Sometimes The Most Sincere Parenting Advice Comes From A Stand-Up Comedian

My first child was due in a month, and I was desperate for sound practical counsel on how I could become the best parent possible for my daughter. So I asked a comic.

Dark stage with a microphone and empty stool with spot light on them
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In December of 2015, I was in the green room of a curiously named comedy club called Magooby's Joke House in Timonium, Maryland. Without much thought, I started to hound the headliner, Joe Matarese, for parenting advice.

It was a weird point in my life. My first child was due in a month, and I was desperate for sound practical counsel on how I could become the best parent possible for my daughter. I'd spent the better part of my wife's pregnancy seeking unsolicited tips and hacks from sources ranging from friends, family, and acquaintances to the Navy SEALS and the Green Berets.

Stand-up comedians, constantly traveling and often neurotic and unstable individuals, aren't generally a go-to source for parenting info. But Joe was a dad and someone who, based on his act and podcast, struggled with mental health issues—just like me.

After a brief introduction, some mindless small talk and the admission that I was a fan of his work, I saw an opening and jumped.

"You're a dad, right?" I asked, already knowing the answer. "Do you have any parenting advice you can offer?"

Before Joe could even respond, I launched into completely unnecessary background on why I had assaulted him with the request minutes after he'd walked through the back door.

"See, my wife, Liz, she's a nurse, a burn nurse. I know, right? Anyway, she's pregnant with our first kid, and she's due in like a month—unless the baby comes early, which would be a disaster because we just aren't ready at all. Like at all. We still need to paint her room, and so many things. And I know everybody likes to say the first baby always comes late, but they don't know, do they? I mean, babies come early all the time, you know?

Anyway, I'm kind of freaking out about the fact that I'm going to have a baby very, very soon and my life is going to completely change, and even though you complain about having kids in your act a lot, I can tell being a dad is important to you so, like, what's one piece of advice you'd offer someone who's about to become a dad?"

"Dude," he said and paused for what seemed like eternity before trying to process and respond to my unprovoked attack on his pre-show preparation time.

"That's kind of a lot. I guess, the one thing I'd say is find a way to get really, really comfortable worrying all the time, because you're always going to be worrying about something when you have kids," he said finally.

Worrying was something I could do.

Worrying was—still is—kind of my thing.

I've had sleep issues since I was a teen. I'd lie in bed, tossing and turning, unable to sleep until well after the television went into infomercial hours. I just couldn't stop my mind from racing from thought to thought like the scan function on a car radio, pausing just long enough to pique my interest before abruptly changing course and seeking other stations in the radiofrequency of my mind.

Sometime in my twenties, however, that manic excitement morphed into a steady worry and anxiety—anxiety that occasionally dovetailed into bouts of depression that lasted anywhere from a few days to several weeks. For me, the worst part about depression is how close it feels in proximity to its antithesis. When I'm depressed, I often feel like happiness is so close I can reach out and grab it by its stupid, happy collar, shake the shit out of it and scream, "Where the hell do you think you're going? Don't you dare leave me alone with that asshole, depression, again? He never leaves when I want him to!"

The sleeplessness from my teenage years was more of a manic excitement about all the possibilities the future held, as opposed to the near-constant anxiety I feel today as a father raising two kids in a world that sometimes feels like it's in its final act.

That's why Joe's advice resonated so strongly with me. I'm basically uncomfortable all the time.

Maybe that's OK. I just need to recognize the discomfort for what it truly is: symptoms of a mental health condition that can easily go off the rails if left unchecked. I'm among one in five adults who experience mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Maintaining my mental health and well-being is a lot of hard work.

These days, Matarese is busy touring his one-man show "Remember When," a nostalgia-heavy, themed stand-up show about growing up in the 80s. It's a show he says is partly about "me trying to save my kids from growing up in the always connected disconnected."

In the six years since I spoke with him in that Magooby's green room, I've returned to his comfort-in-discomfort advice plenty of times—when my newborn son spent a night in the ER, when my daughter was diagnosed with a food allergy, when my house was flooded following Hurricane Ida, and throughout the countless minor crises and clueless moments inherent in all of parenting.

It's become a mantra of sorts for me. Every single time I've thought about Matarese's advice, it has provided me with some much-needed perspective on the situation and, surprisingly, a sense of calm. As a parent, I'm supposed to feel uncomfortable, I'm supposed to worry. It's part of the job description. Understanding this basic concept somehow makes it more manageable.

Parenting often makes it difficult to determine whether the stress and lows I'm experiencing are part of the daily grind or signs something more serious is afoot. When it's the latter, it's important for me to check in with myself and admit I need some additional help pushing me back to that comfortably-uncomfortable baseline.

This is easier said than done, but I'm trying. Recently the discomfort was more than the usual amount, so I'm in therapy and talking through the why part of the equation. As great as my therapist is, she hasn't yet said anything that landed quite as squarely as Matarese's comments from 2015. If he put down the mic to start a therapy practice tomorrow, I'd probably become his first official patient.

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