Life is easier without kids. There’s no doubt about that. Look, I’m a loving caring invested dad. But I’m not blind to the realities of life. Is there incredible fulfillment and joy that comes from parenting? Yes. Of course. Do I love my children more than anything else in this world? Also yes. And I know you do too.

But you know what? Life with a family is hard. It’s exhausting, time consuming, complicated, thankless, and full of compromise and delayed gratification. I give you permission to admit it. Go ahead, say it out loud. Own it. Embrace it. You’re not always happy wearing this, at times, obligatory hat.

You’re not a superhero. You weren’t designed to be one.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you. Worse yet, they’re lying to themselves. Wait, not the superhero part. You’re probably not a superhero, sorry. But the ‘happy’ bit. And in case you’re too optimistic, too altruistic, too convinced to admit it — I’ll do it for you. Again, not superhero. Happiness.

Life Before Kids

In a life without children there were less messes and less complications. Do you remember what a clean home was like? A quiet home? A controlled home? Do you remember what it was like to do something as simple as walk out the door on time? There was a peaceful singularity to your identity. You could freely focus on one task at a time, or a hundred — either way you could work at your own pace, in your own space.

Back then, approximately one whole eternity ago, back when you knew without a doubt who you were. Back so far ago it hardly seems real. Way back when — you were the captain of your own ship. You could paint the sails whatever color you liked. You could let the wind take you where you pleased. There was no bedtime for you, captain, no pressing agenda, no senseless demands, no rationing of your resources.

And boy was that nice, to feel the ocean air blowing through your sun-dried hair. Freedom of the seas, baby.

Before kids, your ambitions were as broad or as narrow as you desired them to be. You could define your context and your conditions. You could live how you wanted.

But now life is all shook up. And it has you spiraling out of control even though you appear to have it all together. And there’s a reason why your foundations are crumbling…

The Culture Shock Of “The New Normal”

“Hey, honey? Is the formula ratio 1 to 2, or 2 to 1? And where are all the bottles? And where’s the formula? Wait, where’s the baby?”

This was me. Daily. If I had known the extent to which I would be required to not only keep our daughter alive but to make sure I didn’t screw her up, I’m not so sure I would have had kids.

Honestly, the easy part is bottle feeding and diaper changing. The midnight cries and sporadic colic eventually fade. The physical tasks we execute become second nature. And we get really, really good at packing a bag.

Keep the kid alive. Check. Done. Easy. Now can I go be me for a minute? I wish I could say the hard part was over, that you’ve done your duty as parent.

But it’s only just begun.

Life with kids is demanding. It’s relentless. Every bit of normal is tossed out the window and trampled into oblivion.

But what about our regular coffee dates? Movie nights? Can I go hang out with the boys? How about a morning run? Lets renovate the kitchen, but wait, what do we do with the kids? Is it bad for them to smell the paint? Is drywall dangerous? How do I budget around a child who’s needs change weekly?

When will I have MY time?

I waited patiently, and yes eagerly, for the day when normal, as I had once known it, would return.

But here’s the thing about parenting…

THAT normal, the normal you loved so much, the normal of pre-kids? Yeah — sorry. That normal is gone. Forever. Stop trying to look for it. Stop trying to resurrect it. You’re only damaging yourself in the process. You’ll only find disappointment behind each failed attempt.

There is beauty in that. Yes. Beauty. I’m not nuts, I promise. I’m also not a parenting guru with limitless patience and immune to endless torture. I felt your pain. I feel your pain. Don’t worry, you’ll see the beauty too because with the loss of old comes the blessing of new. New flaura, new fauna; new highs and lows. New ways to stay grounded, new ways to fly. A new balance, a new numbering scale.

A new normal. Yes, a new normal had found its way to my door. And it was called ‘family.’

Five years, two daughters, a handful of midlife meltdowns, several bouts of depression, countless late night talks, a couple of degrees later and I think I’ve got this figured out. At least partially, anyway. You see, I’m on the path of growth. And I’ve accepted where I am. I don’t look too far ahead and I don’t dwell on the past. I let myself be. That’s it. Just be. Staying in the present, leaving my expectations at the door, and not trying too hard to figure out a pattern to this madness.

Because there is none. Seriously, I’ve looked. Extensively.

It’s taken me a lot of self improvement, a ridiculous helping of humility, and some serious soul searching to find the happiness I have now. But I can confidently say that I am happy. I am happy with my marriage in its ever growing state, I am happy with my work as a father, and I am happy with myself as an individual. That last one is the most important part of all this — because it feeds the other two. And even though they’re all deeply intertwined, if, at the end of the day, you’re unhappy with yourself, good luck finding lasting happiness anywhere else. It’s just not going to happen.

You’re a miserable parent because you’re not letting go of that old life. You’re not letting go of that old you. You haven’t accepted the transformation that you must undergo — for some of us the crucible that we must walk through. We have to shed a lot of our past to walk lightly and freely into the future.

So here’s the strategy. Here are the four changes, the four shifts in mindset, the four attitude adjustments, the four whatever you want to call them — here are the four ‘stuffs’ you must undergo before you can find genuine holistic happiness in parenthood. I learned these the hard way, one existential punch in the face at a time. You, yourself, might need a few strong blows to the forehead before you learn them too — it depends on if you’re stubborn like me. Read carefully, my friend, it may just save you a headache or two. Here are my key takeaways.

1. Learn to live selflessly, but never forget yourself

You need a purpose, bigger than yourself, to live for. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself living in constant disappointment. And yes, you also need to take care of yourself. Papa’s gotta’ eat too, you know? Food for the soul. Time to heal. Time to recharge. Time to be you. All that good stuff.

But understand that harmony comes from unity and that your happiness is derivative of others’. A multitude of working parts, here, I know. That may seem daunting, overwhelming, but it’s more intuitive, more natural than you may think. Start serving others without an expectation of recognition. Start giving without an expectation of return. You will be full when your hands are empty.

2. Understand that the way of the past is gone and likely never to return. A new normal will find you. Be patient. Embrace it.

Patience is absolutely king here. You, like me, will be pining for the old ways. The old joys. Nostalgia is a painful thing. Literally. The word ‘nostalgia,’ in its original Greek setting literally means ‘the pain of missing home.’ And if that doesn’t sum this all up I don’t know what will.

Give yourself grace through this transition. In time, you will find normal again. Check your emotional compass often and guide your family together, accepting the story as it unfolds. Soon you’ll be flipping back through the first few chapters wondering where the time has gone, wishing so badly to live those moments just one more time. Give it time, my friend, and be kind to the fading days. You’ll find the rhythm again, and that sweet melody will not be far behind.

Great things in life — events, people, milestones, achievements — come and go. Enjoying life isn’t about remembering those things or holding on to the emotional highs that accompany them. No, it’s about seeing the big picture, about understanding the flow of time. Not in moments, but in the passing of moments.

3. You CAN change. Change is good. Change means growth. Growth = new skills for handling life. Be intentional about change; about self-improvement.

I cannot stress this point enough. If I could slap a person for every time I’ve heard “That’s just who I am,” well, I’d have slapped a lot of folks. We are not oak trees. We are not stuck in the same spot being the same thing until we die. We are dynamic. We are malleable. Plasticity is one of our greatest strengths. Don’t find yourself stuck being a person you don’t want to be. Improve yourself. You are imperfect. Flawed. Capable of bad decisions, poor character, and rough edges.

That is not what makes us human. What makes us human is our ability to choose NOT to be those things. To think and grow. To have intelligence, emotional intelligence. To forgive ourselves, to rise ABOVE ourselves. Self-serving minds will always excuse themselves from this table, but understand that you can and should change. Like strengthening our bodies through exercise, we can improve our mental, emotional, and spiritual health through active and intentional change.

4. Your identity is not gone, it’s simply been ‘updated.’

If you retain only one thing from this article: let it be this last point. You have not lost your identity, rest assured. I view it like this: knowing who you are is like having the key to your front door. When you’ve lost that key you’re homeless, confused, and cold. You question everything, you panic and act irrationally. You go from living to surviving; from human to animal. You will fight the changing of your identity at every corner because it feels unnatural. It doesn’t feel like you. It feels like you are giving up who you are.

Have hope; you are not lost, you are not gone, you are not someone else. You are simply undergoing an ‘update.’ There’s a new hat hanging on the wall of responsibilities and roles. You’ll wear it often. It will take some time to break in, to feel comfortable in. But it’s your hat to wear now. You are still you. You will always be you.

Oh and by the way, that key still works. It will still get you into a house. Just not the house you thought. It’s that nice one down the road. You know, the one with the porch-swing and playset. The one with the fancy new van in the driveway; the one that always has the sound of music and laughter wafting from its propped windows. You’ll get used to it.

Welcome home.

This article was originally published at Medium. Republished with permission from the author.