Back when I was a freshman in high school I remember feeling very socially awkward, unconfident and that I wasn't quite fitting in with my class (in other words, a typical teenager starting high school). The kids from my grade school that joined me in our new one seemed to be making fast friends with everyone else, and with differing class schedules I began to see them less and less. During lunch periods I would track anyone I knew down, hoping to cling to the safety of their familiarity with me. Sometimes I'd catch them in line for food and manage to win a coveted seat next to them, but most of the time I'd find them huddled together with their newer, cooler friends. Forced to sit on the outskirts or, even worse, at a table where I knew no one, I'd quickly eat my lunch and then do what nature has programmed us to do since the age of the dinosaurs: flee to the furthest bathroom in the building and then hide in one of the stalls.
Ok, so maybe the ancient cavemen didn't have bathroom stalls to protect them from saber-toothed tigers (or single-ply toilet paper for that matter), but they knew to get the hell out of there when things were getting rough. So to save face, and ensure my survival, that's what I did. It was just me and my thoughts. I'd dream of a day when I was more confident, more outgoing and more capable of dealing with the problems that life was throwing at me. I'd picture myself talking and laughing with friends, maybe even a girlfriend too, and feeling like I belonged. Time passed, I managed to make a friend or two, and I stopped hiding less and less during lunch periods. I was opening up to people more and they seemed to be accepting me as one of their own, which meant I was earning a seat at their table. Plus, who in their right mind wants to hide in a bathroom on pizza day? Not my former young self, let me tell you.
Cut to 20 some odd years later (dear God I am getting old), where I'm a husband of 15 years and a father to a 3 year old girl. I have friends who accept me (and some who just tolerate me), a job where my colleagues make small talk with me and occasionally invite me to happy hours and yet, to some degree, I still have that shadow of awkwardness hanging over my head. In some ways, becoming a father has pushed me back into that phase of my life. I want to be home more to care for my wife and child; supporting and nurturing them. By doing this I have chosen to be more of a recluse, turning down after work outings and weekend events until those invites happened with less frequency. Being a parent and a husband were the most important things in my life, which meant that sometimes I had to sacrifice having fun to make sure our sick child was taken care of, or to give my wife some much needed rest in the face of her rheumatoid arthritis. In some ways I felt like the luckiest guy in the world, yet in others I felt like one of the loneliest.
If becoming a father has taught me anything it's that I need to feel connected: not only to my family, but to other parents and fathers who are also going through the same thing. Writing about the process of raising our child and talking with friends & co-workers who also have children has been a huge help in boosting my confidence as a parent. So last June when I discovered that there was an upcoming summit in San Francisco focused on fatherhood in the modern age, it felt only natural that I should attend. After buying my ticket and booking the flight/hotel my mind raced at all the questions I had for the other attendees I was about to meet: What's it like being a stay at home dad? A full time blogger? How do you regain some of your old self once you become a parent? What's the most rewarding thing about being a father? If Han didn't shoot first, does that make him less cool?
The wait turned from months into weeks; weeks to days. Suddenly I was panic stricken: I knew absolutely no one else attending the summit. Although I had been added to a Facebook alumni group after purchasing my ticket (how I became an alumnus while never attending any of the other summits is still confusing) I was barely contributing due to feeling like an outsider. I tossed a comment in a thread or two to get my name out there, but otherwise I was back to my former high school self. My wife, kind and supportive, encouraged me to try my hardest to fight back against my social anxiety and put myself out there once I was at the summit. Then she gently reminded me not to be discouraged if I saw that many of the attendees knew each other and had established friendships and groups. My adult self packed bags, said goodbye to my wife (our daughter just wasn't having it) and got psyched for what would surely be an incredible experience. My high school self, on the other hand, hoped that the hotel bathrooms had a WiFi signal so that when things got rough he could catch up on Netflix shows.
I have to say that the beginning was a little rough, which was to be expected. I did my best to break the ice with some attendees. Most were cordial & willing to talk to me, but that first day it seemed like all I was doing was encroaching on moments where longtime friends were reuniting, or perhaps meeting each other in person for the first time after building strong ties online. I found little opportunities here and there to chime in, make a joke and try to fit in a bit more with everyone else, but then I'd regress and feel like an outsider again. Later that evening there was a pre-summit welcome party and I ended up chatting and connecting with two very worldly people throughout the entire thing, which should have solidified in my head that I was on my way to being welcome and accepted. But, alas, I went back to my room afterwards, called my wife and lamented over whether I had made the right decision in spending a large chunk of our money to come to San Francisco. The official event hadn't even started, but I was letting my self doubt and worry overshadow positive experiences that were already happening. In my mind, I still had a long way to go before earning a seat at their table.
Then the Dad 2.0 summit began, and everything changed.
For the next two days I was immersed in keynote speeches, blogger spotlights, roundtables and breakout sessions. During the keynotes I learned some very interesting facts:
- The United States is the least family friendly country in the world.
- Engaged fathers can change health outcomes of both mothers and their children.
- Dads who do housework raise daughters who are more ambitious.
- Choreplay is a real thing (just make sure you don't have 'dishpan hands' before trying anything)
Through the roundtables, breakout sessions and spotlights I began to see how everyone there was so incredibly supportive of each other and this community. I watched as they shared insight into their experiences as bloggers, the ups and downs of "going viral" and harnessing creativity in the face of limited time and energy. I attended the workshops where tips were given on editing your writing, creating podcasts, and search engine optimization. I listened intently as each of the spotlight bloggers came up to the podium, read their submissions and showcased their talent for crafting a story. I, along with a number of other lucky attendees, became a 10 year old kid again as we walked through the halls of Lucasfilm and posed for a picture with R2-D2, all thanks to the incredible people at Lego.
Yet during all of these incredible moments of the summit there was something I continually failed to do: regress to my socially awkward self. I had been so caught up in sharing these experiences with the other attendees that I didn't notice how my confidence had boosted and I felt like I belonged there right alongside them. I was contributing to engaging conversations, both during the summit and after hours, about raising kids and being a modern father, As the summit came to a close and I headed back to New York, all I could think about was how much I needed more people like this in my life. I was determined to cultivate and grow the friendships I had been lucky enough to form during my short stay in San Francisco, mostly by contributing in the Dad Blogger group that I had now become a part of on Facebook. Lastly I wanted to get to know them better, and vice versa, because they were sure as hell going to see me again next year in D.C..
After returning home and interacting with my daughter for the first time in 5 days I immediately noticed that she had changed somehow. In the short amount of time I was gone she had seemingly become more aware, more articulate and filled with a newfound well of love and emotion. The toddler who wouldn't say goodbye to me as I left to go to Dad 2.0 was now the little girl who wanted nothing more than to give me hugs, kisses and tell me that she loved me since I had returned. The skeptic in me knows that it's only a matter of time before she goes back to some of her old ways, especially when I eventually have to discipline her. Yet the optimist in me sees this as an opportunity to take these moments and make something more out of them. And this, oddly enough, is exactly the same approach I need to take in regards to my experience with Dad 2.0. I had found my people. I had found more purpose and confidence in being an engaged father and husband; more value in the words I put down on this website. I was filled with a new awareness and passion for my life. But the question remains: what will I do with all of it?