Being Dad: Brad Wieners
“Sometimes being a better parent is about centering your partner, not the kids.” In celebration of Fathers’ Day, Patagonia’s chief wordsmith, Brad Wieners, shares some home truths.
Photography: Tim Davis
Photography: Tim Davis
In an attempt to rescue their marriage from the clutches of the two small boys they had created, Brad Wieners and his wife, Mary Ashley, signed up as relay partners in a three-sport, 241-kilometer adventure race across New Zealand. The preparation this required meant that, in fact, the pair found themselves with even less time and energy for one another. But according to Brad: “It did help – we had a shared goal that was not potty training.”
Anecdotes flow freely from this professional storyteller, who’s held editorships at Men’s Journal, Outside, WIRED, National Geographic Adventure and Bloomberg Businessweek. Born in Baltimore to “two kids” ages 18 and 19, Brad “grew up as they finished growing up, too.” He moved with his parents from Chicago to Boston, then Palo Alto, California when he was 11.
Years later, while stepping into his current role of editorial director at the famous sustainable outdoor apparel brand, Patagonia, Brad would also uproot his family to the other side of the country.
“With our 2018 move from Nyack, New York to Ventura, California, I joked that I was forcing my sons to relive my life – a big, disruptive cross-country move, east to west, more or less in junior high,” says Brad. “I’m really not trying to make them relive my life. Once was enough for anyone! But I did want them to know they can move, start fresh and be fine. I want to raise resilient humans.”
Those humans are now 14 and 16 – and you’ll meet them, briefly when they throw their two cents into Brad’s interview. Until then, here’s what this affable, big-bearded adventurer had to say on his most epic journey yet – fatherhood.
Did you always want to be a dad? Where were you at in life when you discovered you were going to become one, and how did you feel about the prospect?
Probably I always did want to be a dad, but I did a fine job of keeping this from myself and to myself, not least because I had an inkling it wouldn’t finally be up to me. Mary, future mom to our boys, had much else she wanted to do. We were together for more than a decade before a really tactless Valentine’s Day dinner when I revealed that if we were to marry, but not have children, “that would be a problem.” I suspect I’ll never live that one down. Nor should I. But I expressed my desire for children first, and ever so elegantly… Then Mary received an early-stage cancer diagnosis and was advised that if she wanted children, we best get busy. Also not the most romantic nudge.
But you know what? When she became pregnant, it was romantic. We’d get to share with this new person some of the amazing things we’d found during all those years when we hadn’t had children. And this is obvious, but pregnancy is a whole new way to appreciate your partner – to swoon. Plus it makes getting cupcakes and late-night snacks downright heroic.
In your article, Stitch in Time, you write that you found a way to buy the house you wanted for your first boy. Why was this house the right one for your new family?
Well it was old, for starters. Hardwood floors, a claw-foot tub. We like that. Bedrooms on one floor, a middle floor for kitchen and dining. After years of apartment living that was amazing. When I wrote that, though, what I was thinking most about is the yard: a few trees, grass, a gentle slope for a first sled ride. As a real little guy, I’d lived for a time with my mother’s mom, and she had what seemed an immense yard full of acorns, and, if I had anything to say about it, mud pies. Then we moved to the big city where you had to go to parks for greenery and games of catch. And that’s cool, but I guess I wanted for our boy what I remembered of my Gram’s backyard.
Then there were two. It’s said that the first six months of your second child’s life are the toughest you’ll ever have. Did this ring true for you? What are your memories of this period in parenthood?
Hoo boy. Much as I wish I could dispel that, I might extend that to twelve months. So while I do remember this period, it makes for more of a cautionary tale than an example to follow.
First, though, I must say that our second son’s arrival was awesome. Mary had had a difficult experience in the hospital with our first boy, an “emergency” cesarean that left her resentful. For our second, she was determined to have a natural birth at home, and with the help of a lovely midwife, she did. Thanks to Mary’s courage, she had the birth experience the second time that she wanted for the first. But then our new arrival had a medical issue that required hospitalization and she stayed with him. Three days later and they still couldn’t come home until a test was re-done, and we were crushed. Livid. I contacted a friend with a farm upstate as a bolt-hole. I was going to jail-break them from the hospital! An attorney friend warned me that child protective services could take the baby from us if I did that. Melodramatic, I know, but that was the beginning of those “toughest-you’ll-ever-have” months for us.
And so here is what you ought not to do when having a second child: Don’t have this kid soon after moving to a new town where you don’t really know anyone. Don’t add this child during a time when one of you has to be out of the house for work 12 hours each day. Maybe also wait to have this second child if you don’t have family living nearby or you’re bad about accepting help. We did all of the above, and our second son had colic and cried inconsolably. We were right there with him a few times. His giggles redeemed him, though, and kept him in the family.
How did you structure your day jobs and creative projects (and the odd date night, I hope) in among the daily chaos of raising young kids?
Not particularly well, but we eventually found our ways. Looking back, I wish I worked for a company like the one I do now that has on-site childcare. I’ve gotten to see the world of difference it makes for the parents of young ones to be able to devote themselves to their work, and still breastfeed or take lunch with their brood, and bike home together after a day of work and kindergarten.
Like some other dads I know, I was so determined to do my part that I ended up doing more for the boys than Mary. Being “on duty” soon as I was home, and most or all of the weekend, only ensured that we were both utterly spent. It was also just baffling to find ourselves in this retro division of labor – homemaker, commuter. Who even are we? If I could tell myself then what I see more clearly now, it’s that sometimes being a better parent is about centering your partner, not the kids.
Eventually, we hit on a scheme: We’d enter an adventure race together. Brilliant! Now we had even less time for each other because we had to train and learn new skills and fell into bed twice as tired. But it did help – we had a shared goal that was not potty training, and we had to get help or we’d never finish the race. “I had to run around the lake three times to get my miles this morning,” Mary would tell me. “I flipped in the kayak again, but at least I self-rescued this time,” I’d confess. That was our pillow talk. Just don’t die, honey, and we’ll finally get a honeymoon…
How old were the boys when you and Mary signed up as relay partners in a three-sport adventure race in New Zealand? Why was this something that you wanted to do together, and what were you hoping to gain from it?
The boys were about to be five and three-and-a-half. We got back just in time for the older dude’s 5th birthday party.
A big part of the motivation was so Mary had something exciting to strive for while she figured out what she wanted to do when she returned to work outside the home. We’d made a sort of pact, too, not to become our parents. That sounds unkind. I don’t mean that in terms of the people our parents were, but more the unhealthy bodies they’d become. We were determined to avoid the diabetes, obesity, and alcoholism that plagued several of our elders.
Also, no joke: We hadn’t had a honeymoon. We’d eloped initially, then had a party to appease the folks. After we finished running, cycling, and kayaking across New Zealand, I finally got to treat her to a really fine holiday outside Christchurch and Queenstown on the South Island, one of those regions that lives up to the hype. You see immediately and for the whole time why Sauron wanted it all to himself.
That’s a little Lord of The Rings reference, for those playing along at home! More recently, how has the pandemic impacted the balance of your work and family life?
In practical terms, it’s been helpful. I’ve been able to do more of everything that needs doing – meals, (masked-up) carpools, getting a kid vaccinated. But I’ve always struggled to keep work and life separate. That New Zealand race was also for a magazine story. After 15 months working from the garage, front porch, kitchen table, back deck, I’m looking forward to returning to the office at least part of the week so I can leave my work at the office on those days.
I enjoyed your Men’s Health article, How to Talk to Boys About Porn, Consent and Sex, According to Boys & Sex Author. What is one of the more awkward conversations you’ve had with your sons?
One that stands out is an episode shortly after the younger dude received a camera as a gift. He and one of his friends went into the bathroom, turned off the lights, and used the flash to take pictures of their privates and especially their buttholes. We were mortified. At the same time, they were pretty innocent of it all – first or second grade? – so we didn’t want to overreact and build it up. Not sure which was more awkward, though, the conversation we had with our boys or the one with the parents of their buddy. I’d be interested in the boys’ answer to this one.
Me too, let’s ask them…
16-year-old son: Honestly? Trying to listen to my dad “casually” offer to buy condoms after a date, and the numerous random times he’s brought it up in the car. One time in particular, Dad brought it up when we were just sitting down in the living room, that was pretty bad. Overall it was pretty painless communicating about this stuff, even if it was a bit awkward keeping an informal attitude about this. Joking about it, but understanding how serious it is, has been a strength of my dad’s.
14-year-old son: Can you put N/A? Put N/A.
Sustainability is a big part of what Patagonia is about, so I’m guessing you talk about it a lot at work. What do conversations about climate change sound like in your family home?
My older son recently told me that he shared my appreciation of wild nature, but wasn’t sure he’d follow me into activism. They’re definitely both aware of climate change, and are learning about it in school, sometimes from materials written by friends of mine. Both, though, seem to have taken another of my lessons – to question authority – to heart. And so with the climate crisis, I’m kind of the resident authority that must be questioned. As to what these conversations sound like in our home, well, like teenagers who already know their dad is going to say next, so spare me… The lesson in this is really for me, I suspect. They’ll find their own ways to respond to the crisis, just maybe not the ones I’ve emphasized. Like how our younger dude gets nearly all his clothes thrifting.
If your sons take on just one piece of life advice from you, what do you want it to be?
To be honest with themselves. It’s when you lie to yourself that the real trouble begins.
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