As a pediatrician, I often witness one of the most infuriating events for mothers. At their child’s 9-month-old visit, I ask, “Has he said any words yet?” “Dada,” says the mother, frustrated that “dad” gets first billing when many times mom is doing the brunt of the work. I look over to the father in the room, and his smile says it all. “Dada.”
I then proceed to explain to the parents that the sound “da” is much easier to form than the much more complicated “ma” and that babies usually save “the best for last.” Usually, this gets both parents smiling.
I went into pediatrics because I love working with children: their resiliency, their grit, their joy, their pain, their triumphs over obstacles, and their smiles drew me to them. I thought my training gave me the skills I needed to become a compassionate pediatrician. That is, until I heard the words “dada” float out of my oldest child’s mouth and penetrate deeply into my heart.
Children tend to bring out the softer side of men, whether they are fathers, stepfathers, or grandfathers. They allow us – and expect us – to not only protect them, but to put aside all of our needs and our egos, to become selfless and playful, while having an eagle-eyed focus on them.
Fathers sometimes get criticized for not being there for their kids and their families, and some of this criticism is deserved. But as I make my way through my daily activities, I notice so much of the good that fathers bring to the family:
- Walking down the street, I notice a tall, strong, tattooed man. Perched on his broad shoulders is his 3-year-old daughter, barrettes clanging in the breeze, eyes beaming, toothy grin shining with the knowledge that she is loved by her father, who supports her every step of the way.
- I see another father, arm around his son, homework in his lap, on a bench waiting for the bus. The father patient, wise, engaged, and encouraging.
- At work, I knock on the door of my next patient, a 15-month-old girl with cerebral palsy. As I walk in, I see the joy on this special child’s face as her dad raises her up in the air above his head, eyes locked. The obvious love and joy that this father and daughter have for each other in that moment makes me feel like an intruder into a relationship that requires no words.
One need not go on an airplane to experience the most incredible, joyful, sometimes painful, life- altering adventure. A man just needs to hear his baby’s first word: “Dada.” The adventure begins.
Happy Father’s Day!
Dr. Dan is a Pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and Advocacy Director of the Pediatric Residency Program. His is also the developer of an online resource for families in Philly called at Cap4Kids. Dr. Dan writes occasionally for the Philadelphia Inquirer but his most important job is that of dad to his four kids.