What Becoming A Father Taught Me About Work, And Death

My second child was born last week.

The significant others in these scenarios are warned in prenatal classes, doctors’ offices and online that if they are not blown away in those first moments, not to worry. It comes on later. If you have not carried that child for nine months and felt every waking flutter and dance, it is difficult to feel that the whole thing is as magical as – of course – it really is.

When my first was born I hadn’t slept for three days and the birth had slipped in with my other hallucinations – so I would certainly say it was a spiritual experience in the low light, mysterious beeps and varied screams of an NHS hallway

Nonetheless, the change it brought on in me was different than it was for my wife. She had nested, put our home in order and cared for the child. I had been preparing to strike out on my own work-wise with provision for the indulgences I still wanted in my career. Within three months of becoming the father I had completed an enormous, detailed business plan that laid out what I had spent years tossing back and forth in my head; I had incorporated my company, I had targeted clients and planned the year ahead. None of it was indulgent.

Fast forward 15 months and to the birth of my second child: I had made the company profitable six weeks after Covid smashed our entire sales pipeline, because I HAD TO. I reassessed expenses, renegotiated SaaS contracts and reined everything in.

I had to make ruthless decisions and I made them. Without hesitation. I had changed.

Lessons

The first time I reached the C-suite and had to fire somebody I was devastated. Six months later, a star employee of mine, let’s call him Jeff, died suddenly. I found out from his wife. I was the first person she called and I listened to her wail as I went through security to board a plane to Jakarta. I wept in the departure lounge.

At Jeff’s home, watching his children play and listening to the rage of his grieving widow – alone in the world, now – I started to remember things… Why would a lifelong freelancer sign on to a job with benefits but far less pay and almost no adventure? Why would he work for a guy half his age with nothing like his experience?

Jeff worked every day, without exception, until he died. I learned later that, of course, he knew the end was coming. Jeff wanted to make sure his family was taken care of and so worked every second he could to make sure that when the time came I would know it, too. Unwittingly, he had sworn me into protecting the future of his family.

Changes

This article from The New York Times talks about the changes that occur in men when they become parents.

In 2011, anthropologist Lee Gettler found that 74.5 percent of 624 men aged 21-26 who became dads experienced a 34 percent average drop in testosterone versus those who remained single or married. Certainly, having kids has made me more considerate, patient and focused.

Productivity, adventure and an exercise of the mind drive most of what I do now that would have been a function of high testosterone before. I am a confident but much safer driver, for example. I still want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but I will actually prepare.

In 2014, Pilyoung Kim, a developmental neuroscientist at The University of Denver, put 16 new dads through an M.R.I. machine. He discovered that the brain was “bulking”; there was more gray and white matter in certain areas after 12-16 weeks than there was at 2-4 weeks, reflecting a ramping up of the skills associated with parenting like attachment, nurturing, empathy and the ability to interpret and react appropriately to a baby’s behavior.

Those months right after the arrival of my first were unreal. I could feel my brain (and my soul) change daily as the world – my world – shifted on its axis. I remember thinking “Real life begins now. Everything before was a prologue”. I said – and still do – that “This is the meaning of life”.

The most basic organisms exist to reproduce. The billions of years it took for modern humans to evolve were by design to make us parents, and if not that then members of a society that contribute to its continuation.

Reading all that is one thing. Jeff’s death was another. Now, as a father, I get it.

Epilogue

Fatherhood, society and the background of science, religion and the human brain. Writing this, my mind keeps coming to these lines from “Lays of Ancient Rome” by Thomas Babington Macauley:

Then out spake brave Horatius,

The Captain of the Gate:

“To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers,

And the temples of his Gods.”

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