Cooper: I was surprised that my children would grow up and have opinions! Maybe “surprised” is the wrong word. How about “bewildered?”
How has being a father changed you?
Kent Johnson: It made me more balanced and more diverse in what I do and how I think about the world. Ethan Stewart: I am more conscious of providing an example to my children in terms of eating, exercise, interacting with others, preserving the Earth, and trying to live a purposeful, joy-filled life. Elisha Cooper: It changed me for the better. I’m stronger. I can carry two. Steve McKee: Everything hasn’t gone the way I thought. It doesn’t for anybody, does it? It’s important to never forget that I am whole because of my son.
How are you different from your own father?
Kent Johnson: My father delighted in the stage when children are age 6 and up. I discovered how much I enjoyed the earlier, pre-speech phase. Along with my wife, I got to experience sleep deprivation and be involved in all the infant routines. Ethan Stewart: I am more involved in the daily job of raising my kids. I change a lot more diapers and make a lot more dinners. Elisha Cooper: My father is gentle and generous. I’m all rage and opinion. But my father and I, we both love our children. Steve McKee: My father was a three-pack-a-day smoker. He died of a heart attack at age 50, when I was 16. I have stayed in good shape my entire life.
What fatherhood issues are you still working on?
Kent Johnson: Patience, listening, and really focusing on what each of my sons has to say, whether the communication is verbal or not. And figuring out how to approach discipline in the most appropriate way is a continual challenge. Ethan Stewart: Patience and finding creative activities and projects for my children. Also, figuring out how to explain spirituality and religion in a meaningful and thoughtful way. Elisha Cooper: Sleep. Also, impatience—and time alone with my wife. Steve McKee: There isn’t an issue that I am not still working on. Once you have one mastered, the next one is there waiting for you.
How do you encourage confidence, caring, curiosity, and creativity?
Kent Johnson: We set an example of creativity by doing things together—whether it’s drawing or making music. We talk about things that happen in school or between our two sons, including what the other person is feeling. Good children’s books are also helpful. Ethan Stewart: I encourage my daughters to observe what we see in our daily routines, like a flower or an interesting rock. I encourage drawing, lots of dramatic play—and singing! Elisha Cooper: I hope that if my daughters see me fascinated by the world, see me being kind, and see me resolving arguments, all will follow. Steve McKee: Now that Patrick is 19, I can’t be telling him what to do in this regard. Nevertheless, there are many times when I’ll jump right in with, “No, this is what you need to do,” which is the last thing he wants to hear from me.
What activities do you share with your kids?
Kent Johnson: We do a lot of outdoor stuff, like biking and soccer. We like finding books that the kids want to hear over and over. I really enjoy reading to them. Ethan Stewart: We like singing songs, running around, cooking, and reading. We read lots of different books, from picture books to Japanese fairy tales, from princess to fairy stories. Elisha Cooper: Hanging out in cafes, drinking hot chocolate while drawing or reading books, playing lots and lots of sports, climbing trees, planting basil on our porch, Also, shopping at the farmers’ market and reading the sports pages in The New York Times. Steve McKee: I will always cherish the time Patrick and I spent together when he was involved in a go-kart league. I also put together Patrick’s Big Book of Adventure Poetry. I copied sheets of poems in a three-ring binder. I was really proud of this personalized collection, and I still am.