Guest Blogger Mark Tolman: "Becoming Dad"

TolmanJonathan here: Allow me to introduce my friend, Mark Tolman (see his bio below), who I met my freshman year of college. We camped out one night  with some friends on the sidewalk in downtown Salt Lake City. Why? That's another story. But back then we were just regular guys. Neither of us were the polished professionals we are now who (seemingly) have all the answers for our clients. For now, I'd like you to hear Mark's thoughts on Father's Day, not as a professional, but as a regular guy, who like me, and like you, have had to somehow figure out this whole dad thing...


Today marks a special day in my life. Not only is it Father’s Day to my eight children but it is also my youngest son’s six-month birthday. Last December when he was born it was touch and go for a few weeks. He was born a few weeks early and to complicate matters he had a couple of holes in his heart that would need to be repaired through open heart surgery. It was the first time in my life any of my children had congenital defects. The surgery wouldn’t happen until he was strong enough at five-months-old. That was a month ago. After six hours on the heart bypass machine the surgeons successfully repaired his heart and now almost a month later he is doing well.

What does it mean to be a dad?

The entire experience created some major changes in the way I was living my life. About a week ago I called up Jonathan Sherman and said, “Hey I just heard a discussion on National Public Radio talking about what it means to be a dad. So I thought of you.” I think I surprised Jonathan a bit and we talked for a few minutes.

We talked about how society has changed and evolved. We talked about the traditional role of what it means to be a dad and how dads today have some pretty different expectations sometimes on what that role entails. We talked about how there are seemingly endless support groups for women in need but there aren’t really any known groups for dads. Just regular dads—whatever that is.

One other thing, my son with the heart defect happens to have is Trisomy 21 or more commonly known as Down syndrome. Nothing like having a special needs child to cause all sorts of crazy emotions and questions for a dad. I guess I thought somehow that raising four other boys and three girls somehow had taught me all there was to know about children and myself. What I learned was that it was just the beginning.

So what does it mean to be a dad? It’s kind of like trying to describe what salt tastes like. I can describe some of the things that dads should do or be like but it never quite actually encompasses everything a dad is.

Our faith teaches that father’s (or dads for my purposes here) should be providers: seeing that the temporal needs of our families are met. But no matter how much I try I have always felt like I have come up a little bit short on accomplishing this. Maybe I feel this way because I have falsely measured my success in that area by counting the dollars in the bank, the size of our home or the age of my cars. In the last six months or so I now accept that if I can put food on the table, provide a safe and comfortable home and the cars at least run, that that is a huge success. Because spending more time at work, “providing,” just means less time with my kids.

Strong dads do cry

Dads are supposed to be strong, at least according to much of society. Not only should dads be like Superman, able to lift cars and jump over buildings, but they should also be able to carry, lift and move bunk beds whenever a fort needs to be built. By being strong, society can also judge dads that cry as weak. Well if that is the measure, the last six months show that I am completely a wimp. I cried on my knees at my office before anyone came in asking my Heavenly Father to give me the strength to figure out how to do “this” (raise eight kids, one with special needs). I cried when he was born, I cried when he was taken into surgery, I cried and literally had to leave the room when his central IV came out and they spent nearly an hour trying to find a vein to get it back in. Luckily the nurses that worked in the transport part of the intensive care unit were used to finding veins in infants because they did it all the time in ambulances and helicopters. I cried when they took out his ventilator, I cried when I thought about how well he was received by his siblings and how much they asked about how he was doing each and every day. Sometimes I just cried when a song came on the radio. What I learned was that dads are supposed to cry sometimes.

Dads know things and fix things

Dads are supposed to know stuff moms don’t. You know things like, how to fish, how to change a tire, the name of every airplane in the sky, and with my five sons, the names of all the monster trucks and fastest cars in the world including the horsepower each puts out. Well I know some of that stuff so I’m not a total failure in that regard, but I also discovered that throughout my life my trials were just preparing me to be a dad.

You see, we have never had enough money to ever take our car in to be fixed when it broke so, I fixed it. Sometimes it took months. I must say it is a lot easier to fix now with the internet and YouTube at my fingertips than it was when I was first married. I just got done tearing down my daughters Jeep and replacing the head gaskets this weekend. The skills I have learned in this respect have allowed me to spend time with each of my sons  and daughters in the garage, explaining how a car works, what this does and that does, and that there really is no such thing as a flux capacitor, at least not in any cars we own. Now if I were wealthy, it is highly unlikely that I would have ever learned enough to spend time in the garage working with my kids. I would have dropped it off at the shop and let some other person fix it, and thereby never having what it would take to spend time in the garage with the kids.

Dads spend time

One client of mine came in to see me and didn’t have enough money to pay me for the services that he needed. What the client did have, as the vice president for sales of a fishing tackle company, was access to lots of fishing equipment. I don’t normally barter for services but something very clearly inside me said just ask. I enjoy fishing but since I was married almost 21 years ago I can’t say that I have ever taken my wife fishing and because I was always chasing the dollar, I never really took time to fish. This client paid me with enough fishing gear to be able to take my sons fishing, seven rods, ten reels and nine tackle boxes complete with lures. The girls could go too but so far they haven’t had much interest. I’m not sure why many women don’t like worms, slime and fish hooks but boys sure seem to enjoy those things. Each week now I go in to work a little late or get off a little early a couple of days and take my sons fishing. We have a couple of small lakes nearby, and while it is fun to catch a large mouth bass it means just as much to spend more time together. Dads spend time with their kids.

Dads are there for their kids' mom

One of my wife’s favorite things to see me do is to play with her children. My wife has always been the one to get up every night when the children were babies to change the diapers, feed them late at night and to hold them when they just want to be held. I am a heavy sleeper. I hear nothing at night. My wife wakes up to the sounds of a door creaking. I’m also mostly deaf in the right ear so if I am sleeping on my left ear I also hear nothing. This makes it difficult to respond to a baby waking up. When I worked as a carpenter, or framer, and left for work at 4:00 AM many days, my wife also took care of the children so that I could sleep. My wife is so compassionate that she never nudges me to get up. She just does it. In the hospital with my new son it was never a burden to stay up late. He was in the NICU for three weeks and then in the PICU after surgery for another week. Sure we were both tired but I found that while she was focused on all of the children’s needs during that time, I seemed to zero in on just my new son. After he was born he was immediately taken from the hospital where he was born, I mean immediately, to a pediatric hospital across town. I followed after him and left my wife alone for the first time after one of our children were born. It was more than a day before she would be able to come over and be with him. I think that was the hardest day of her life, having just given birth to a son that she couldn’t be with. I believe it brought her some comfort to know that I was at the pediatric hospital with our son though. I learned that good dads are there for their kid’s moms. I have a long way to go in this area but its coming, I can feel it.

What being a dad is all about

So what does it mean to be a good dad? It’s all of the little life’s lessons that a father learns along the way. It’s not just one skill here and there. It’s recognizing when to be there and when to back off. It’s not finding time to be with your kids, it’s making time and then finding time for the other stuff in life, like work. It’s realizing that without the love and affection of your kids you are really just another man and not someone special. On this Father’s Day I feel special. Not because it’s a warm summer Sunday where I got to take a nap and have a cake made to honor me, but because I finally am beginning to understand why it is that our Heavenly Father spends so much time and effort on us. To borrow from a religious sermon I recently heard, “It should have great meaning that of all the titles of respect and honor and admiration that could be given [H]im that God himself, he who is the highest of all, chose to be addressed as simply as ‘Father’.”

Mark A. Tolman, P.C., is the father of three girls and five boys, husband of one for almost 21 years. Mark is an attorney working in private practice (Tolman Law Firm) in St. Charles, Missouri. Mark graduated from Arizona State University in 2002, after taking ten years off to build houses, with a B.S. in Justice Studies, a Master’s in Health Administration and a Law degree from St. Louis University with a certificate in Health Law.