Going into my interview with Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson, I was a little nervous. I’d never before interviewed a professional football player. Truth be told, I don’t even know what a tight end does. But that was OK. Because what I wanted to learn from Benjamin Watson had nothing to do with his on-field strategy and everything to do with his more important off-the-field job: father of five young children.
While his newly published book, “The New Dad’s Playbook” (Baker Books), Watson uses football jargon to break down some paramount aspects of fatherhood—“pre-season” refers to pregnancy, for instance, and “Super Bowl” means birth—you don’t have to be a football fanatic to appreciate his poignant take on fatherhood. My conversation with Watson provides a glimpse of the good stuff between his new book’s 191 pages, plus some additional insight from a guy who clearly takes his job as a dad very seriously. — Elizabeth Huebeck
You have five children under the age of 8. What’s that like?
Very, very busy. They’re a great joy, but it also can be very frustrating. They go through food like a horde of animals—I’m heading to the grocery store right now. There are also very tender times. They really do love each other; you can see how they take care of each other.
In “The New Dad’s Playbook,” you share that you wrote it for all those guys who feel unprepared to become a father. Did you feel prepared to become a dad?
I didn’t feel ready; I still don’t feel ready. We got married in 2005 and waited a few years to have kids. I was scared. I was nervous. I’d seen parenting and had been a part of a big family [as the oldest of six children]. It’s another thing when you’re in charge of raising a child. When we left the hospital with our firstborn, I remember feeling overwhelmed with the life sitting in the back seat who was my responsibility. In having conversations, I sensed that other guys felt the same way.
In your book, you sound like such an authority—on everything from pregnancy to childrearing. How’d you come by your knowledge? Was it strictly personal experience, or were there people you leaned on to learn how to be a supportive husband and father?
There have been a number of different people, and each gave me a little bit here and there. I had a teammate in New England who had a few kids before we had any. He told me that, as a husband, your work becomes who you are in that house and you can’t allow the successes and failures of what happen at work affect you at home.
Another influence is my father. He’s my hero. He was present, a provider and a protector and a spiritual leader in my home. There’s also my father-in-law. He’s more tender than my dad. He shows his emotions with the grandchildren.
Your wife delivered two of your children naturally, and your fourth child, Eden, was born at home. How did you feel about the idea of having the baby at home?
I was like: What? Our first was born in a hospital in Boston, and my wife Kirsten had an epidural. With our second, she also had an epidural and it was terrible. Kirsten was really sick. So then she decided to go natural—at a hospital in a birthing center. Then she hit me with this: She wanted to have the next baby at home. I was supportive. We made the decision together. We had a midwife and a doula, and they let me deliver the baby. We couldn’t have reached the decision if I’d been adamantly opposed to it.
I understand that cooking was a skill you developed when your wife had a particularly rough spell during one of her pregnancies.
My wife said she thought it was sexy when a man grilled; I learned the next day. I have gone online and gotten some recipes; I can follow recipes to a tee. I make a lot of grilled salmon.
Whether it’s fish or lasagna, I just get a recipe. I warn my kids: ‘It’s not going to taste like Mommy’s. But it’ll do.’
In your book, you touch on financial responsibility, mentioning that your sister temporarily slept in a drawer on the floor of your parents’ bedroom as an infant. Financial insecurity is one of the scariest aspects of parenthood. What’s your advice on this front?
Having a desire as a father to be responsible financially is a good thing. The problem is when you’re overwhelmed by it, or feel like there’s never enough. You do need to provide for your family’s basic needs—food, clothing, shelter. Outside of that, many things are luxuries. Some men feel their self-worth is connected to how many zeroes are behind their paycheck. It’s important to understand that no amount of money can raise a perfect child, and no amount of money can substitute for a father’s presence.
What’s been the most challenging aspect of fatherhood so far?
Spending time with my children collectively and individually. It’s important to me to have Daddy/daughter date night, to get them away from the boys and everyone else. It’s amazing how different they are when they’re not around everybody else. I want to do that for all my kids. Sometimes, when I’m away, I feel guilty. As a dad, you want to be there all the time. Managing that time is one of the hardest things. Also, each time a new child comes along, it’s tough. I know I’m going to lose my wife a little while she’s pregnant and nursing and trying to adjust to a new life. The time around the births has been great, but also stressful because of the break in our relationship.
In the midst of a very hectic work and family schedule, what’s one thing, without fail, that makes you feel content about being the father of five kids?
When they draw you the 15th picture that you can’t really make out, but you know it means they love you. It makes me know that even though I’m parenting my kids imperfectly, they think the world of their parents.
What advice do you have for a soon-to-be dad?
Be flexible. And be committed. Stuff is not always going to be how you thought it would be.
It’s going to be tough. But if you’re committed, you’ll be willing to figure out how to make it work.
Are you and your wife going to have more children?
I’d say we’re 95 percent done. Some days we’re about 110 percent done.