A friend called recently to check in and say he wasn’t doing well. He is a relatively new dad, two kids under five years old and he was feeling swallowed up. He is a stay-at-home dad, on the front lines each day, and so these feelings were bigger than just exhaustion. He didn’t say as much, but I knew what he meant, having traveled that road myself.

My children are teenagers now, 17 and 14 years old, and I returned to work after my second child started school. But for many years I rolled with them each day while my wife Cathlin was at work.

Cathlin was of course right there with me, true partners on this adventure, and I realize now how privileged we were, even having the choice of one of us staying home to be with our children. But in the scrum of daily life, of often feeling as if my journey had ended rather than just begun, I did not feel privileged. I felt sorry for myself.

On the phone, I listened to my friend as he unburdened himself, something he very much needed to do. He is 20 years younger than I am, so in many ways a completely different generation. But he is also a peer because he is a parent, a stage in life that knows no age distinctions.

Mostly we swapped stories about the hard times and being desperate to escape the routine of eat, stroll, nap, cry and cry some more. Once, in the sandbox, another stay-at-home dad smiled at me and said: “Don’t we have the best job of all.”

I wanted to punch him, to apply a sleeper hold right there among the plastic buckets and Tonka trucks and toddlers learning to stand for the first time.

My friend and I laughed over these stories and the laughter allowed us to go deeper. I told him how I started tutoring SATs on weekends to provide some much-needed cash to our bottom line. I tutored all over New York city where we lived then. I still recall one such apartment, working with a student in the living room while his father paced about shirtless, periodically slapping his bare chest. I assumed the action was done for my benefit, to remind me who was really in charge.

Later I learned that the father had recently been laid off from his finance job, and I saw more clearly the vision of another man unmoored like me from what he considered to be the natural order of things — going to work and finding a community among the telephone calls and strategy sessions, the to-do lists and coffee banter.

The father frightened me, a version of myself I could see coming if I didn’t stand watch over my insecurities and my male ego. But then, at the last session, after I had shaken my student’s hand and wished him good luck on that Saturday’s test, the father followed me into the hallway. At the elevator door he extended his hand and as we shook — friendly with no over-gripping — he said: “You will never know how much you have given my son with your patience and thoughtfulness.”

I wanted to hug the man and tell him the same thing, how he would never know how much his words meant to me, but instead I ducked into the elevator desperate to get away as quickly as I could.

Thinking back I wish I had talked to that man, like I was talking to my friend, sharing our insecurities. That other father, I realized later, was teaching me something about vulnerability, how much we want for our children and how so often we can’t measure up. Thankfully, the road is filled with teachers and mentors, some clearly marked, others in disguise, bare-chested and hairy and lurking by the elevator.

The truth is, parenting is hard for everyone — dads, moms, grandparents, caregivers, the kids too. There is no getting around that fact as we take on this role we have no real experience for. Which is why sharing stories from the trenches is so important, bonding over the hard times as well as the good ones.

As my friend and I continued to talk, I switched directions and described to him places he has not yet visited — those far off lands of middle school and high school. And then I told him about college essays, and how the boy who would never go to sleep at night was now a young man finding his voice.

I told him about caps and gowns, about my son about to a walk across the stage this weekend to receive his high school diploma, and how my pride in his accomplishments is mirrored by my sadness that he will soon be leaving home.

And then I told my friend about passing my son’s bedroom and seeing it empty, just for the day as he goes about the business of his life. But soon, in a matter of months, this room will be empty every day as my son exchanges it for a dorm room several hundred miles away.

I told my friend about entering this room, about kneeling at the foot of this bed, bowing my head and inhaling the scent of my son’s life. And I told him about clinging to every single memory with the ferocity of a preschooler gripping the monkey bars, not wanting to leave, not wanting to take a nap, not wanting to miss any damn thing at all.

And I told him about remembering that other dad in the sandbox, and how he was right, it was the best job in the world.