(You can read Dispatches 1 here.–Eds.)
Kristin and I were both in graduate school when our son was born, and for his first year of life we split the day at noon. In the midst of new parenting joys, I was frequently tired, tense, and angry. I didn’t know quite how much I wanted to work until I couldn’t, and I never realized how hard it would be to cut my day in half. The inability to do either job fully often left my frustrated.
Given that experience, the thought of taking paternity leave with my daughter left me both terrified and hopeful—terrified of losing the work I love, but hopeful that a full commitment would enable me to enjoy whatever parenting had to offer. I would not have to balance one with the other; unlike most working Americans, I could take four months and just put my paying job away. I was wrong. This time around has certainly gone smoother, but the lure and pressure of work never fully disappears. Moreover, an entire day of childcare is not the same as two half-days added up. The day gets longer as it goes on—in part because there is no other work, no other world, to break it up. Full-time parenting is a full substitution of vocation, a completely different way of living.
For those who have never stayed at home with children, this essay offers a bit of a glimpse of one person’s day and week of parenting, my rhythms and routines. For those who are old hands at this ancient art, my experience can perhaps provide a point of comparison, an invitation for advice. And then, something else: it’s still unusual, it seems to me, for a man to be doing this full-time care alone. Each year, I know more and more stay-at-home dads, but I know them all in isolation: one here, another there. Even those I know in the same town never seem to form a community. When I go out, I seem to be the only one, and while I know several, I never hear of them joining others of their kind. The world, in my experience, has come to love stay-at-home dads; but it doesn’t necessarily know what to do with them.
And, conversely, these dads don’t necessarily know how to value what they do. “Since I’ve started working part time,” one father told me, “I’ve noticed that I’m much more comfortable answering the what-do-you-do question. Whereas before I would just say I was a stay-at-home dad and be a little embarrassed, now I can say, ‘I’m mostly a stay-at-home dad, but I also have a part-time job that I do from home.’ It’s ridiculous to me that this should make a difference. My job is not glamorous, and it doesn’t pay much. It shouldn’t make much of a difference in my self worth, but I have to admit that it does.”
I have a full-time job that I’ve been trying to put away; he has full-time parenting that he is finding a way to supplement. What I need to learn is what this father already excels at: how to make it through the day.
I start with coffee. Nothing new or unusual there, except that I now approach it less with pleasure and more with a sense of desperation. Grace wakes for the last time around 6:30 or so, and since Kristin likes to be with her when she can, she feeds her and takes her to the bathroom, readying herself for work while Grace stretches and speechifies. Downstairs, I have a short, glorious moment alone before my son (three years old) shouts. Loud. Every morning, Simon announces his newly conscious self, Thoreau-style: “Daddy! Mommy! I’m awake!” It’s like a wonder to him every day.
After getting Simon out of bed, I dress him, feed him, brush his teeth, and sit him in front of the TV. Good parents, I have heard, do not let their children watch television; happy parents, I have found, often do. So Simon watches Dinosaur Train, I now watch Grace, Kristin finishes getting ready, and then we all crawl into the car. Simon still attends daycare, in part because he could not drop out and reenter, in part because he likes it, and in part to save my sanity. My mother raised four children at home alone, but the thought of just two, by myself, seems impossible.
After drop-offs, Grace will be closing in on her first nap. During the short half hour that she sleeps—it’s never longer—I check email and sometimes make a small attempt at academic work. Not much gets done, however, before Grace is back, crying now, hungry and wet. When I’m smart, I get her milk ready ahead of time. I am often not smart. So Grace cries, and the milk heats. I play some music (it calms me), and then we sit on the edge of the couch, spit-cloth at the ready. Eat, burp, change. It is now 9:30, sometimes 10:00, and for the first time, it seems to me, I can decide what to do.
Most days, I choose to exercise. I would love to run, but Grace is too small for the stroller. So instead, I confuse her as I hop about our living room. “Is your body a little pear-shaped?” Cindy asks me from an old workout video meant for women—the only one we own. “I used to be a little pear-shaped, too.” But no more! Now she “zaps that cellulite” and slides right into her skinny jeans. 10 Days to a Better Body the dvd promises. I’m six weeks into this and not sure what body I should be expecting, but it’s the exercise I can do. I carefully close the blinds, and Cindy kicks my ass.
Fortunately, Grace often lets me get through the routine; apparently, it’s just entertaining enough. Afterwards, she’ll play with one of her multi-colored, many-textured, striped-and-spotted, hard-and-soft, big-eyed, bug-like baby toys in a bouncy seat while I clean the leftover dishes. She’ll generally keep that going as I shower and shave, crying and calming as I duck out of the water to replace a pacifier or return her crinkle paper. Maybe then we throw in a load of laundry; maybe we skip to lunch. Grace snoozes another thirty minutes, and I have just enough time to eat. Our mornings breeze by in this routine, and I am loathe to make any plans before noon.
At noon, things change. Childcare mixes joy, stress, and work with a surprising degree of tedium. This has all been well documented by others, but I didn’t bother to read the documents before I began. Grace is lovely, and I love her, but she definitely does not hold up her end of the conversation. So at the beginning of a week, I like to plan events that take me out of the house, preferably to other adults.
Which is why I have come to love the grocery store—love it so much, in fact, that I try to spread our grocery shopping to multiple stores on multiple days. First, I can move it to fit the window I need. Second, the store itself is a wonderland of adults. Most, it’s true, are women; but joining them in this routine is a pleasure. I have no problem with receiving attention—enjoy it a little too much frankly—and if anyone wants to get attention, just be male and take a baby to the grocery store on a weekday. My friend, who is an introverted stay-at-home dad in Vegas, hates running errands for precisely this reason. I love it.
Given how much I seek adult contact, I have surprised myself by avoiding parent groups. For one thing, they all have “moms” or “mothers” in their names, though honestly that doesn’t bother me as much as perhaps it should: I’m happy to stand out in a crowd. It’s really something else: while gender can certainly make paternity leave seem unique, it’s the limited time—the fact that it will end, and soon—that most affects how I feel and what I do. Sometimes, it seems like I am on a reality TV show, and as countless reality show contestants have declared: I’m not here to make friends. When I return to my paying job, the full-time mothers will not. My reality show is their reality, and I can’t imagine any newfound friendship persisting as our paths separate once again into different daytime worlds. Perhaps I’m not alone. Perhaps one reason the stay-at-home dads I know don’t seem to join any community is because, however much they may love this time with their children, they know—or they think, or they simply hope—that soon they’ll be back at work. They aren’t here to make friends.
Whatever the case, Grace and I stick to errands on our own: grocery stores, Target runs, Home Depot, Old Navy, Gap. I love a long to-do list. Armed with pacifiers, spit cloths, diapers, wipes, blankets, baby toys, a changing pad, milk, ice-pack, cooler bag, bottles, and sanitized plastic nipples, we head out into the world. I never thought it possible, but I have begun to like the mall.
Back home, as I dance between Grace’s needs and domestic duties, I am gradually learning a different sort of delight. There are pleasures to be had in the cleaning of a house; there is a certain joy to be found in completing the tasks that used to stress us out at the end of work. If I can clean the dishes and the laundry, if I can sparkle the floors and make our bathroom shine, if I can, yes, have dinner ready for my wife when she comes home, I find that doing this for her—for us—can make me incredibly happy.
It’s hard for me, as a man, to know how to discuss this, or even to imagine how different this might sound if it were coming from a woman. This experience, for me, has made me more attuned to all the ways our culture falsely glorifies domesticity and, at the same time, all the ways our culture falsely diminishes it. To do something for another, and to have that be my main occupation, can be deeply fulfilling. It can be; not always. There are many qualifiers and plenty of pressures—so many, in fact, that I have saved them for another essay. But I don’t want to lose the joy: being occupied with the care of others is not without reward.
As for those joys, I must say that the best delight is Grace herself. A few weeks ago she began to laugh. It’s just a short thing, a little hiccup, a bit of breath behind a big, wide grin. Mostly it comes if I trill a high voice and tickle her sides, pressing my face into her belly. These days, I can pass a good deal of time just trying to hear that hiccup once again.
And so the day goes by. At 5pm, I bundle my baby in her seat and go pick up Simon from school. Kristin usually walks home, and as soon as she steps through the door she swoops up Grace. The television settles Simon. That gives us a few minutes—when Grace is good—to chat about our day. But once the meal is on the table, a flurry of feeding, painting, reading, scootering, digging, puzzle-making, lego-building and crying (lots of crying, usually not mine) takes over, with Kristin and me running back and forth between two kids. Divide and conquer. As for academic work, so far my evenings are a dead loss. The first moment I have to “work” each day comes after 9pm, and by then I am fairly exhausted. A better person might labor the night away, but Kristin and I tend to watch TV. It settles us.
The next day, after all, is coming soon.
Abram Van Engen