Signs that you've crossed the line from manhood to fatherhood.

Wavy haired dad kissing baby in his arms, baby nibbling on bear

Dad, Not Man

Here comes a moment in every new father's life when he realizes he's not fully a man anymore. He's a dad, an evolutionary offshoot most easily distinguishable by the things he always carries: baby wipes; Cheerios; and, in the trunk of the car where the golf clubs used to be, a collapsible stroller.

This realization can come as early as the delivery room or as late as a second birthday party, but soon enough, every halfway decent dad crosses that line from manhood to fatherhood.

On one side of the line are guys with cigars and sports cars, fancy stereo systems, and furniture that's all polished metal and black leather: Sharper Image guys. They see an attractive, college-aged girl and think, "Maybe, just maybe..."

On the other side are men who go to work unknowingly sporting a giant Dora the Explorer sticker on their crisp white dress shirt. They see an attractive, college-aged girl and think, "Babysitter?"

What's funny is that the typical new dad admits this transformation to himself roughly six months after it becomes obvious to the rest of the world. They can figure it out from the odor of sour milk that clings to you like the melody of a bad pop song. It takes a traumatic event to enlighten the new dad -- like the neighbor's kid calling him "Conor's Dad" instead of "Mister Johnson." To avoid embarrassment, it's important to help fathers make peace with their new identity. Nobody wants to hear Green Day blasting out of open minivan windows while a balding head bobs up and down -- oblivious to the baby's crying in the car seat directly behind him.

So I've collected some telltale signs, beyond the aforementioned lust for reliable babysitters, that a man has crossed over into fatherhood. You can think of it as a sort of field guide to this particular subspecies, the kind of thing John James Audubon might have conceived, had he ever decided to study humans. Or you can think of it as an early-warning system, an indicator that it's time to accept your full-fledged dad-i-tude before somebody has to take you aside at a cocktail party and set you straight.

Signs of Fatherhood

  • You spend 45 minutes sweating and grunting in the backseat of a car. You are alone; when you are finished, the car seat is installed.
  • You have actually read the manual for said car seat, instead of just looking at the thing, guessing what the makers had in mind, and setting it up in some approximation of its actual function. This method, which has served you well for everything from Betamax to MP3 players, suddenly strikes you as unacceptable.
  • You realize the woman you are talking to at the party is breastfeeding her baby. You do not panic. Your skin does not redden. You do not suddenly tilt your chin 30 degrees upward to be sure you don't accidentally look down. You simply continue the conversation and perhaps even steer it toward when she plans to wean and whether her workplace has a lactation room.
  • Out: Sponge baths with spouse.In: SpongeBob with offspring.
  • You willingly give up Saturday morning basketball for Saturday morning "music class," convinced that ditties about snails and rain will give your child the sense of rhythm that has always eluded you.
  • You discover that not only have you developed an opinion about crib bumpers, but you have actually uttered it aloud. "Honey, I think I prefer the gingham one to the nautical" is something you pray your wife will not repeat when your buddies come over.
  • Actually, who are you kidding? Your buddies are never coming over again. By the time your kid is old enough to learn poker, there's a good chance you won't even remember how to play.
  • For the first time in your life, the vomit you are covered in is not of your own making.
  • At birthday parties you start assessing which little boy or girl seems like a good catch for your pride and joy. That you are doing this based on their ability to stack blocks fails to strike you as ridiculous.
  • As another pair of khaki shorts gets splattered with Starbucks, you curse the idiots who can't make a decent aftermarket baby-stroller cup holder.
  • You don't even flinch as you hand over the credit card for your fourth stroller in three years, each one more expensive than the last.
  • You finally read all the information your company sends you about retirement plans and life insurance.
  • Old favorite decorating theme: Mission.New favorite decorating theme: Primary-color plastic.
  • It dawns on you that it's been at least two months since you substituted the Ralph's World CD for the Jayhawks in your car's CD player. This happens when you catch yourself humming aloud, on the train to work, the immortal line: "There was a teddy bear / Named Freddy Bear / Who lived on a top of a mountain / Made of chocolate cake."
  • As your child's birthday approaches, you're not daunted by the fact that his new toy looks as if it will take all night to put together. Because that is What Dads Do. And if there are pieces left over when you are "finished," you throw them away. Because that, too...
  • You'd rather go to Babies "R" Us than TGI Fridays, and your new idea of a "happy hour" involves your little darling going down easy for a weekend afternoon nap.
  • You let your precious universal remote -- $79.99, plus more than 10 hours of setup time to finally get it running perfectly -- be pressed into emergency duty as a pacifier/hand toy for an inconsolable infant. This happens after your cell phone doesn't do the trick.
  • You go to the babyGap part of the store first, and sometimes exclusively. A corollary: You know the words to those songs that play in an endless tape loop at Gymboree.
  • You are secretly thrilled when the gift that purports to be from your son is a necktie, just like you always gave your own dad.
  • Your little boy falls asleep on your bare chest, all softness and need, and you understand that for all your sacrifice and changes, there is no better place in the world for a man to be.

Steve Johnson, father of two sons, is a writer in Oak Park, Illinois.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, January 2006.

American Baby