One of the things Napoleon advised his generals against was “forming a picture” of the battle. What he meant was that your preconceived notions, your predictions, were a dangerous liability in something as fluid and fast-paced as a battle.
As it happens, this is good advice for fathers as well. It’s easy to go into it thinking that you know. Because you’ve read the books. Because you’re on your third kid now and have it handled. Because you and your spouse have a plan for how to do it all right. And then guess what? Unavoidable reality quickly humbles anyone with this kind of certainty.
Many dads go into fatherhood with strong ideas of how differently they’re going to do things than their own parents. They were upset or hurt or never understood why their dad was the way he was. And what do they soon find out from firsthand experience? That, in a lot of cases, there was actually a logic to it. That dad wasn’t as big of a jerk as he seemed to you, a little kid. That it was more a timeless function of the job than any decision they were consciously making.
When we talked to James Frey a while back about what he’d learned about fatherhood, his answer was along similar lines. He described being a father as an “ongoing process of learning and adjusting and adapting.” Every situation, every kid, was different, he said.
In other words, you can’t form a picture. Not of fatherhood. Not of your family. Not of each of your kids. You don’t know how it’s going to go. You don’t even have much of a vote in a lot of it. Which is why we have to be willing to adjust. To be flexible. To always be ready to learn and to change.