Sometimes it’s the work that takes you to new places. Other times it’s the new place that determines the difficulty of your work. I’m celebrating a decade since being promoted to the rung of full-time Dad. The U.S. Census describes me as married, out of the workforce for more than a year and fathering children under the age of 18. 

It’s interesting they left out male-pattern baldness. There’s no mention of a proclivity for the ‘Regular’ setting, despite color or texture, of the wash load, and the report is surprisingly silent on wardrobe. I think I’ve won the cargo shorts contest. Not out of the woods by any means with two teen angels, but with enough experience behind me to share some silliness as encouragement for all the moms and dads who may find themselves slipping, being nudged, or in my case leaping from the ladder. 

Ten years ago, we purposely switched up the model for our young family — Mom would make it and Dad would bake it. For years, we both were pushing hard at careers that involved travel, lots of relocation and an amazing live-in nanny. It took time before we realized the deepening beneath what seemed like temporary cracks in our family foundation. 

Together, we quit our jobs and sold our house outside Atlanta. Our nanny moved on and we moved up above Trader Joe’s at the corner of Lake and Harlem. A store that’s created life-long affection for squirrels (not!) and an intersection that would test reflexes last used with a joystick playing “Frogger.” I liked “Asteroids,” too, but we weren’t a video game family. 

Kim found work nearby and I found a community well matched for full-time dadding. Lots of walking and biking. Plenty of parks to explore, festivals and people to meet. Even one Ramona Nibbles at the Oak Park Library who graciously accepted our offering of empty toilet paper rolls before story hour, and later taught us about losing a friend. RIP Ramona. 

If you’re new to the gig, find yourself without a corporate ladder to cling to, or if you fumble some when asked what you do, may this simple advice, delivered in the struggle of a story, bring a smile or maybe even confidence in the work that matters most: Buy a tent, keep it small, and always have an exit strategy. This is some of the best advice I can give a new full-time father planning on packing adventure in a toolbox for connection and teaching. 

Kim returned to Atlanta for 10 days of transitioning immediately after we unloaded the U-Haul. It was the rapid heart rate and dilated pupils on the sixth floor that signaled I should find a Walmart, buy a tent and immediately head north. We fled to Wisconsin’s Point Beach State Park to catch our breath and focus attention on all the new tasks at hand. The first was kite flying. 

With sunlight on their faces, sunblock an afterthought, I was proud of my idea and so far, flawless in its execution. The gentle westerlies that carried our kite high in the afternoon gave rise to the second new task, evacuating a campsite at 2 a.m. because of extreme weather. The girls were zonked. It didn’t matter water was running over the tent floor; there would be no time to pack it up as directed. Another case for small tents. I probably wouldn’t have woken without the park ranger’s flashlight shining in my baggy eyes. And after that exchange, he didn’t stick around long enough to see me car-seat (yes, that’s a verb) a half-naked baby decorated in wet sand. As humans we love planned adventure, don’t we? But we need to anticipate the unplanned too, and you will need to do this when shopping for your tent.

Buying a big heavy tent sounds wonderful; I urge you to resist this temptation. Like stowing personal belongings below the groceries while shopping with sick children. You might as well handcuff yourself to the door in the dairy section. Or failing to put yourself between your toddlers and the dressing room exit when shopping for yourself. Hello world! 

Buying a large tent violates the parenting precept of always having an exit strategy. When shopping for your teaching tool, your adventure vessel, think something with a window, something that looks good in the backyard, or even better, fits squarely in the living room. Some days wall-to-wall carpet will be your sunlit meadow because that is all the adventure you’ll muster, and that’s OK. 

Regardless, find comfort knowing you’re not alone and find the blessing in the view from the new rung of your ladder. 

Steve Lefko is a 2010 transplant to River Forest, husband and father, and a former corporate scientist who has traded up for the role of Director of Character Development, Lefko Inc.

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