39 things you need to know about being a dad in the city.
When my wife, Rebecca, first told me she was pregnant, I didn’t say anything at all. In fact, I walked out of the apartment silently, and wandered the streets for half an hour. I sat at the base of the steps near Casa Loma and phoned my brother—by then a father twice over—for advice. “I can’t take care of a kid,” I said. “I can barely take care of myself.” This, I learned later, is a very common reaction. No one in the history of fatherhood has ever been ready for fatherhood. We all just make it up as we go along. And that’s okay, as long as we keep going along.
Three kids later—Colum (6), Irene (3), and Mary (9 months)—I’m still figuring out how to take care of myself and take care of our children. But no one is broken yet, and it’s gotten easier. It has also been an opportunity to get to know Toronto in a new way. The city looks different from behind the wheels of a stroller than it does from the back seat of a cab at 2 a.m. As I prepare to celebrate my special paternal day, I’ve compiled a list of observations and opinions from the first six years—free advice from a Toronto dad, designed to help you navigate the wonders of urban fatherhood.
1. The appropriate reaction when someone tells you she is pregnant with your baby: Say “I love you” and give her a hug.
2. The quality of midwifery service available in Toronto is unmatched by anything else in the healthcare system. Hiring a midwife is not about liking the smell of patchouli and wanting to eat the placenta (unless you want it to be). It’s about a standard of professional medical attention and personal communication that ought to be a model for doctors and nurses.
3. Men fear that they’ll be an extraneous bystander during labour. But helping Rebecca through two sleepless days of trying to deliver our first baby is maybe the hardest, most intense work I’ve ever done. And certainly the most rewarding.
4. Most parents say that everything changes when you look into the eyes of your first child. They’re right. Everything does change.
5. It may feel ridiculous to take off your shirt to hug your baby for the first time in the delivery room, but you should do it. Feeling the warmth of that newborn skin against yours is good for you. Besides, it’s good practice: So much of fatherhood is about slowly letting go of your fear of feeling ridiculous.
6. Even if you plan to take the subway home from Mount Sinai Hospital after your baby is born, you’ll still need to bring a car seat for the newborn. Otherwise, they won’t let you leave.
7. A lot of things that seem like they’re going to be difficult are really easy. Changing diapers, bathing the baby, holding and burping the baby—no problem. The difficulty comes in the baby’s relentless need for attention. It’s a test of endurance, not skill.
8. The presence of good parks in your neighbourhood becomes as important to you after you have children as the presence of good pubs was before. And they serve roughly the same role, as venues for socializing and blowing off steam.
9. A good park doesn’t need to be fancy, large, or even beautiful. Vine Avenue Park, near my house—a small patch of grass with a playground—is our favourite because it has everything a park needs: a space to run around, stuff to climb, and a friendly community of other kids and parents to chat with.
10. The Henry Moore sculpture outside the AGO doubles as another cool climbing playground.
11. When we found out we were having a second child, everyone acted like it was the most natural, expected thing in the world. When we decided to have a third, they said, “Really?” But we knew we’d never regret having another person in the family to love.
12. For mothers, it seems, the world is a simmering stew of advice, recrimination, and judgment—there are thousands of books, magazine articles, blogs, and well-meaning strangers on the street waiting to tell her what she should be doing. But if you’re a father, simply pushing a stroller around on the sidewalk, strangers will actually approach you to tell you what a great dad you are. The bar is set pretty low for us. Because of that, I feel guilty rather than proud when a stranger tells me I’m a good father.
13. High Park Zoo. Riverdale Farm. Centre Island petting zoo. Toronto Zoo. Royal Winter Fair. Really, any place with animals, even if you don’t much like animals, will be your kids’ favourite place.
14. You can get around on the TTC fine with one kid. Two kids are hard for a solo parent to wrangle on the streetcar. When we had a third, I went and got my driver’s licence.
THE GRID PODCAST: Who needs a big lawn, anyway? On this week’s episode of The Grid Podcast, Edward Keenan talks with David Topping about what’s so great about cities for kids—and what’s not so great about the suburbs. Listen here.
15. The most mundane crap becomes fascinating when your kid is doing it: Watching your 18-month-old son’s feeble attempt to stack blocks on top of each other is suddenly more riveting than the hockey playoffs. It’s not until you’re relating the block-stacking anecdote (“And then he put an eighth up top—he’s not supposed to reach that developmental milestone for another year!”) to an old friend at a party that you remember how utterly boring this stuff is to other people.
16. Royal Ontario Museum family membership: totally worth it. They never get tired of the dinosaurs. Never.
17. We have a bedtime routine in our house—all the parenting books will tell you routines are important. Ours involves Rebecca nursing the baby in one room while I lose my temper with the two older kids in the room next door for an hour or two.
18. Streetcars are basically an amusement-park ride for young kids: “A train! We get to ride a train!”
19. I was threatening my daughter with consequences for her refusal to go to sleep one night. “If you don’t lie in bed and close your eyes right now,” I said, “Herra is going to have to go away for two days.” I held up her favourite doll, ready to hide it if Irene did not bow to my will. The problem with being in a standoff with a three-year-old is that once you are engaged, you cannot back down, lest you teach them that they can get their way through defiance, screaming, and shouting. But you can’t win, either, because following through on the consequences—imprisoning the doll—leads to a new, more intense plateau of screaming. I looked at my daughter, now defiantly shouting that she would not go to sleep, and I looked at the doll, and I looked at myself. This is where I’ve come to as a father, I thought: holding a doll for ransom. Surely this isn’t how it’s supposed to go down.
20. Earlier this year, I enrolled in a “Positive Discipline” class offered by the non-profit Parent Education Network in an Etobicoke strip mall. The lessons were great, and the books on positive discipline are worth reading. I can sum up the gist for you, though: You can’t control your children; you can only guide them. You need to let them feel their emotions and acknowledge them, rather than trying to get them to change their mood or attitude. There are no Jedi mind tricks that work on children more than once or twice.
21. That said, bedtime has gone much smoother since I took the class.
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