How to be a Cool Dad

Learn to integrate your child into your life instead of sacrificing your life for the sake of fatherhood.

Father and Son

Being a cool dad means forgetting the babysitter and bringing your kids along with you to do your favorite things.

Photo by Fotolia/oneinchpunch

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Rocking Fatherhood: The Dad-to-Be's Guide to Staying Cool (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2016) by Chris Kornelis takes the reader along on his journey from working as a music editor at Seattle Weekly to becoming a father of two. The message that Kornelis spreads is that becoming a father doesn't mean everything changes. It's not about a new life in a bigger house with no friends, but about being aware of your role as a father and spouse and loving your baby. This excerpt comes from the chapter "Week 16: Having a Baby Doesn't Change Everything."

I know, by now you’re hearing it every day, at least twice before lunch: “Having a baby changes everything.” Don’t listen to them. Babies can’t change everything. They can’t even change themselves.

Having a baby didn’t even make me feel like an adult. It took a really bad concert to do that.

In 1997, when I was fifteen and Beck was at the height of his powers, I made my first trip to Bumbershoot, the Seattle music and arts festival when it was at the height of its powers, to see “Where It’s At” performed on stage for my first time. I had no way of appreciating what a monumental occasion the evening would be for me, or the festival, but the show had ramifications (for both of us) that are still being sorted out today. And if you think I’m being hyperbolic, just ask the fire marshal or the folks who put on the festival.

Beck closed out Saturday night on the festival’s biggest stage — an outdoor stadium where high-school football teams played on Friday nights. Unfortunately for me, Beck was playing just about the same time Cake was on stage across the festival grounds. Alexander, the older, “responsible” friend of the group wanted to see Cake the way I wanted to see Beck. So we struck the bargain that those of us who spent our youth with more ticket stubs than clean socks in our underwear drawer know well: we’d see the first half of one band (Cake), and sacrifice the first couple songs of the other (Beck).

The plan sounded strong, but this was my first experience at a summer music festival, and I had no idea how things worked. It was also, as I said, one of the most significant nights in Bumbershoot history. As we made our way to the stadium, we overheard an old guy (roughly the age I am today) mutter to our posse: “You’re not gonna get in.” This immediately sent me into a panic. And for good reason. When we got close to the gates, we saw a swarm — no, a legion — of fans trying to get in.

We were young and agile, and made our way toward the front of the group — losing my friend Robert in the process. We didn’t have cell phones, of course. We just assumed we’d find him later.

When we got to the front, the picture came into focus. A handful of scraggly guards in yellow shirts were holding the crowd back from entering the stadium — literally with their arms. At one point Alexander and I heard a guy yell, “Let’s just go!” The guards didn’t stand a chance. We took the hill to the tune of “Devils Haircut.” Just as Alexander and I were jumping for joy and high fiving each other, a dreadlocked cliché walked up to us and asked, “You guys need some fungus?” We were stumped. “You know, shrooms!” We passed.

That was the last year Bumbershoot worked the way it had for the preceding twenty years. In every subsequent year, admission to the main stage has been regulated, often by requiring a free wristband to get in. It’s never been the same. To Bumbershoot and the fire marshal, I’m sure it’s a good thing.

I really don’t remember much about the concert. I remember “Devils Haircut.” I remember “The New Pollution.” And I remember leaving early to try to catch the 11:15 ferry home. But what I remember most vividly is the experience of getting inside, and the people I was with.

When it comes to going to a concert, or any other social and cultural gathering, the audience — your intimate circle and the greater tribe — matters infinitely more than the entertainment. That’s why people go to the movies when they have Netflix, and why they go to concerts, even though, sonically speaking, they take place in rooms with the acoustic considerations of the sloppy side of a watermelon.

Regardless of the acoustic merits of that performance, Beck became my guy for life that night. Through the years I watched — always from a prime piece of real estate — as he reinvented himself album after album, tour after tour, and became the pop star whose evolution paralleled my teens and twenties.

I saw his band beat the shit out of a plastic Santa Claus in December of my senior year of high school; I saw him again a few months later, before graduation, this time rolling around in satin sheets on a giant brass bed while crooning “Debra.” I listened to an advance copy of Sea Change at my desk at the Argonaut, horrified at what I heard. It was so different, so shocking, that before I was willing to accept its brilliance, it was almost incomprehensible.

But on May 28, 2012, at the Sasquatch! Music Festival — which has since overtaken Bumbershoot as the Northwest’s most significant musical event — there was nothing new. He was an artist without momentum. He played the same songs I’d seen him play many times before. There was no innovation, no necessity for the performance. I had witnessed the most significant artist in my life transition from his most important offerings to the sameness that was to follow (that he won a Grammy three years later for Morning Phase says more about the Grammys than the artist).

When I saw Beck perform at Bumbershoot ’97, I wasn’t old enough to buy liquor or cigarettes; I wasn’t eligible to vote; I couldn’t join the army; I couldn’t legally drive an automobile. By the time Beck took the stage to close out Sasquatch! 2012, I’d gotten married, witnessed the birth of my first-born child, enrolled in a 401(k), said good-bye to my twenties, watched my house go underwater, seen my hairline retreat and my waistline expand. But none of these milestones felt as “you’re not a kid anymore” as seeing the artist that was the linchpin of my musical development churn out a performance of pure nostalgia.

Three months after Beck deflated in front of my eyes at Sasquatch!, I was back at Bumbershoot. In the decade and a half since my first appearance, I’d missed only a couple years, even as the festival went in decline. Most of the years I was paid to attend, one of the many upsides to being a professional music journalist. They’d moved the main stage inside to an arena (a very bad idea), and in a case of very real déjà vu, I watched a hundred kids bum-rush security down a flight of stairs gunning for the floor during a set from the band M83. Part of me chuckled, part of me looked on in horror, and I wondered whether their shenanigans would change the festival forever.

Also on the festival grounds that weekend were Ben Blackwell — whose garage rock band the Dirtbombs were on the bill — and his wife Malissa, pregnant with their first child. Like me, concerts and shows act as mile markers in their lives.

The two met in Detroit on December 30, 1999, at a bar called the Old Miami. They both were under age. She was there to drink. He was there to see the band. He tried to get her to come back to see the show again the next night. She demurred because he was still in high school. He wore her down. Their first proper date was January 1, 2000.

Their paths had crossed before. She doesn’t really remember, but he swears that they met when he was selling merch for his uncle’s band — the White Stripes. From time to time he went on tour with Jack and Meg as they conquered the universe. She’d occasionally go on the road with friends’ bands to sell merch or provide moral support. When they weren’t working, they went to a lot of shows. That’s just what they did.

They’ve been together, more or less, since we said good-bye to the nineties. A decade into the new millennium, they moved to Nashville so he could work at White’s Third Man Records. A few months into the new job, he got a raise and a bonus: he bought a ring. Next up was a house, and, well, they figured it was time to have a kid.

Like every other couple with a kid on the way, they were inundated with the “having a baby changes everything” sermons, and they didn’t have much patience for it. They were both adults. They wanted to start a family. They were ready for the next phase of their lives. Change was a promising proposition. But they weren’t interested in saying good-bye to the life they’d built for themselves. They wanted to have a kid and a life.

Back in Detroit, none of their friends had kids. But in Nashville, they knew a couple named Todd and Jamie who unwittingly gave them the template for having a kid and a life at the same time. So, when Malissa gave birth to their daughter, Violet, they just decided to employ the Todd and Jamie Method. Jamie Valentine was thirty-four when she became pregnant with her son, Townes. By then, she and Todd had been together for a decade, and they’d done a lot: they’d moved across the country, traveled, and otherwise checked off the to-do list of their twenties and early thirties. She was ready to make a baby. Todd wasn’t quite so sure.

“I guess I’m kind of career-driven, or something similar to that,” Todd told me. “And realizing there’s going to be a lot of focus taken away from that, I think gave me some anxiety about it.”

Neither of them wanted the baby to change everything. They wanted him to complement the life they were living. They still wanted to see their friends, go to concerts, and travel to see Jamie’s family sprinkled around the United States and Canada. So, instead of letting Townes run the show, they just strapped him on and did, more or less, what they’d been doing before — as a trio.

When friends from Third Man got tacos after work, Todd and Jamie went along — and brought Townes. When their crew rented a cabin for a weekend, Townes was just one of the gang. Every year since he was born, Todd and Jamie have brought him to Gonerfest, an annual event put on by the Memphis garage rock label Goner Records. During the day they take him to shows — eleven months old on his first visit — and at night they leave him with friends or they all hang out together on a friend’s porch.

It hasn’t been completely seamless. When Townes was thirteen months old, they were asked to leave the patio at a Mexican restaurant called No Way Jose’s Cantina because he was under age. To this day, Townes likes saying, “No way, Jose!”

Ben and Malissa soaked it all up.

“They showed us — whether they knew it or not — that your life doesn’t stop because you have a kid. They just very, what seemed easily, integrated him into their life and into their social circle without this doom and gloom ‘we had a baby, see you in eighteen years’ mentality that seems to be what’s laid out in books.”

To be sure, both Ben and Todd have experienced the real changes that come with having a child. Even before Violet was born, Ben knew that his time was about to become far more precious. As a result, “unimportant shit just got shed.”

He looked at his life and wondered what he could let go. He didn’t have to look far. He was sick of going to shows.

“Fatherhood is the ultimate bullshit detector,” he told me. “Once you’re a parent, you can’t suffer fools. You don’t have time for bullshit. I like bands, but most of the time I leave a show unimpressed and kind of wishing I didn’t go.”

Ben says he doesn’t see this as any kind of compromise, or proof that when you become a dad, your nights out instantly get wiped off the calendar. He says it’s a matter of priorities and managing your resources — money, energy, time — giving up the things that don’t matter and keeping the things that do.

“You adjust your worldview to accommodate things that are important to you,” he said. “If it’s really important to you or your job that you go out every night and know who the hit bands or DJs are or whatever, you’re going to figure out a way to make that happen.”

For Ben, his thing was buying records, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that he runs vinyl operations at Third Man and is the White Stripes’s official archivist. Like all couples, he and Malissa tightened up their finances during the prebaby months. But they left money for LPs. “Because that’s important to me, I’ve figured out whatever way to make sure that I still in some regard or another am able to do that.”

Another change took Ben by surprise.

When thirty-two people died on board the Costa Concordia cruise ship in 2012, Ben remembers wondering how a person couldn’t get out of there alive: the boat didn’t even sink — it just listed — why not just jump off? “It seemed so easy to me. How could you not survive that?”

After Violet was born, the scene clicked into place. It made sense that a person could go down with the ship. It wasn’t only him anymore. He couldn’t just jump off and swim for it.

“Then it became: oh, shit, I can definitely see how someone would drown on a boat because you’re dragging a three-year-old along with you. My position on the most base primate level is protecting this situation, this family. And that was something I had not anticipated. And I don’t think you can anticipate it until you’re actually there. It has to be a realization.”

Dr. Scott Coltrane, a sociologist at the University of Oregon who studies dads and families, notes that these kinds of instincts don’t only manifest in times of crisis. The daily parenting routine of involved dads affects change on men as well.

“Men tend not to be as connected to other people,” he says. “Loving [your kids] and really wanting to do everything for them makes one vulnerable. Serving them in a daily kind of way makes you somewhat subservient to their needs and it makes you a better person, a more responsive person, and hopefully a better partner and spouse.”

This is the big change that Todd felt when he became a dad. Having Townes around has forced him to get out of his own head, live in the here and now, and, yeah, basically think a little less about himself.

“It has been a process for me to turn focus from myself to my son and our family,” Todd says. “I guess I’d tell other fathers to open yourself up to the changes that are about to occur and you’ll be rewarded with a love that you never knew you were capable of. For me, that has changed what life is truly about.”


Excerpted from Rocking Fatherhood: The Dad-to-Be's Guide to Staying Cool by Chris Kornelis. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.