This Sunday, we will celebrate the king of the grill. We’ll toast that very special guy who first taught us to slow dance and throw a softball. The one who intimidated our boyfriends, showed us how to cast a fishing pole and even tried to fashion a ponytail or two. It’s Father’s Day!
In the spirit of this weekend’s holiday, we gathered four fathers from Vera Bradley at the local Irish pub, J K O’Donnell’s, to discuss the phases, fears, victories and vices of parenting from the male perspective. Our guests ranged from a brand new dad, to a 26-year pro, and the advice was flowing. Pull up a chair and listen in on our first-ever patriarch powwow.
On the guest list:
Jason E. | Web Development Manager
Sophia, 9 and Jake, 5
Todd S. | Sr. Director Corporate and Indirect Channel Systems
Erin, 26 and Eric, 26
Mark G. | Sr. Web Designer
Liam, 4 and Rowan, 8 months
Michael M. | Visual Communication Project Specialist
Melina, 3 months
Q. So, Michael is the newest dad …
Mark: How’s that going for ya?
Michael: I’ve practiced for this question! We’re sleeping through the night, typically from 10:30 pm – 7:30 in the morning.
Michael: I don’t know if that ever changes …
All: It does!
Todd: With twins, my kids didn’t sleep through the night until they were 2. When one would wake up, they’d wake the other. The first 6 months was just nothing but hard work, and I don’t remember much of it.
Jason: The mind has a way of blocking that part out.
Michael: That’s what sleep deprivation does to you.
Jason: My daughter slept great for the first couple months, and then she started teething. At 4 months, it all went downhill.
Mark: Both of my boys were bad sleepers, early. Liam is really good now, but Rowan … there have been some long, long nights.
Michael: I feel blessed.
Q. What was your favorite phase?
Todd: There are always new challenges, but every chapter of your kids growing up is fun. I remember when my kids turned 3; that was such a fun age! They become little people and have the funniest conversations.
Jason: You get through a phase, and you think, “Wow, how is it going to get any better?” Then the next thing happens and they grow a little more, and it’s different and better. There are so many things to look forward to.
Q. What’s it like raising girls vs. boys?
Todd: I mean, I love my daughter; there’s a special relationship between a father and daughter …
Todd: But, she just about killed me when she was in high school! She was never rebellious or anything, but dating just about killed me. Seriously. I think girls just have this knack for picking the biggest losers in the world and thinking they are cool, and she was no exception. Daughters are great, but one was perfect. I don’t know if I could handle it a second time around. Another thing I found was when my daughter turned 13, my wife became the stupidest person to walk the face of the earth in her eyes. So I became the mediator. It’s a great ride!
Jason: Sophie’s only 9, but you can start to see some of that attitude developing. When she hits 13, I have this fear of exactly what you’re talking about.
Q. What was the first moment it really hit you that you were a dad?
Jason: For me, I have this very specific memory. When Sophie was born, my wife and I were leaving the hospital to take her home and we walked out, and I’m carrying her in the baby seat and it hit me: We’re on our own now! We’ve got a baby!
Todd: I look back now, and I can’t believe how naïve I was. I should have appreciated the weight of the situation, but I guess I just took it in the moment.
Mark: I remember driving carefully. Like, you know you have this little baby in the backseat, so I’m going to drive differently now.
Michael: In the first couple weeks, we’d be watching television and then look over and the baby would be there. I don’t know, I just forgot!
Jason: We knew roughly when Sophia was going to be born, and I wanted to be prepared, so I went and bought newborn diapers. Well, she was 9 lbs. 6 oz. and not even close to fitting into those newborn diapers. The very first thing I was going to to do as a dad just got shot out of the water! It didn’t take long for her to show me that whatever plans I have are completely irrelevant.
Q. What did you learn about parenting from your father?
Todd: It was what my dad did for me. He died from pancreatic cancer about 12 years ago, much too young, but he never, ever missed anything. From my Little League game to a band concert, he was always, always there. That made such an impact on me, my dad being there, and being my cheerleader. Especially in high school, he was the big ole burly guy, and he was loud, but always yelling encouragement. And I can remember being so embarrassed and now I think back, and appreciate that so much.
Jason: My dad was there as often as he could be – whether is was sports events or school events – and I have a great appreciation for it now, having a career and a job and understanding the pressures and complexities that come with having a schedule. Knowing he would take the time and be there is really important to me now, looking back on it.
Mark: My dad was a pastor, so he was always home when we were there. One thing that’s weird, I hear my dad in my voice when I’m talking to Liam. And I’m making things for the boys just like my dad did for me. I remember I wanted a Western pistol I could spin on my finger, and my dad – who was a model maker – went down to the basement and whipped one up out of a 2×4. It was silver with a perfect trigger hole for spinning. That’s the stuff I want to pass on. Whatever you want, let’s go for it.
Michael: My dad was very open to anything we wanted to try, whether it was sports or musical instruments. He led us in the right general direction, but let us figure things out on our own. That’s something I really appreciate from my childhood; being able to problem solve and try new things.
Q. Todd, you’re our most experienced dad …
Todd: Yeah, I really appreciate having family gatherings and having my kids, their spouses and my grandkids together. I told them when they graduated from college, “If you will give us 1 week a year for vacation, we’ll foot the bill.” We started with a 2-week trip to Europe, we’ve done a houseboat on Lake Cumberland, we did Mount Rainier last year … It’s just such a special thing.
Michael: I can’t imagine how awesome that would be!
Todd: I love it so much I sometimes wonder if we should have had more kids.
Mark: I can’t imagine more kids right now, but I know it’s something you never regret.
Jason: It’s hard when you’re in the thick of it with young kids and sleep deprivation.
Todd: It’s so funny, your comment about sounding like your dad, I look in the mirror and see my dad looking back at me. And the good news is – for the most part – I’m proud. If I do as well as my dad, I’m okay with that. My son will be saying these same things in 20 years, so I ask if I’m modeling what he should be doing.
Jason: That’s the ultimate goal for me. If I can teach them, and instill the values and goals to get them going, I’ll be proud. You get to a point where you know they’re watching everything you’re doing. I have to be careful to hold my tongue.
Michael: When do you have to stop watching Breaking Bad or the Walking Dead? [laughs]
Jason: Whenever they start paying attention!
Q. What’s something you definitely want to teach your kids?
Jason: Self respect. I want to make sure my daughter knows how people should be treating her.
Todd: Faith is first and foremost in my household. That’s the life-changer from my perspective. And I have to give my wife 90 percent – at least – of the credit for having 2 grown children doing great. She came up with this plan, 20 – 30 practical things that she said, “By the time you leave the house, you’ll know how to do this.” Things like ironing … I still don’t know how to iron! But my son does. They started doing laundry at 12.
Todd: Yeah, it was really about being deliberate. You know, in today’s environment, there’s so much opportunity to get influenced in so many ways. And there are a lot of bad influences. If you’re not deliberate about putting the right influences in your kids, they’re going to find other things to fill that void. I think that’s critical; your values, and even those practical things.
Michael: But you’d be there if they needed it.
Todd: Oh we love to help our kids. There’s a whole “pay it forward” mentality with your kids. I could never repay my dad for everything he did for me, but I’m paying it forward with my kids. And they’ll never appreciate everything I’ve done for them, but they’ll pay it forward with their kids. That’s just the way this is built, the way things work.
Jason: I think it’s a big deal to me to set my kids up to have it better than I did at points in life. I had a great childhood, but you want your kids to succeed and have it better.
Todd: I think it’s amazing that as selfish as I can be, I can’t think of an occasion where I was selfish toward my kids. There’s something just innate in that. I’m willing to sacrifice for them.
Mark: You think of them as an extension of yourself. You don’t want to make anything difficult for them. For me, I know I’m trying to teach him that, while it’s important to be patient, if you want to do something, make it happen when you have the opportunity. Growing up, you’re always waiting for this switch for when you become an “adult,” or think you’ll know how to do something, or someone will tell you, but it never comes!
Todd: I like your concept of encouraging your kids to take risks and chase their dreams.
Jason: Yeah, and at the same time you have to let them have those experiences on their own. And they have to be able to try something and not succeed – those are important life lessons, and they need to know that you have to keep trying.
Mark: Like wrestling with your kids; you can’t always let them win.
Jason: Yeah, sometimes you just have to give them the pile driver!
“Self respect. I want to make sure my daughter knows how people should be treating her.”
Q. What is the best piece of parenting advice you ever got?
Michael: Start a Roth IRA early.
Jason: The financial part was actually huge for me. My dad was great about teaching me to set myself up so we never get in trouble.
Todd: One of the philosophies my dad taught me was, “No deal is so good that it has to be done today.” I distinctly remember getting sucked into a deal when I was in college, and my dad didn’t take my head off but he taught me to do my research.
Jason: The first car I bought out of college, I ended up getting a deal which ended up not being as good as I thought it was. It was a, “lesson learned … don’t do it again” moment.
Mark: In high school, there was a kid, super nice guy, and we were joking about something. And of course you think you’re funny, so you laugh at yourself. He was making jokes, too, and basically, I was only laughing at my jokes and he totally called me on it. He said, “You know, you’re not the only funny person. It’s not nice to not laugh at other people’s jokes.” And I’ve never forgotten it. There’s the deeper appreciation of other people enjoying life that I want to convey. You’re not cooler than anybody else, and you really have to accept people.
Q. What’s it like being a guy at Vera Bradley?
Todd: I just had my 7-year anniversary at Vera Bradley! I spent the majority of my career in heavy industry; 22 years with an automotive supplier and another 3 years at a steel company before I came here. This was a significant culture shift … shock, I suppose. But I love it and it is a much better fit for me.
Jason: I echo a lot of what you said. I’ve been here for just over 5 years. The family culture has been amazing. They’ve been willing to step up and help me and that has been huge. I can’t remember any thoughts running through my head during the interview, hiring, or starting processes when I felt out of place because it was a “female-run” handbag company. The big thing for me is that I look back and can’t remember any days where I wake up and thought, “Oh man, I have to go to work today.”
Mark: I was impressed when I came into my interview and it wasn’t what I expected. In the first couple of years, I realized they do a good job of hiring really nice people. I feel honored to be a part of it, and it’s motivating. I had no idea of the connection between a woman and a purse. I never really considered it. But I can make connections; like guys have cars and tools.
Michael: The Christmas before I started working at Vera Bradley, I got my wife a purse rack. It held 75 purses, and her purses filled up the entire thing. I said, “I’m never buying you another purse.” A few months later I got an internship here. The discount definitely helps! Originally, I was the only guy in the department. Now there are two of us. I remember coming into the interview, and being so nervous. I was sitting in Barb [Bradley Baekgaard’s] office, and all of the weight just flew off. I just felt at home.
Jason: I started in March, and it was right before the Outlet Sale. I had been here a month before it started. It was amazing to see it for the first time.
Todd: My first day was the first day of the Outlet Sale! They said I could start a week later, but I passed. The great thing was, everyone was walking around with a nametag, so I learned a lot of names and faces in that one week!
Michael: An initiation.
Q. Do your little girls have their first bag yet?
Michael: Yes, she has a cardboard box waiting for her. My wife was carrying a bag someone had gotten her at a baby shower, and I had one I got at my Vera Bradley shower. She wanted to try mine, and was like, “Why am I not using this one? It keeps everything so organized!” And I said, “Exactly!”
Jason: Sophie loves it! If I bring anything home for my wife, I have to make sure that something is coming home for her, too.
Michael: I know my little girl is carrying around – well, not carrying around – but laying with that little Lovey Bunny.
Q. What is your favorite thing about being a dad?
Jason: For me, it’s doing the things with the kids that they are excited about. I’ll come home from work, and Jake will be ecstatic and wants to play Star Wars on the Wii, and all stress melts away. You get to be a kid yourself!
Todd: I think investing in my kids and leaving a legacy.
Michael: I’m going to remember that one. I think it’s early for me, but what I would like to do is create a person who is better than myself while learning more about myself. I’m a 25-year-old guy, and I don’t really think about values too much. But when you’re teaching them to someone else, it’s an ongoing learning process.
Mark: This sounds a little selfish, but how they make me laugh and how happy they make me.
“You’re in the thick of it right now, but some day you’ll step back and think, I am really shaping this human being … But there is a lot of room for error and forgiveness.”
Q What’s the biggest challenge of being a dad?
Todd: For me, I think it’s living up to that awesome responsibility. (To Michael) You’re in the thick of it right now, but some day you’ll step back and think, I am really shaping this human being. She may be physically in your hands now, but within the next 20 years, you’re molding her. But there is a lot of room for error and forgiveness.
Jason: I think that’s the hardest thing so far, having to make the right decisions. Some of the things my kids have gone through, I’ve had this helpless feeling. That’s been a big hurdle.
Mark: I think it’s moments of frustration that lead to instant regret. I try so hard not to lose it or get upset, but I regret anything like that so quickly.
Todd: Yes, coming up short in that great responsibility is …
Jason: It’s crushing, sometimes.
Mark: When I look back, I will regret getting upset that they wouldn’t sleep. Even though I’m dead-tired, and sweating trying to rock him, it will be worth it.
Michael: Again, it’s early, but I think being on the same page with my wife, and keeping to that.
Q. What is your famous “dadism”?
Mark: I say, “Liam, how many times do I have to say, ‘Liam’ before you’ll listen?” So he’ll come back and say, “How many times do I have to say, ‘Daddy’?”
Michael: It’s obvious my daughter looks just like me, so all I’m saying to her is, “mama, mama,” because I promised my wife those will be her first words since she has to hear everyone say, “Oh, she looks just like your husband!”
Mark: She’s going to call you “mama”…
Jason: “I’m hungry.” “Oh nice to meet you, Hungry!” I say that one a lot.
Todd: When my kids were smaller, they’d say, “That’s not fair,” and I’d say, “The fair comes for a week every fall. Life isn’t fair.”
Q. Advice for our newest dad, Michael?
Michael: One piece of advice I got, don’t teach them how to talk!
Todd: I would say cherish every moment and don’t take it for granted. I know when you’re in the heat of the battle it is hard to remember that, but I honestly can’t believe my kids are 26 years old and I have a grandchild. Cherish and enjoy it as it happens, and it will be a good ride.
Jason: Be involved and be there when they have problems and when things are good. Just being someone that they can talk to and keeping that door of communication open is important so they know no matter what the problem is, they can talk to you.
Mark: I’d say don’t compare yourself to other parents. Most people will tell you stories of all of the good things and none of the bad, so you feel like they are doing everything right and you’re doing everything wrong. Don’t compare yourself; you’ll be fine!
“When I look back, I will regret getting upset that they wouldn’t sleep. Even though I’m dead-tired, and sweating trying to rock him, it will be worth it.”
Q. Todd, what’s the biggest difference between being a dad and being a grandpa?
Todd: I don’t know if it’s my age, or if it’s really the fact that I don’t have to be “on it” 7 x 24. I think it really is more my age, the experience, the ability to have a little more perspective, but grandparenting is … I can’t describe it … so awesome. I was very close to my grandfather – he was the third most influential person in my life after my parents – so I want to be him to my grandkids. And that’s a tall order.
Mark: I have a question, Todd. What’s the first thing you think of when you think of your kids? What age do you think of?
Todd: I think grade school age is what comes to mind. When they both turned 13, my wife took my daughter on a rite of passage trip and I took my son. We are both into the Civil War, so we went to Virginia and toured Civil War battlefields for a week. So that’s the picture that comes to mind, us walking through Gettysburg.
Q. Father’s Day plans?
Todd: My daughter and her husband and my grandbaby are moving home!
Mark: I’m going camping with Liam this weekend as a birthday/Father’s Day thing. It’s our first time, just me and him. The plan is to go down with the sun and come up with the sun. We’re going to the caves and he’s very excited.
Michael: It’s going to be a surprise.
Jason: I just want to spend some time with my kids. Maybe go to the park … just enjoy the day.
Warm wishes to all of the amazing dads at Vera Bradley and everywhere for a wonderful Father’s Day!