I was told there would be Dad Strength.

Five years into being a parent and I'm starting to feel ripped off.

This weekend, my oldest child turned five years old — which means that in terms of being a parent, I also turned five years old. It’s been a remarkable time of change in my life, and almost all of it has been positive. I’ve found being a father to be the most important thing I’ve ever done or will ever do, and despite the struggles that come with it — the immense cost of modern child-rearing, the never-ending demands of time and attention, the fact that I’ve seen Frozen 2 sixty-seven times since it came out last fall — I’d barely change a thing about the last five years. 

I have no complaints.

I have one complaint.

It’s just that… I was told I was going to get strong. I was supposed to get Dad Strength.

It’s a near-mythic power: an extra degree of strength conferred onto you simply by merit of becoming a father. I’d heard of it for years, and I was totally ready to get some of it for myself, because, let’s be honest: I could stand to be a little bit stronger. I mean, hey: I’ve been to a gym before, I’ve lifted a weight, but I was looking forward to really leveling up. I was going to hoist big things. Bags of cement. Wheelbarrows full of bricks. Kegs full of nails. That sort of thing. I’d twist open impossibly-stuck jars with ease. Push the car around, like on those strongman competitions, if the car needed to be pushed around for some reason? I don’t know. Dad Strength things.

Where is it supposed to come from, anyway? Is it because you’re constantly lifting human bowling balls, or schlepping around the mountains of gear that modern babies require? Is it a hormonal thing, a sudden flood of HGH spurred by your brain recognizing a primal need for more power? Is it magic? Perhaps there isn’t any scientific basis for it, but there’s enough anecdotal evidence that I was willing to believe. Whatever it was, I was going to get it. I was going to get strong.

Now, five years in, I’m starting to get concerned that this is not going to happen for me. Things are looking kind of bleak physically, to be completely frank. I’m definitely slower than I was before. No one promised me Dad Speed, though. That’s not a thing. Dads are just trying to make good time while getting the best fuel efficiency possible. That doesn’t mean we’re speeding around like maniacs. That’s how people get hurt, and you know I don’t like running in the house. I’m not getting Dad Agile, either, but the essence of fatherhood sure as heck isn’t juking left and right all the time. Dads move in straight lines. Zigging and zagging? Leave that nonsense to the uncles. 

No, the strength is what I was here for. But the stuck jars? They’re staying stuck. The bags of cement and the wheelbarrows full of bricks are staying unhoisted. Heck, they’re still at Home Depot. I didn’t even hoist them into a cart. Sure, that’s partly because I haven’t actually come up with any reason why I’d need them, but I figured that Brick Reasons would show up right along with the Dad Strength. Neither has.

Parenting hasn’t killed me — yet — but it certainly hasn’t made me any stronger either. If anything, I’m getting weaker. My mile time is slower, I get tired more quickly, and I can’t do half as many push-ups as I could five years ago. My pants are definitely tighter. Most of the time, my back just hurts.

Did I do something wrong? Did I forget to fill out a form at the hospital, or neglect to update my forwarding address? Do I have Unclaimed Dad Strength waiting for me in a forgotten bank account somewhere? I once went three years without paying one kind of taxes because I didn’t realize I had to, it’s not out of the question that I’d have missed some important detail. Can I just pay a late fee or something?

I suppose there are a few areas in which I have gotten stronger. When a book is dropped on my foot or a tiny skull is slammed into my groin, I’ve learned how to take the pain without startling or scaring anyone. (Those things happen a lot). When someone needs to sit next to me because of a scary scene in a movie, I’ve learned to appreciate giving whatever comfort I can, even as “next to me” morphs into “somehow directly on top of my head with an elbow stuck in my eye”.

When one of the kids needs to be carried home from a walk because their ‘legs hurt’, I pick them up no matter how tired I am or how obviously untrue their complaints are, because someday sooner than I want to admit they won’t ask anymore. When someone needs me in the middle of the night, it doesn’t matter how tired I am, how deep in sleep I was when they called out. I need to be there when they call, to fix a broken toy or a broken heart or simply to reassure them that I will always be there when they call.

It turns out the strength you build when you become a parent isn’t about how much you can lift or how hard you can push; it’s about how much you can carry and how much you can give. It’s about willingly surrendering a part of yourself to their service, to knowing that it doesn’t matter how you feel on any given day if that strength is needed. It’s about appreciating the time spent together no matter how physically or mentally drained you are, because it’s a time that’s cruelly finite and worth holding on to every second of with every bit of strength you have. 

The strength is in holding on as long as you can, and in letting go when the time comes that they’re ready for you to let go. 

Maybe then I’ll have the energy to move some bricks. I’ll have figured out why I need to by then.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)