After having kids, Nick Firchau says he spent his days wondering what the hell he was doing. He needed some guidance, but found that parenting wasn’t a topic that men commonly discussed. So the veteran sports journalist decided to launch the kind of “dad podcast” that he wished he could hear.
In Paternal, Firchau has frank, in-depth conversations with all sorts of fathers, including a US soccer star, a pioneering Seattle DJ and a New York Knicks barber. Discussion topics have ranged from raising black kids in Trump’s America to protecting the emotional complexities of young boys to fathering without a father.
While recording the interviews, Firchau says he’s always thinking about how he can apply the lessons and insights to his own family. Here’s how he parents.
Name: Nick Firchau
Location: Longmont, Colorado
Job: Host and producer of Paternal, a podcast about manhood, masculinity and fatherhood
Family: My wife Jasmine and I have been married almost six years, and we have a son Nathaniel (4) and a daughter Willa (2).
Tell us a little bit about your family and your career. Did life happen mostly as planned or were there surprises?
My wife and I got married when we were 33 years old, while we were still both working in media in New York City. Most of the couples we knew were like us, focused more on their careers and not explicitly thinking of starting a family with any hurry.
Though we wanted to be parents and our first pregnancy was certainly planned, I don’t know if the New York City lifestyle suited us as parents. We lived above a popular bar in Brooklyn and people camped out on the stoop drinking, smoking and flirting while we tried to put him down to sleep. I rode my 1980s-era Schwinn bicycle to buy nappies at Duane Reade, and walked kilometres through the snow in Prospect Park just to get him to nap in his carrier.
We eventually moved to California and then Seattle, where we had our daughter. Finding a balance between living in cities with promising jobs and building a community has been a challenge for us, and the reason why we moved four times in four years after our son was born. We’re exhausted, but I think we’re happier now than we’ve ever been.
Take us through your morning routine. What are your best tricks for getting out the door?
We have an overly affectionate puppy that crawls into our bed around 6AM, and then it’s about two hours of bedlam until we get the kids off to school. I’m generally in charge of making the coffee and playing the music — we still listen to KEXP in Seattle every morning — as well as combing my son’s hair so he’s somewhat presentable for the general public.
My favourite moment each morning is when my daughter watches my wife get ready for work — the clothes, the hair, the makeup — and just takes everything in. The first time I saw them together at the sink I nearly cried, because I never imagined being a husband and a father could be that good.
How much outside help do you get as a parent? Who or what can’t you live without?
We spent the first four years as parents thousands of kilometres from our own parents, so we had very little help during those humbling, harrowing first months with an infant.
Eventually my wife’s hip 20-something sister moved in with us in Seattle and became a default babysitter for those rare nights when we could get out for dinner and a drink, and our kids adore her. But unlike our parents, she had her own life full of guys, concerts, after-parties and Instagram, so she was understandably busy with other things most of the time.
One night we came home relatively late for us, around 11PM, and when I asked how the night went she shook an empty cocktail glass in her hand and informed me, “You’re out of vodka.”
What are the gadgets, apps, charts or tools you rely on?
I’m ashamed to say we’re way too disorganised to use a lot of parenting or scheduling apps, but I’m very proud that we don’t let our kids look at our phones, ever. We’ll cheat with PBS shows on an iPad if we get on a long flight to see family, but our general rule is that phones are terrible for the kids. When my wife and I catch each other looking at our phones in front of the kids we use a code word for “hey, put your phone down, your kid wants your attention”.
We’re not perfect at it — I’m obsessed with political Twitter and my wife answers work emails at all hours — but we’re trying.
In her new memoir Now My Heart Is Full, Laura June writes about how becoming a parent has helped her make peace with the memory of her own mother, her mother’s alcoholism, and their difficult relationship. Here, she talks about life with her daughter Zelda, from her belief that babies sometimes need to be left alone to the way motherhood has made her more creative than ever.
Has becoming a parent changed the way you work?
Just by leaving New York City, we achieved a little more balance between work and our children, which was a good start. In the years since, both my wife and I have shown much less tolerance for screwing around or killing time at work, because neither of us wants to be idling in an office past 5PM.
Having kids teaches you to be efficient, effective and even ruthless with your time. Get in, do your work well, get out the door, get home. We don’t have as much time to spend wasting time on Slack, because one of the kids is probably stuck in the screen door or something.
What does your evening routine like?
Dinner is a zoo, that’s a given. Sometimes there are two or three different meals happening and someone usually cries at some point, but I don’t think that’s unusual.
Both of our kids are huge readers — my son is obsessed with objectively boring library books about dinosaurs with names I can’t pronounce, for example — so reading is a huge part of the bedtime routine. My wife is the pro, she typically gives each kid the final cuddle of the night before they fall asleep, and then we usually talk, read or watch 30 minutes of television before going to bed.
How do you decompress?
Only recently did my wife and I figure out that splitting up on the weekends is an essential parenting move. She’ll take the kids in the morning and I’ll take them in the afternoon, which means one of us gets two to four hours of uninterrupted time to chill. She does yoga, I swim at the rec centre.
And as sad as it is, I still feel fulfilled when I get 20 minutes to listen to music on my headphones and clean the kitchen at night. It’s a restart button before we trash the place the next morning.
What’s been your proudest moment as a parent?
Our biggest impetus for moving home to Colorado last year was to better connect the kids with their grandparents. It wasn’t for familiarity or free babysitting or lower housing prices, but rather so the kids could understand and feel that there are more people in this world who love them like my wife and I do.
Every time I see my kids run up to my parents and hug them — when you can see how comfortable and confident they’ve become as kids because of the support of their family — I feel like we made a monumentally good decision coming back.
What moment are you least proud of?
Discipline with my son is always a challenge, because he’s a typically emotional, irrational and passionate four-year-old little boy. At my worst moments I find myself arguing with him on his level, like I let his emotions get the best of me, and I forget that I’m the adult in the conversation. I’ve said, “stop being a baby” more than a few times, and I hate myself for that.
Of course he’s not a baby, but he’s not a rational, stable person yet. He’s just a little kid. And it’s my job to encourage him and put him in a position where he can succeed.
The paradox of parenting is that you can perform all the functions and still feel like an imposter. Changing diapers, playing peekaboo, giving piggyback rides — it can all seem like play acting. Then comes the moment when you become a real dad. One day, you'll be hanging out with your kid, open your mouth and produce a Dad Voice. Like a patronus, it will gallop across the air and freeze its target in his tiny toddler tracks.
What do you want your kid to learn from your example?
Marry the right person. There are so many traits I’d like to encourage — creativity, courage, honesty, compassion — but the best lesson I can teach my kids is what it’s like to be in a stable, secure family.
Of course that’s never a given because relationships change over time and circumstance, but my parents provided me and my brother with a model for co-operative and loving parenting, even if it was never perfect. My wife and I work as hard on being husband and wife as we do on being parents, and I’m proud of the example we’ve set for far.
What’s your favourite family ritual?
My son and I have bonded over hiking, which satisfies my need to be outside in nature and his need to get into what he thinks are Goonies-like adventures. So far there isn’t a trail he won’t attempt or a rock he won’t scramble over to see what’s on the other side. When he’s hiking outside and feeling fearless, he’s probably my favourite person in the world, because he’s only four years old and he’s already found where he belongs.
What’s the hardest part about being a parent?
I’m a relatively anxious person when it comes to my kids. I’m not a helicopter parent by any means and I let them fall down hills and get creamed by our dog when they play, but I do worry about what will happen to them and if they’ll be safe.
No one tells you that the second you become a parent you’re no longer in control of the people you love the most. No one can assure you your kids will be healthy, happy, safe and sound all the time, and it’s hard to come to grips with that, because you so badly want that to be true.
What’s the most unexpected thing about being a dad?
So many unexpected challenges come at you in the beginning — nappies, loss of sleep and sanity, balancing work with your time at home — but the most unexpected change for me came in my relationship with my wife. We met when we were 15 years old, so we know each other about as well as you can know your partner. To watch this person I’ve known for so long just naturally and smoothly adopt a new role in her life has been amazing.
Even before we had kids I spent so much of my attention and anxiety on how I would change as a man or how I would adapt to having kids, but the happiness I’ve found in becoming a father has been equalled by the unexpected bonus of seeing my wife become a mother.
Has anyone ever given you a piece of parenting advice that has really stuck with you?
When my son was born I received an email from my wife’s uncle which said, among other wonderful things, fatherhood would be the best group I would ever be a part of.
That’s stuck with me for years, because despite all of the other affiliations that might unfortunately separate me from other men — race, social class, education, sexuality, faith, geography, political preferences — I’ll always be part of this expansive group of fathers who share the same experience of wanting what’s best for his children. That advice made me feel like part of a larger community that I needed as a new father, and that I still need now.