The talented people who make those little, dangling air fresheners should launch a fragrance called New Dad Smell. It could be similar to the alpine-scented one that looks like an evergreen, but with the gentle undertone of baby drool and the subtle hint of sheer terror.

Unlike many ideas I’ve had since becoming a father in 2004 (and again in 2006), New Dad Smell is a terrific concept. Here’s why: As soon as I start to feel some swagger — the powerful belief that I have this parenting thing figured out — I could simply close my eyes, place my nostrils against the deodorizer and take a giant whiff.

Immediately, my neurons would be transported back to the car ride home from the hospital. As other dads can attest, the result would be humbling.

Well, I assume it would be humbling. To be honest, I don’t recall the car ride — or my first few months as a father — with any clarity whatsoever. I was a nervous wreck. I felt the pressure of wanting to Be a Good Father, a title that feels like it should be capitalized. I wanted to be as guiding, supportive, generous, assuring and appreciative as my own dad.

The day I became a father
I tried to prepare when my wife Laura became pregnant. I read a few books, scanned some online articles and soaked up unsolicited advice from all kinds of people. I even rehearsed what I might say in important situations: You aced the final? Yes, here are my inspirational remarks about achievement! You wrecked the car? Ugh, here is my succinct advice about accountability.

Who knew? Maybe my efforts would one day yield amazing results. I could be the encouraging father of a scientist who finally discovers a cure for cancer, or the proud dad of a left-handed pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who finally discovers the strike zone. Anything was possible.

But as Laura and I drove home from the hospital, I looked at her with a mix of excitement (ahead of us, a new life!) and guilt (behind us, in the backseat, HOLY CRAP, SOMEONE ELSE’S CHILD! WHAT THE HELL?! WE HAVE TAKEN THE WRONG BABY! THIS ONE IS ORANGE! WE NEED TO TURN AROUND!)

No, we didn’t, Laura assured me. It was jaundice, and totally common. Whew. It didn’t take me long to realize that life as a father can be confusing and complex when each day feels like a mixed bag of joy, concern, hope and doubt.

Dear God, thank you for everything…
As I recall those flailing days of fatherhood, it’s hard to believe our son Gibson is now six and his sister Anna is four. No doubt, Laura and I have been blessed. They are both kind, smart, polite, attractive, good-natured little people with a seemingly endless supply of energy. They have lots of friends, they don’t spit, they sing in the shower, they understand the power and meaning of The Terrible Towel — the list goes on.

Do they have their moments? Of course. (We all do.) Just a few nights ago, Gibson told us he had taken a shower by himself and was ready to play the Wii again—he even described the feeling of shampoo running through his hair—but was bone dry and still filthy. As for Anna, it takes her roughly 1,983 years to put on sandals when we’re running late, then another few years to actually, physically get into the car.

But we love, support, laugh, sulk, play, sing (and fib and dawdle) together, and I really couldn’t imagine it any other way.

No matter what great or not-so-great things happen during the day, we come together—both figuratively and literally—at the dinner table, a place that’s cliche but also cathartic. We have a family custom in that we take turns leading the rest of the table in grace. For example, on Anna’s day, she’ll begin, “Dear God,” and the rest of us will repeat “Dear God.” Then she’ll continue, giving thanks to a litany of things that generally includes our cat and the fact that it’s not thundering.

This evening, it’s Gibson’s turn to lead us. The aroma of Laura’s fresh chicken paprikash fills the kitchen. We bow our heads. Gibson begins, and we follow: “Dear God, thank you for everything … including everything. Amen.” He thinks this is hilarious.

The laughter is stopped by Anna, who declares she needs a new pack of chewing gum because she’s a “growing girl.” Gibson then informs us how he and his buddies will soon chop down a large tree in our backyard using foam swords. Both kids then ask me to do a new version of “Slow-Motion Dad,” a common request that involves me acting out a recent occurrence—tripping in the living room, answering a strange phone call, etc.—in slow motion and with over-the-top facial expressions.

I didn’t realize this when I was a new to the role, but being a good father (lower case) mainly means being present and involved. It means showing good actions, not just practicing good advice. It means realizing life is beautiful, not just complex, because of that mixed bag of joy, concern, hope and doubt.

It means not caring if your kid becomes a famous scientist or flame-throwing All-Star. It means caring if he or she is a good person who is happy, a soul both valued and valuable. It means realizing that no matter your preparation for being a good role model, your kids come through you more than they belong to you.

treasured items

Being a good father
I try to remember that being a good father doesn’t mean creating grand plans, but rather relishing small moments. Several of those moments are shoved into two boxes on top of my dresser, and I look at  them frequently. The larger one is a brown cigar box that smells like cedar. The top has a preschool photo of Gibson at age four, along with a blue piece of paper that includes an outline of a man’s tie and my son’s horrible attempt to color it. The smaller one looks like a jewelry box painted blue. It has Anna’s preschool photo taken earlier this year, along with a green starburst that says “2011.”

Inside the boxes are the reasons I’m a happy father: baseball game stubs, movie ticket receipts, napkins, seashells, handwritten notes and other memories of moments I’ve shared with Gibson and Anna. They remind me of how lucky I am. They remind me of how enjoying life’s journey is more important than envisioning the destination.

This Father’s Day, I thank God for everything, including everything.

That blessing will sustain me later, too, when Gibson and Anna start to ace finals and wreck cars, when those first days of fatherhood seem more distant, when I start making jokes about my old dad smell.


Photos courtesy of the Painter family


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