What Now?

How a career change forced me to reevaluate fatherhood

Caleb Walsh illustration

I surrendered to premature baldness at age 28. Just shaved it all off. You win, genetics. A decade later and no regrets. If I sleep in my Sunday best, I can be at church five minutes after waking up.

But on the night of the shearing, I was mortified. My 1-year-old daughter didn't know who I was. What happened to the thin-haired guy who read and laughed with her? She treated this new imposter with stranger-danger stares and maintained a cold distance. It took a good amount of reading and laughing as Mr. Clean before she trusted me again.

Something similar happened a few months ago. I have two girls now, and I sat them down and told them Dad was selling the newspapers and going to do something else with his life. Kim and I owned the Liberty Lake Splash community newspaper for 12 years and founded the Current for Spokane Valley in 2012, so up until that point, Dad was the guy who straightened newspaper racks whenever the family walked into Papa Murphy's and mostly cited "The Business" as the reason he said "no" to things.

The girls were silent for a moment, then carefully inquisitive. Hidden between the questions, I picked up a clear message: We are not sure we recognize you right now. This time, fortunately, the reaction stemmed more from curiosity than fear. And it's the opportunity I was looking for.

It's not that I recently decided I wanted to be a good dad after years of contentment with mediocre fatherhood. I've always wanted to be a great dad. But sometimes priorities require you to remodel the entire living room, not just shift around the furniture. I didn't need "Five Effective Strategies for Child-Rearing." I needed a long look in the mirror. The problem wasn't my fatherly skill set. The problem was me.

The U.S.S. Josh doesn't chart a new path with right-angle turns. I am working on making changes one degree, one day at a time. This mad, mad world we live in eats healthy priorities for breakfast, so every course correction is a fight.

For now, I'm focusing on three things. First, I'm working on being present in my life, and I am finding this an impossible task to do consistently without first freeing up a margin. For me, this was selling a business, but I imagine it's quite different for everyone.

Second, I'm being more honest with myself about the empty underbelly of professional accomplishment. I still strive for excellence in all I do, I'm just trying to keep it from becoming the be-all, end-all. I read a great book called Soul Keeping recently in which author John Ortberg argued that the "most important thing in life is not what you do; it's who you become." That resonated some place deep and scary, because it separated who I actually was from what I was accomplishing. Not the same thing.

Finally, I'm working on living a good story. I've been in the story-writing business my whole life, yet I wasn't seeing my day-in, day-out existence for the yawner it was. As it turns out, I have some creative control in this life of mine, so I'm working on adding some chapters with adventure and intrigue and depth.

Call it character development. I'm looking at it as a chance to shave some fresh perspective into what it means when my girls say, "Dad." ♦

Josh Johnson lives in Liberty Lake with his wife, two daughters and his Yorkie named Fifa.