Jason Isbell Says Being a Dad Means Becoming Less of a Child

My wife, Amanda, and I have a three-year-old daughter named Mercy Rose. The most important thing I’ve learned so far is this: You have to grow up as much as your kids do.

See, I knew how to be like the men who orbited me in Alabama in the ’70s, when there was still a well-defined line separating the work of a mother and that of a father. Moms did the majority of the cooking and cleaning, bathed the kids, and read them bedtime stories. Dads worked during the day and then taught their sons to throw a baseball, shoot a rifle, and catch a fish.

When I met Amanda, I literally didn’t have a pot to cook in. I was in my early 30s and drunk most of the time, and my kitchen cabinets were storage spots for power tools, spare throw pillows, and empty bottles.


Whether it was my mother, my first wife, Shonna, or the patient and unlucky women I dated before getting sober and beginning the path to true adulthood, a woman had almost always cooked my meals and cleaned up my messes.

Amanda wasn’t interested in this type of motherhood. Because she wasn’t interested in the kind of men I grew up around. She’s taught me that we’re both happiest when we’re each able to pursue our own plans and dreams. In our home, there are no “mom jobs” and “dad jobs.”

We alternate reading to Mercy before bedtime. If Amanda is working on a song (we’re both songwriters), I’ll make dinner. If the dishes are dirty, I’ll wash them. Whoever gets out of bed last makes the bed.

The hardest part for me was getting used to giving the baby a bath, not because she’s a girl but because I was so afraid of what could happen to her in a few inches of water with a pointy faucet sitting right at head level.

Eventually, though, I got used to bath time. Now my toddler hair-washing technique has become the standard in our home, and that is something I take a great deal of pride in.

Happy parents tend to have happy kids. And in order to be happy as a parent, I need to be happy with who I am as a man. I know Mercy loves me, and something tells me she always will. The strength of that love feels unconditional.

Our parents seem like gods when we’re little. This means that even my worst actions will likely be forgivable, perhaps even acceptable, in her eyes, and if she loves (or thinks she loves) the person who is taking her to the prom (I can picture him now driving up our driveway), then their worst actions will also be forgivable. Perhaps even welcome.

I want my daughter to expect kindness and loyalty from her future partner. I want her to demand an environment that is safe and encouraging. I want her voice to be heard and her opinions to be taken seriously.

I also want that guy who pulls up in our driveway to be the kind of guy who will someday wash the dishes, cook dinner, and give the baby a bath so his wife can chase whatever dreams she needs to chase to keep her heart full.

But before she finds that man, I have to show her what one looks like.

—Jason Isbell won a Grammy in 2018. His tour with co-headliner Father John Misty starts June 6.

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