I had lots of four-legged kids before I ever had two-legged ones. And I believe that has shaped me into a better person — and a better dad — today.
It’s no secret that having a child completely upends a parent’s life. All of a sudden, your life revolves around someone who can’t take care of themselves. Your needs now come second: Sleep, leisure time, and your wallet all take a hit when a new family member arrives. But for some, the transition is more jarring than it is for others.
When my first-born came along, my wife and I already had several animals, probably most pertinent were the five big dogs and four cats that all lived indoors with us. Nights out or any overnight trip took extra planning because we needed to make sure the dogs were taken care of. We could be away from home for maybe nine hours, but beyond that, we started to worry. The cats’ litter boxes had to be addressed regularly, or else they would make their own “litter box” in the middle of the kitchen. Space on the bed was always tight because these critters loved to cuddle — even if they weren’t always so great at it. Feeding time, too, had to be consistent so that so the harmony of so many animals living together would remain just that: harmonious.
And that doesn’t even dive into the efforts of keeping our outdoor farm animals taken care of. Whether a beautiful 70-degree spring evening or a 10-degree January morning, our duties to our animals were the same: Keep them fed, hydrated, and comfortable, even if it meant sacrificing our own comfort. Like every farmer, we care very much for each and every creature under our watch. We had a duty to these animals, and the consequences of slacking on that duty were dire.
So what changed when I had kids? Well, relatively little.
My life continued to be dictated by a strict schedule that was largely beyond my control. I had to dip into my savings or add to my credit card debt every time medical bills arrived or some emergency cropped up. I improved my time-management skills and continued to give up bits of free time. Still, becoming a father to a real, human child was a whole lot less scary because of what I learned by being a caretaker to animals and by tackling the daily needs of living in the country.
This is why I think farmers put so much emphasis on the family aspect of their operation. Yes, agriculture is a business, but there’s more to the choices we’ve made to get to where we are. And it goes beyond the exceptional life that kids receive being on a farm — it’s also how parents (or future parents) have been almost subconsciously prepared to be a great mother and father. I have learned new levels of patience, and I am able to see consequences to actions better than ever before. Especially when my kids were younger, I could assess their needs even without them being able to tell me aloud, much as we do with our animals. I discovered a wonderful sense of empathy for my kids, something that grew out taking care of livestock and numerous pets for so many years.
While most of my experience with animals came in the years before my kids were born, the opportunity exists to instill these traits into children at very young ages. Allow farm kids to help with chores, or even to observe you as you feed animals or trim hooves or administer meds or do any of the dozens of other tasks that need to be done with livestock and pets. This is also why I’m especially appreciative of groups such as 4-H and FFA, which bring forth that sense of responsibility to care for animals for more than just a day or a week or a month at a time. There is a sense that you care for animals for the long haul, and that is inevitably laying the foundation for the kids to grow up and become great parents down the road.
For all of the parents out there who became dads long before the human youngsters came into your lives, happy Father’s Day!