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I’ve been a son for 39 years, a dad for 11 years. I’ve spent six years seriously studying what it means to be a dad. I’ve talked to hundreds of them. Can I tell you what I’ve learned in a short, snappy post? Of course not, but I can certainly try.

Being a dad means loving your child unconditionally.

Being a stable, consistent, present presence in their life, giving them the freedom to explore themselves and the world without bearing the burden of your judgement.

It’s a full-time role on top of your day job and you’re always on call, the first five years of which are super intense. Then, as they become more able and independent, it changes. The intensity has a different flavor as their brain development speeds up with the introduction of hormones. You’ll only really see the fruits of your labor 15, 16, 17, 18 years down the line and you’ll spend a lot of the time in between thinking you’ve screwed it up.

The rewards, though, are beyond compare.

You will learn more about yourself in those years than in any others before, but only you take the time to pay attention and reflect. You will experience emotional highs you didn’t think were possible. These will come along with some deeply low lows. But, even in these dark moments, you will be reminded of the value, fragility and poignancy of life. You will feel alive and through that, remember to focus on what really matters.

You will realize you can do things you never thought possible.

If you’re shy you’ll learn to stand up to teachers who are turning a blind eye to a bully. If you find it hard to talk about emotions, you will have the perfect person to practice with, someone who will never judge you (for the first six years at least). If you’ve always struggled to say no, or have workaholic tendencies (I raise my hand), you will have no choice but to put boundaries in place. When you do, you’ll wonder what you were so worried about before.

You will find yourself being one of the first people they turn to when, as children, they’ve fallen and hurt themselves, when, as teenagers, they’ve screwed up, and as adults, they are having a wobble. You will have earned an exceptionally rare and special position, one that only a few people in the history of the world will ever earn. You will be the recipient of unconditional love and trust from the person you’ve raised.

You could get all of these things, but only if you put the time in instead of staying in the office. Only if you stop filling your attention with relentless feeds and start thinking about real relationships. Only if you face up to your mistakes, make amends, and be better next time. Only if you work hard at understanding what being a dad really means, instead of hiding behind someone else’s idea of what a dad does.

It’s a choice.

If you choose to, you play your part in creating something truly extraordinary: a well-rounded human being. Someone confidently curious, who bounces back when life beats him down; who knows what she’s worth and what to expect from others; someone who pushes boundaries however big or small they may be; someone who’s kind and caring; someone who, let’s be honest, you hope is better than you.

Sounds like the best gig to me.

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

David Willans

David's exploring what it means to be a great dad, and particularly a patient one, after realizing he was an angry dad. He writes at www.beingdads.com, where he shares tried and tested principles and practices on how to be a better dad.

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