Family Wellness: Fatherhood Edition

While there’s a lot of literature on how to be a good mom, it’s not as easy to locate great guidance for dads. For a start, the role is shifting from generation to generation – with many fathers today taking on a more hands-on role than their dads were able (or equipped) to do. If you’re a father – or about to become one – you’ll want to define the role for yourself, perhaps taking a lead from friends who’ve reached that stage ahead of you, or people you admire in the public eye.

The positive effects of engaged fatherhood is an important, and newly-emerging, field of academic research. Check out the reports from the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, including: “Father and child well-being: A scan of current research” (Karberg, E., Finocharo, J., & Vann, N., 2019), which notes that: “High-quality interactions between fathers and children are particularly important for children’s socio-emotional and behavioral development. When fathers have high-quality interactions with their children in toddlerhood, those children have better social skills in third grade.”

The researchers found that fathers are key in consolidating a family unit: “When fathers are involved in core family leisure activities (e.g., eating dinner as a family, playing sports or participating in hobbies together, playing board games or video games), families tend to experience more closeness, more easily adapt to change, and are more likely to report that their family members are supportive compared to when fathers are less involved in these activities.”

And it’s not just good for the children – being an involved father contributes to improved levels of a man’s mental well-being too.

However, said the researchers: “Fathers often report being dissatisfied with how they are doing as a parent.” This could be due to high expectations, worries about getting-it-wrong, or just a lack of available benchmarking.

Fatherhood Findings: Aaron Papermaster

At Nano we want to be helpful – and personal stories are often a good way to glean information, while sharing useful tips and life hacks. Aaron Papermaster, Head of Operations, at Nano, took some time to share his experiences with us recently on being a dad to Olive (3), Jack (nearly 2) and as-yet-untitled-baby-number-three (due March 2020). Aaron co-parents with wife Amy Papermaster, Ph.D., a board-certified nurse practitioner at the Women’s Health Institute, University of Austin, Texas. Here are edited and condensed excerpts of our recent conversation with Aaron:

Aaron, we recently ran a story on avoiding Sunday Scaries so let’s start midweek at your house – describe the scene for us on a typical Wednesday morning. 

[AP] Sure! So, let’s see, for context: Amy works at the clinic, seeing patients, Monday/Wednesday/Friday – which means Tuesday is her day off, and she gets to spend all day with Olive and Jack. Wednesday mornings are great, because everyone seems refreshed. We have a great nanny, Lisa, and it wouldn’t be possible for both of us to work without her being here – but it’s great for the kids to spend all day with their mom. So Wednesday breakfasts are pretty relaxed. Part of our routine is for Olive and Jack to go to their grandparents’ – my parents – house one day each week.

Is it true your own grandparents live there too? A multigenerational household?

[AP] [Laughs] They do! I’m so grateful that Olive and Jack have access to their grandparents and great-grandparents too, I’m aware that this is very rare and not everyone is so fortunate. It’s also a good change of scenery for them – and they often get to hang out over there with their cousin, my sister’s son, on Wednesdays too.

Let’s skip forward to Wednesday early evening – you’ve just got in from work. What’s the scene that greets you at home? 

[AP] By the time I get home, the kids are usually in their booster seats at the kitchen table. Amy and I really enjoy asking the kids to talk about their day, to tell us their favorite part.

Do you eat together at that point – or that’s children’s tea-time?

[AP] Amy and I usually cook and eat later after the kids are down for the night (although not ashamed to admit the occasional appetizer of gluten-free chicken nuggets from the kids’ plates), so we can take turns talking while Olive and Jack are eating – and singing too.

Singing?

[AP] Yes – we’ve always been a big music family and I can’t help myself with tech gadgets, so I wired up the whole house with a great AV system with nice speakers  in every room, including the kitchen – even in the ceilings of their bedrooms.

What’s on the Papermaster household setlist?

[AP] Mostly soundtracks from their favorite movies: “Frozen,” “Frozen 2,” “Coco” – the whole Disney line-up, with some 90’s country and funk mixed in.

Very upbeat soundtracks. Dancing is a great exercise. Does that happen at your house with this sort of music happening?

[AP] Definitely – both of my kids love to move. Fortunately for them, Amy’s genetics are on display here.

Back to the kitchen table scene – this is how conversations about their day happen really naturally then?

[AP] Right – it’s built into our routine as a family – they know that we want to hear what’s going on, the good and the bad – in between us tending to their needs and requests for “More milk, please!” “Daddy, I made a little mess!” and so on. In fact, they’ll call us on it if we don’t ask about their day.

That’s great – so you’ve made it a part of family life which means, as they get older, they’ll have a regular outlet to keep the dialog open with you both.

[AP] I hope so – that’s the idea, at least.

Wednesdays – after supper – but before bed – what happens next?

[AP] We run around and I pretend to be a dinosaur, if required. Olive and Jack are pretty close in age so they’re still at the stage where they’re good at hanging out with each other, playing with toys.

If that happens, do you and Amy get a chance to catch up?

[AP] Yes, we’ll sit in the living room, so we can hear them – or see them at play – but check in with each other. Also, because Amy is pregnant right now she’ll maybe need a snack or something to keep her going before we eat supper and I like to take that time to spend with her, being helpful, or supportive, whatever’s needed.

Do you eat as a family at all?

[AP] We really try to do this on  Sundays (“Sunday Supper”), that’s the best day for us to really eat as a family unit. But often we’ll meet out for dinner one night  during the week too, it really depends. But we’re intentional about doing so on Sundays to build in that routine.

Routine is so important. 

[AP] It really is – and not just for the children, but for us as a couple, and as parents – building in specific times to take time, you know?

Totally. So after the running around (perhaps dinosaur-ing) or keeping an eye out for trouble during playtime, talk us through the getting-to-sleep situation.

[AP] I don’t know if this will change as they get older, but, right now, Olive always asks me to read to her before bed, and Jack is keen on Amy helping him settle.

That’ll be interesting when there’s a third child in March, then.

[AP] Crossing that bridge when we come to it.

Ha! Understood. So how do you get the current two to wind down and slumber?

[AP] Olive pulls out two books from her shelves, one educational, one more fantasy in style and we read for about 10 minutes. She’s good at stalling, but I’m used to that, so I try to out-maneuver her and  keep an eye on the time.

What books are on the menu right now for Olive, age 3?

[AP] Some classics – Dr. Seuss “Green Eggs and Ham” is still a popular choice, plus the expected princess books – “Frozen,” Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” and Rapunzel from “Tangled.” But she also likes tales of dinosaurs, lava and volcanoes. As Amy is in the medical field, we have quite a few health books for children. There’s one that Olive calls “The Body Book” and she knows it so well she can read along with me now. It talks about how to stay healthy and explains, in kids’ language, what the brain is, why we have bones, and the importance of exercise, sleep and hydration. She loves that one.

How good are you at the singing lullabies situation?

[AP] I’m not a good singer, but Olive doesn’t seem to mind. I’ve been attempting the same six songs since she was a newborn, including “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “The Eyes of Texas,” and “The Torchlighter Song” from sleep-away summer camp.

If readers aren’t from the Lone Star State, here’s the University of Texas band playing it before a football game for reference. But you went to George Washington, right?

[AP] I did – but I grew up in Texas, so first learned to sing “The Eyes of Texas” watching football games when I was little.. Never stopped.

Can Olive join in yet?

[AP] Pretty much – in fact she can sing along with my entire repertoire of six songs now – as well as follow along with the words in the books as they’re all in heavy rotation.

You’ve mentioned that Jack usually requests Amy for pre-sleep wind-down time, but what’s he into in terms of books?

[AP] Jack is very much into dump truck books, animals (“Pocket Piggies” is a crowd favorite) and an easy-to-read ABC book – E is for Elephant and I for Iguana, that sort of thing. That book has embossed letters so he can trace (or slap) them with his finger while Amy reads the text.

How about songs?

[AP] Like many kids today, he loves “Baby Shark,” as well as classics like “Wheels on the Bus.” He’s a bit more picky than Olive, he likes to choose what songs are sung.

They really do “ship” with their own personalities don’t they?

[AP] It’s true. It’s fascinating. But both my kids were born with a particular energy and disposition that’s entirely unique to them – and it’ll be interesting to see what our third child is like.

Especially as Olive grows in awareness of her eldest child status, while Jack becomes the middle child, after being the youngest. 

[AP] I know. We’ll have to see what happens there.

Do they both go to sleep pretty quickly or is actual bedtime a battle?

[AP] Olive has always been a pretty good sleeper – but she’s used to dozing off on my chest first, then I put her down. She has her routine – or it all goes terribly wrong. Jack – when he’s ready to sleep – will literally lean out of your arms towards the crib and indicate he’s ready to crash.

As you’re not in Jack’s room much when he’s going to sleep, do you feel you’re missing out on his nighttime routine?

[AP] I would – except he does make the occasional call to the bullpen to ask for “Daddy do it, read books” and Amy likes to take quick videos of him during their time together to share with me. And I love those. For instance, Jack has a tendency to answer every question with the word “noodle” right now and I’m so glad she captures those moments.

That’s a good point – how are you capturing their childhood memories for posterity?

[AP] One really cool thing that Amy started is a running Word doc, which we back up to Dropbox. We’ll sit together and just jot notes into it – like “Hey, Jack, it’s December 2019, and what you’ve been doing is answering every question with the word “noodle,” and you’re now this big, and know this many words.” That sort of thing. It’s really cool. Either we’ll write it together or Amy will start typing then hand me the laptop to say: “What did I miss?”

Talking of documenting – how do you keep track of everything from health appointments to the other records needed when being a parent?

[AP] I like to think that we’re super organized – and because Amy is in the health profession – particularly so around medical records. Everything is stored in a password-protected Dropbox and we share an iCloud calendar  for appointments and so on. Plus we get reminders from our doctors for the children’s regular check-ups. It takes work, but we’ve got it down to a routine now.

How about an inner life – is there a spiritual aspect to your family routine?

[AP] I guess we’re a classic modern American family: it’s December, and we have a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah table. Olive and Jack are learning about both sides of our family. Amy grew up in a small Texan town where there was almost one church per household in the region. While my father’s side of the family has a very long history in the Jewish faith, including a few Rabbis in our line. I went to a Jewish day school and studied Hebrew beginning in pre-K, but then went to an Episcopal high school, so had chapel every morning, and my mother is originally Catholic – but very open-minded, so I got the best of all spiritual influences. I guess Amy and I are not what you’d call regular attendees at either Church or Temple, but we’re observant of the traditions and rituals and want to give Olive and Jack an understanding of their history. We subscribe to PJ Library, the Jewish community book service, and the kids love poring over the new titles when they arrive in the mailbox.

Okay – honesty round – and this will be very useful for other dads who are tearing their hair out – how do you cope when your kids drive you cRaZY?

[AP] I’m completely obsessed with my kids, but I’ll admit, they can seriously test my patience, especially when you have to ask them to do something 30+ times. If I’m tired, or it’s been a long day, I really try to be mindful and put myself in their shoes before I rattle off a bunch of frustrated comments and corrections. I am very conscious of my tone – I don’t ever want to be nagging or censorious. I really don’t want my kids to see me as just a guardian or caretaker – but a real father that they have a deep, and warm connection with.

Good answer. Sticking with the tell-all theme – do you have a male support group of dads so you can vent with them when you need to?

[AP] Do you remember I mentioned the sleep-away summer camp? Well, I’ve known that group of guys from back then, since I was 12, and we’ve stayed in each other’s lives. A few of them were a bit older than me, so went through fatherhood earlier than I did. We’re on a group text/chat and so I got to see them go through everything from the first baby pictures in the hospital room onwards. As a dad, it’s been very helpful to have this support.

Aaron – it’s been a privilege listening to your fatherhood tips and experience – can you leave us with a few movies that inspire you, or those that just remind you that you’re doing okay?

[AP] Fathers come in all shapes, sizes and styles – I guess other dads – or about-to-be-dads might enjoy relating, or otherwise, to those in these movies:

  • “Father of the Bride”: total classic. started watching this at a young age, and always made an impression on me
  • “Mrs. Doubtfire”: hard to beat Robin Williams’ dad comeback story in this one.
  • “The Incredibles 2”: especially when the dad learns that Jack-Jack actually has the most superpowers in the family and is a total mess.
  • “Liar Liar”: because it’s hard to do worse than the two dads in that one.