Before my first son Seth was born in 2006, a friend told me, “You’ll be sleep-deprived until he reaches age four.” Then I heard this gem from a coworker: “Forget about getting back into shape because you won’t have time for yourself until he leaves for college.”

Of all the things I read and heard as I prepared for fatherhood, those are the two I remember most distinctly. So far they are both somewhat true, although sleep and exercise have steadily improved over the past two-and-a-half years.

That may change again because my wife just delivered our second son, Avery, this week. What little pockets of rest and energy I’ve been able to find are now being consumed by round-the-clock care for the infant while trying to entertain a hyperactive two-year-old on the verge of potty-training.

Don’t get me wrong. I am ecstatic to be a father. I let my wife Cara know early on that I was ready as soon as she was. I had a late start — Seth was born shortly after I turned 35 — and I felt that I only had a limited amount of time to establish a family while I was still relatively young and spry.

We’ve just returned from the hospital with Avery, and it’s amazing how much less stress there was this time. Maybe we were just very fortunate, but I think a little more experience at parenting has to be partly responsible. Not as many mysteries and fears fill your mind when you’ve already been through a 25-hour labor. This one was 16 hours — still no picnic — but with considerably less drama.

Now that I’ve been through these life-altering events twice, I’ve made three discoveries that I never saw in parenting books or on TV (disclaimer here that most men, I’m fairly certain, do much less studying and preparation before having children than women do):

  1. The respect for your wife grows tremendously. No matter how much you love her or appreciate what she does for you, you may have no idea about her toughness until you see her give birth. And the result of her physical sacrifice is the greatest gift anyone will ever give you. How can you not grant her due props for that?
  2. Your selfishness and poor time management skills come into clear focus. Everyone needs “me-time,” but when you have young children, any time you spend on things just for you is time not spent with them. Whatever your guilty pleasure — golf, TV shows, computer games, etc. — you may continue doing them but acutely aware your children are wishing you were with them. This is especially true on weekdays when you’ve already spent most of your waking hours at work, and the window to spend time with your children is extremely narrow. You could wait until they nap or sleep at night, but that may involve more planning or later nights than you have energy. Balancing selfishness with my children’s needs is an ongoing battle, at least for me.
  3. You no longer doubt or worry so much about past decisions. Let’s face it: If things hadn’t happened exactly as they did, you wouldn’t have these children who mean the world to you just the way they are. If you had made different choices — in relationships, jobs, or virtually anything affecting the course of your life — you would not have ended up with these unique, unbelievable bundles of joy.

This last realization was, by far, the most profound for me. It washed away so many “what-ifs” and regrets about my past. Having that peace of mind was an unexpected relief after many years of second-guessing career paths and beating myself up over failed relationships. For someone who has struggled with depression throughout his life, this was a much-needed calming influence.

Even though I may be sleep-deprived for the next few years and may never get back into shape, I am finally happy on a consistent basis. In addition to my wife, I have two sons who give everything in my life much more purpose and meaning.

Some may find those salvations in other places: religion, their professions, humanitarian work. But what makes me see things more clearly, what makes me strive to be a better person, and what makes me more fully appreciate the here and now, is fatherhood.

In The Fray is a nonprofit staffed by volunteers. If you liked this piece, could you please donate $10?