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Dad Advice: How to Quiet Your 'Inner Screaming' And Survive


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. And today, just in time for Father's Day weekend, we are focusing on what new and experienced dads need. We're not talking about a new tie, soap on a rope or a bottle of Old Spice, although those are nice. But we're talking about the best advice for meeting the big and small challenges of fatherhood.

So joining us to share their best tips and maybe even a mistake or two - not that that's ever happened - in fatherhood are Lester Spence. He's the father of five and a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. Phil Lerman is author of "Daditude: How a Real Man Became A Real Dad." He's the father of one and a step-dad of one. Brakkton Booker, producer at NPR, is the brand-new father of a 3-week-old son. Let's see if he can keep his eyes long enough to get through this conversation. They're all here in our Washington, D.C. studios. And with us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California, is Dan Bucatinsky. He is an actor and a writer and the adoptive father of two. He's the author of "Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?: Confessions Of A Gay Dad." Thank you all so much for joining us.


LESTER SPENCE: Thanks for having us.


MARTIN: And happy Father's Day, and congratulations to the new dad. So Phil, let me start with you. You had your son, Max, a little later in life. In your book, you talk about how you thought your long career in management would prepare you for fatherhood. It didn't.

LERMAN: What happens when you're a manager is that you think you can control the world around you. I was at "America's Most Wanted" where we thought we could save the world by taking criminals off the street. And what a baby does is takes your belief in order and stuffs cheese balls in its ear because what you learn very early on and what you try to learn is that there is a chaos that comes with children. And if you can learn to embrace that chaos rather than fight it, life gets a little bit easier. It never gets easy, but it gets less difficult if you stop struggling against the chaos that's all around you.

MARTIN: Is that the main thing you wish you had known before you became a dad?

LERMAN: No. The main thing I wish I had known is that you should sleep before the baby is born 'cause you don't sleep later.

MARTIN: Yeah, but you're too busy putting together that furniture from IKEA.

SPENCE: (Laughter).

LERMAN: Which is what most people think all dads are good for is that, but...

MARTIN: Lester Spence...


MARTIN: You wear the crown with the five.

SPENCE: Somebody's got to do it.

MARTIN: Right. What's the best advice you wish you had gotten before you had kids?

SPENCE: Save loot, save loot, save loot - so I started when I was really, really young. I was, like, 23 or 24. And I just thought that once, you know, that once my career started, I'd be able to kind of catch up. And it just never quite happened like that. So that's the thing. It's like that loot - if - to the extent you can plan, like, try to save as much loot as you can 'cause they need it.

MARTIN: Dan, what about you? You're raising - you and your husband are raising a boy and a girl. Is there some advice you really wish you'd had before you started on that journey of being a dad?


SPENCE: (Laughter) Gangster.

BUCATINSKY: I'm kidding. No, no, you know, I love being a dad. And, obviously, every day wound up being a surprise. Everything you think you could prepare you for - that book "What To Expect When You're Expecting" - there so many things that you can't possibly expect that are probably new to every parent and very unique to each kid.

I think the biggest thing I've learned - and now my kids are nine and six - is to quiet the inner voice - you know? - to try to become the dad I wish I could be for myself first because I'm telling you - the screaming I do at myself. My daughter asked me for a training bra the other day, and I started screaming in my head, oh, my God. She's on her way to doing porn.

SPENCE: (Laughter).

BUCATINSKY: And, truthfully, when my boy wants a sword or, suddenly, at the same time, wants to wear pink nail polish like his sister or my daughter wants a training bra - the hardest lesson I think I've had to learn is to quiet my inner screaming and embrace everything that they are turning into with a kind of calm and acceptance that I wish, you know, that you sort of wish your inner daddy had towards you.

MARTIN: How do you do that? How do you calm your inner screaming, besides bourbon?

BUCATINSKY: Therapy. Meditation. And it's also - I do this - you know, I'm an actor. So I try to act as if. I literally - there - I'm not kidding here. There are times I literally try to act like the dad I know I should be in the moment. And that started very early.

I was - we were given a lot of advice, especially 'cause we're both dads. You know? The bonding experience when we had newborns - we had been told to - not to be afraid, especially for those who have, you know, a few-day-old child or a few-weeks-old - to take off your shirt and don't be afraid to be - to embrace the mommy, or the maternal side, inside of you. And I think that was a huge learning curve for us.

We weren't afraid to play different gender roles, even in our own - well, we don't have a choice 'cause there's no mommy in our household. But I think a lot of times dads can embrace even sort of a maternal instinct, for lack of a better word. And that you wind up being kind of nurturing towards the child, and you wind up being more nurturing towards yourself.

MARTIN: So, Brakkton, go ahead. Jump in here.

BOOKER: Yeah. Dan, I do want to comment on the whole, you know, taking the shirt off and trying to embrace the mommy role. My son is 3-weeks-old - you know, love him to death. I feel like he looks exactly like me, although my wife does not think so. She's like, oh, no, no, he has my hands. I'm like, well, no, no, he has my face though.

MARTIN: I got to tell you, she just carried the package. That kid is all you, no offense.

BOOKER: But I have not had so much success with taking the shirt off because my son is a booby monster at this point.


BOOKER: So everything - like, if he feels skin, he's going into attack mode. So we have not really - I've tried to have a discussion with him, but, like, I cannot give you what you mother gives you. Like, I've dubbed my wife as the CFO. She's the Chief Feeding Officer, and I'm the head of the CDC. I'm the Chief Diaper Changer.

BUCATINSKY: She's in charge of incoming, and you're in the charge of outgoing.

BOOKER: Pretty much. Though I've lucked up, and I've not gotten the major explosions. She tends to gotten all of that. But we're cool so far.

MARTIN: So let me get this. Are you feeling left out? And are you asking Dan because Dan doesn't have those -doesn't have the equipment? So are you asking him how to deal with feeling left out?

BOOKER: (Laughter) There is a part of me that wants to get, you know, doing the errands and, you know, taking the baby away from my life when she needs, you know, a couple hours of sleep. Like - that I feel like is my bonding time with my son. But the whole, you know, nurturing him, having him up against my skin - that has not worked for me because he immediately goes into feeding mode.

MARTIN: Alright, Dan, go ahead. Jump in.

BUCATINSKY: Well, that - yeah. No, no, I mean, I can't really - you bring up a really good point. I mean, in our case - if there is an actual mom in the household, it's going to be tough to compete. Although there are times when I feel emotional and my boobs hurt, and I think I'm getting hormonal.

But I think that it helped that we were bottle feeding our kids. I think at a point where - and again this is such a personal thing for every family. If you're at a point where the dad even can bottle feed a little bit, even pumped milk, that - to feed with your shirt off just gives the baby a little bit additional bonding with dad.

We also did another thing which was rather then - our baby always had a pacifier. But there are times where literally just putting your pinky and letting them suck and sort of mimicking that - again it's not about trying to be like a mom. But for us, it was just a way of bonding, especially 'cause we adopted. Creating that from birth, that sort of bonding experience, letting them feel skin, letting them have the suck urge soothed and then of course when there's a bottle, it's a great thing to be able to look in their eyes while they're feeding. And that is probably coming down the pike as it sounds like it's early still.

MARTIN: It's early still. If you're just joining us, we're having our regular parenting round table today. We are focusing on advice for dads from dads. Our guests are Dan Bucatinsky, dad of two. That's who was speaking just now. Brakkton Booker, he welcomed his first son recently - his first child just three weeks ago. And he's doing a great job of staying awake while we're having this conversation. Lester Spence is a father of five, and Phil Lerman is a dad and stepfather of two, all together. OK, let's - worst mistake, Phil?

LERMAN: See but the problem that we're talking about here - it doesn't stop after the baby is born because, let's face it, when the baby is born, the mother is God. I gave you life, and I gave substance. And so father sort of steps back and is the second class citizen. And if you don't do something about it, that doesn't go away.

When I went on the tour with "Daditude," every mother came up to me and had the same story to tell. My husband is an idiot. My husband doesn't know how to hold the baby. He doesn't know how to feed the baby. If he holds it, he doesn't support the head right. He doesn't know how to dress the baby. He doesn't - and every father, if you don't do something about that steps back and becomes the second class citizen. And it's really important for dads to fight against that.

MARTIN: How do you fight against it?

LERMAN: Well, one of the doctors I talked to said that what the mothers are doing is gate keeping - same thing you see in the office place. Every editor who ever worked for me - oh, this reporter gave me a stupid story. Good thing I was here to fix that. Right? And so there's a gate keeping function that mothers do which makes them feel important because my husband's an idiot, therefore, I have to do it.

So it's a conversation the father and the mother have to have. You want to have a partner? You want to have two people in this relationship? The father's got to hang in there. Like, you got to change the diapers, like you do - right? - because, you know, if you can change a tire, you can change a diaper. The lug nuts are a lot looser on a diaper.

MARTIN: OK. Well, you know what? I have a cure for that, have twins. I'm just letting you know right now - all hands on deck, yo. All hands on deck. OK?

SPENCE: Real talk. Real talk.

MARTIN: Lester, do you mind sharing us, like, the first mistake - a mistake that you made that you just - you wish you could do over?

SPENCE: You know, I - because they just kept coming, you know? I just - there's no do over I'd have, but I just - this is - you've got a black boy?

BOOKER: I do. I do

SPENCE: And this is the one thing I'd - as the father of a black boy - given all the things that we have - all the - all this - the my brother's keeper - that whole thing. The one thing I would tell you that's not a mistake, but that's something I did I'm pretty proud of. I raised my boys - I have boys and girls. I raised my boys to be excellent, but not necessarily to be respectable. Right?

So I did not give them - they have never heard from me that you've got to be twice as good line or, you know, if you don't pull your pants up, you're disrespecting, you know, black people. It's, like, no, you know - I'm raising them. And on top of that, I was the authority figure. But I still allowed them to have an antiauthoritarian streak even - or to express antiauthoritarian opinions - even with me - right? - because you want them to be - you want your boys to be fighters. You want them to be respectable. You want your boys to be excellent. And you want them to be fighters. And you're the best person - you and your wife are the best people to actually teach them that.

MARTIN: How does that strike you, Brakkton?

BOOKER: I haven't heard that antiauthoritarian spiel before. And, primarily, I think it's because I don't really have that experience to draw on. I did not grow up with a father in the home. I have not seen my father since I was 11. So I think that really kind of - I don't know - clouded my judgment as far as what my thoughts of what a father was going to be like...

MARTIN: Where are you going to get that from? Who's your role model?

BOOKER: Well, I mean, I have several role models. My father-in-law's - my wife's father was an excellent role model. I have uncles. I have my wife's uncles. I have people like Lester who I really respect. But I feel like I'm still in the process of trying to figure out what kind of father I'm going to be. Even now, dealing with my 3-week-old, you know? I've tried different things, like, when he's making noise, especially - he was crying during the last two minutes of the NBA finals on Sunday. And I was like, no, we are not going to have that right now. We are not going to have that right now.

SPENCE: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I love that you're still trying to, like, negotiate with him, and he's 3-weeks-old.

SPENCE: Three-weeks-old.

MARTIN: Are his eyes open yet? Maybe could you wait - you could wait until he has teeth? I don't know.

BOOKER: His eye are open.

MARTIN: I'm just wondering if maybe you could try...

BOOKER: I had to actually do that and walk around as I was saying it.

MARTIN: Oh, well, see, there you go.

BOOKER: So I couldn't just sit down and say it. So he's not listening just yet.

MARTIN: Dan, who was your role model? Who - do you have a role model as a dad? Is there somebody that you go to when you need some advice or support or a pat on the back?

BUCATINSKY: Well, I definitely call on the other dads in my circle, you know. I meet other dads on the schoolyard, other moms, you know, and also my spouse. As much as I fight with him, and we're somewhat competitive at times and we certainly - I make better lunches than he does. There's no question. And I tend to take care of all those things. But I learn a lot, I think, from watching other dads handle similar situations and frustrations - sometimes in a better way.

And the nature nurture issue is constantly coming up for us because, you know, our children were adopted from birth. But there's all kinds of interesting, exciting and terrifying mysteries that exist just naturally because we don't necessarily recognize ourselves in our kids. The antiauthority thing is working really nicely with both my kids

LERMAN: (Laughter). Yeah, they get that one pretty quick.

BUCATINSKY: I haven't had to do one thing.

MARTIN: Get that going. Well, that's good. I've got one question for Phil which came in from a listener, actually, who heard that we were going to talk about this today. And she's actually - she is a mom. But she wanted to flag that just some of the most - she said that some of the most difficult and serious issues facing a marriage is what happens when the darling babies grow up and go off to college.

She said I did not have a clue. So, you know, facing - you know, how to handle the children's exit, middle age, facing mortality, returning to being just a husband and his middle-age grieving wife. And she says that - her experience was that fathers have no clue about the transition feels like and, as a result, big mistakes are made, she put in all caps. And she just wondered if you had some advice, you know, about that.

LERMAN: Well, mothers think fathers have no clue about everything. So we're starting from a very strong place. Having had one go off to college and one who's still in the home - the only I can say is that what's most important at every stage - your children teach you - is to be in the moment, to be here now.

My role model in this is Baba Ram Dass, who, when we were back in our hippie days, used to teach us be here now. And the other role model is my son, who teaches me to be here now, to be in the moment. Kids are always in the moment. They believe no other moment exists. And so if you listen to your children and you savor each moment as it comes and be there and don't be distracted and don't be on your cell phone and don't be doing other things and don't think, oh, everything will be fine once we get them here or there. If you're in the moment then that's how you treasure every moment in life. And what you have to learn to do is treasure this moment as well because everything you've done is to prepare them to be out in the world. And if you've been a good parent, as I'm sure you have been, then you've prepared them for this moment, to go out on stage. And when they go out on stage and the audience is looking at them, that's a great, exciting moment for them. And if you can be in that moment with them and think of their thrill and their excitement in that moment, then you can feel that excitement for them as well. The other thing that's great is nobody's coming home at two o'clock in the morning drunk. So that's really good too.

MARTIN: That's really - well, one hopes. Brakkton, I got to - I'm going to put you on the spot, and I apologize. But what are you afraid of? And who can help you with that? Who is here now who can help you with that?

BOOKER: You know, messing up. I mean, I think that's every parent's fear. But, you know, trying to overcompensate for what I didn't have growing up. So being that overprotective parent - you know? - making sure that my son grows up trying to be perfect, even though I was never perfect, and I think I turned out pretty well.

MARTIN: I think you did pretty well.

BOOKER: But, yeah, that part of trying to make sure I'm the perfect father and maybe smothering my child and pushing him away.

MARTIN: Who can help you with that right now? Who do you want to hear from? Lester?

BOOKER: I mean, I'd like to hear from all the dads, actually.

MARTIN: We have 30 seconds. I'm sorry.

BOOKER: OK. Lester, go ahead.

MARTIN: OK, all right, Lester, take it home.

SPENCE: Yeah, real quick, just work on making sure your kid is better than you, and then love yourself to know that you're imperfect. And your kid will be OK. You know, it's about really not - I mean, every day you've got to be there. He said it right - be here now. Every day you've got to be there. You're going to be make mistakes. That's the nature of the game. That's the nature of the game.

MARTIN: Thank you all so much. Happy Father's Day to all of you. Thank you all so much for your willingness to share your thoughts with each other - yes, I'm being a girl about it. Yes, I am going to start to cry. So I'm going to get out of here.

SPENCE: Woman. Woman.

MARTIN: Thank you. Phil Lerman is the parent of two, the author of "Daditude: How A Real Man Became A Real Dad." Lester Spence is the father of five, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. Brakkton Booker is a new father of a 3-week-old, our colleague at NPR. And Dan Bucatinsky has two children with his partner - with his husband. His book is titled "Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?: Confessions Of A Gay Dad." Thank you all so much for joining us.

SPENCE: Thank you.

BOOKER: Thank you.

LERMAN: Thank you.

BUCATINSKY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.