Below is the entire text of a book I wrote that was published in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A., in 2003 by Publish America. Front cover artwork by Stratford, Ontario, Canada illustrator Todd Mulligan depicting the first story in the book. Poor Daddy is presently out of print. When it becomes available for purchase again it will be featured in the Corner Store.
Adventures of a Stay-at-Home Father
By Jim Hagarty
Becoming a father is a wonderful experience, one not to be missed. Becoming a stay-at-home dad, on the other hand, is a life path best trod by only the bravest or the dumbest of souls, which in most cases, are the same people. Because only a man who is totally oblivious to what waits before him on the child-care front could ever summon up the courage to try it.
So, let’s assume, with no offence intended, that you’re not too bright. Why else would you, a perfectly sane and sound individual, decide to dabble in an occupation you are so ill-equipped to handle? The truth is, your pride and your gullibility have gotten you into this mess. Being a man, you can do anything, can’t you? And this is just one more thing. As well, in this age of true equality of the sexes, when we have all been liberated from our traditional roles, it has become an accepted wisdom that the human male is interchangeable with the female when it comes to the full-time raising of children. The truth is, most women can barely do it and the majority of them actually want to do it and have been culturally programmed to do it. What chance, then, have you in this most pitfall-filled of endeavours? Not much.
But, you made the commitment, your wife’s off to work, and there you are on the first day of your new life, watching through the living room window as she backs her car out the driveway and onto the street, smiles and waves goodbye. You think you hear prison doors slamming shut as the two little children by your side howl in simultaneous sorrow, “I want my Mommy!!!! I wahahahant myhyhy Mahahahameeheehee!!!!”
What is that feeling coming over you? A strange one perhaps. A sensation you haven’t experienced in a while. You’ll feel it again soon so you may as well identify it. It’s called, despair. Because you know you really can’t do this and the only person in your life who can do this is just now heading through the coffee-shop drive-through where you naturally belong and want to be.
But, there’s always hope, right? Wrong. If there was hope, there would be no despair. Turn away from that window. She’s not coming back for eight hours. Besides, a drama is unfolding at your shins.
“Daddy, I pooped!”
“Daddy, I’m hungry!”
Holy mackerel, I feel sorry for you!
But here is your first sound piece of advice.
Find the TV remote control. Now!
The Risque Rescue
You’re barely awake. Sitting in your easy chair, wearing only your underwear, a small boy and the now-standard look of defeat on your face. A hero moose is chasing an evil rat on TV. Your wife is off chasing a coffee and muffin and the Almighty Dollar. Soon, you’ll be chasing something too, though you don’t know it yet.
It’s 8:30 a.m. Your neighbourhood is wide awake on this bright summer’s day, and already out pruning. All, it seems, is calm on Mortgage Lane.
A two-year-old girl’s giggle and a slamming front door. Even to a half-asleep dad, these sounds signal trouble a-brewing. A quick glance out the front window lands on a diaper-clad, curly-headed babe making a riotous bolt for freedom. Soon, she will have a half-naked, pot-bellied, red-faced dad in hot pursuit and in full view of all the neighbours and assorted passersby. The girl is caught before she reaches the street and laughs, in the same manner as the evil TV rat, as she’s being toted back into the house by the man in his briefest of briefs.
You have been out of bed for only three minutes and already you have committed a chargeable offence (leaving front door unlocked), thrown your son from your lap to the floor as if he had suddenly turned into a bee hive, carried out an heroic, potentially life-saving rescue and performed an exotic dance in your driveway for the excitement of the easily entertained.
Now, take a wild guess, given all you now know: are you about to have a good day, or a bad day?
Words of advice:
Invest in pyjamas.
The Miners’ Lament
Money holds a special fascination for your children, as it does for their parents. However, whereas you like to save it, spend it and tuck it down the bikini bottoms of exotic dancers, your kids prefer to ingest it. Why they want to do this isn’t understandable but they seem to intuitively know that the stomach is a good place to hide things from Mom and Dad. So, that’s where a lot of treasures end up.
The sight of dozens of pennies streaming out of a hole in the belly of a blue, ceramic pig with a slot in the top, sends your children into a frenzy. Never are they more gleeful than when they are causing coins to rain down on their head or when they are squeezing them between their toes.
Now, their mother knows instinctively that young kids and pocket change don’t mix. But your biggest priority as a stay-at-home dad is to make ’em smile, whatever the cost. You think, if they’re smilin’, they’re happy, and if they’re happy, you’re doing a good job. You most often behave as the main act in a children’s theatre. Leave ’em laughin’ and life will be great.
So, you let your boy cavort around on the penny-covered bed as if on a mattress of currency, much as you might behave if you ever struck it rich. It does not occur to you that he might see a copper coin as a perfect appetizer before lunch. But, of course, he does and finally stops bouncing long enough to announce: “Daddy, I put a penny in my mouth.”
Now, this is why it is cruel to let you, the father, stay at home with your children. You are not in tune with the frequencies they’re emitting, as is their mother, and therefore all you can expect to encounter is static. It is as if you have no antennae at all. You are like a city slicker trying to walk through a cow pasture on your cousin’s farm, hoping to reach the other end of the field with your shoes still clean.
This also demonstrates how small crimes committed in the cause of child care – mild, momentary lapses in judgment – engender consequences that can last for days, even weeks. Now, the job facing dear old dad is to find that penny. Not because you’re desperate to spend it, but because you don’t want some internal something or other to become blocked.
A dad in search of a swallowed penny cannot follow the same route the coin took to get to where it’s now at. It’s heading in only one direction and that’s the direction you have to look in to find it. So, you retrieve your biggest screwdriver from the shed, and with your son pressing his face as far into the little potty as he can get it, you beaver away at his twice-daily offering, searching desperately for the “penny from heaven.” Even though, from time to time, your boy changes his mind and tells you he didn’t really swallow any money. Five seconds later, his story changes again.
So, this is how you now spend your days. Screwdriver in hand, searching for undigested metal among the side effects of breakfast, gagging now and then just to heighten your level of contentment. Your son, of course, has a different view: this is a grand adventure.
A couple of days in, your low-tech metal detector hits something and there is great joy in the bathroom as the two prospectors celebrate their strike. Washing off the nugget, now strangely more shiny and coppery than when it was eaten, they hold it aloft, the better to admire it. You expect the judges of this year’s Best Father Award to soon be on the phone.
And that’s when the penny drops, as the expression goes.
“Daddy, I put two pennies in my mouth.”
This is when you’ll really know you have gone from being a mover and shaker to a shaker of movements. A once-proud man, strolling the corridors of power on a quest for fame and fortune, you are now spending your days stabbing the contents of a plastic potty in search of wealth of a different kind.
A few more happy days of panning for copper ensue until a hospital X-ray machine shows the site has been mined out.
The second penny was a phantom, as is your peace of mind.
Your son will not hold another coin in his hand until he turns ten.
The Doctors Are In
A stay-at-home dad can get pretty creative in his search for ways to get through the endless day. Trial and error will reveal various methods that will help you put in the interminable hours between the time Mom leaves and when she returns. Sooner or later, you will stumble onto some form of the doctor, nurse and patient game, which can consume long stretches of time, in a comparatively pleasant atmosphere. Undergoing and performing emergency operations with your kids are usually therapeutic exercises, well-enjoyed by all involved. However, as with real operations, procedures can go wrong from time to time.
As in a real hospital, one of the central benefits of voluntarily becoming a patient is the possibility of a bit of bed rest. At home, you might choose your favourite easy chair as the operating table, and this works well. It reclines and stretches out, in the fashion of a dentist’s chair, and allows both of your young physicians lots of room from both sides to carry out their surgeries. However, it might be recommended that you go out and purchase an actual toy doctor’s kit with lots of plastic tools before you begin this daily ritual. Otherwise, you run the risk that your kids will improvise by bringing utensils from a kitchen drawer to serve as the equipment they need. This works well on one level, as they learn to use their imaginations to turn, for example, a plastic ice cream scoop into an inhaler, or a rubber spatula into a tongue depresser. But as you lay there comfortably on your makeshift table while your son and daughter prepare for the impending daddyectomy, you will be startled to see one of them coming at you with a corkscrew. A bit of panic ensues until the offending article is wrestled away from the nurse. You also might show some signs of nervousness when the doctor approaches you with a meat tenderizer. And you should be nervous. During the first operation, you failed to veto that choice of instrument and still sport a number of tiny depressions on your forehead to prove it. One tool to definitely be on the lookout for is the nutcracker. Having one of those babies attached to your nose and squeezed with maximum pressure, is an experience that will have you crying for an anesthetic.
You are willing to undergo this procedure for a couple of simple reasons. It kills twenty minutes and it allows you time, while in the presence of your charges, to actually stretch out in your big, comfy chair. However, some words of caution. With real doctors and nurses, you are apt to obey their instructions, without question and without delay. When those orders are being issued by your four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, you might consider seriously whether or not a little insubordination might not be called for. Specifically, there are two commands you might want to resist the urge to blindly obey. The first is, “Close your eyes!” and the second is, “Open your mouth!” Whatever your decision on the matter, one thing is tantamount: Do not follow both instructions in sequence! It cannot be predicted what will happen if you are not able to actually see the procedure and while you might welcome a few minutes, not only prone, but with lids in the locked position, the ensuing consequences to various parts of your body could be grave. Similarly, an open mouth is an invitation to unimagined horrors. You might discover a salad fork tickling your tonsils or a meat thermometer stabbed into the inside of your cheek to check your temperature.
However, if you can monitor the safety of the proposed operating tools and retain a watchdog role over the progress of the operation, you might find yourself actually accruing some benefits to your health from the exercise. Even then, you might have to put up with the odd whack to the side of the head with a rolling pin, the occasional bonk to the top of the skull with a small frying pan or the frequent chop to the kneecap with a metal ladle (to test your reflexes, of course.)
There are other ways in which these living room emergency surgeries with your toddlers as medical staff differ from the real thing. A real doctor and nurse are unlikely to crawl up on top of your body to perform their tasks, to place a bony knee in your neck or a foot on a sensitive part of your groin. And if they did, it is not probable that they would both get on you at the same time. In the Children’s Hospital, this is a regular occurrence and one that might take some getting use to. For example, do not be startled if a child’s behind, in various odorific states, gets planted firmly over your nose and mouth at some point during the ordeal. This will probably result in much thrashing about by the patient until he is free to breathe again.
The downside to all this (you thought I had just described the downside, didn’t you?) is that the time you are allowed to be the patient is limited, so enjoy it. Soon, you will be required to change roles and become the doctor, performing the same operation on each of your small fry in turn, leaving out absolutely no tool in the process. And every procedure you perform on the first patient, will have to be carried out in exactly the same way on the second.
As a stay-at-home dad, you will experience periods of such intense exhaustion, you will learn to take your rest where you can find it. And any game where you get to lay out flat for a few moments as opposed to tearing around the house as the caboose in a train, for example, you will come to cherish. Especially after a tiring weekend. So, one Monday morning, when your kids propose that daddy’s operation take place on the floor rather than in the chair, you oblige. When they approach you with a large cardboard box which they instruct is to be placed over your head, you still do not object. For now you have two of the elements you need for the repose that you crave. You are flat and still and you are in the relative darkness provided you by the box. You can close your eyes. You worry somewhat about what the interns hustling about you might be up to, but you’ll deal with the disaster when it comes.
Soon, you hear a noise on the top of the box, as a hole is being bored. And sure enough, you soon can see a shaft of daylight filtering down through a tiny opening one of the surgeons has created in the cardboard. Soon, another appears, and then another. Before long, as you cast an occasional glance above, you see what now appears to be a number of pretty stars in the sky. However, soon, you will be startled to feel wax crayons, raining down on your face, as they are being shoved slowly through the holes that have just been created in the box. Why this is being done, you have no idea, but also you do not really want to know. You have sunk to such a pathetic level of sheer tiredness, you are willing to lay on a floor with a box over your head, and put up with crayons falling on your face, to just get a few moments of rest.
So low has your status gone down that the next day it is you who propose a repeat of the previous day’s soap-box derby. But you should know that in child care, as in all of life, what seems to work one day, will rarely produce the same results another day, and it is the same with this. Lay flat. Box on head. Crayons shoved through holes. Dad rests. But children are nothing if not easily bored and highly imaginative. So, lying there expecting nothing but crayons to drop on your head, you are dismayed to find your nose soon being sanded by a long, thin wire brush normally used to clean spiders out of your barbecue gas line. Tiring of the crayons, your son retrieved the instrument from the kitchen utensils’ drawer and decided to surprise you by forcing it down one of the holes. Arms and legs flailing about, you throw off the box in an instinctive attempt at self-preservation and announce loudly that the operation has ended for the day.
It will be some time before this section of the hospital will be re-opened. And when it does, strict new procedural rules will be in place.
From Joy To Despair
A stay-at-home dad is involved in a highly volatile occupation, unlike few others in terms of how unpredictable things can be. He can literally be laughing one minute, and sobbing the next. That is because, for no known reason, the distance between joy and despair in this business is about five seconds – on a good day. In fact, it seems that the further away from the last disaster, the closer you are to the next one. And almost without fail, the dad who is so foolish as to remark, with a smile, “Boy, things are going well today, aren’t they?” will, in the next ten minutes, be sitting in line at the emergency ward, trying to console his screaming child.
The entire problem can possibly be explained by the simple truth that the parents of two young children are not meant to, nor even allowed the luxury of wanting to, relax. For each and every time you ease up and drop your cone of extreme vigilance, you are inviting doom to make an appearance. And it does.
So, the best approach is to not even expect to enjoy any event to which you might be invited, even ones you used to have a good time at, in your pre-children days. It is best to remember that while your hosts are not at work during your visit with them, you still are on duty and must behave as such. It might help to think of yourself, not so much as a dad, but as a bodyguard of rock stars or presidents, carefully checking out each new situation for danger and constantly looking over crowds and around corners to make sure all is safe. You don’t see bodyguards sitting around chatting, laughing and have an ice cream cone by the pool, and if you’re smart, you won’t be seen doing any of those things either.
The biggest mistake is to assume that somehow, when more adults are on the scene, danger has been averted. In fact, the presence of a crowd has just increased the risks as intuitive youngsters will use the sudden forest of legs in the room as cover while they test out the things they may have otherwise been forbidden to try. All it takes is for a dad to lose his laser-like focus for a few seconds and presto! He is handing over health cards and proof of insurance to a clerk at the hospital while balancing a bleeding child on his knee.
But even the best bodyguard doesn’t get in front of every bullet and as a dad, you will let the dignitaries in your charge down, now and then. This will happen because what you assume will be a trouble spot will not be, and what looks innocuous will prove to be a loaded gun.
So, your daughter dives head-first down a flight of stairs because you’re busy checking out the new wallpaper on a friend’s redecorated upstairs hallway. The new puppy next door bites her on the lower lip while you’re chatting amiably about the weather with its owner. Your son pulls a filing cabinet down on himself as your prepare to leave for a social event and on another occasion, slices open a finger on a freshly sharpened ice-skate blade while you jovially welcome guests to your home and take their coats, resulting in a rapid ride to hospital for emergency stitches.
It would probably be best for everyone concerned, if, until they’re ten years old, their dad could raise these children in total isolation, keeping an eye on them from a watchtower as they padded around a twenty-foot square compound with no sharp corners. But knowing this won’t happen, your best approach to the situation is to set aside, until a later date, your natural instincts for an occasional few moments of peace and happiness.
Perhaps an illustration will drive home this point. You are reluctantly, at first, pitching a ball in your backyard with your eager young son who, bat in hand, is connecting with every second toss, sending the rock-hard sphere hither and yon. And while you had thought you might like to sit in the shade with some lemonade instead, you soon warm to this activity, and eventually, and ominously, begin to relax, even recklessly making this comment to yourself: “Boy, is this ever nice, playing ball with my son in the back yard.” This was like saying, “Nya, nya, nya, nya, nya!” to Fate. “I bet you can’t get me!”
Calm and cool for the first time in days, you throw in the next pitch. Your boy’s bat meets the ball perfectly, and he delivers his first-ever line drive.
Now, where do you suppose that line drive is heading? Yes, that’s right. And now you are rolling on the grass, clutching your groinal area and begging for deliverance.
Joy to despair. Five seconds.
Sometimes, in the case of line drives, less than that.
Never Lost For Words
Through almost five decades of stumbling through life like a survivor from a shipwreck, washed up on shore, you’ve learned a few things about controlling that runaway tongue of yours. Though it can still rear up every once in a while and land you in a tangled mess of injured feelings and mumbled apologies, you’ve pretty much figured out how to sit on it before it starts spewing out a veritable fireworks of offensive remarks. In other words, you’ve discovered how to be almost supernaturally dishonest, which is the key to a happy life.
But now, as a stay-at-home father of two young children with two little frisky tongues of their own, you are walking the streets in the company of a dangerous arsenal of tiny verbal time-bombs that could go off at any moment. Of the three sets of vocal chords in your troop, you are, in fact, in command of only one – your own – and even over that set, your grip is tenuous. So, while Mom is at work, you Three Mouthketeers roam the coffee shops, libraries and malls, searching for someone to upset. So, seated a few feet away, and certainly within earshot, of a very large woman in a restaurant, it is inevitable that your son will turn to you when the room is at its quietest, and remark of the person who moments before was admiring your brood, “Daddy. Is that lady going to have a baby?”
“No she’s not, son,” you quietly reply, and would like to add, “but I’m going to have a seizure.”
At similar volume, in another restaurant a few days later, the same boy asks about a senior citizen who’s shuffling by your table, well within hearing range: “Daddy. How did that man get to be so old?”
“Because he never was a stay-at-home dad,” you think to respond, but instead, buy time till the man has left and then try to give a reasoned explanation.
After a while, you learn to steer clear of potential problems, sitting in corners of the coffee shop far away from the other customers and pulling the kids away from anyone with any sort of physical abnormality, whether it be weird hair or bad teeth. Because sure as heck, these little anomalies will never fail to be pointed out by your offspring in the most mortifying ways. Children are so observant they very quickly learn how everything in their world usually appears and automatically decide that is the way these things always should look, so any diversion for them is a subject of interest, to be remarked upon at high volume.
And it is not only total strangers who come in for these withering inspections. Dad himself might undergo an occasional review and shouldn’t be surprised to hear his daughter say, “Daddy. You have a fat tummy!” You might also be distressed, after you’ve carefully combed the few remaining strands of hair across the top of your skull to give the appearance of crown cover, to hear her say, in the company of the very people you were just then trying to fool, “My dadda doesn’t have any hayuh on his hayud.”
But while some of these encounters with unwelcome expressions of truth from your young and unrestrained critics can be predicted, the ones that come totally out of the blue hurt the most, because you can take no preventative action. A noon-hour guest, for example, on turning to leave your kitchen, has almost made it to the door when a little boy’s voice is heard by all present to say, “Daddy. Ralph has a big bum!” Ralph starts, as if to faint, then makes a quick and wise decision to keep on walking and to give the appearance of having heard nothing, taking his purported oversized buttocks with him as he goes.
A lesson is delivered in your kitchen immediately thereafter on the importance of not being earnest, at least not in the company of people with large derrieres.
Police officers sent on high-risk assignments are issued with bulletproof vests. Construction workers wear hardhats and steel-toed workboots to protect themselves from falling objects. Even farmers don masks when handling chemicals and headsets to protect their hearing while riding in the cabs of their noisy tractors.
But a stay-at-home dad is given no protection whatsoever as he ventures forth to guide his rambunctious flock through another day. As a result, he is prone to many an injury during his eight hours on the job, between the time Mom leaves for work and when she returns. While it may seem unimaginable that two little people with a combined weight of eighty pounds could possibly do much damage to a man who tips the scales at more than twice that figure, it is a matter of fact that they can leave him moaning and groaning several times daily, seemingly at the drop of a hat or of a hammer on his foot.
On what other job, for example, when you finally get seated with a newspaper for a thirty-second break, would you expect a toy truck to suddenly take flight silently through the air and collide with the side of your head? Or, if you were so lucky to be able to grab a five-minute snooze in an reclining chair, would you think to awaken suddenly with a crushing pain in your groin from the weight of your boy who has leapt quietly into the air and landed on the lower section of your body, yelling, “Surprise!”?
In fact, groinal injuries are more common for dads than for hockey players, and perhaps dads should be wearing the same sort of protection as those who chase those little pucks on ice for a living. It might not be a bad idea at all if dads showed up at the breakfast table in complete head-to-toe gear, ready for another scrappy day. Yes, even a helmet with face mask would not be out of place. Because the head is one part of the body that takes the most repeated beatings.
A stay-at-home dad who doesn’t spend at least a few minutes a week dabbing blood from some wound on the top of his skull, probably isn’t doing his job. These little cuts are caused, sometimes from whacks with sharp objects or collisions with flying ones, but more often they are self-inflicted as dad climbs a tree to retrieve a ball, crawls under a bed to retrieve a toy or squeezes under a kitchen sink cabinet to retrieve a child.
But all other body parts are similarly at risk, including hips, knees, toes, fingers, even nipples. Especially noses. Your children are very tactile, so they say, and must grab and twist every area of your anatomy you have the poor sense to expose. This is especially true of your facial features. Your little girl can put in a good half hour doing nothing but hauling on your nose, stretching your ears and jabbing her fingers in your eyes, just to see what makes you tick. She’ll try to pull your bottom lip down over your chin. She might even squeeze your nose shut with one hand, and cover over your mouth with the other just to find out how long her pa can go without air. Watching Dad flail about desperately for his next breath is great entertainment.
Young children, like young cats and dogs, learn a lot by tasting things, especially by biting. This is fine when they’re biting a rattle, but less fun when it’s your thumb that is lodged between their surprisingly powerful teeth. You were designed by nature to do a lot of carpet wrestling with your kids but as with even real matches, things can get out of hand and in the absence of a referee to bring proceedings to a halt, your children learn that a well-timed chomp to practically any part of dad will cause a sudden cessation of activities.
And if your children are like young cats and dogs in some respects, they resemble young calves and goats in others, head butting the backs of your legs to get attention or kicking you with their hooves to hold you off during close contact. Maybe this is how children came to be known as kids, the actual name for young goats. Just as many a farmer has found himself flying over a gate following such an encounter, the unsuspecting dad can be vaulted from a couch or bed by similar surprises.
Child raising is a full body-contact sport, not to be engaged in by the out-of-shape or easily hurt. While a dad, at first, worries about knowing his own strength and wonders how he’ll ever avoid harming the two little beings in his care, in reality it is the children who don’t know what they’re capable of. Furthermore, as their dad is invincible, how could anything they do ever injure him? Even when you yell, “Ow! Ow! Ow! Stop! That hurts!”, they often just laugh and jab the offending toy even further into your cheek.
Expect the following and prepare for it.
As you stroll down the sidewalk, you will be, without warning, slammed into from behind by your bicycle-riding boy who has not yet learned to stop.
In the middle of the night on the way to the fridge in near darkness, you will set your bare foot and all of your weight down on a small, sharp-edged metal replica of a fire engine, lying like a dadtrap between your bedroom and the kitchen.
You will suddenly bolt from your chair in pain as a bicycle horn or soccer whistle is held to your ear and squeezed or blown at top volume. In the absence of any mechanical noisemakers, a well-placed scream in the same ear from a two-year-old girl just testing her lungs will send you into similar panic.
Your hair will serve, at times, like rope for your dad-climbing duo, at other times like a mane, by the same crew who are riding their horsey. Be aware that there will always be a ten-second delay between the time you begin screaming, “Stttttaaaaahhhhhppppp!” to the time they actually let go.
Various parts of your body, especially your feet, will be flattened from time to time by some heavy or sharp object as your kids, without warning, will drop whatever they’re holding in pursuit of some new interest. These objects can range from a can of soup to a rolling pin. Beware the words, “Can I hold that, Daddy?” Let them hold it, by all means, but then run away before they inevitably let it go.
At the end of the day, wounded and tired, you console yourself by remembering that at least you didn’t have to spend any time wrestling a drunken and belligerent man into a squad car, dodging a load of heavy two-by-fours as they fell off a truck, or stepping gingerly out of the way of a charging bull in your barn.
On the other hand, none of those workers had to worry that day about being a walking, talking piece of playground equipment, guaranteed to be climbed onto by other human beings with bony knees and elbows whenever he made the mistake of standing still.
The Master Chef
Some modern-day men can cook rings around their wives. Then there’s you. What you can prepare – grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup from a can – you are very skilled at making, but the problem is, those two items form the sum total of your menu, though you might be able to produce a hot dog, if you were pressed. This seemed to provide a good, balanced diet for you in your single days, but Mom and those fussy dietitians think your children need more.
But you do give them more. Milk and a banana. And ten chocolate chips each for dessert. Still, the negative performance reviews keep pouring in. Even from your wee customers seated in the dining room.
“Grilled cheese again?” the boy groans. “When’s Mommy going to get home?”
“Yes, but today you can have a pickle to go with it,” you offer.
In the mind of a stay-at-home dad, if he keeps his children out of the way of speeding buses during the course of a day, he’s done a pretty good job. The idea that he might also be expected to ensure that their other needs, beyond sheer physical survival, must also be met by the giver of care, escapes him. Growing bodies and minds need proper nourishment, he is told again and again, but if a child is not complaining of hunger, what’s the big deal? If a bag of potato chips will do the trick, then chips all around it is.
But down deep you know the truth: once in a while, a child might actually need a vegetable or two, maybe some fruit, and even exotic items such as fish and eggs. And it’s not just a matter of tossing these various foods on the table and telling them to go to it, because this one’s carrots have to be cooked, not raw, and that one cannot be given any fruit or vegetable larger than a pea. Apples all around, but first they must have the core removed along with the skin. Everything has to be washed thoroughly before its presentation and nothing can be delivered to the table too hot. Slice the crusts off the bread. De-seed the grapes. The little one hates anything green. Hide the green stuff in something else she will eat. (This goes against your principles as, like your daughter, you understand that all green food is inedible and would have to be well-hidden for even you to eat it.)
So, preparation for lunch begins about 9 a.m. as you slice this, peel that and stir the other thing. Trying to co-ordinate everything and lay it all out precisely at noon in some sort of half-decent condition, is a nightmare. You feel like an amateur tightrope walker trying to ride a bicycle between two high-rise buildings. The stress level builds as you try to keep your balance but you know it’s a losing battle. This will be too hard, that too soft, the other thing too cold or too hot. And by the time it’s delivered, you may as well accept the fact that whatever you plop down in front of your charges will inevitably be received with this comment: “This is yucky!”
And you know, you can’t argue, because it all looks pretty yucky to you too, a man whose notion of adding variety to your diet is to increase the number of toppings you order. The idea you cannot get around is that there could be any value in spending hours preparing things nobody will eat when a short walk across the street to Burger Bonanza will have everyone’s bellies stuffed in no time flat. And you’ll probably come home with a couple of new toys, to boot. This last point you’ll present as evidence at the trial when Mom gets home: “Ya, but we got two new action figures. You know how they love action figures.”
But, the reason this is all so traumatic for you is not because you don’t care, but precisely because you do. If you didn’t care, life would be a blast: “You know where the corn flakes are. Get your own supper!” No, you want to do better than that because you want to be a good dad. You want to be the one to get their corn flakes ready for them at supper time or help them open their chocolate bar at morning snack time. How could a guy who cared do anything less?
Eventually, you buck up and decide to try to provide good home-cooked meals for the young folk in your care. But this somehow seems more detrimental to everyone’s happiness than the previous state when you were all giggling but famished. Now, you are crabby and preoccupied, trying to decipher the complicated codes used by recipe writers and phoning Mom at work to ask what the word simmer means. Or how much is a pinch. Now you hover over a stovepot full of porridge, all the while gagging, as you did when it was presented before you at your breakfast table when you were a boy. What you come up with resembles not so much porridge as mortar and is roundly rejected by your son.
Similarly, your attempts to poach an egg are met with derision, and resignation.
“Daddy. Can I just have corn flakes, please?”
Toast. You can do toast, so it abounds, but not unadorned. Toast with margarine. Toast with jam. Toast with peanut butter. Toast with honey. Toast with peanut butter and jam. Toast with peanut butter, jam and honey. The combinations are endless.
The thing you really can’t handle, in the end, is the supreme fickleness of the appetites of your children.
“Daddy, I want pancakes for lunch.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Daddy. I love pancakes.”
So, you make pancakes, hiding some green stuff in the mix and using every pan, spoon and cooking device you have in the house to do it. You’ve burned most of your knuckles and spread batter around the room like a drunken house painter.
“Ta da!” you exclaim as you present the fruits of your labour.
“I don’t like pancakes,” comes the response from your very own little culinary Jekyll and Hyde. And the young one, who seconds before was drooling for pancakes, sees which way the wind is blowing and gets right in line.
“I don’t like pancakes, too!”
In the relationship between children and stay-at-home dad, there is a great deal of give and take, a lot of changing of ways, an enormous amount of resigning the will.
“Daddy, can we have grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch?” your boy finally asks one day.
“Why of course you can, my son,” you reply. “You know your daddy loves you.
“You can have anything you want for lunch.”
“I want gill cheese an zoop too,” chimes in the little one.
By golly, maybe you are catching on to this cooking thing.
A Star Is Born
Life as a stay-at-home dad is a live performance. There are no auditions, no rehearsals, no stand-ins and no prompters whispering lines from somewhere off-stage. Once the tape starts recording, there is no opportunity to reshoot any scenes.
What this little performance does have, however, is a live studio audience, waiting to be entertained, shocked, amused, angered and brought to the verge of tears. The average dad, ill-equipped for the part he was assigned at the last minute, nevertheless usually manages to keep the spectators on the edge of their seats from the opening act to the final scene, and sometimes has them rolling in the aisles.
The agonizing aspect of the whole production, for this weary and reluctant cast member, is that he is never quite sure when the cameras are about to start rolling.
Hence this scenario.
It is the evening of the day. Mom has wisely escaped to the sanctuary of the public library and even though you have already weathered almost ten hours alone with your brood of two while your spouse was at her job, here you are again somehow on duty. None of this really matters to you that much, but one thing does concern you greatly. Since shortly after the day began and Mom bolted from the house like she might have if it were on fire, you have felt the urge, need and desire to spend a few moments alone seated on your favourite almond-covered porcelain fixture in the small downstairs room which has delivered relief to you so many times in the past. But the process of feeding, cleaning, entertaining, exercising, protecting, educating and disciplining your offspring over the extended shift that followed Mom’s early morning departure seems to have left no time at all for you to dash off for a few minutes alone with your thoughts and your throne.
However, you think you finally recognize a welcome pause in the action and you prepare to take advantage of it. The children are quietly seated in front of a video, their eyes glued to the hilarious adventures of the small bear, pig and donkey on the screen, their hands delivering their bedtime snacks to their mouths. You pause the videotape to make an announcement.
“OK guys. Daddy has to go and sit on the potty in the bathroom downstairs for a while. So you just stay here. If someone knocks on the front door, don’t answer it. Just come and get me. OK?”
“All right, Dadda,” they say in unison.
So, you make your retreat and head for your sanctuary. You leave the bathroom door open so as to hear any disaster-type noises that may come from upstairs while you are on the lower floor. You sit down, breathe out deeply, and begin the natural process that should have been initiated almost twelve hours before.
Within a few seconds of your starting this procedure, but far enough along into it that it cannot easily be interrupted, you hear the telephone come to life upstairs. Three rings and much fumbling for the receiver later, you hear your boy answer it.
“Hello. We’re watching TV. And having our snack. Who are you?
“No, Mommy’s not here right now. She’s gone to the library.
“He’s going poopee.
“OK. I’ll tell him you called. Bye.”
Now, you sit, in a position not unlike that famous statue of the naked man in his thinking pose. You are somewhat naked and striking a pose with your head resting on your fist and boy, are you thinking. Mostly, what you’re thinking is, “Who was that on the phone?”
You run through the possibilities but even if you could guess the true identity of the caller, it doesn’t much matter at this point. The fact is, an integral aspect of your daily routine which you normally try to keep private has been revealed to someone out there in the world who no doubt, at this moment, is passing on the news. Who knows? Maybe the call was from a live radio show and the information about your current situation has just been broadcast to anyone in the tri-cities who happened to have that program tuned in.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter that much to you that someone else now knows something about you that could easily have been guessed by anyone with any knowledge at all about biology. What leads you to sigh yet another heavy sigh is that, of course, this should happen at all.
You have no life now whatsoever. If you needed any more proof of that, being unable to sit quietly on the john without news of it being instantly transmitted to others across the telephone lines should provide the conclusive argument you were looking for.
A brief interrogation later reveals that it was your wife’s co-worker, Lucy, who was on the phone. This eases your chagrin in some small degree though now you begin to envision the coffee break chatter at Mommy’s office the next day. You soon set that aside, however, and begin again to enjoy the physical comfort that your eventful washroom visit has just provided. That, after all, is more important to you than any public image you might have sought to cultivate. A dad at home with two young kids has little use for image-making in any case. That was one of the first things he threw overboard as this leaky family ship began to list.
Now, he wants only to make it to the end of the performance without being yanked off stage and he doesn’t care very much at all if he gets a bad review or two in the process of hanging onto this most wearisome of roles.
Time Is On Their Side
One of the biggest shocks a stay-at-home dad has waiting for him is how completely he is about to lose control of his days. Whereas he once might have believed, probably foolishly, that he enjoyed some freedom of movement and association, not to mention thought, except, perhaps for the few hours a week he was at work, he will now find his schedule completely at the mercy of young bodily functions and needs, and the fertile imaginations of his youngsters whose ideas come in rapid-fire bunches, much as flames might lick up the brittle grass on a drought-stricken prairie. Trying to keep ahead of your children’s ever-changing to-do list is as fruitful as trying to outrun those flames, especially when two of them are coming up with them at the same time. The only thing you can do is to lie down in a watery ditch till it’s all over and hope for nothing worse than a bit of smoke inhalation.
This all explains why, on a sunny Friday morning in summer, you suddenly find yourself with brood in tow, heading for the coffee shop just down the street. Not because this was your plan but because one of your youthful recreation directors put forward that agenda item.
“Daddy, let’s go to de coffee shop!”
Their mother might say no to such a plan for a variety of objections – the cost, the potential for restaurant mayhem, the reluctance to waste a beautiful, sunshiny day inside – but you are helpless to think of even one reason why your offsprings’ whims shouldn’t be turned into their realities in an instant, as if you were some sort of fairy godfather, sent to spent eight hours a day granting their wishes.
So, you wave your wand and off the three of you go at 10:30 a.m. in your golden chariot with bagel crumbs, breakfast cereal and broken toys all over the floor, headed for your first small break of the day. So confident are you of an early return to your home, that you leave all the doors in the house open, including your front door and garage door. You also do this because you cannot spare the two minutes it will take to close everything up; in that time, if they’re running free outside, your kids might be five blocks away by the time you finish. Or, if strapped in their car seats, two minutes would be plenty of time for them to tear the upholstery off the inside of the car roof. So, you back out the driveway, thinking that the only thing you forgot to do before leaving was to hang a big sign on the front of the house saying, “Please come and help yourself to everything in the place!”
A frazzled dad at a counter in a coffee shop with two wound-up children just out of toddlerhood, to some onlookers, can present a joyful, touching scene. Everything seems very hardy har har and pleasant but you know, if others don’t, that you are in a barrel circling the top of the falls, about to take the plunge. When exactly you’re going over, you aren’t sure, but you know you’re going. It might come when your daughter, twirling on her stool, slips off and slams her chin on the countertop on the way to the floor. Or it might be when your son bites his tongue while chewing on his doughnut. When you can feel the swirling waters at the bottom of the falls heading up to meet you is when both of the above events, or scenes similar to them, happen within seconds of each other.
But this day, the sailing is smooth, which is just more reason to worry. And the unexpected awaits. Towards the end of almost an hour, your young companions climb up on the brick sill of one of the huge windows in the coffee shop, through which they see, across the street, the familiar sign of their favourite fast-food restaurant, which happens to offer the delights of a big, plastic play centre, the kind with bins of coloured balls to dive into and lofty slides to tumble down. As quickly as the image of the playland restaurant registers in their brains, it is indelibly formed into a proposal.
“Daddy, let’s have lunch at the play centre,” calls one child, excitedly.
“Ya, Daddy. Let’s do it,” exclaims the other.
Two high-spirited children agreeing so vehemently on a plan easily outmatch the shell of the sinking-spirited individual you’re quickly becoming as you feel your barrel splitting open on impact with the rocks. You think to remind them of the open-door policy in effect at your house, you think to remind them they had just had a snack in a coffee shop and to spend a sunny day hiking from one restaurant to another is not on any parent’s list of Great Parenting Techniques, you think to say something of the excessive cost of all these culinary misadventures, but you don’t mention any of these things. Instead, they begin to chant, knowing there’s not a dad alive who can ignore a well-bleated chant, and before you even seem to know what’s happening, you’re playing musical restaurants, exchanging one set of hard seats for another. One bad decision piles on top of another and to your pathetic occasional plea, “Now kids, we can’t stay here too long because Daddy left the doors open at home,” your children are happily oblivious.
There will be fast-food line-ups in hell so for practice, you get in one of the extremely long ones that have formed here, a place which, at noon on a Friday, is never busier. Keeping your brood within arm’s reach in this sea of tired and frantic humanity might be likened to trying to stuff feathers back into a pillow that’s burst. But eventually, somehow, you try to exit the line-up, carrying a trayful of gut-busting mush with one hand, a thirty-pound girl with the other, all the time trying to move along your boy with sharp commands and your dull toe, while he is busy admiring the colourful and bizarre toys of the day in display windows strategically located at his height. Through the crush, your body is in such close contact with others you feel almost obligated to propose marriage because of the intimacy but you resist and soon you have found a free table and have your young ones seated.
The meal is no picnic, as they say, as your children’s clothing now has some new designs, done in ketchup, while their hair is stuck together with honey and there is more milk on their chairs than on the floor of any dairy barn. You and your family have spread yourselves out in all directions which might not matter except that one of them, mid-meal, has an announcement: “Daddy, I have to pee!” He might have told you, “Daddy, your hair’s on fire!” and no one would be able to tell the difference in your reaction to either bit of news. Packing everyone up – and it is required that you travel as a group – to fight the throngs down the long corridor to a washroom full of more people is a huge task, and a worrying one, as you imagine some eager teenage staffer removing all the items from your table in the belief that you have permanently left. So, you extract promises from four tables around to watch your stuff while you’re gone, and you strike off. Ten stress-filled minutes later – “In the potty! Not on my shoe!!! – you’re back, to resume the struggle to submit some item of dubious nourishment into the mouths of your offspring. However, you are back in your seats for only a few harried moments when the second child issues a bulletin of her own: “Daddy, I have to pee, too!” You might imagine that at some point during her extremely recent visit to the washroom where she witnessed several other youngsters, including her brother, in the process of doing the very thing she now proposes, she might have been reminded that she needed to go too, but you’d be wrong.
“Can you go in your diapers, darling?” you plead, but this suggestion is received as a highly offensive one by the same person who does just that twelve times a day, and so you are off again to the place from which you just came, in the full realization that there is slim chance your child actually does need the relief she begs for and a very great possibility that she simply is nostalgic for the sensory stimulation of the washroom and wants to take a stroll down memory lane. A few more minutes of struggling through a mass of humans to get to the washroom proves your theory correct and this development has the effect of elevating your mood level into a new dimension, one it’s unlikely even Freud had a name for.
Back at the table, the cold hamburger, chicken and fried potatoes waiting there have lost their appeal and the children declare it’s time to go down the hall to the play centre, a giant hamster’s cage for scampery little humans who are never happier than when sliding down a tube of plastic from fifteen feet in the air to land at the bottom just in time for some other child, twice their weight, to take the same route and fall on their head, or covering themselves over in a pool of plastic balls so that another child, unaware of their presence, can jump onto their stomach. The experience takes you back to your own youth when you too had a play centre, but people then called it a barn. And you begin to envy your own father who never once spent a day hauling his children from restaurant to restaurant and supervising them as they hurled themselves down various avenues of almost-certain self-destruction.
A fast-food play centre on a Friday noon makes the floor of the Tokyo stock exchange look like the meditation room in a monastery. Filled with mostly frustrated parents, grandparents and babysitters, and their excited charges, the atmosphere is one of collective exasperation. But there is no communion of feeling in this sharing of this space; on the contrary, there is intense competition for the privilege of sitting at a table and chairs covered in food and drink and who knows what else. At the same time, there is suspicion. When a child runs crying to his mommy, “A boy punched me on the slide” and five second later, your son shoots out of the same slide, the buzz goes through the room that you are the father of the newest play-centre bully. You shrink even lower behind the newspaper you’ve been hiding under and hope the lunch hour will end soon. And soon it does, but not your lunch hour, of course, which threatens to go on all day.
A dad is helpless, when his children are having fun, to call a halt to the proceedings. Because life with them laughing is so much finer than it is with them crying, so the temptation is there to continue forever with whatever activity is producing the smiles. The fact that, at this moment, two young entrepreneurs might be loading the last of your possessions onto a rental truck at your house, is not even reason enough to toy with this working formula.
So the minutes turn into hours, and every little while, you approach the happy pair, now mostly on their own in the play centre, with the proposal that all this merriment be moved to another address. The answer, of course, always comes back, “No!” and as merely the dad, who are you to disagree?
Before you know it, you have been gone from home for more than four hours. You have been sitting in highly air-conditioned surroundings all that time and your bones and muscles are starting to seize up. You have read every word in every publication lying around the place, even in the business sections, and young restaurant patrons with whom you are sharing this space are starting to confuse you with the staff, you have become such a fixture. Your own children are racing from toy to toy in the play centre, as enthusiastic about each big plastic shark or kitchen set as they were when they first laid eyes on it.
At four o’clock, your exasperation bubbles over. Your daughter has missed her nap and is now flopping around on the mats like a fish out of water. Your son is the picture of exhaustion. In one great and desperate burst of authority, you command an end to the rhapsody on plastic.
On the way home, for your reward, a tiny voice questions from the back seat, “Daddy. Don’t you love us any more?”
A few minutes later, you arrive home to find the house, unpillaged and unsacked. In ten minutes, you will hand over your unloved inmates to the guard who will soon assume the next shift and when she arrives home from her job, you stumble through the back yard to your third restaurant of the day for a coffee with which to get over it all. The sight here of not even one person sliding down anything is a big relief. You lay your head on the table before you for a rest. If your tear ducts hadn’t been frozen hours ago by exposure to air conditioning, you’d probably crank them up for a cry.
But, dads don’t cry so you soon buck up and read another newspaper.
Keeping Your Cool
A stay-at-home dad, on those days he will have where he just doesn’t have what he needs to have, can be likened to a kettle. In the morning, when first plugged in, he makes no sound. But as things heat up – dishes break, pee meets carpet, car keys hide in clothes dryer – there begins a rumbling, then a loud hissing, and finally steam pours out of every opening in his head. The only way to cool this inferno is to pull the plug. And each dad has to find his own way to do that or he will soon have a local SWAT team barking out orders to him through a megaphone from his front lawn.
After the first couple of times you “lose it”, you realize you are in desperate need of something, anything, to get you past these red-hot moments. When, one morning, after scolding your daughter for kicking off her shoes in the back seat of the car, your son says to you angrily, “Daddy. I can see we’re going to have a lot of trouble with you today,” you know it’s time for action.
You try a variety of strategies, but they fail miserably. Walking away from the scene for a few minutes alone in your bedroom to calm down rarely works, as, in your absence, you can hear lamps falling and young people assaulting each other in the living room. By the time you return to the scene, you are in worse shape than when you left it.
You can’t phone a friend to chat, for the same reason. It is difficult to pour out your woes to your buddy while watching leaves being removed one by one from Mom’s favourite houseplant or cave drawings being etched onto the living room wallpaper in indelible marker.
To phone your wife to come home from work for an hour is out of the question as this would amount to admitting defeat; you would rather take your chances with the SWAT team.
So, in your attempt to get your malfunctioning brain to fast forward to the next track, you pull out an old nugget: the Serenity Prayer. You use it, silently at first, like a mantra, saying it over and over during every crisis and amazingly, finding some relief as a result. But you discover it works best if spoken out loud and soon, during those far-too-frequent times when it seems likely you’ll be the first item on the six o’clock news, you begin your chant: God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference. You say it over and over, in the presence of your children, who are baffled at first, but come to regard it as normal behaviour from Dad when he’s having a “bad” day. It even begins to act as a signal to them that they’re going too far and they start to appreciate the effect it has of reducing the look in Dad’s eyes from white-hot to just red.
As every dad eventually finds out, his children are not passive participants in life who don’t really see and hear what’s going on around them. One day, at the change table, as you unfurl your two-year-old daughter’s diaper, and, practically sobbing at the disaster you have uncovered, you exclaim in shock, “Oh God . . . !” From the table, in her little voice, you hear your baby reply, “Grant me sereniteeee, to assept de tings I cannot change . . .”
“You’re right, daughter,” you reply. “I can’t change this.” Then, remarkably, you both begin to laugh.
From then on, these few words, said over and over, get you through those times you have when you seriously wonder if you’re going to make it through another minute, not to mention the three more hours before Mom comes home. Incredibly, an hour after thinking your next best move might involve getting out the ladder and climbing onto the roof, you are, post Serenity Prayer, rolling around giggling on your floor with your kids again, wondering what it was that had you so wound up.
But, wound up you will become again. The next morning, late once again for nursery school, you begin reciting your lifesaver as you try to get your two little charges properly assembled for the car trip there. One is ready, but when you stoop to help the other, the first one dashes back into the living room, peeling off clothing as she goes. Finally corralling her, you watch as your son takes off and does the same.
Your unruly students are strapped in their car seats at last and you and your rebellious bunch head off down the road, hoping to reach nursery school before it ends. Your prayer has done the trick and as you drive along, you are finally calm. Then you hear two little voices, in unison from the back seat: “God grant me, the serenity . . .”
All the way to school, you listen as your children recite, not nursery rhymes or silly verses, but the spiritual plea for calm they’ve been hearing from Dad for the past few weeks and you wonder whether anywhere else in the world, there are two young kids riding around in the back seat of a car, appealing to a higher power for serenity, courage and wisdom. You can’t imagine that there is and you don’t know whether this is right or wrong, but at least, it seems, you might just make it through another day without anyone in a uniform ordering you to come out of the house with your hands up.
The Eve of Destruction
You think you have never been an incurable materialist. Things are just things; they can’t bring you happiness. You are more interested in spiritual development and matters of the heart. This is where true fulfilment lies.
But if this is so, you would never know it by the way you react to the inevitable downgrading of the quality of your possessions following the introduction into your dwelling of a young boy and girl. You mourn the loss of each item that is snapped in half or torn apart, and after a while, you lose all perspective as to the relative value of each article. So, whereas you used to grieve over the damage done to only your most precious belongings, as you did the day a boy tipped over backwards in a heavy wooden chair to land, chair and all, on top of your prized acoustic guitar, now you react as passionately when a yellow plastic spoon which accompanied a fast-food meal at a take-out window is broken in two.
“Oh no!” you yell, emotionally. “Look what you’ve done! You’ve broken the spoon!” The spoon was heading for the garbage anyway, after its intended use, but no matter. After months of working “on the ground” with your young children as a stay-at-home dad, you have become hypersensitive to the sound of solid matter cracking in two, of pages being ripped from books and magazines, of glass anything shattering on the floor, of cloth ripping. Your heart takes to stopping every time you hear the words, “Oh, oh!”, spoken in a mildly mournful tone, though the perpetrator of the damage is never truly regretful. The two-person wrecking crew with whom you share these four walls have been sent here on a mission with only two goals – to explore and to have fun. If, while pursuing these objectives, they happen to leave a bit of collateral damage in their wake, Dad will have to somehow learn to live with the imperfection.
But that is just the point. To this stage in your life, you have you have been engaged, whether you’ll admit it or not, on a relentless pursuit of perfection. You have been striving since your earliest memory to fashion for yourself an ever-larger, ever-cleaner, ever-brighter environment, filled with the shiniest, handiest, cosiest and coolest items you could afford. This you have done in an effort to keep up with your friends and relatives and to convince them all and yourself that you really have been a world beater. So, as your children begin dismantling many of these items with the same nonchalance they displayed when shredding paper towels and toilet paper in their younger days, your whole system enters into a state of deep shock and of high alert. What will be the next item to have its status fall from treasure to trash in an instant?
Relax, say your critics. Someday when he’s left home, you’ll run your fingers over the holes your son made with his fork in the top of your wooden kitchen table and fondly remember the days when he was learning to use utensils. The legs broken off figurines, the marks made by hockey sticks hitting solid pine doors and cupboards, the gashes in the walls made by trucks – these will all become sentimental signposts when you’re growing old in your easy chair while your children are off accumulating things with which to fill their own houses. But these are the realities of another day, and don’t do much to help you in today’s crisis which happens to involve water overflowing the bathtub your tykes are playing in, finding its way down through the bathroom floor and into the expensive ceiling tile you installed in the bedroom below, turning the material brown in the process.
Yes, you know you will cherish each little scratch and dent some day. Maybe you’re already feeling a bit weepy about some of them. But, as the owner of one of the few fine record turntables left on the planet, when you sit down one evening to put on some music only to discover the clear plastic cover has been indelibly marked, probably by a fire truck or ambulance rushing to the scene or an airplane making a landing, you can’t help but fume. Then, after the arm descends to the record and inexplicably skids right across it without playing a note, you lift it up to realize the needle assembly has been completely removed and discarded, you convene an immediate council meeting with all household members invited, to discover the whereabouts of the integral part of the machine you have taken such good care of these past fifteen years. You know the whereabouts – it’s gone! – but you want to take the opportunity to impress on the assembled throng that you will no longer tolerate such wanton property damage. You convey this message to a girl who is clad in pyjamas which sport a fresh hole she cut in them with a scissors the day before and a boy who holds his favourite storybook which, once upon a time, had a cover.
The answer, it seems, lies either in getting dad to change his tune and, like Mom, adopt an attitude of, “Oh well, we can glue that back together. We’ll never know the difference,” or, in convincing the children to become as obsessive over material things as he is. When, one day, you hear your boy berating his sister for breaking the propeller off one of his helicopters, you realize how much progress you have been making.
After all, true materialism is not about having fun, as children want to do, it’s about the fun of having. And who better to train them in the art of acquiring than you?
Beware The Good Idea!
To listen to the mother of your children in daily communication with them is to realize she somehow imagines there are not enough hours in the day to do all the things she can think of for her and her brood to do. There are muffins to bake in the kitchen, crafts to make in the rec room, puppets to play in the living room and bubbles to blow in the backyard. There are kites to fly, ducks to feed and playgrounds to romp in.
A stay-at-home dad has a different perspective. From the time he first hears his children beginning to pad around the house in the morning, the day stretches out before him as featureless as a vast prairie during a drought. But, you are not without some resourcefulness.
“Okay guys,” you say after breakfast. “Wanna watch the cartoons on Channel 2 or the ones on Channel 14? What’ll it be?”
However, you soon tire of having to admit at the Performance Review Hearing held every afternoon upon the return of Mom that her family spent every minute of her eight-hour absence with their eyes and ears glued to the cathode-ray tube in the corner of the living room. It is obvious you’re going to have to start thinking of some things to do when she’s away, activities that don’t involve the television guide.
So, you start to have ideas. This a very dangerous territory for you. Out in the world, you might be a veritable creative fountain in the village square that others come to daily to draw off some inspiration. Domestically, you are pretty much brain dead, your only vital signs showing up in the form of the little laser beam commands emanating from the TV remote clutched in your hand. But, you want to do well, and you want to get credit for doing well. Therefore, the simple suggestions for the day that Mom tosses over her shoulder on her way out the door in the morning – get them to paint a picture, build a castle with the blocks, play in the sandbox, etc. – will never do. What is needed is a grand plan, an activity so profound your kids will still be recalling it thirty years later. You want them to have “experiences”, not just fun. You’ve read the biographies of all the great people of your time who remember with fondness how their father built them a raft and sailed with them on it to a remote island across the bay to look for turtles and what a profound effect this had on their outlook and development. Or how he taught them how to climb trees to check out hawks’ nests and to this day, when they need some solace, they hike off up some oak or maple and sit out on a limb, remembering their pa and soaking up some serenity.
You want be that kind of dad. Let Mom help them put stickers into books and teach them to colour. You have a different instinct. Something left over from the hunters and gatherers.
So, at ages 2 and 4, it’s time your children learned to drive a car. Everyone piles into the family jalopy after breakfast and taking turns sitting on Dad’s lap, your kids steer the vehicle as dad shifts gears and operates the gas pedal. The happy trio moves backwards and forwards in the driveway for half an hour and the gang is delighted, except for the brief episode when, unnoticed by you, your son slips to floor between your legs and jams his foot down on the gas pedal. Neighbours and their cats and dogs flee in terror until the vehicle is back under your control.
“Mommy, we drove the car today,” they announce at the end of Dad’s shift, though they were sworn to secrecy earlier in the day. In some ways, you want many of your good deeds to go unsung. Unmentioned, even.
But now, having introduced your youngsters to the joys of motoring, along with other pursuits they don’t teach in nursery school – climbing a twenty-foot ladder, operating a power lawn mower, using a handsaw, among them – they wouldn’t let you go back to helping them dress up their dolls, even if you wanted to. Having identified yourself as the biggest action figure in their toy box, they begin to demand you maintain the pace. And you think you have to.
So each day begs another adventure, and soon, you’re trying to calm the waters of expectation you have stirred up. Not an easy thing to do, especially since your mouth always operates faster than your brain and before you know it, you’re off doing something you blurted out in passing the day before. Reading a book about trains to them one day, you say, “How’d you like to go to the station to watch a train come in, some time?” Of course, they want to do that, but whereas “some time” to you means on a day between today and your twenty-first birthday, it means Right Now to them. This is where good ideas are potential impediments to your happiness. What your children can’t know is that you want credit simply for the good idea, not necessarily the activity suggested by it.
But, there you are, in any case, standing outside the train station one chilly day, waiting for the evening arrival. You have brought a bat and ball to put in time, in the event the train is late. It is. So, you play a little pick up while you wait. Your boy is up to bat, connecting now and then with the easy lobs.
“Your turn, Daddy,” he says, handing you the lumber. Wanting always to impress your son, you whack the pitch as if in the final game of the World Series and watch with distress as the ball lands on the train station roof, rolls down, and lodges behind a sign. This, of course, is not just a ball but your children’s favourite ball. The family begins to melt down at the thought the little yellow inflatable sphere might not be making the trip home with them.
This is the kind of trouble you rarely get into putting stickers into a book. The joy of seeing the train pull in is tempered by the worry about the fate of the ball on the train station roof. A visit to the station official to explain the predicament elicits some sympathy but no help. He is alone on duty and besides, has no ladder. But, if you want to bring your own . . .
Tears abound on the long ride home. “I wahahant myhyhy ballhallhall!” begins the refrain in stereo from the back seat. And Dad the Adventurer knows there will be no evening in the easy chair for him. He returns alone after dark with his twenty-foot ladder protruding from his trunk, which also contains an old hockey stick. At the station, he despairs as he realizes his ladder won’t reach. But then, along come three young men in a pickup truck who see the dilemma and hearing about the little boy who won’t go to bed without his ball, come over to help. They back the truck up to the station, set the ladder in the truck box, and send the most agile guy among them up to the top rung, hockey stick in hand, on this dangerous mission. A mini-crowd gathers to watch. Dad’s adventure has now involved the surrounding community. A young man teeters precariously on a top ladder rung, shakily poking at a ball behind the roof sign. The crowd groans as the ball wibbles up and almost out, then wobbles back down to its niche again. Dad imagines disaster – young man falling on head, police interviews, lawsuits all around – but eventually, success!
At last you make it home, cold and shivering, where your son sits stubbornly refusing bedtime till he’s assured of his ball’s return. A great cheer goes up as you wander into the kitchen and produce the ball from behind your back like a rabbit from a hat. Your reputation is secure: Dad can do anything!
But you will exhaust yourself in the coming months with a series of expeditions meant to introduce your small fry to the many wonders of the world. When, one chilly morning, your children ask to stay inside and build a castle out of blocks, you secretly smile in relief. And set to work to build the biggest castle ever.
Tomorrow, you colour.
Channeling Their Energies
The best friend the stay-at-home father has, while on duty, is not his wife nor any of his other relatives. Neither is it any member of the family’s support staff of doctors, dentists and nursery school teachers. No neighbour or other acquaintance can lay claim to this classification.
In fact, dad’s truest ally during the eight hours Mom is away from the home every day is the little black box in the corner of the living room that endlessly flashes colourful talking images of bears, cats, dinosaurs and turtles out into the supercharged atmosphere of your home. The TV is the only legal sedative you are permitted to administer without a prescription to your children every morning. It is virtually untraceable in their systems and any side effects hopefully won’t be detected until long after they’ve left the nest and moved out into the world to try their hand at coping with reality.
A few weeks into the job of looking after your children Monday to Friday, you will begin to think of your TV remote control as a magic wand you can wave over the scene, transforming it instantly from one of descending chaos to one of complete, if a bit eerie, calm. You come to wonder, in fact, just what you would do if you did not have access to such a wonderful tool. Even with its indispensable aid, you can barely cope. Without it, two burly attendants would have earned their pay keeping you restrained in the ambulance on the way to your local mental-health facility, before your first full day as child caregiver was even half over.
If you check the records, it is certain you will find that the man who invented the TV was a stay-at-home dad who was desperate to find a distraction for his kids. His name must surely be on the list of people waiting to be named a saint in recognition of their efforts on behalf of “man”kind. Also on that list is the father who, years later, on realizing there were no cartoons being broadcast past noon each day, hastily invented the video cassette recorder to fill in the interminable hours between the time children’s programming goes off the air and when it comes back on again.
There are other ways to quell riots and associated emotional disturbances which break out in your home during the day and maybe some of those methods are more beneficial in the long run. But the long run is not what a stay-at-home dad cares very much about. In fact, the long run for him comes to mean the last hour of the afternoon before Mom returns home from her job. All other solutions to household havoc involve a lot of props and energy. Sans TV, a dad will be forced to do puzzles and crafts or play board games. He might even have to put on shoes and chase balls, pucks and flying plastic saucers around the backyard. Balance all that output of effort against the motion of one finger pushing an “on” button, and you will easily see which choice the average stay-at-home dad will usually make.
Some experts, of course, probably all men who have never stayed home with their children, like to suggest that too much TV watching can be harmful to kids. No doubt their arguments have some validity but it is clear than an acceptable amount of TV for young children falls in the range of eight to nine hours a day, coincidentally, the same amount of time Mom is away from the home. As soon as she walks in the door at night and Dad runs out of the house, the TV should definitely go off. In any event, it is necessary to carefully define the word “harmful” here. Are children worse off spending their days watching flickering images from the inert high-tech babysitter sitting in one corner of the room or witnessing the flickering emotional outbursts of their inert low-tech father, huddled in another corner? How harmful can it be for children to watch a cartoon moose chase a cartoon beaver around an imaginary yard with a cartoon bat or or a cartoon cat at the controls of a rocket ship heading for the moon? Through these programs, they learn about nature and science all at the same time.
This secret reliance you have on the TV – and you might be well advised not to admit to your wife just how much the kids are watching – in part explains the differing systems of priorities you and your partner have for the education of the youths in your care. Whereas their Mom is busy getting them toilet trained and teaching them how to brush their teeth and to recognize the letters of the alphabet, you are showing them, first how to use the remote control and later, the VCR. Life skills are important and these skills, for the eight hours of life they are spending with you each weekday, are a definite help to them. But, you also want to them to know their numbers and so you spend quite a bit of time working on that.
“Now, if you press zero and then two, you’ll get Freddie the Ferret,” you instruct, unselfishly and patiently. “If you want The Adventures of Gobby the Gerbil, press one and then four.” You also start teaching them to tell time so that they can know when all these shows are occurring.
Soon, you’re starting to see some results of your hard work. Now, you don’t even have to get out of bed with them in the morning; your chest swells with pride as you hear them climb out of their cots, pad out to the living room and flick on the tube by themselves. It is at times such as these that you realize what a privilege it is to school the next generation in the ways they should go. You roll over and drift off again.
There is one warning you might want to heed. A TV, though godlike in its ability to transform the human personality, especially the youthful human one, is still only a machine, subject to the limitations of science and nature.
“Daddy, the TV is broken,” your boy whispers in your ear one morning as you recline in your nest.
“What? Oh my gosh,” you reply as you lunge out of bed, ready for action. “We’ve got to do something.”
Your fridge hasn’t worked right in about two years: it melts all the frozen stuff and freezes all the melted stuff. Your washing machine chews up shirts like a hyena stripping a wildebeest. Every tap in the house drips a bathtub full of water a day. Your lawnmower spews more smoke than a rubber factory. Someday you will get around to having these things looked at.
But not today which you will devote to finding emergency repairs for the only tool in your possession that offers you the hope for some daily peace of mind. You can get by trying to spread frozen butter and if your clothes are a bit torn, that’s fine. What’s the big deal about inhaling black smoke for an hour a week while you cut your lawn?
But no TV? Don’t be silly.
Now, lest you believe this device is your perfect answer, again, heed this warning. It would be and could be and should be all that, except for the sad probability that on some forlorn day, when you least expect it, one of your children will voluntarily turn off the TV and make a plea for some activity, any activity, that doesn’t involve staring at the box in the corner. You should have seen this coming. Once or twice, when they arose in the morning, they played quietly on the living room floor without even turning it on. It was you who had to remind them of what they were missing. You passed it off as a bit of forgetfulness on their part.
But now, here they stand, pleading to do something else. Whatever the temptation, don’t give in. Just calmly get out the television guide and go through it with them, showing them what they are missing on the other channels. If you actually do go outside with them to play on the swings, they will soon come to expect that, and then where will you be?
And after that scare, be prepared. Spend time with your television listings; get to know them off by heart if necessary. At the first sign the kids are beginning to grow weary of watching, you have to be ready to say, “But guys. Howard the Hamster is on Channel 25. Don’t you want to see it?”
However, be warned. The day is coming and it may not be far off, when your children’s quest for an expanded universe will inevitably drag you out into the world too. By then, with any luck, however, you will have bought yourselves a few months of freedom. Time to devise ways to introduce them to the next level.
The movie theatre.
The Pain Of Being Malled
To the average man, a shopping mall is hell with a food court. Even to just drive by one makes him squirm.
But it doesn’t take this same man very long, once parachuted into the role of stay-at-home dad, to begin to see these twenty acres of stores in a new light. Where he once saw only row upon row of gaudy, neon-bathed outlets of opulence, he now sees the entire building as one giant romper room. Children take to malls like fleas to a dog but as you will soon find out, they are about as hard to remove as those pesky little insects are from poor old Rex.
It won’t take you long to discover that the only thing worse than a long, sunny day alone with the kids is a long, rainy day in their company. Whereas you are perfectly content to spend many hours sitting in a chair listening to the sound of rain beating against your windows, your children, if likewise incarcerated, begin to build up a charge; soon, sparks will be starting to fly in all directions. You realize instinctively that they need somewhere to go to dissipate all this excess current before the drapes catch on fire.
Oddly, your wife, who could spend a two-week vacation at the mall, never mentions this place as a possible rainy day destination for you and your crew. It turns out, relying on a few instincts of her own, she has long ago calculated a few possible downsides to the venture. When it comes to trouble, Mom can literally see around corners and through walls as if endowed with some sort of X-ray vision. But you, much in the way a moth will fly into a flame, seem almost destined to get your wings singed.
So, you discover the mall by accident, taking your children there one day to mail a package. Carrying them through the puddle-pocked parking lot, you set them down just inside the doors and are astonished to witness an amazing transformation. Wide-eyed and screeching, they are like long-caged swallows suddenly given their freedom. And away they fly.
But as you might imagine a papa swallow having a bit of trouble rounding up his frisky flock once freed, you will soon experience the same sort of difficulty. Two children, under the age of four, let loose in this trove of new sights, sounds and smells, are as unpredictably mobile as the little metal spheres in a pinball machine, bouncing off first this spindle and then that flipper. You are soon seen sprinting though the halls, breathless and embattled, kids’ coats in one arm, package to mail in the other. You catch glimpses, now and then, amidst the sea of legs and shopping bags, of the heads of your kids, bobbing up and down, but the gulf between you all seems to be growing, as one child drifts one way, while the other follows a different current.
Finally rounding them up, you march them in military style, first to the post office, and then to the mall’s children’s play centre, a labyrinth of plastic slides and a pool of plastic balls where they can romp unrestrained. You sit with a coffee and muffin, and amazingly, begin to relax. This is a mistake, of course, but for a half an hour at least, you enjoy something resembling the peace of mind you vaguely remember experiencing on a regular basis just a few years before. Of course, the reverie is broken by the sight of your children, both now sockless, and soon you are crawling around inside the pool of balls, flattening them forever with your knees as you search for four tiny stockings in this ocean of coloured orbs that contain more germ specimens than a medical research lab. But, for thirty minutes of relative peace, you’ll take it.
In fact, you begin to think of this place in pretty positive ways, and start to consider the possibility of scheduling frequent visits here in the coming months. You wouldn’t have spent too much time in that speculation, however, if you could have known that this day’s visit to the mall was far from over and like the wedding reception that starts out joyously and ends in a drunken brawl, this escapade has already experienced its best moments. The next hour will be spent fishing your brood out of stores, dragging them away from carefully arranged displays of fancy glassware, pumping money into big metal racecars and dumptrucks that threaten to give your offspring whiplash as they lurch back and forth, and repeatedly yelling “No!” to the kids at the top of your lungs.
Finally, after two hours of struggle, you have them firmly in hand, and are heading down the long corridor to the door through which you arrived. Now, this is where the fundamental difference between a dad’s view of his efforts and how his children feel about them will never be made more clear. To you, you have freely and generously given your tykes another wonderful experience and blew the dials right off the old stress meter to do it; to them, by the act of moving them firmly towards the door, you have cut mercilessly into what little pleasure they’ve managed to eke out of their brief lives thus far and thereby, are a heartlessly cruel individual. This assessment they will decide to announce publicly during their their seemingly endless exit from the place.
“I wahahant myhyhy mahahameehee!!!!” screams your boy, tears streaming down his face. His sister picks up the refrain, and soon they are both sobbing and shrieking while you parade them through the building past startled shoppers and storekeepers who shoot you glances that suggest they are not fully confident about the level of your parenting skills. As if sensing the mood of the mall’s populace has turned in their favour, the children begin dramatizing their plight with theatrics that would be the envy of William Shakespeare, if he could witness the performances.
Grim-faced and glowering, you steadfastly continue the long march out of the mall, silently vowing that it will be a rainy day in hell before you return here with these two.
And the next rainy day, true to your vow, you are back.
Ready for another malling.
The Wild, Wild Welcome
There exists an endless list of changes to his life that a man will experience after the arrival of his children. Literally nothing remains as it was before. Try as he might to return to some of the ways of his old life, it is as if he is in a boat with no paddles, drifting farther and farther away from that shore.
Take entering the front door of your home, for example. Pre-children, this exercise was not complicated. You simply walked up the steps, approached the door with key in hand, stepped over the threshold, removed your coat and serenely entered the room. On the list of difficulties you would face during the day, getting into the house was nowhere near the top.
Now, however, it is a much different story. Young children are like ducklings, who, purportedly, do not have good memories. When young ducks wake in the morning, they swim about the pond with great excitement, in their minds, seeing everything about them for the first time. Your children are similar in that they react to your every entrance into the house, no matter how brief your absence might have been, with all the excitement of new birds seeing a part of their environment they’d forgotten about overnight.
At first, of course, all this excitement is ego-boosting. Who, but a wonderful dad, could deserve such wild and noisy greetings ten times a day? But when even a five-minute break to carry the garbage cans to the street is reason enough for more hysterical jubilation upon your re-entering the building, it begins to wear thin. Especially since opening that door, you feel very much like a major-league goaltender, with hard rubber pucks flying at you from all directions. The difference is, goalies are equipped to withstand the barrage. A dad faces the job, unprotected by gear, of catching the youngsters with their pointy knees, elbows and feet in mid-air coming at you at considerable velocity. It never even occurs to them that you might not be able to catch them, sometimes two at a time. On what areas of your body their jabby body parts, travelling at fifty miles an hour, are likely to land, is of considerable concern to you.
In self-defence, you take to trying to sneak into the house, or using doors your kids won’t expect you to use. But they get very adept at anticipating you, and you soon give up those attempts to reduce this newest, simplest, and least-expected of stresses.
The most potent greetings, of course, occur on the rare occasions, as a stay-at-home dad, that you are sprung free for a few hours or even a whole day. Upon your return, the welcoming party is unusually exuberant.
“Daaaaddddeeee!!!!”, you hear in stereo as two little bodies prepare to mob you when you step across the doorstep. The first one launches herself in the air and collides with your face, knocking a lens out of your glasses. Partially sighted now, you catch her and hold on. From another direction, with your one remaining eye, you see a boy coming at you, but handicapped as you now are with only partial vision and hanging onto thirty pounds of girl with one arm, you misjudge the incoming human missile and a high-speed foot finds your groin.
You have been in the house twenty seconds and now you are writhing on the carpet wearing two children, a pair of broken eyeglasses and a grimace of agony that can be found on the face of only the male of the human species following the collision of certain of his body parts with some unanticipated flying object, or UFO.
You now understand, full well, why Santa Claus comes down the chimney and not through the front door. And why he arrives in the middle of the night, when the kids are asleep.
You never see him walking around with one lens in his glasses.
The Changing Times
A stay-at-home dad has to perform a wide variety of tasks to keep his ship and its passengers healthy and reasonably happy during the eight-hour voyage from the time Mom leaves for work in the morning and when she returns at night. These jobs range from swabbing the deck in the kitchen, to hoisting the sails on the clothesline to quelling disturbances among the sometimes-mutinous crew.
But it is the work he is required to do on the poop deck that causes him, perhaps, the most reason to question his suitability for life as a sailor. It is not that he is prone to seasickness when the “going” gets rough but he is nevertheless susceptible to gagging when his senses are assaulted by certain non-marine substances emanating from some of his fellow travellers. Several times a day, after becoming aware of ill winds blowing across the stern or witnessing a forlorn look on the face of a crew member who has suddenly frozen in her tracks, it is up to dad to re-outfit the distressed mariner in question.
On some days, this unavoidable responsibility is enough to make you want to voluntarily walk the plank without any prompting from a pirate’s bayonet. This occurs especially on those days when the evidence laid out before you is not as solid as it might be at other times. Or when a flag, unfurled too quickly, startles you with the unexpected release of a dozen small pieces of “ate” that scatter across carpets and under beds, forcing you, on hands and knees, to search for these precious nuggets. Other times, the cannon blast is so powerful it dusts one of the deck hands with so much residue, only repeated dunkings in the captain’s washtub will restore his dignity.
But, seamen are hardy individuals, and you will try to buck up. You try to make the best of each situation, turning the changing times into episodes filled with fun and laughter and singing lustily as you seek to get to the bottom of things. However, no amount of bravado will help you past those times, with an unco-operative girl, when you feel as if you are trying to change a lawnmower blade while the machine is still running. Or those instances where, after feeling the cold air hit him after being unbundled, your boy decides you use you for target practice.
Yes, you are the same man who, a short time ago, was swaggering though the halls of great institutions as a person of stature with much to offer the world. Now, the hall you can most often be seen trundling along is the short one that stretches between your children’s bedroom with its change table and the bathroom with its diaper pail. Where you once could be seen lugging a briefcase filled with important papers, you now tote around big plastic bags filled with smaller plastic bags that are filled with, well, they’re just filled, okay?
As you do with most things in life, however, you adapt after a time. You find ways to cope and even, after a while, begin to take pride in being able to do something you were pretty sure you would never be able to do. Even now, you are certain, that were these children not your own, you would absolutely not be able to perform this function so many times a day.
With all the coping and adapting and bravery you bring to these situations, though, there is one aspect of them you will never get used to and that is the unpredictability of their occurrence. In fact, you can almost predict that you will be called on to change your children at times so awkward they could never be predicted. Standing in the doorway of your home, for example, you do a last-minute reality check before heading for the car, asking whether or not anyone needs a fresh diaper.
“Not meehee!” says the boy.
“Not meehee!” echoes the girl.
Five minutes later, they are strapped into their car seats and you are backing out of the driveway, your tongue resting on the steering wheel in anticipation of the coffee and muffin that await you at the restaurant.
“Daddy, I need a new dypuh,” says the girl.
“Me toohoo!” sings the boy.
Now, what is it, you wonder, that could have produced such an abrupt alteration in their bodily functions that they could be dry one minute and wet the next? Is there some sort of atmospheric charge in the air across the twenty feet between your front door and your car that could cause such unforeseen disturbances? Then you realize that this was not the case at all. The truth is, the truth was not told during your last-minute check before leaving the house. So, you unlock them from their car seats, a job in itself, and march them back into the house only to discover that only one of them is in marginal need of changing and the other is completely dry. However, had you ignored their plea for changes as you backed out of your driveway, you can be sure the situation would have been the exact opposite – they would have been in desperate need. So, you have no choice but to heed their demands on this issue.
Children are walking, talking cauldrons of various bodily fluids that are constantly on the boil and ready to erupt at any moment. So, what doesn’t come out one opening will find its way out another. If they are sick, it can come out of all the openings at the same time. This makes for some fancy dancing on your part. When both your children have head colds, for example, you can spend entire days running with tissues in hand from one nose to the other like a maple syrup producer gathering sap from his trees in spring. Except you will end up, for all your efforts, with nothing you’d like to put on your pancakes.
Worse than anything are the times when your kids open their mouths and spontaneously combust, sending streams of their sometimes still recognizable lunch across toys, clothes, books and even small animals that happen to be running by. Your brood resettled, you will now turn your attention to meticulously cleaning everything that had been in the line of fire, except the cat which cleans itself and wonders whom to thank for the unexpected dessert.
Yes, it seems, on days such as these, your status in life has declined. While other men are busy flying jets across oceans, building bridges across rivers or reading the news across the airwaves, you are hustling pans of puke across the floor to the bathroom and racing back quickly at the sound of another impending regurgitation.
Still, now and then, when all hands are below deck and all you can hear are the steady waves of their rhythmic breathing as they sleep, you look out over the sea and wonder if perhaps you are more of a mariner than you thought. But this reverie won’t last long.
“Daaaaddddeeee! I neeeed yuuuu!”
The downside of your new job is, she really does.
Ironically, that’s also the upside.
Sick of it All
A stay-at-home dad is a man on the edge. Any smiling he might do while on duty is nothing more than a thin veneer. Any laughing he might engage in is sheer bravado. Any measure of confidence he might exude, either in public or before his family, is all for show.
Dad knows, if no one else does, that any success he might seem to have in keeping the whole thing together from day to day will immediately abandon him at even the hint of a crisis. And the crisis he learns to fear the most is a sick child. This is ironic in that most dads are used to living with dysfunctionality and in fact, see it as a major part of their role in the family to hold back the forces of disintegration. This is why, in the midst of a cloudburst, he will climb a ladder to the roof to reconnect an eavestrough downspout, to save his flock from being swept downstream by the deluge.
Dads seem to have an innate understanding of mechanical breakdowns. They expect them and rarely come apart when they happen. They can keep old lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners, radios and toasters going many years past the time they should have been junked. But this calmness regarding the inevitable failings of all man-made systems does not extend from the technological to the divinely created biological, whether it’s a daisy, a dog or a daughter. In fact, he is not even able to properly care for his own six-foot mass of bones and blood vessels and sits down at his desk to write his own obituary every time a tiny snicket of pain shoots through his upper chest. The average dad simply doesn’t understand anything about the human machine, especially about the young body’s penchant for secreting and oozing strange-looking fluids and for the myriad other exotic things it likes to do on its way to maturity, from convulsing, to vibrating to totally ceasing to breathe.
Mom is, in many ways, the polar opposite of dad. When the washing machine begins to hiccup, she immediately runs to the catalogues to comparison shop for a new one. In fact, her first response to every strange noise with a mechanical source is to ask, “What do you think? Should we replace it?” Needed, of course, is a five-dollar belt or wee dollop of solder, but to her, the device has had the biscuit every time it goes, “Zoink.” In response to the frequent physical irregularities of her two young children, on the other hand, she is so sensitive as to appear gifted with a sixth sense. She knows when to worry and when to relax and above all, when urgent action is required.
For Dad, urgent action is always required and that action can best be described as a frantic running around with no particular aim to it, much as a squirrel will zoom up and down a tree trunk repeatedly, having obviously accomplished nothing, for all this effort. So, at the first sound of his boy heaving up his guts or the sight of his daughter with her eyes rolled back in her head, he immediately realizes the first thing he needs to do is run down to the basement and clean his glasses or fly upstairs and tidy up the kitchen. Telephoning the doctor or hustling the children off to the emergency ward are not options that automatically occur to him. A big part of the problem is that, in the same way Mom writes off the hiccuping washing machine, Dad is convinced nothing can be done for the writhing child on the carpet before him. Children do not disguise their illnesses or put up a brave front.
Neither do they exaggerate them, especially young kids. So, what you see before you in the child who is becoming more ill by the moment is a human life apparently in startling decline. Few are the fathers who can witness such an appalling scene and not believe that their child is dying. Who could be rational in the face of such a stark and grim reality? While Mom can become no less concerned about the fate of her suddenly stricken youngster, she is inclined to do something without delay that has some chance of lessening the chances of a calamitous outcome. Something more than dashing back and forth from bedroom to living room yelling, “Oh my gosh!”
A dad is also handicapped by his love of order and he soon finds there is nothing orderly about childhood illnesses. Children can be giggling one minute while ingesting ice cream and screaming the next while spewing green bile. A man with the latter substance running down the back of his neck is not only terrified but also traumatized as to the effects of this development on his schedule. To put it plainly, a trip to the hospital at this moment is a grand inconvenience as the hockey game is starting on TV in ten minutes. This is the part of the parent business that Dad finds it the hardest to adapt to; he wants his old life and his new life all at the same time. Mom, on the other hand, sent her old life packing a long time ago, and most of the time, seemingly, is at peace with that. So, unlike as it can be with Dad, her first instinct on noticing her child turning blue is to administer some first aid and prepare for a quick car ride, not to run downstairs and set the VCR.
And to add to the stay-at-home dad’s woes, childhood illnesses can hang on for days and if both of his children are sick at the same time, he can eventually come to resemble a sort of deranged Florence Nightingale, muttering grumpily to himself as he hustles back and forth from bedroom to bathroom to bedroom, pans of puke in hand and pockets stuffed with used tissues, loaded down with various colours of mucus. To gingerly reach into these pockets to retrieve these tissues is to know misery up close.
There is another aspect to a father’s jangled nerves in the midst of a household plague. They occur not so much as a reaction to a distressing event, as they come about in response to a repeated annoying noise, such as a child’s cough which sounds like a wolfhound barking for his mate on a Saturday night. Or the sound of the other child’s sudden power sneezes that send a veritable lawn sprinkler of germs and liquid across dinner plates, dress shirts and daddy’s facial features. This is not to even mention the sensory delights of sounds, smells and soluble material that may at any time emanate from the children’s nether regions.
Through it all, though he may begin this three-day adventure as a home nurse filled with sympathy for his sick brood and determination to bring them back as quickly as possible to good health, he will be crippled by a growing sense of self-pity. Whereas a few months ago, he would have been, at this very moment during the day, handing out reams of paper to a roomful of serious-looking bigwigs in business suits, he is now using a different thickness of paper to improve the general appearance and presentation of a roomful of serious-looking smallwigs in birthday suits. His relative decline in his status in the world is a constant source of frustration, despite knowing that at this moment, in the world of the two little beings in the beds before him, he is a reigning monarch.
It has often been said, when your children are sick, that you wish you could take on their illness so they could be well. This is really true, especially for a dad who, given the choice of administering or receiving nursing care, would rather be the one in the bed. At least from that vantage point, he could get to see the hockey game on TV.
No Pain, No Gain
There is a lot to be gained by a dad who stays at home to look after his young children.
A lot to be gained.
A man who was once able to show some semblance of restraint around food, after a few months enclosed in his shack with his kids, can now most often be seen face down in a pail of peanut butter. On learning of his new employment as full-time child caregiver, friends and acquaintances remark, “Well, you’ve got your hands full now.” And they’re right. You have ice cream cones in one hand, doughnuts in the other and a jumbo bag of potato chips between your knees. If these items can best be described, in your situation, as comfort foods, then you must be one comfortable guy.
It starts off innocently enough, with cleaning up the leftovers from your children’s plates at meal times. With you preparing those meals, there are usually lots of leftovers. Why throw out perfectly good food? It then progresses, or digresses, to you eating the stuff they purposely, or otherwise, heave to the floor from the table. Why throw out perfectly good, if a bit dirty, food? The next stage is you eating the food out of the pots as you scoop it onto their plates. (They won’t eat it all anyway.) And before too long, you are organizing field trips to coffee shops, ice cream stores, and restaurants, to help put in the hours between mealtimes.
“Who wants to go the store for chocolate bars?” you ask the household after lunch.
“We do!” comes the enthusiastic reply from your two youngsters who, at times such as these, realize they have the best dad in the world. You get to thinking that too. Mom would have made them eat an apple or an orange for dessert. But Mom has no imagination. No love of life. No sense of adventure.
No forty-pound gut.
Young children, it seems, are like young birds. You’ve got to be dropping something into their beaks every fifteen minutes. But the very act of doing this gets your hunger glands or genes or whatever working too and soon you are just another little birdie waiting in line for your worm. This analogy explains a lot although in nature, you rarely see a father bird who has to let his belt out two notches after a month of feedings.
There comes into the house, with young children, a veritable candy store of goodies, which will be strategically used by Mom to decorate cakes, to soothe wounded sensibilities and scraped knees, to encourage performance enhancement and to reward various accomplishments, many having to do with peeing. Though long past needing encouragement to pee, Dad soon starts to pilfer these items as a squirrel might cart away shiny things he finds on the ground. At first he feels guilty taking his daughter’s last lollipop but he soon adopts an every man for himself stance. The fact that the other two competitors in this match aren’t big enough to reach Mom’s stash in the kitchen cupboard, doesn’t faze him. Candy addicts can’t afford to have consciences.
The children, of course, ever aware of the things in their environment worth taking note of, soon catch on to a stealthy dad rummaging around in the cupboard. They hear candy wrappers crinkling and they come a-runnin’.
“What have you got in your mouth, Daddy?” they demand to know.
“Nothing,” you reply innocently, jelly beans puffing out both of your cheeks in chipmunk-like fashion. You eventually learn to take the candy out to the cold garage to unwrap it while they’re watching TV so you won’t be discovered. But while you might have tricked your small-fry, you’ll rarely get by the Inventory Control Officer when she returns from work and, unfooled by how the remaining candy is spread out more in the cupboard to try to disguise the missing bits, demands to know: “Did you eat those two candy canes? Santa Claus brought them! I can’t believe you ate them.”
“Well, if Santa Claus is going to leave his gifts lying around the house like that, I can’t be held responsible,” you timidly offer.
A stay-at-home dad is equally as hard on other goodies that enter his house, especially on frozen pop thingies on sticks, which he practically inhales. He also demolishes those little boxes of sweet cereal, bought, like the candy, as an integral part of her Youth Incentive Program by Mom. Likewise in Dad’s line of fire are pudding cups, granola bars, graham wafers, popcorn and cheese sticks.
But a stay-at-home dad’s biggest weakness, and his ultimate downfall, are those little round discs that sit in the big ceramic jar with ducks and teddy bears emblazoned on it. Dad is the original cookie monster and can singlehandedly lay waste to a complete store-bought bagful during one revolution of the clock. Though he becomes incredibly adept at lifting the top off the jar without making much noise, it almost always gives a little “terk” and he is then confronted by two little kids with sorrowful eyes, full of disappointment and dismay: “Dad. Do you have a cookie in your mouth?” Denials in the form of much head-shaking and hand-waving abound; verbal communication is out of the question because of the oversized cookie in your mouth.
Soon, you begin to receive the wages of your sins in the form of an ever-burgeoning midsection and this does not go unnoticed by the two little kids who, in a roundabout way, were responsible for putting it there. They begin to comment on it, in typical delicate and diplomatic terms.
“Our Daddy has a fat tummy,” says the boy at the dinner table, with guests attending.
“Ya,” agrees the girl. “He eats too many cookies.”
A man never needs a lot of excuses to eat too many cookies.
Looking after children, full-time, is a good one.
Scene from the Bathtub
Mom insists that her babies be kept clean even during the hours when she is not there to make such an unrealistic standard come true. So it naturally falls to Dad to try to present her with two, brightly polished youngsters when she returns from her job. But, she may as well insist the law of gravity be suspended during her time away from her home for all the likelihood that her husband will be able to keep all manner of “dirt” from attaching itself to her offspring. Or, when it does, that he will be able to do very much about getting it scrubbed off before his mate returns from work.
It is not that you are blithely dismissive of the need your children have of personal hygiene. Nor are you maniacally macho, and think soap is for sissies. It is just that cleaning your children several times a day seems to you to be about as productive as shovelling your sidewalk during a snowstorm; it’s discouraging to look behind you and see the path you just cleared filling in again. So, why not put off the job until the flakes stop falling and the wind stops blowing? In other words, save it all for the bathtub at the end of the day. Along the way, when they are beginning to look as if they spent a few hours playing tag in a coal mine, you might flutter a moist cloth in the direction of their faces a time or two but you worry that following them around with scrub buckets and mops and a host of cleaners will just have the effect of making them obsessive about cleanliness and afraid to even get out of their beds in the morning in the event they attract some dirt. Sometimes, even for adults, fun and grime are inseparable companions.
But all philosophy aside, the main reason you cannot be persuaded to spend a lot of time during the day keeping your young children hosed down is not too romantic: it’s simply too much work to hustle them in and out of bathrooms all day long and too frustrating once you get them in there. A public washroom, especially, for a dad with two children under four years of age, is quite literally a nightmare. With most of these facilities, it is a trick to get the kids out of the place cleaner than when they went in. There is the well-used toilet to inspect and touch and a grimy garbage can to stick their hands down in. There is a soap dispenser to pump great gobs of pink stuff out of and onto the floor when Dad’s looking elsewhere and a hot water tap to turn on full blast to burn fresh young skin while Dad is helping someone unbutton or unzip. This is not to even talk about the wonders of the paper towel dispenser or the automatic hand dryer on the wall that everyone has to get a chance to use, though their hands don’t reach high enough to trigger the on/off sensor. And all this, while some impatient customer stands outside, banging on the door, while you are trying to reclothe two half-naked toddlers who are fighting over whose turn it is to flush the toilet. Most of this time, to top it off, you are working in complete darkness, a state brought about repeatedly by your daughter’s fascination with light switches.
A dad might seem halfway human as he’s hustling his youngsters into a public washroom. But he will appear alarmingly deranged, even somewhat psychotic, when he emerges from that small room of doom with his brood in tow, just a few minutes later. Other customers and staff stand amazed at the transformation as they watch the shell-shocked father and his vibrating youngsters exit the building, not usually with the same degree of grace with which they entered it.
The experience in the bathrooms at home, though minus the agony of being played out in public, contains stresses of its own. There are lots of shiny surfaces to slip on, lots of edges to bang chins on on the way down from a stool, lots of toilet paper to rip apart, piece by piece, and lots of soap to spread around on mirrors, clothes and Dad.
So, while cleanliness is an intriguing concept, and highly recommended for someone about to undergo a four-hour operation in a hospital, it is a goal out of reach for the average stay-at-home dad who eventually discovers his children are usually pretty comfortable enduring long periods when they and their clothes have more soil on them than a Texas cattle ranch. And while Mom might be thinking of their future health and welfare as she issues her “don’t forget to” reminders, Dad doesn’t like to think about the future much any more. He just wants to get by the next five minutes without having to yell, “Okay, you guys. Now I’m really mad!”
So, with hugs all around, Mom says goodbye every morning to a couple of cherub-like members of a children’s church choir and recoils in horror at the same front door eight hours later when a couple of street urchins from a Dickens’ novel race to jump into her arms. She spends a few minutes interrogating dad as to the origins of some of the stains she can’t identify and then for his punishment, sentences him to giving them a bath after supper. He would have preferred an evening in solitary confinement but now sees no way out of the predicament short of going over the wall or tunnelling under the building.
Bathing young children, two at a time in a tub, is supposed to be an enjoyable, fun-filled time that bonds a dad to his offspring. While it is all that, and even more than that, it can also be a period of the utmost trauma for the worn-out pop who just wants to go to bed and hide under the covers till morning. From their earliest days, children love their baths, but that doesn’t mean they like being cleaned. For the bathtub, to them, is just a playground with warm water and as they don’t expect to be scrubbed down during a visit to their local park during the day, they don’t always appreciate the same experience while cavorting in their watery playland at night. A dad leaning over the side of a bathtub, trying to administer soaps and shampoos to the two reluctant bathers within, and not allowed to say bad words while he’s doing it, is a veritable portrait of lost hope. Fending off blows from two sets of hands, feet, knees and elbows and the occasional plastic boat or snorkel, dad dabs a bit of soap on here, a splotch of shampoo there. He hopes, by smearing this stuff around for a while – he can’t actually see much as the lenses in his glasses have been coated by bubbles, soap and bathwater – that enough body parts will be sufficiently improved as to pass inspection by the guard waiting by the door. Along the way, there are lots of tears as the shampoos that promise “no more tears” produce more of them than the ones that don’t and lots of screams as the rinse water is a. too cold; b. too hot; c. too wet.
Inevitably, after removing the bathmates and drying them off as they shiver at your feet, shrieking “I’m cohohohohold!”, you submit to the queries of the Chief Inspector waiting in the hall and admit that neither soap nor washcloth was ever actually in contact with at least five of the fourteen body parts on the list of scrubbable items. You throw your catch back and hope to be able to reel them in again.
When they finally squeak into their pyjamas and are curled up into their beds, about to nod off, and as the dim light brushes across their porcelain-like faces, you suddenly appreciate the value in sending them to their nightly rest as fresh as daisies. You, on the other hand, feel like a daisy that’s just been run over by the wheel of a lawn tractor in the fall.
If only, like that flower, you could sleep until spring.
Off To The Library
The local library is a wonderful place for young and old alike, especially for the young who are in the care of a dad in desperate search of an hour’s distraction. Where Mom might see the row upon row of children’s books, puzzles, games and videos as opportunities for education of her flock, Dad sees the same material as providing him with a chance for a rest. And a rest without guilt, as his young ones absorb themselves in all the colourful stimuli around them. They do a lot of learning; you do a lot of leaning – up against a wall, or a bookshelf.
The library is ornate, quiet and pristine, like a church. And as people do in a church, there are certain unspoken codes of behaviour library patrons willingly observe. Users of the facility are subdued and respectful, walking softly and speaking in hushed tones. While loud and rude breaks with these codes are tolerated, especially when they are coming from children, they are not encouraged. After a few initial outbursts of enthusiasm during their early trips to the place, your kids soon learn to control themselves – to the extent that their young ages will allow.
So, you show up on the children’s floor of Andrew Carnegie’s gift to your community one Friday morning in your usual state of advanced panic. Nothing extraordinary has driven you to this point; it comes as just the natural wearing down of the male nervous system that occurs during efforts to hustle two children under the age of four out the door and into the car.
“Where’s your other shoe? No, not that shoe. That shoe. No, not on that foot. The other foot. Where’s your sister’s shoes? Where’s your sister? Come over here, daughter. Where are your shoes? Where’s your brother? Okay, sit down. Yes, I’ll help you put your shoes on. But sit down. Quit bouncing. Hey, what was that for? Quit smacking your sister! It’s okay daughter. I know, I know. It hurts. Son, I want you to think about what you just did. Put your coat on. No, not that coat. Your spring coat. Why do you want to wear your winter coat? Okay, put it on. Where’s your sister’s coat? Where’s your sister? Get over here, girl! No, we’re not taking the doll buggy with us. Why? Cause we’re just not. Stop asking why all the time. No, we are not taking the hockey net. Just put on this cap. Why not this cap? What’s wrong with it? Well, I don’t know where the other cap is. I think it’s lost. Stop crying. We’ll find it. Now what are you crying about daughter? I told you we can’t take the baby buggy. Okay, we’ll take it. Bring it here. No son, that doesn’t mean we can take the hockey net. Well I know I told your sister we could take the buggy but we can’t take the net. We don’t have room. What do you mean why don’t we have room? Didn’t I tell you to stop asking why? Oh, okay, that was your sister I told. Well, now I’m telling you, too. What do you mean why do you have to stop asking why? Okay, ask why all you like but I am not answering any more why questions this morning. Why? I’m not going to answer that. Ouch! Don’t hit me there. That wasn’t very nice. Okay, what if we took your biggest fire engine, instead of the hockey net? Daughter, you can’t wear that. Not answering why. Get over here. No, don’t turn on the TV!”
This is only a portion of the exchange that takes place on the doorstep as you try to get them from front closet door to front car door. A small portion. The trip is further delayed as you dismantle the hockey net to fit in the trunk. The big fire engine and baby buggy will have to ride up front.
A stress-filled half hour at the coffee shop follow where copious amounts of bran muffin and apple juice are consumed by all. Note to self: future refreshments to follow library visits, not precede them.
Dishevelled, disorganized and disheartened, you burst onto the scene at the library, straight from the coffee shop chaos. The kids race off to see the occupants of the fish tank. Much pushing and shoving ensue as there is only one stool provided for fish gazers.
“Stop running!” you yell. “Hey! No pushing! No shoving!” Your family’s presence in the building has been duly noted by all concerned. In a minute, they will have reason to take notice of you and your group for another reason. As you whiff the air, you suddenly become aware of the other reason. People bolt for the door, suddenly losing their interest in learning. Others bury their noses even deeper in their books.
You line up your troops for inspection. The girl’s expression of concern and her stilted way of walking give her away. Then you remember, that, in the turmoil of packing the car with everything you didn’t need for this trip, you neglected to outfit the expedition with a few of the items you did need. Provisions such as diapers, for example. So, you send your boy off to read books while you hustle your girl into the washroom and stretch her out on the change table. Quickly unfurling her garments, you gasp in dismay as a big, brown baseball rolls out and scurries along the table, threatening to bounce – or splat – onto the floor. Instinctively, the good short stop that you are, you make a barehanded grab for the orb. Now, you are in crisis. With one hand full of daughter and the other full of, well, just full, you have to figure out how to get to the garbage can and then to the sink without letting your girl roll off the table. You stretch your body, like a snake, to twice its normal length and somehow accomplish the impossible. But, back at the scene of the crime, though now cleaned up, you are still equipped with no diaper. You make a quick decision – not a good one, but a speedy one – to forget about the parachute and head, intrepid one that you are, for the door, where you hurl yourself headlong out of the plane.
Catching back up with your boy, who by now might have left the building and caught a bus for Chicago, you plead your case for a hasty exit. You explain how dire your situation has become and why, in the absence of certain means of protection, disaster is looming. Your entreaties fall on deaf ears.
“But Daddy, I want to read these books. And I want to play with those puzzles. And I still have to pick out some videos.”
You see, try to explain how stressful child rearing can be in this day and age to people who have not experienced it, and they will cast you disapproving glances. In another time, a dad might have simply hauled butt, no matter the consequences, and no matter the reaction of onlookers. But you want to be a “good” dad, so you try to just go along.
“Okay, five more minutes,” you say. But five becomes fifteen, which turns into twenty.
Finally, you and your crew are assembled at the desk, getting your seven videos and twelve books checked out. It is a race against time and you want to grab the materials from the chatty woman serving you and do it yourself. But you hang on. Then, turning back to your kids, your foot slips. You almost fall.
“What the . . .?” you enquire. Your answer is in the sad eyes of your motionless girl, standing looking at you in sincere sorrow. Her apple juice of a half hour ago has made a reappearance. You look down and see that you and your brood are standing in a shallow, but ever-widening lake.
“Oh my gawsh!” you exclaim. “Oh my gawsh! Ohohoh myhy gawhawsh!!!!”
Library staff are a patient and helpful crew. Expressions of non-concern abound. Scrub mop and pail are produced. Efforts at clean-up begin. And they would proceed without delay except that you still have not left the pond, and are standing there in your ever-absorbing shoes, repeating, “Oh my gawsh! Oh my gawsh! Ohohoh myhy gawhawsh!!!!.”
Finally, after being sternly ordered by a librarian to move away from the accident site, you and your family begin your graceful exit from Andrew Carnegie’s place of learning, tromping your many moist footsteps across the carpets and up the stairs to the exit. Maintaining dignity during such a retreat is a difficult endeavour.
The ride home is quiet.
Not one why question is asked.
Children were the first rechargeable batteries. But unlike batteries, which tend to lose their power slowly, kids actually seem to increase their energy output just before they burn out, much in the way stars will shine brightest just before their end. At first, a stay-at-home dad misses this cue that his brood are in need of a stint in their rechargers, and instead, arranges for a ball game in the back yard to make use of all this momentum. Only when the children take to weakly swinging the bat while lying face down on the grass does he catch on that they are in need of something other than a high-level workout.
But the same kids who are comatose as they are being carried back into the house, revive somehow when they enter the atmosphere of their bedroom and invariably declare, “I don’t need a nap, Daddy!” Their entire body is totally limp, both eyes are glued shut and if their breathing was any slower, you’d be calling the coroner, but they resist the one thing that will save them, as if to concede to a midday sleep is to repudiate their whole life’s work.
Eventually, however, they come to accept their impending two-hour incarceration in their room, but to save face, bargain as hard as they can to delay their inevitable destiny. So, various rituals must be adhered to before they’ll submit to being stretched out in their beds and this is when Dad realizes he is dealing with two of the most ritualistic people on the planet.
“I wan a dink of wadda,” says the girl.
You make the first of many trips back out of the bedroom to various other parts of the house in search of a variety of provisions.
“Dat’s not de wight cuhhup!” says the girl, in a wounded, offended tone. “I need de wed cuhhup.”
Back to the kitchen for the red cup, the whereabouts of which is unknown but which can be guessed to be lying under the front seat of Mom’s car which is parked two miles away at her place of employment. Several other colours of cups are presented as alternatives, and all are rejected.
“I neeheed myhy wehhed cuhhup!” sobs the girl.
Her brother offers his yellow, non-wed cup.
“Tank yoohoo!!” his sisters sings, and sips so little water from it that it evaporates before reaching her tongue. Evidently, the identity of the person offering the cup is more important than the colour of the water-filled vessel.
Before moving either child in the direction of their beds, you now embark on what is, in effect, a total half-hour theatrical review, complete with readings of poetry and prose, singing, storytelling and dancing. If the room could accommodate a high wire, no doubt you’d be dressed in tights, riding a unicycle across that. You do everything but juggle bowling pins in your effort to nudge them towards the sleep which, in reality, they are already engaged in, though they are awake enough to call weakly for encores.
During this daily production, you learn more than you want to know about the sanctity of routine, pecking orders and standards of justice, all things that have been established over many months by Mom. You learn these lessons by trial and error, mostly by error. The first day, you sit in the comfy chair to read their naptime books with a child on either side of you, but of course, on the wrong sides. Amidst much protest, you rearrange the seating plans to find out one of the patrons suddenly has decided to lay claim to the seat now occupied by another.
“I wahant to sit dere!” says the boy. “She always gets to sit dere!”
Calming this storm takes the skills of a Nobel Prize-winning, career diplomat, which you are not. Much wriggling and squiggling and jiggling of bodies later, and some sort of holding pattern has been achieved, but at a high cost to everyone’s serenity. However, now there is the choice of books and the order in which they will be read to be decided. You mediate, not well, but you do it, through these troubled relations between your exhausted tykes.
The potential trouble spots, however, can never be predicted.
“Daddy, he’s looking at me,” says your girl. “Tell him to stop looking at me!”
“Stop looking at your sister!” you dutifully order. However, this results in an instant trial to determine the facts of the case.
“I wasn’t looking at her,” responds the boy, who had been, just then, staring at her with laser-like vision, of course. This statement sets off a quick and ugly exchange between the defence and prosecution that can only be settled by the loud intervention of the judge who announces sternly that both persons risk being indicted for contempt of court if they do not desist. Their punishment, they are told, will be bed without any books. This results in a ceasefire.
But there are other issues to be resolved and at times, the two protagonists, in the play just ended, team up on the same side to go after you.
“I can’t see, I can’t see,” they yell, because your thumb is partially covering up the rear end of the cow that is jumping over the moon. In the end, no matter how hard you try and how dramatically you read, your performance is invariably compared to the parent who is presently absent.
“Mommy does it a lot better, Daddy!” they say.
Reviews such as these usually have the effect of ending the production altogether as the sensitive performer announces he is leaving the stage right now! He bundles each of his practically lifeless charges into their beds and covers them up, heading for the door and his well-deserved break. The door not yet closed, however, he hears a soft whimpering. Re-entering the room, he sees his girl in mourning.
“Daddy, you dindint sing me my sleepy song,” she accuses. So, you kneel down, whisper the sleepy song verses in her ear as to not wake her now-slumbering brother and head for the door. Another whimper. Her blankey is missing.
Racing from the room like a wild man now, you search every square inch of your property for the three-foot-square, tattered section of cloth that is more sacred than the Shroud of Turin and at the moment, as elusive. Thinking like your child, you try to imagine where it might be. You fail and return to the room to announce the bad news, where you discover a corner of the missing item peaking out from beneath your child who has been lying on it all along. You retrieve it, cover her up, kiss her cheek and head for the door.
“Daddy, I need some mo wadda.”
Sensing the precariousness of her position with her father, whose eyes have grown glazed and piercing and slightly demonic, she doesn’t even ask for the wed cuhhup.
You close the door behind you and collapse into your easy chair where you will witness an unwelcome natural phenomenon: two hours of time speeding by in two minutes.
Still, you’ll take it.
Justice Delayed, Justice Denied
When it comes to justice, no one knows better than you that there is not enough of it in the world. Especially in your world. This is brought home to you with chilling clarity at 10 p.m. on a Monday night during a snowstorm when you are struggling to hustle the family’s diaper-laden garbage cans out to the curb for pick up while your wife sits warmly in her easy chair, munching on popcorn and watching her favourite mystery on TV. Why are all the household jobs that require getting snowed on, rained on, wind-whipped and sunburned left up to you, you understandably wonder. However, sensitive to issues of fairness though you may be, you are also fearful of any list of grievances that may be produced by the other side were you ever to raise your voice in complaint, so you remain stoically silent.
Your children, on the other hand, never do. And like you, they have been blessed with a keen sense of what it means to be treated unfairly. They can spot an injustice a mile away. And they are never loathe to point it out. The problem is, though you share with your offspring this love of equity and rightness in all affairs, your ideas of what constitutes proper outcomes in the daily interaction of humans with other humans differs remarkably at times with their notions. Put simply, what the heck are they thinking?
For example, the highest good that children can aspire to, in their minds, is to always be “first.” This issue does not come up too often in families with only one child, but a stay-at-home dad with two kids under four will struggle with this weighty problem twenty times a day – or an hour. And of all the no-win situations he will face in his new job as caregiver, this is the thorniest. How do you make sure, when you are dealing with two children, that no one ever comes second? The answer is simple: you don’t. The best you can do is to make the ever-breakable promise that the one who was second this time, shall soon be first. Unless, of course, the same one who was first this time, gets there first next time, too.
In the lineup of childhood expressions a dad learns to dread the most, the command “my turn!” is a first cousin to “me first!” In this situation, all ideas of first and second are tossed aside for the moment; all that matters is that both parties believe that, for reasons that seem so clear to them if to no one else, the next horsey ride on dad’s back belongs to them, despite the fact, perhaps, that they just enjoyed the last two rides.
And as the chief arbiter of domestic disputes occurring on your premises between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., you must somehow get used to the bizarre discovery that your children regularly and naturally, it seems, totally deny reality even the face of incontrovertible evidence.
“You’ve already had a turn,” you say.
“No I haven’t,” the boy who just then dismounted from your back assures.
“I already gave you a cookie,” protests the dad.
“No you dindint,” replies the girl, traces of chocolate still staining her lips and crumbs perching precariously on her chin.
How does a man dispense justice in such a perverse society, the members of which will almost never agree on the facts in a case? Or if they will accept that certain outcomes did actually occur, will always assign the best of motives to themselves and the worst to their opponents. (Much as adults, of course, do on a regular basis.).
“Yes I took the truck away from her,” admits your boy. “But I did it because I didn’t want her to fall on it and hurt herself.”
“Did you smack your brother in the head with your shoe?” queries district attorney dad.
“Yayus but I was just brussing his hayor,” comes the reply from your girl.
Having no prior experience in law enforcement, the stay-at-home dad is ill equipped to deal with people who can deny outright the existence of evidence while they are standing there holding it.
“Did you take my hammer?” you enquire.
“No,” responds the boy, as he stands there holding your hammer.
“What’s that in your hand then?” you persist.
Looking down, seemingly in surprise at what he finds himself holding, the boy will make a slight and immediate adjustment to the facts of the case.
“This is my hammuh, Dad,” he insists. “Would you like to borrow it?”
But if a dad’s biggest peacekeeping tasks involved breaking up near strangulations and eye gouging, frequent property thefts and continuous pecking order disputes amongst the young offenders assigned to his care, he might be expected to survive in time. What you are totally unprepared to experience are those daily periods during which one or both of your charges identify you as the one contributing the most to the imbalance in the just society you are supposedly living in. When their sense of justice collides starkly with yours, hurt feelings, mostly yours, abound.
Many times a day, your children will announce, often in the company of others, that you have let them down grievously. This usually comes as an unwelcome shock to you because you are rarely advised of the rules of engagement before the expedition begins. Like a man alive and present when Moses brought down the Ten Commandments, you are daily tempted to say, “Oh, now you tell me!”
You are supposed to anticipate what infractions a dad might make, but you rarely can. Therefore, in a rush to get out to an appointment, you flush the toilet after a pit stop by your daughter. You next see her thrashing about on the front hall floor, screaming in baleful sorrow, “I wanted to flush my pee! I wanted to fluh-hush my peehee!” It seems you are constantly zipping up jackets you weren’t supposed to zip, buckling car seats you weren’t supposed to buckle and tying shoes you were not supposed to tie. How you became such an insensitive lout, it is not known, but you are chagrined to find out that the rules you broke an hour ago, have suddenly changed and you are now being charged with not doing, what you were indicted for doing, so recently ago.
“Daddy you didn’t buckle me in,” says the wounded accuser. “You never buckle me in.” Sixty minutes before, the same boy pilloried pop for having the nerve to try to buckle him in.
So, you alternate in your roles as chief justice (and not a very good one, at that) and prime villain (a role you play to perfection) and all this tipping of the scales of justice begins to weigh you down. Adding to your woes is the fact that you are in continuous competition with the last person to hold this job.
“Mommy always lets us do that,” you hear many times a day. “Yayus! Momma never flushes our pee!”
Mom is about as near to perfect as a person can be, you learn, and by contrast, you’re pretty much a dud. Even though, as judge and jury combined, she’s about as tough an administrator of justice as you are ever likely to have the misfortune to face. Somehow, she seems always able to sort things out without anyone having to threaten to leave home.
Maybe it’s all those quiet evenings in front of the TV while her freezing husband drags sharp-edged cans full of loaded diapers out to the street that contributes to her even temperament.
Somehow, it just doesn’t seem fair.
Worst Foot Forward
A dad assigned to stay home with his children during normal working hours, Monday to Friday, finds some things from his former life almost impossible to hang onto, in his new. Things such as personal hygiene, for example. And wardrobe. These fundamental aspects of everyone’s modern existence get lost in the shuffle for reasons that seem simple and complicated at the same time.
The complicated part involves the fact that, as a full-time provider of care for two children under four years of age, every stage of personal care which dad used to accomplish, mostly in solitude, has now become a public event. This occurs because, for a time, the bathroom is the most interesting room in the house. The sight of a man’s face covered in shaving cream, to a toddler, is just about the most fascinating spectacle that could be. An electric moustache trimmer at work is a Wonder of the World. A day at the circus could not be more entertaining than watching Dad floss his teeth.
The words, “Me do! Me do!” bounce off the bathroom walls every morning as your children compete to see who might get to squish the shaving cream out of the can, or hold the back of the buzzing trimmer to their face. And teeth brushing, once a solitary exercise, is now a community project.
Before you can brush your own teeth, you must yield to public pressure and produce brushes for both children, who situate themselves precariously on stools on either side of the bathroom sink, complaining bitterly about the small dollop of adult toothpaste you dare to lay on their bristles. You all start brushing and soon, begin attempting to spit the contents of your mouths into the sink. Children learning to spit are apt to go off like runaway garden hoses and soon mirror, vanity top and the back of dad’s hands are covered in the residue from their first efforts at expectorating. Within a short time, when they’ve mastered the art, they soon discover how much fun it can be to spit at each other. This is a trial for Dad who, face lowered to the sink, often receives these watery missiles in his ears. Much shouting and mayhem ensues.
Mouthwash, part of another daily ritual for dad, becomes sweet nectar for his kids, despite the warning labels on the bottle advising it not be given to children. But repeated entreaties for some of the “greeny, green stuff” results in both children being given a small portion which they are instructed to spit into the sink. A brief training program is carried out first, with water.
All going well, the mouthwash is proferred and immediately swallowed by both recipients. Now, you are convinced you have just poisoned both your children and rush to the phone in a panic to call Mom. Hearing about the amounts they ingested, she assures the kids are not on death’s door. But something that once seemed so simple – cleansing one’s mouth – has somehow become a near-death experience for a dad who has visions of himself behind bars for serving up poison to his brood.
Similar scary experiences occur during the morning drill, some revolving around dad’s shaving with an old-fashioned “safety” razor with blade. In response to the chanting of “me do”, he has to gingerly take out the blade and find a place for it, so that his bathroommates can run the neutralized device over his face and theirs. What used to take five minutes, takes twenty. A half hour has elapsed and the man has not even gotten near his shower stall, which, he decides, may as well be located in the next county for all the good it’s doing him. But eventually, he makes it there for a quick hose down.
The shower, for a stay-at-home dad without the sense to climb into it a half hour before his children climb out of their beds in the morning, is a place of terror when used after the kids arise. If he tries to shower while they are in the bathroom, with instructions to behave for two minutes, he will freeze as they keep opening the doors to check on his progress, or be scalded as they send him a little surprise by flushing the toilet. If all does happen to go quiet in the room, then he’s compelled to look out to see whether they are ripping toilet paper into a thousand pieces, putting the plunger over their faces or peeing on the electronic weigh scales.
Various formulae are tried. One involves leaving the children upstairs watching TV while you basically run by the shower, hoping to get wet. This is an even scarier experience. As you’re standing under the water, not able to hear very well, you imagine you hear the piano falling over upstairs, or guns going off or flames tearing through the kitchen. Even a stranger at the front door, abducting your crew.
You soon realize, you are left with few options. Getting up at 4 a.m. to complete your morning routine before they arise is not one of them. The only other one, is to include them in the morning ritual.
Now, you will see simple terror elevated to beyond Alfred Hitchcock levels. To share a shower stall with two young children not much taller than your knees is to experience the fright of a ship captain whose vessel has just been boarded by pirates. He’s not sure who will be thrown overboard first but he’s pretty certain the sailing, from here on, won’t be smooth.
There is so much to dread: children slipping on soap, falling on head; dad slipping on soap, falling on children; children turning water tap to “hot”, removing whole sheets of skin in the process; children holding shower head up to each other’s heads, blowing out eardrums and eyeballs.
But, the experience survived, the next adventure is to try to catch the two little bodies which are now streaking through the house, dripping water everywhere and shaking with the chill.
It soon becomes apparent that, until his children are grown up, Dad will have to forgo the luxury of cleanliness. He can’t shave, shower or brush his teeth without near nervous collapse. He may as well hope the people around him can get used to seeing him look and smell like the eccentric farmer who moved into his barn after the house burned down.
Along with the loss of his ability to clean himself, Dad will soon abandon most attempts to dress in anything but the shabbiest of clothing. For one thing, dressing in the morning is only a little bit less unnerving than the bathroom ritual. With his bed an instant trampoline, the bouncing of which spreads his laid-out clothes all over the floor, and with his kids then hiking off down the hall with his socks and underwear, bound for hiding spots unknown, he soon learns to walk the house in pyjamas until the right moment – while they are occupied eating breakfast, for example – when he can dash into his bedroom and throw on something. What he tosses on will not match, nor fit nor even be clean. If it is clean, it won’t be for long. No guarantees there won’t be holes in some of the apparel. But it will have to do. The sound of an overturned cereal bowl hitting the kitchen floor is resounding in your ears.
So, there you sit with your grimy body, in your grimy clothes, staring into the grimy faces of your puzzled offspring who wonder, “Are you happy, Daddy?”
How do you tell them happy doesn’t enter into it? Is a man stranded on an island after his ship goes down happy? All he dreams about are the comforts of home that he misses. Comforts such as his shower and his closet full of clean clothes. Things that you, though you are within reach of them, miss too.
You can only hope, like the shipwreck survivor, that you also are rescued someday.
All Tuckered Out
A man, when he reaches middle age, is no stranger to exhaustion. He remembers the twelve-hour days in the fields during harvest time on the farm when he was a boy and how he dragged himself upstairs to bed at night. He recalls standing at that ear-shattering machine in the factory later on and how he could barely haul himself to his car after his ten-hour shift. He thinks back to the times he lacked the energy to eat supper after working as a house painter from sunup to sundown. And how, after a day on bridge construction, he had to be practically carried into his house at night.
But after a year at home with his kids, this same man is ready to admit that all those experiences in the work-a-day world were mere Sunday picnics in the park. True weariness, he believes now, is something he had never even come close to knowing through all his past endeavours. They seem like child’s play to him now.
What is not child’s play, he realizes, is being involved in true child’s play all day long. To keep two children under the age of four alive, dry, fed, clothed, unpoisoned, uninjured, educated, entertained, amused, loved, comforted, repaired, separated, disciplined, motivated, cajoled, rested, cleaned, watered, unsoiled and unspoiled for nine hours a day, five days a week, is to feel so bereft of energy by the end of the final day that you cannot even summon up the strength to complain about it. When Mom walks in the front door on Friday night and takes one look at you, your entire body is like a flashing billboard advertising physical and mental ruin at its most severe level. She needs no details. It is clear what has happened when she sees her two children bouncing around her knees as if freshly awakened after a twelve-hour nap. The spark that propels them from wall to wall and floor to ceiling upon Mom’s return to hearth and home is the very current that was coursing through their father’s body a scant few hours ago. He woke up this morning full of it; they rolled out of their beds with none. They then spent the next nine hours steadily absorbing his. If Mom had been one hour later returning home, they might have had it all, leaving Dad a lifeless form on the kitchen floor.
As it is, you have just enough left as your wife comes in the door, to point weakly to the coffee shop across the street, indicating that, it is your intention, if the Fates will allow, to walk through the front door of that establishment and have a coffee. That is, if you can walk, and having walked, if you can raise a cup to your lips. She nods her approval of your plan and gathers up her brood in her arms. She looks as if she’s seen a ghost.
You step out into the sunshine as if into a dream world, vaguely remembering something about life before you were cut low. You remember a day, not so long ago, when it seemed you ran everywhere you went. Now, you struggle down the front steps. There are three; they seem like three hundred. Across your lawn you begin to shuffle, unable to pick up your feet, not even to clear the three-inch blades of grass. You see the restaurant four hundred feet away. It might be in another county, it looks so distant.
Still, you persist, making it to the back of your property and starting past your neighbour’s yard when their guard dog, as is his usual habit, hurls himself against their wire fence, barking as if to eat you the first chance he can get. Where you normally, ever surprised by this ritual assault, bark back so ferociously the poor pup runs away in terror, you take it silently in stride today, not even turning your head to look at him.
Now, finally, you are at the street, and stand there in bewilderment as the traffic rockets past you down four lanes of legal speedway. Your coffee awaits on the other side of this suddenly suicidal alley. How, you wonder, as someone whose feet were hardly able to plow through three hundred feet of Tennessee bluegrass, are you going to be able to get them to pad across thirty feet of hot asphalt that is just now being pounded without mercy by hundreds of tons of rubber, steel and glass being guided by inattentive drivers yakking about last night’s TV shows on their cellphones. You have no choice but to try. Cars and trucks screech to a halt as you step down from the curb, amble to the centre of the street, then fall towards the parking lot on the other side. You have made it, though there is still some distance to go and the heavy front door of the restaurant to open. Once inside, you shuffle to your regular table, collapse into your chair and almost knock yourself out as your face falls on the table with a sickening thud. And there, with the indulgence of the restaurateur, your head remains for the next five minutes.
Hot coffee is your friend. You sip it slowly as if absorbing intravenous drips through a tube. You revive enough to sit more suitably in your chair and begin to look around.
“How’s the babysitting going there, Dad?” asks a neighbour, seated at another table.
You smile, slightly. An answer would require an expenditure of some of your slowly returning juices, so you pass. A downward thrust of your thumb is all you can manage in response. The message gets across.
To a male reader inclined to think the preceding description is ninety per cent malarkey, it might be suggested he try the child-care business for himself. If, after a year, he is still able to sprint across backyards at the end of a week with his kids like a wide receiver going out for a long pass, then he will have deserved a thumbs up from a father less well-endowed in the energy sector.
That is, assuming you have enough grit left at the end of the week to turn that southern-pointing thumb up.
You might have to go with just the smile.
The Big Spenders
The idea is, keeping Dad at home during the day while Mom’s at work will not only give the children the continued benefit of a parent in the house, but will save money that would have been spent on professional day care. Scads of money.
Now, this would normally work, as Dad is genetically predetermined to be somewhat of a skinflint and can instantly see the wisdom of not paying someone else to raise his children. But none of Dad’s male ancestors ever stayed home with their kids so his genes have been released to do their own thing. With Dad looking for ways to keep his brood from rioting during the nine hours a day that they are forced to exist in a mother-absent home, he soon stumbles onto his wallet as the bridge he can use to ride over the swirling waters of juvenile discontent. Money may not be able to buy happiness but it can purchase a lot of distraction and that is usually enough to get a stress-filled father from one hour to the next without have to experience a debilitating stroke.
In an alarmingly short time, money has gone from being the sole object to being no object. Dad and his young companions are like sailors on shore leave; they gaily amble from kids’ store to amusement centre, swashbuckling through town with little thought for the morrow. Ice-cream stores, toy stores, book stores, hardware stores – any place with a cash register – are on their regular route. They become known around town by grateful merchants who welcome their visits like luxury car dealers might greet an oil baron and his entourage.
In your bachelor days, you would drive around downtown for twenty minutes, looking for a parking meter that still had time left on it. Frugal measures such as those are long gone and now you don’t even care if your meter runs out and you pick up a parking ticket. Priorities change quickly for a dad thrust into the job of child-tending. Like a shipwrecked man on a deserted island has no further need of or use for his wallet, a dad alone at home with his kids knows he is now beyond the help of money. So, he spends it with abandon. He may not actually like seeing it fly away at such a speed, but he seems helpless to do anything but watch it go.
A dad in such a situation wonders at all those parents who fret about giving their children too much. What sort of world are they living in? Of course you give them too much. That’s your only hope. While they’re busy unwrapping and experimenting with their latest acquisitions, you get a chance to breathe in and out a few times, maybe even have a thought of your own. If they don’t have cool, new stuff around to play with, sooner or later, you’ll be called on to provide the fun, as either a human climbing gym, a pony or an actor in an elaborate play with twenty acts that begins early in the morning and doesn’t end till nightfall. The rest of your children’s day can often be described as just breaks between the scenes of this complicated presentation. You might be a “bad guy” one minute, trying to outrun the two little police officers in hot pursuit or a high-stepping chimney sweep dancing on a rooftop in Victorian-age London, England. Your children’s play is always an adventure-packed, high-energy production with the most active parts reserved for actor Dad. If a shiny new trinket from a store will buy you a few minutes’ rest in the wings, then it’s worth the effort to get it.
A central source of materials of distraction, and one that comes Mom-approved, is the library. In this place, a dad can walk out with bags full of ingenious little items that will buy you – at absolutely no charge – blocks of down time that can last up to a half hour at a stretch. Into the bags get tossed free books, videotapes and compact discs, enough, it seems, to start your own multi-media centre at home. How joyous you and your brood are as you leave the building with this week’s selections.
A problem arises, as it always does with such dad-discovered panaceas, of course, regarding the library’s expectation that these materials, having been on loan only, will be returned one day. But the return of these life-saving devices to their place of origin is not an outcome much deliberated on by Dad or his children. The items in question, therefore, upon entry into the house, begin to mix with the general prison population and soon become indistinguishable from them. Dad thinks about due dates as he does best-before dates; in other words, he doesn’t think about them at all. The last time he used a library regularly, the fines for overdue books was five cents per day per book. Videotapes, audiotapes and CDs didn’t even exist then. So, if he and his brood are a bit late getting things back, how bad can that be?
Libraries, of course, stealthily taking advantage of dad’s absence over the years, have brought in sassy new levels of fines with each amazing piece of technology introduced, and soon are on the trail of deadbeats such as you. Each week, when you head back to face the music, you bring back about half the items you departed with so recently. Who knows where the rest might be?
And before long, your weekly fines start to outpace those being levied by the local courthouse for offences ranging from drug dealing to vandalism. When one week, you fork over twelve dollars in fines, you begin to take notice. The eighteen-dollar tally another week seems a little excessive, but you grin and pay it. But the day the woman behind the counter smiles weakly and asks for thirty-five dollars as your punishment for not making the extra effort to fish out all the books from down behind the piano and all the videotapes from under the fridge and beneath the front seat of the car and return them on time, you somehow know you are entering a whole new strata of fine.
The librarian appears sheepish and apologetic as she takes your money. What she can’t know is, amounts are of no concern to you any more. It’s results you’re after. And if you were able to sit still for even twenty minutes as a result of the application of some of these materials in the home setting, then the loan of these things was a priceless gift, despite the cost.
Still, Mom isn’t happy to calculate the length of time she has to spend away from her children to earn enough money at her job to pay the fines on books and movies that are signed out to entertain those same children while their mother is away at work. Something about a vicious cycle. She tries to explain it to you while you’re on your hands and knees fishing out books from behind the piano.
It’s then you realize, when you were at the library, that you should have picked up a video for Mom to watch too. Because you already know all about vicious cycles. But you know if you had rented one for her, you would have returned it late, heard another lecture and paid a big fine.
And though you might have been able to pay this one, you’re not sure you could afford it.
The Answer Man
At first glance, the stay-at-home dad may not look like a walking, talking, fully interactive encyclopedia. But in that head that’s hiding somewhere under that unwashed hair and sweat-stained baseball cap is a veritable computer bank of important information, waiting for someone to log on and begin accessing the data in those jam-packed files.
As it turns out, there is no shortage of potential users of the system and they begin keying in their queries shortly after dawn every day. Standing beside your bed as he watches you still sleeping, your boy issues his first question of the morning.
“Daddy, why do you have hair in your ears?”
You’ve not yet come fully out of your coma and your mouth has already sprung into action.
“Well, son, when a man grows older . . .”
The truth, of course, is that you have no idea why, as you age, hair begins to pop out of places on your body that never had any before and leaves the areas that did, but you take a stab at providing an answer in any case, lest your boy’s hero worship ends or he grows up to be an ignoramus and sues you for withholding certain life facts from him.
“. . . his body temperature begins to drop and he needs something to keep him warm so God gives him his own set of earmuffs.”
Sooner or later, God works his way into almost every explanation. This has the advantage of inspiring respect for the Creator while handily explaining the unexplainable. And if anyone needs to take responsibility for ear hair, it’s God.
But, ever the eager answer man that you are, you are slow to realize that each response elicits another question and you’ve ignited a process that could go on for days.
“Daddy, what are earmuffs?”
Of course, in the process of detailing the origins and properties of earmuffs, you inadvertently set off a series of inquiries about a whole host of related and unrelated topics from frostbite to fashion sense. Before you know it, you feel as if you are falling down a well, scraping up against the sides as you descend and bouncing, now and then, off a big tree root. Five minutes ago, you were happily asleep but now, still reclining beneath your quilt, you are delivering a classroom science lecture on snow, where hair comes from and the meaning of the word muff.
Finally, hair sprouting from your ears, you bolt upright in bed and call a halt to the press conference, promising to take more questions at a later time.
And you will.
Lots of questions.
In fact, during the course of guiding his tiny flock of two through the next nine hours without Mom, a stay-at-home Dad will answer so many queries, his voice will grow hoarse as a result and he will grow weary from talking, and he will come to dread the why word. Some answers will come to him easily, to explain, for example, why people wear clothes or why firetrucks use loud sirens. But most questions will baffle him.
“Daddy, why do cats have tails?”
“Daddy, why are there bubbles in ginger ale?”
“Daddy, why does a clock tick tock?”
Providing plausible explanations for all these things, in fact, though you only possess minimal knowledge about any of them, might be the most exhausting aspect of your life as a stay-at-home dad. Cleaning up after diaper explosions can seem easy by comparison. How do you provide answers for your kids that fall somewhere in the same ballpark as reality without dampening their enthusiasm and in some cases, scaring the pants off them.
“Well, a cannibal is a person who eats other people,” you tell your son frankly at 3 p.m. At 3 a.m., Mom is busy herding all the cannibals out of his bedroom and thinking how she wouldn’t mind seeing Dad on the boil in a big, black cauldron about now.
“What did you tell the kids about vampires?” she asks you in an unfriendly tone one morning.
“Uh, I forget, exactly,” you reply weakly. “But I did tell them there aren’t any around here.”
Somehow, that’s the part of your answers they never seem to get, that the phenomenon you are describing happened five thousand miles away or fifty thousand years ago.
“Daddy, could a dinosaur fit in my closet?” you are asked, and while you shrug off the question, you are already anticipating the interrogation from Mom in the morning.
But it’s a delicate process. How to you explain what a “burguler” is without having your daughter spend the next three days worrying about one hiding under her bed? Only a bad dad, you decide, would tell them a lie or refuse to answer at all on the basis of their age, so you churn out the proper data as if you were the host of a game show.
This extreme honesty, however, can come back to haunt you when the questions have to do with sensitive subjects such as where babies come from and how they get inside Mommy’s tummy. The next thing you know, your perhaps-too-graphic description of the process is being retold the next evening at the table to your dinner guests who don’t know whether to smile or call the police.
More pothole-filled than the reproduction pathway, however, is the road to death and beyond. For a period, the end of life is a lot more fascinating than the beginning and you are called on often to provide answers to questions that philosophers, theologians and scientists are still struggling with. You get in line behind them all and take a kick at the subject too.
“Daddy, why are those men carrying that box?”
“Why is there someone in the box, Daddy?”
“Why did he die?”
“What will they do with the box?”
“Why do they put it in the ground?”
“Will the man stay in the ground, Daddy?”
“How will he get to Heaven?”
“Will he still look like he used to when he gets to Heaven?”
After a while, you wish you could go back to explaining why you have hair in your ears.
But, there is one saving grace. An attribute of children that will get you out of trouble every time, if you can wait for it. It’s called the short attention span. After fifteen straight questions about death, some of them that might be described as rather grisly, your boy looks at you, seemingly unaffected by all this, and asks, “Daddy, do you want to play fire trucks?”
As a matter of fact, you suddenly do want to play fire trucks.
Forever and ever.
Dressed For Such Stress
How best to describe the steady deterioration of the mental faculties of a middle-aged man who voluntarily stays home with his two young children?
Perhaps this story will do it.
Pre-children, you were borderline stable. You could hold things together pretty well providing you were not subjected to too much conflicting sensory stimulation. For you to function at your peak, things needed to be calm, ordered, uncluttered, unhurried. Under this prescription for sanity, there was no room for overload, such as having the doorbell and the telephone ring at the same time. A dripping tap was a crisis worthy of an emergency call to the plumber. “What do you mean you can’t come today?” you would protest. To call you a perfectionist would be to malign perfectionism; you have travelled many degrees past that. Perfectionism is for wimps.
Through your forty-five years, this was the pattern for successful living that had emerged for you: no surprises, no sudden movements, no sweat.
Enter two babies, twenty-two months apart, and circumstances that, within two years, would have you at home looking after them. Within a brief period, you are reduced to a state which can only be described as Chronic Ditherness Syndrome. You move in two directions at once. You never complete a task. You speak rapidly and in short bursts. You remember little beyond your name, rank and serial number. You come close to dissolving into tears when a waitress asks you whether you would like your sandwich made of white bread or brown? Who can make such a big decision on such short notice? Your house, on a good day, looks like the local landfill site, minus the barbed wire and the trucks backing in and out. The interior of your car, once so pristine, is now a potential community health hazard, strewn as it is with so many items, many of them organic. You wonder, as you fish under a seat for a favourite toy gone missing, whether or not your fingers will be bitten by something during your search.
So it is in this state that you prepare, on a rare day, to leave your home for a day, to attend to business in another town. Somewhere between the breakfast table and the front door, it occurs to you that you forgot to put on clean underwear. As a perfectionist, this matters to you. You wade back through the clamouring children at your feet to your bedroom to remedy the situation, practically falling on your head in the tangled mess of shoes and pant legs you create by your panic to get out of the house. Kisses, hugs, tears, promises, waves and goodbyes, and you make your getaway, your wife gamely holding down the fort.
At the first coffee shop you come to, you stop for a hurried, but welcome break, following which you visit the washroom to prepare for the car trip. It is while you are engaged in that process that you discover to your astonishment that an unusual bulk of cloth is covering the area between your hips and your knees. To be direct about it, you are swathed in two pair of underwear. In grocery store parlance, you have been double bagged. Like a superhero in a phone booth, you quickly strip and conceal the extra undergarment in your pants pocket. Back in the batmobile, you stash the excess set in the glove box and speed away.
This is reminiscent of the times, at earlier business engagements, when you reached in your pocket for paper and pens to produce instead, a toy mouse, on one occasion, a child’s sock, on another. But rolling down the highway in a vehicle a junkyard dog wouldn’t be caught dead in with extra underwear in your glove box is the best indication you have that life has cut you low.
Can a tale such as this end gracefully? Not likely. Though no one else who can speak in whole sentences has ridden with you in your car for many months, today is the day you need to give a ride to a former business colleague. That might make some sense, but why, before you dropped off your rider, you would need suddenly to rummage around in your glove box for something, does not. What does he think when your extra pair of underwear falls out and onto the floor at his feet? Does he conclude that you always carry a spare pair? Or that a friend borrowed them and just today returned them? That you have a sideline in underwear sales? Or, that they were simply too restrictive and you are now not wearing any?
Whatever his thoughts, he gets out of the car more quickly than he got into it. Runs to his front door with barely a look back. You drive away, your dignity, like your underwear, stuffed away out of sight.
But get used to it. More is to come. You will return personal home videos to the video store and keep the store’s movies. You will lock your keys in your car with the vehicle idling, your kids strapped in their seats in the back. And you will drive up to the first window at the fast-food restaurant and pay for your meal, then clip past the food window and back onto the highway, not bothering to pick up your purchase. The restaurant wonders how it can get more customers to do the same.
If you are to survive, you learn to give up your insistence on order, on peace. On wearing one pair of underwear at a time.
And you look on the bright side. Both pairs of underwear were yours, after all, and you at least, until now, have avoided the much more serious predicament of the man you know who hiked off to a business meeting wearing his wife’s underwear. Why he never caught on that the bra was a little too tight, you still don’t understand.
Someday, you are assured, things will settle down again. You suspect, however, that the days when you ran your home with hospital-ward efficiency are gone forever. Make friends with your chaos; you two are going to be seeing a lot of each other in the dramatic days that lie ahead.
The Atomic Arm
A father at home full-time with his kids begins to notice his body making profound physical changes designed to adapt to the new demands being placed on it. He develops astonishing upper body strength from carrying around his two toddlers in his arms, often both at the same time. Performing the role of rodeo horse gives him armour-like knees and a saddle-tough back. His previously weak abdominal wall is now as canvassy as the trampoline it has become.
But no change is as profound as the amazing strength and agility acquired through practice by a dad’s right arm. Attached to the driver of the family car which is putt-putting down the road, the arm of a father develops an ability to extend seemingly to almost twice its length as the hand attached to it combs the rear section of the car for various articles in demand by the two children there, safely strapped into their special car seats, and unable to retrieve these items for themselves. This atomic-like arm, not unlike similar instruments used in space exploration but much more adept, in time seems to also acquire an ability to think for itself and even the capacity to see.
With your eyes and mind still somehow focused on the job of guiding your two-ton vehicle safely down the highway, your right arm calmly goes to work in a variety of roles from waiter – delivering food and drink to the hungry masses – to clothier – replacing hats, unzipping coats, proferring sunglasses – to librarian – handing out reading materials, games – to recreation director – distributing toys and stuffed animals. The hand at the end of the arm gets to know all these items by touch, combing the floor in the back, picking up and discarding articles until the right ones are found. Often, these ever-useful body parts are performing this job amidst a clamour that would be the envy of a stormy protest rally. The arm learns it cannot afford to deliver the wrong bagel to the wrong child or to get the toys similarly mixed up. So it learns to do its job with stunning efficiency.
To the uninitiated observer who wonders why all these materials aren’t provided to the children while the car is still sitting in the driveway, it must be pointed out that even if such an organizational miracle had been performed before the car was started, all the items in question would have hit the floor anyway before the vehicle had even been backed onto the street.
To see a father drive down the road with one hand, while feeding, clothing and entertaining his back-seat brood with the other is to watch a Goya on the guitar or a Gretzky on the ice. On some level, his achievement is even greater than that of those two masters of their crafts as he had no training, can expect no applause and will reap few rewards beyond a shred of peace and two little voices calling, “Tank you, Dadda!”
Guilty As Charged
In the days before he was sentenced to house arrest and ordered to perform a year of community service within his own four walls, the stay-at-home dad was an active player on life’s wider playing field, tirelessly seeking approval from the frenzied crowds and sometimes getting it.
In an instant, he is sharing a cell with a couple of often-cantankerous young miscreants who don’t always greet their father’s efforts with levels of enthusiasm that even approach what he was able to cajole from the bigger world outside. In fact, it seems, most of your performance reviews barely achieve a star on their five-star rating system.
Your biggest flaw, of course, is that you are not Mom. She warms their early morning juice. You deliver it to them cold. She reads them to sleep at naptime. You throw them in their beds and run away, as if you’ve lobbed a couple of grenades at an enemy fortification. She bakes cookies with them. You eat the cookies, without them.
These criticisms, while valid, are, surprisingly perhaps, not the ones that bother you very much, as you know all these things are true and you never expected much else. It is the way you are also able to consistently fall down in areas you hadn’t even anticipated that irritate you, like the grinding away of pebbles in your shoe. For a time, it seems, almost every simple act you perform is judged a mistake, usually because you have usurped the role of another.
“I wanded to do ehhtt!! I wanded to do ehhtt!! I wahahanntehehedd to do ehehehtt!!!” goes up the cry, immediately after you have just done it. You, of course, didn’t know they wanted to do it, or that they even could do it. All offers to put the pickles back in the jar and let them “fish” for them with a fork (as Mommy lets them do) are tearfully spurned. You broke the unspoken code and must pay the price.
For some reason, the true depth of your heartlessness is never more starkly revealed, however, than when it comes to the removal of the tops of things. For you to take the cap off a jar or bottle without offering first crack at the task to your assembled crew is to court disaster. To zip up a zipper a child was planning to zip up is to elicit noisy protests from the babe at your feet. To slide a tape in a VCR without offering members of the audience a chance to be the projectionist is to initiate raucous claims of injustice.
So, you attempt to adjust, letting your younger generation try to do many of the things they are demanding a chance to do. Often, they surprise you with their abilities to accomplish these tasks. Other times, on your hands and knees cleaning up the remnants of the broken jar your son insisted he could take the top off of, they show you that not all your fears are unjustified. But then when you hear, “Daddy. You shouldn’t have let me try to open that jar” you realize how defeated you really are.
But the charge you have the most difficulty handling is always accompanied by the word “never.” A day at the park, the ice cream shop and the toy store, is rewarded with the assessment, “You never let us have any fun, Daddy!” On the return trip from a visit to a community swimming pool twenty miles away, you hear from the back seat, “You never take us anywhere, Daddy!” After an afternoon of playing baseball, hockey, volleyball, basketball, badminton and soccer with them in the back yard, you wince as you hear, “You never play with us, Daddy!” as you try to hustle them back into the house for supper.
The answer, in the face of all these negative reviews, will not be found in fighting back with a spirited defence or elaborately crafted statements of innocence. The verdicts, in the circumstances, have already been rendered and can’t be appealed. Your only hope is a simple solution, tried with some success by convicted parties down through the ages.
You have to bribe the judges.
Sometimes, it works.
“Tank you Dadda,” say your brood as they lick their lollipops.
“Yer de best Dadda in the whole, wide wurruld!”
Your children are hasty to condemn you for your failings, but even quicker to forgive you if you produce the appropriate payoff at the right time.
Keep a stash around. Dole it strategically.
Learn to live with the censure.
You’ll be okay.
Cleaning Up The Car
Pre-children, you would periodically take your car to the auto-cleaning outlet down the street. This seemed to make sense as a time-saver in what seemed to you, in those days, to be the busy life you were leading. It was hardly worth your while getting out all the supplies you’d need and to spend an afternoon scrubbing when the nice people next door would clean the interior of your vehicle for twenty dollars.
Post-children, the car-cleaning service seems now to be, not just a convenience, but a lifesaver, much like those companies that exist nowadays for the sole purpose of cleaning up environmental disasters. Your car certainly falls into that category. Every day, as a stay-at-home dad preparing to board the mother ship for another adventure in space, you hike off back and forth from mission control to spacecraft with provisions for the flight. However, on your return to the planet, you never remove any of the leftover supplies in your rush to get your fellow travellers back into their home base. Consequently, there is barely room inside the vehicle any more for commander and crew. It is a wonder liftoff is even possible, now.
The situation is aggravated by the fact that the car interior and its contents have been periodically showered with various organic materials in both their pre- and post-digestive forms. As such material will often do when it comes into contact with the proper combination of soil, water, heat and light, it begins to self-propagate. In other words, things are beginning to grow on the floor and under the seats of your car. Therefore, in a short time, it seems, you are driving up and down the streets of your town in a combination funhouse, outhouse and greenhouse.
The word, madhouse, might at times also apply.
Then, in a dream one night, you vaguely remember something from your former life, a place that could perform miracles for twenty dollars. The next day, you can see the car-cleaning business from your front porch, but it may as well be a mirage. It will be weeks before you will find the time to make an appointment for your vehicle. But finally, you do.
One day, you drop off the car outside the business, ask inside for an interior cleanup, and then run back to your home with the kids before the auto cleaners have a chance to see what they’re facing and decide to back out of the job.
A few hours later, you show up again, to pick up your newly cleaned machine. Peering in a window, you can scarcely believe your eyes. “Wow!” is all you can robotically repeat. You fish in your pocket for a twenty dollar bill to cover the job. But it seems the cost of environmental cleanups has gone up. You watch the owner scribbling a figure on an invoice and your mouth falls open.
“That’ll be a hundred and seven dollars,” says the owner. His next words are something like, “Are you all right? Would you like to sit down?”
Your account squared, you and your brood drive the one-block home in your limousine-quality sedan.
Before you pull in your driveway, the worried words, “Oh! Oh! Dadda!” from the back seat indicate what you’re rapidly learning, that in the child-care business, money can’t buy you happiness.
Or a clean car, for that matter.
Can I Help You?
Who doesn’t need help in this life?
As a stay-at-home dad, you do.
You need psychiatric help, medical attention, financial advice, marriage counselling, spiritual guidance and cleaning services.
What you don’t need, is help from the only two people standing in line to provide it: your offspring.
Next to the word “why”, you will come to dread most the following question: “Can I help you?”
Who but a bad dad would turn down an offer like that? So, you try not to, even if the job with which you’ve been offered assistance by the three-year-old boy at your feet is cutting down a tree limb from atop a step ladder. Soon, he is propped precariously up there, huge saw in hand, as you prepare to become the headlines in tomorrow’s newspaper.
At a certain stage in their formative years, it will be very important in your children’s lives for them to help their dad with tasks around the house. To discourage them at this early age is to condemn yourself to forever having to cut the lawn and take out the garbage. You can see the long-term value in training your very own live-in staff of future property-maintenance providers. Especially since, you can imagine that for many years to come, they will work for little more than room and board and ice-cream cones.
So, you try to guide them along patiently through most of the household chores they are so eager to provide assistance with. You let them wash dishes, vacuum carpets and put away groceries. Though their combined age is still under six years, you let them hang out laundry, clean windows and sweep floors. They dig in flower beds, clean the car and rake leaves.
The problem with letting your young ones take over too soon, of course, is that they just aren’t very good, most of the time, at the assignments they willingly seek out. And it generally takes you longer to correct the consequences of that incompetence than it would have taken you to do the entire job in first place. You think of this as you are cleaning up the broken glass that slipped from the tiny hands of the girl who was helping to dry dishes or the broken eggs, dropped on the floor by the boy who was helping to put away the groceries. You try to keep your cool when they immediately offer to pour help on top of the help they’ve just provided. Now they want to help clean up the broken glass and eggs.
Sooner or later, though your intentions are good, you will banish your eager helpmates from the worksites, for their safety and your sanity. This never discourages them, however, from offering to do the next new task that awaits. Before long, it seems the only word that can come out of your mouth any more is “No!” Then you are back to formulating feeble answers to the dreaded “W” word.
In a few months, you go from offering elaborate explanations, to “You just can’t, that’s why.”
You also learn another survival tactic. You sneak in the chores when they aren’t looking. Or, dispense with doing them altogether. This last choice seems to fit in well with your natural inclinations to inactivity.
This is how you end up looking like you’ve been upholstered to your easy chair, the place you hope to spend even more time some day as you watch your growing-up kids paint the house and trim the hedges. A dad and his chair should not be parted. No matter how hard it is to find good help.
Lights! Camera! Action!
A man plays many a role in the comedy-drama that is his daily life. He is hunter, adventurer, lover, warrior, economist, teacher, student, labourer, thinker, carpenter, mechanic, plumber, electrician, painter, decorator, launderer, cook, poet, prophet and philosopher. Sometimes slave and sometimes master. A winner one hour, a loser the next.
But a stay-at-home dad, at play with his two young children, has set, costume and dialogue changes that would challenge the most accomplished thespian. Even the best improv actors. He is called on daily to play a host of human characters, from fireman, to thief, to cowboy, to doctor to grocer. As often as not, however, he will be assigned non-human roles, such as dog, cat, pig, sheep, rabbit, cow or horse. He must be ready at a moment’s notice to switch from one character to another and if non-human, will often be required to bear the other actors, sometimes both of them at once, around the stage on his back.
Dad rarely gets to be the director, a job usually taken by his son, the oldest of his two children. He learns of his role changes on the spot – “Daddy, you be . . .” – and gets no time to rehearse. He might go from being a hockey hero to Harry the Hamster in an instant. Despite the lack of preparation, he is never forgiven any failure to remember his lines or carry out his assigned movements. And he can never call on an understudy to replace him while he rests. His performances must be good, but not too convincing, especially on those rare times when he is called on to be a ghost or a dinosaur.
This is all very exhausting and you are tempted, now and then, to rebel by storming off the stage. You’ll never work again in this town if you do, so you persist, though your heart is somewhere else, usually sitting in your rocker-recliner with the rest of your body. What robs you of much of the joy from the game of You Be are the interminable rehearsals, which could go on, literally, for hours. Your children believe if it was fun the first time, it will be fun the hundredth. And for them, it is. So, over and over, as dangerous burglar, you run through the house while two tiny police officers give chase, yelling, “Stop thief!!” all the way. Around and around the kitchen table you go, in and out of the bedrooms until at some point, you are required to slow down and be caught. Failure to do this will result in added charges of resisting arrest. However, giving in too soon is also discouraged, as it is evidence that you are not participating with the proper level of enthusiasm.
After you’ve fled from the law for about the fourth time, you are growing weary of your life of crime, and are eager to surrender for good and go straight. The director and rest of the crew are just getting warmed up, however. Twenty more identical high-speed chases will suit them just fine. If you even hint after the nineteenth chase that you would like to do something else, there will be much protesting, possibly even tears, all around.
So, you are a fireman. Your children are two little dogs who scratch at your bedroom door to alert you of an emergency happening elsewhere in the house. You follow the dogs to the scene and make the rescue. Then it’s back inside the bedroom again to await the next scratching. This scene is repeated at least a dozen times, with variations. The dogs switch identities with each other, from time to time, changes you are supposed to remember, and now and then, they succumb to the smoke and fumes at the fire. You must then haul them to an operating table, repair them, and send them on their way. Sooner or later, they realize that you have not played a dog yet. Down on all fours, you carry out the scene, your son now in the role of fire chief, except that for some strange reason, when the scene is played out this time, the fire chief gets to ride to the emergency on the back of the dog.
When you have had about as much of this as you can stand, which on some days isn’t very much, you try to yell, “Cut!” But a lowly actor does not have the authority to bring down the curtain and you are reprimanded. A letter will go into your file, noting your insubordination. The other owner of theatre will hear of your unco-operative spirit on her return to the playhouse that evening. Soon, it occurs to you that you are the hardest-working actor you have ever heard of. Forget those guys who shoot two movies a year while on summer break from their TV series. They have writers, stuntmen, make-up artists, costume designers, dialogue coaches. You have none of these. Yet you are required to deliver several stunning performances a day without even the benefit of a body double. And you have to do all your own stunts. All the nude scenes go to the other actors who, from time to time, must leave the scene for an emergency bathroom break.
Worst of all, your performance is being constantly reviewed by the critics, who are also the two other actors, and who are usually merciless in their assessments. You ran too fast, you didn’t run fast enough. You forgot to yell, “Ready or not, here I come!” You growled like an angry bear when you were supposed to be a friendly bear.
After a while, you get used to the idea that there will be no major performing arts awards in your future. The best you can hope for is to get a few of the same kind of hugs and kisses that the big winners get when they reach the podium and are handed the hardware. You’re not in it for the fame or fortune, which you know are elusive. Fans will come and fans will go.
It is the love of your craft – and your fellow performers – that keeps you going.
Can I Come In?
A dad at home with his two toddlers gradually grows somewhat accustomed to a complete change of life. Gone are so many of the aspects of his former existence, chief among them the luxury of privacy.
During a certain period of their development, children cannot stand to have the parent who is caring for them at any given time disappear from sight, even for a minute or two. For a long while, its seems, they are not sure they will ever see you again. So, they become your constant shadow. This is an ego-builder and a comfort to be so well loved and needed by your brood that you must be followed everywhere, like a rock star with his groupies. But it takes some getting used to to perform previously private acts in full view of such an audience. And not just passive onlookers, but ones who have a hundred probing questions to ask about everything they are witnessing. And a bunch of probing fingers that seek to explore for themselves these things that seem so strange to them.
Being a modern dad, you try not to discourage their curiosity too much, remembering your own early days where excessive emphasis on privacy had the effect of cloaking perfectly natural features of life with secrecy and shame. You are determined to do what you can to reverse that cycle.
Besides, you cannot afford to leave your children in another room alone while you tend to your own needs, unless you lock them up in playpens and high chairs. Otherwise, you can expect to return from your brief breaks to scenes of severe human psychic and physical injury and appalling property damage. The poor compromise you eventually reach is to train yourself to delay taking the breaks you might have taken at the intervals you would otherwise have taken them had you been on your own. You marvel at how the human body can adapt to such moratoriums, that usually last until ten seconds after your wife arrives home.
But even when both parents are around home, your children’s need to constantly be with you abates only slightly. They simply cannot tolerate the idea that you would want to be in another room behind a closed door without them. So they bang away on it with fists, feet, toy tractors and drinking cups until you let them in. If you have nice doors in the house, this activity isn’t long in getting them opened.
Part of their desire to be with you in this place, you are proud to acknowledge, is the bond you built up with them by climbing into the tub with them every night to give them their bath when they were just infants. It was the best time of every day between dad and baby as you shared, skin to skin, your songs, your soap and your smiles.
Eventually, too soon it seems, you were squeezed out of the tub as your second child joined your first for the nightly ritual and the enclosure became their private domain. As you will with every stage your children pass out of, you will look back on that period with ambivalence – happy to regain some freedom but sorry to see the earlier special times come to an end.
Every once in a while, however, both you and your children will try to revive old customs, on a few occasions, just for old times’ sake. So, when they invite you back into the tub one night, after a long absence, you oblige. There isn’t as much room in there now as there once was, but the fun soon comes back. And the three of you present quite a picture of domestic bliss – as good as it can get, in fact.
So, a real picture should be taken of something so special and soon your wife is in the bathroom with her camera pointed your way, advising everyone to smile. “Ah, shouldn’t I be covering up here, or something?” you nervously ask, but are assured that the camera angle will preclude that need. The side of the tub will hide all that needs hiding. And so you pose, as if for a magazine.
A few days later, when the photos return, you discover to your horror that your wife’s skill at deciphering camera angles is not as fine-tuned as you would have wished and now, you have shared an unashamed view of yourself with, not only your children, but also the entire staff down at the local photo shop. The uncontrolled laughing of your wife and giggling of your kids as they pass you the revealing image helps assuage your initial mortification. Your only solace is that the scene so captured is of a bubble bath which has afforded some measure of camouflage.
Still, for a man who once cherished privacy so much, this is an astonishing development. And the beneficial effects of becoming a dad are evident now in that you feel some embarrassment, but no shame.
After all, you’ve pretty much grown used to the perpetual presence of an audience, now.
You’d feel almost naked without one.
A few months into your house arrest and subsequent new career as stay-at-home dad, you have what you can honestly now call a “bad day.” Prior to taking on this job, you were of the notion that you had known what constituted such a scary thing. Now you know, you didn’t know at all.
It is not the events of a day that make it bad, you now see. In fact, you have often found yourself breezing through the occasional twenty-four-hour period so jam-packed with unpleasant and unexpected circumstances as to drive the next guy mad. You seem to get an adrenaline rush, on those days, to help you plow on through.
No, it isn’t the flat tire, nasty bill collector or suddenly expired furnace that does you in. It is the accumulation of little stresses, unrelieved, that on some sorrowful day, usually a Friday, leaves you totally incapable of dealing with anything in your life, no matter how bad – or good. Your mind, on these days, is like that malfunctioning furnace. Tinker with it all you like, it is due for a serious overhaul.
Days on top of days of wiping up food from under your girl’s high chair and feeling more squash land on your neck as you work, of trying to answer questions that would stump a panel made up of Aristotle, Moses and Darwin, of dragging screaming kids away from bubble-gum machines and money-robbing mall racecars, and of always seeing two steps ahead of your flock so as to remove or minimize the dangers that lay in their paths, leave you so totally wound up you simply cannot cope with anything. Performing three diaper changes on the same person within twenty minutes – none of them a false alarm – would have you in tears except that crying would take energy you simply don’t have. You can only order everyone to the living room to begin the late-afternoon Mommy Watch. And the three of you gather by the big picture window, waiting for Mom’s familiar car to pull into the driveway. As she pulls up, she feels like a soldier returning from war and catching first glimpse from the ship’s deck of her anxious family waiting on the dock.
Now, this is where you execute a plan that began rumbling around early that morning in the little bits of your brain still able to function. It goes like this. If you could somehow get away by yourself for a while, you might have a chance to recover. Little by little, as the day progresses, you hang on to this idea as if to a lifejacket.
Mom coming in the door meets you going out.
“See you when I see you,” you mumble. She understands. Without looking back, you get into your car and go. Through mile upon mile of countryside you drive, coffee cup in hand, sunglasses on. You find a station playing heavy rock ’n’ roll and you crank it up. You never listen to this kind of music but today it is the only kind you want. You want to fill your head with sounds you have not heard in months to block out the sounds of crying, pleading, accusing, of silly cartoon characters on TV programs filled with whiz! pop! bang! sound effects, of whistles and horns and toy fire truck sirens and of the plink! plank! plunk! of a toy piano. Loud buzzing guitars, machine-gun drum beats and screaming, moaning rock vocals spouting anarchic lyrics, seem to be doing the trick.
Night begins to fall and still you drive. You feel something returning to your body, though you don’t know what it is. Something is subsiding, something increasing. You dare not stop, lest the metamorphosis end. But encroaching hunger draws you to a pizza shop in a city next to yours, a place you haunted in earlier days. You order a take out and carry your piping hot supper back to your car, afraid to get too far away from the music that would raise the dead, a feat it seems to be performing for you.
And there you sit, on a gloomy Friday night in the fall, raindrops sliding down your windshield, the best pizza in the whole world sliding down your throat, peaceful brainwaves sliding back into your head. You cannot risk a thought for home, for the future, for the past. Absorbing hot mozzarella and hotter music, you finally begin to identify the feeling you sensed creeping back into you earlier. It is the overwhelming sense that you are normal.
Exiting your vehicle again, you return with coffee, doughnut and newspaper. And spend another hour absorbing. All the predictable words you read as you try folding out the big broadsheet over the steering wheel of your little car help to push out the storybook tales you’ve read a hundred times of talking bears, pessimistic donkeys, timid turtles and rhyming cats in tall hats. One more step on the road to recovery.
Back into the country for several more hours of wandering roads and thoughts and radio stations. Every song seems like the best you’ve ever heard, every disk jockey, the most clever announcer in the world, every bad joke, the all-time funniest. Somewhere along the line, a large bag of very salty potato chips and a big nutty chocolate bar make their way into the car. Nothing is shared with anyone. Nothing remains for tomorrow.
At 2 a.m., you slide your car carefully back into your driveway and sneak quietly to your bed. You’ve been gone from the house for nine hours; it does not appear to have fallen down in your absence. You are as peaceful as a monk after morning meditation. You fall asleep to be wakened by two joyful children, bouncing on your midriff, a few hours later.
“Are you okay, Daddy?” asks your boy.
“Yes, I’m okay, now,” you reply.
And you are. Better than okay.
But it’s the last time this magic formula for sanity will work that well. Soon you will realize how magic it had really been.
You have learned its lesson well, however. If you want to stay normal, once in a while, you just have to get normal.
The Sounds Of Silence
It’s a big deal when a child goes from lying around on the carpet like one of her teddy bears to creeping around the house like a turtle. To see her cautiously moving about for the first time from toy to rattle and back again, is a real joy, much celebrated.
Less notice is taken of her dad’s ongoing development in the same department. Pre-children, he could often be found lying around the place as well, but now, at times, he creeps around his own home like a cat burglar fixing to make off with the jewelry. The reason for all this stealth is simple. The only peace he can reasonably expect to experience these days comes when the other inhabitants of the home are sleeping. When that happy state occurs, it is his job to do absolutely nothing to disrupt it. So, he learns to play the floorboards and doors of his house like a finely tuned, but silent fiddle.
However, as fiddles will squeak, so will his home, each “eerrkk” and “aarrkk” sounding like a cannon going off. So, he learns to walk the floors of his home like a soldier traversing a mine-laden field. After a time, he knows which sections of the floor he can safely step on, and which ones will go off. He learns how to carefully open closet, cupboard and appliance doors so their inevitable sleep-disturbing sounds will be minimized. He can eat his cereal for breakfast without his spoon ever hitting the bowl and work the plunger on the toaster manually so that it doesn’t eject the toast with such a clamour.
It is not just noises from inanimate objects that need stifling, however. A dad intent on soaking up the silence, must also learn to control the sounds he himself might emit as he goes about the building. Given the choice between hernia and a child-wakening sneeze, for example, he will choose to suppress. Similarly, he somehow learns to swallow coughs and hiccups. He moves with the silent fluidity of a cat sneaking up on a mouse and uses no form of footwear, not even slippers, lest his footfall be less than perfectly noiseless.
A stay-at-home dad intent on prolonging the peace of a sleeping household for as long as he can, also becomes quite an athlete, sprinting for the telephone, for example, from the other side of the room and catching it before its second ring, or the front door to prevent a visitor from ringing the door bell twice. Opening a cupboard, he can artfully catch a falling can of soup before it hits the floor. He also eschews all machine-made noises from TV, radio and computer, to running water to the little beeps made by using the microwave oven.
To watch a dad noiselessly open a new box of cornflakes, inside package and all, is to stand in awe of greatness. He is like an other-worldly inhabitant of an ancient monastery committed by vows of silence to maintain the peace.
It is to wonder, however, why he behaves so cautiously during these periods as he is not actually able to enjoy them much, so devoted are all his energies to making sure they last as long as possible. He only knows, instinctively, that he must do this because if he does, for a minute or two during this brief reprieve before he hears the familiar sounds of children stirring in their beds, he might get a chance to actually think about something he’d like to think about, for a change.
If it takes a superhuman effort to grab that two minutes of calm in the raging waters that are his home these days, he’ll do it. For soon enough, from his girl’s bedroom he is bound to hear . . .
“Daaaadeeee I neeeeeeeed yoooooooo!!!!”
The monastery is thereby closed until further notice.
As, not surprisingly, all hell is about to break loose!
The Terrible Twos – and Threes
The one saving grace for the stay-at-home dad is that he just happens to be the father of the two nicest, most well-behaved children in the world. Doesn’t everyone tell him exactly that when he takes them anywhere? Don’t others always remark on what wonderful, remarkable, precious little souls they are? Hasn’t he himself observed their incredible beauty as they’ve slept and marvelled at the miracles of nature?
But if all of this is so, and it is, then why is this little one just now kicking you in the shins so hard you want to cry? And why, now and then, does the other little one grab your hair in clumps and try to extract it from your scalp, like grass from your lawn? Why, it seems, does a week not pass when one or the other of them, or both of them, scream terms of endearment to you such as “Bad Daddy!” or “Mean, old Daddy!” while they’re crying for Mommy and trying to shove you out the front door?
You have doted on them, catered to them, tickled them, played endlessly with them, spent every waking moment with them, taught them to snap their fingers and let them jump all over you as if you were an amusement-park attraction. You’ve read them every book in the local library twice and shown them every video in every shop for two miles around. You’ve filled them with ice cream, chocolate bars, potato chips and popcorn. The three of you have been in more fast-food restaurants than the busiest cooking-oil supplier. Then why, after all that, do they have these awful moments when it seems they consider you to be their worst nightmare?
On reflection, it may be because, on some level, you really are. Sooner or later, though you would be happy to go on forever being Mr. Fun Guy, events and behaviours will occur which will leave you no choice but to say the one word that is universally rejected by human beings at a certain stage in our development. And that is the word, “No!”
There are no worse enemies than former friends and this pretty much describes the shock your young ones feel after hearing the same word Mommy uses regularly, coming out of you. They’ve been betrayed by the one whose will they could always seem to count on being able to bend. Their dismay is profound and deep.
Welcome to the Terrible Twos. You can probably throw the odd Three in there too. You are about to live through episodes that will have you questioning your beliefs in demonic possessions and exorcisms. You will witness behaviours so shocking you’ll teeter on the edge of disavowing your commitment to non-violent means of discipline. If nothing else, you’ll have moments where you’ll seriously doubt the level of your qualifications for the occupation of parenthood.
During these times, you’ll fly like a pilot through an intense storm, relying only on your gauges and your instincts to get you through to the calm on the other side. Terror will be your companion through the thunderclap and heavy hail but peace will be your reward when the black clouds fade in your wake.
The only instruments you have available to you are these:
“Because I love you, that’s why!”
And, because the second statement is true, the first one is unavoidable.
Down deep, it was the first statement they wanted to hear you say, anyway. Or else, how would they be able to believe the second?
When Mommy comes home, you all three are cuddled up in Grandpa’s easy chair, watching cartoons, drinking juice and eating pretzels. The plane is back the hangar. The landing was a rough one.
First solo flights often are.
But it was you who wanted to be a pilot and you who went out and got some passengers. Now it’s your job to bring them safely down to the ground.
And you will.
Now and then, will come into view, an oasis in the desert in the form of a young person commonly known as a babysitter. She would seem to be the answer to many prayers. Someone your children love, someone who can tend to their needs while you look after your own needs for rest and for getting back to a project left undone when you volunteered to be a stay-at-home dad.
Finally, you are getting the formula right. Your wife leaves for work, the “sitter” arrives, and you prepare to head downstairs to your office. The planets are aligning.
But a few glitsches appear. There are the many and varied instructions to give the bewildered teenager who obviously has only a vague idea of what she’s getting into. Details about diaper-rash creams and dietary preferences and restrictions, sunscreen applications and nap times, medicine and vitamins, preferred games, favourite toys and censored TV shows. Also information about your style of discipline. You write out lists, and give her a guided tour of the house, garage and backyard to point out the locations of things as well as potential dangers. You give her long descriptions of the personalities of the two young individuals she is about to care for and tips on how to handle their various ups and downs. You try to leave no stone unturned.
Briefing your replacement for the day has eaten up close to a half an hour of your time, but finally, you’re ready to head downstairs. This results in a mob scene at the door to the basement, as the kids throw themselves at your feet, uttering heart-rending cries of loss and abandonment and pleading with you to stay. Your explanation that you will be only a few feet away on the lower level of the house does nothing to quell the disturbance. In their eyes, you’re boarding a ship for the Antarctica.
So, to ease them more gently into their day with the sitter, you agree to play with them on the floor for a little while before you leave. Now, all four of you are engaged in a rousing children’s board game on the carpet; this eats up another half hour. Finally, somehow, you make your escape, but before heading to the computer, decide it’s time for a coffee-shop break. You return to a tumultuous welcome at the front door and an invitation to join your crew for their morning snack time. This you do, not wanting to turn down such an earnest request. Some day they won’t want you to join them at all, and what a lonely day that will be. So you sit down on a one-foot high wooden chair and sip juice and eat biscuits with your knees up around your ears.
At 11 a.m., you finally sit down in front of the computer, and are ready to go. What a great feeling to have the freedom to get at a job! A few minutes later, there is a crash upstairs followed by the tortured cry of a child about to expire and you are there in two long bounds up the steps. On your knees administering aid to your stricken waif, who tumbled from a stool while helping dry the snack time dishes. The babysitter looks on in concern.
Finally back at your work station, the sitter calls down to inform you there is no bread in the cupboard for the sandwiches she was preparing to make for lunch. Given that reality, to soothe the kids nerves for having to do without you for so long, to help your girl get over her nasty fall and to celebrate the presence of the sitter and reward her for her hard work so far, you issue a proposal: Who wants to go the a restaurant for lunch?
It turns out, they all do, and away you go.
The sitter arrived at 8:30 a.m. It is now 1:30 p.m. You have spent twenty dollars on lunch and will soon spend the equivalent amount to compensate the sitter. Your nerves are frayed but the kids are having a great time. They have the sitter and dad and lunch out. Can they do this every day, they wonder?
Meanwhile, you have managed, in the five hours that have elapsed of your work day, to turn on your computer. It’s still sitting in your basement, awaiting your return, but as of yet has performed no function beyond activating its New York skyline screen saver. By 2 p.m., however, you are back in the harness and ready to start pulling the load again. As you begin to heave and ho, you hear the soft footsteps of a child behind you, and you turn around to look into the saddest face it is possible for a child to bear. A brief inquiry reveals the boy who’s wearing such a forlorn expression misses you terribly and as the sitter is busy putting his sister down for a nap, he has been left alone in the world with no one to play with. Could you, he wonders, have a brief game of floor hockey with him? What kind of man would you be if you turned down such a desperate plea?
By 3 p.m., the sitter is reading a magazine, comfortably seated in your easy chair, a pop and dish of potato chips beside her. She is having a nice rest. You, on the other hand, are busy chasing a small, black plastic disk around the kitchen floor as a boy clad in hockey pants, shin pads and helmet chases you around the makeshift rink which is bounded on one side by cupboards and sink and the other by stove and fridge, under which the puck slides now and then and must be gingerly retrieved by you as you lay sprawled out, face down on the linoleum.
Soon, the timer on the stove buzzes (for the fourth time) to signal the end of the game and amidst protests, you head back down to work. The sitter gathers up your boy in her arms and takes him back to your chair. Finally, you are at the computer again. A few points and a few clicks and a cry goes up in the child’s bedroom above you. Your daughter is awake and resisting all efforts by the sitter to lift her out of her crib.
“Daddy do!” she insists. “Daddeeeee doohoohoo!”
So, what can a daddy doohoohoo but doohoohoo? Out of the crib you pick her, and as she’s still half asleep, she needs cuddling in her chair. With her juice. No babysitter allowed.
Afternoon snack time arrives soon and what kind of dad could walk away from that? But, a short time later, work beckons again, and you head downstairs.
Point and click.
Point and click.
And then . . .
The kids are in heaven after their gruelling day of exile, being cared for by the sitter, has come to an end with the arrival home of Mom.
“Can you drive her home?” asks their mother, of her husband. “I’ve had a busy day.” Unspoken in the request is the notion that Dad, having gotten his long-awaited reprieve, must have energy to burn.
You drive the sitter home, pay her, thank her profusely, wave enthusiastically as you pull away from the curb and drive home dejectedly. Your food tab included, you have spent forty dollars, gotten absolutely no work done, and spent most of your day hoping the babysitter was having a good experience at your house.
The good news, you decide, is that she genuinely wanted to be with your kids.
The bad new is, so did you.
Thus ends your dream of wall-to-wall babysitters, happy, joyful babysat kids and leisurely days spent in pursuit of higher goals in your home office.
The only babysitter you’ll be employing for the next good, long while is the one whose face you shave every morning. He’s a bit cantankerous and inclined to complain but at least you don’t have to drive him home at night.
And he already knows where to put the diaper-rash cream.
The Boot Camp
It takes a lot of discipline to raise a well-behaved young family.
A lot of self-discipline, that is.
At first, the stay-at-home dad tries to use the sheer force of his will to smother the spontaneous combustions in his household, a process that could be likened to throwing a heavy blanket over a fire. He is soon shocked to discover, however, that this has the effect of merely fanning the flames and causing several other smaller fires to break out.
Relying on his workplace experience where a fear-inspiring, wild-eyed boss, barking out commands in a booming, threatening voice, can soon bring peace to a roomful of insubordinate employees, the average dad will have a go at trying to produce order in the home using similar tactics. He soon, however, finds himself faced with a company-wide strike as his employees usually walk off the job and begin marching in protest. The same workers who, moments before, were banging each other on the heads with their tools, will, following an outburst from management, link their arms and sing songs of solidarity.
“Don’t yell at my sister!” orders the boy who moments before was sitting on her chest, fingers around her neck, choking the life out of your daughter. “I love her.”
“Ya, Daddeeee. We love eats udder,” replies the suddenly revived sister, unhappy at your clumsy attempt to save her life.
So, yelling is out. At best, it will produce twenty seconds of silence while the recipients of the message regroup, but it has no lasting, beneficial effects. At worst, it promotes turning up the volume as some sort of solution to problems and soon everyone in the house is into it. Eventually, you are forced to listen not only to yourself at high decibel levels, but your kids as well. Three people screaming at the top of their lungs about a piece of toast that may or may not have been deliberately thrown face down from the breakfast table to the floor, surely has to be somebody’s definition of hell on earth.
Similarly, exerting your superior physical power to bring about the outcomes you want, produces results, alright, but usually not the kind you’d really want. Still, it seems an irresistible idea that if your child will not immediately do what he has been asked – or told – to do, the obvious answer is to scoop him up and force him to do it. This works about as well as trying to give a cat a bath and you are liable to end up with twice as many scratches for your efforts. Besides, trying to force a reluctant forty-pound body into a snowsuit by using restraining methods worthy of a prison camp, makes you feel like the lout you deserve to feel like. It doesn’t occur to you for a long time that the same end result – a snowsuit-clad youngster – can be almost effortlessly produced by simply declaring, “No problem. If you won’t put on your snowsuit, there’ll be no toboggan rides today. It’s up to you. I don’t mind staying in.” And if that doesn’t work, you stay in.
In fact, all displays of physical force are counterproductive, as you soon learn. Frustrated, for example, that the kids have, once again, failed to put their building blocks in the big plastic box they belong in, you give the box a hardy kick, to demonstrate the extent of your displeasure.
“Why don’t you ever put your things away?” you bark, as the box goes sailing across the floor.
A short time later, you see your boy ordering his younger sister to put her dolls in her buggy and are dismayed to see him kick the buggy as a way of putting exclamation marks at the end of his sentence. You sit him down to help him see the error of his ways.
“But Daddy,” he replies. “That’s what you did.”
These indiscretions of yours serve as early warning signs which, in the end, help you avoid the next step of using your physical strength to coerce and to punish. You’ve seen – and felt – enough of that to last a lifetime and are determined not to use it. So you search for alternatives.
Your children’s bedroom during the night, henceforth, becomes their temporary holding cell during the day, as they hike up and down the hallway on the way to their frequent “timeouts”, sometimes passing each other on their route as one jailbird is sprung and the other thrown in the hole. The point of all this, however, seems lost on them, as they sing or read books while behind bars, and on you, as it seems to rarely produce the regret, remorse and rehabilitation you had hoped to achieve by handing down your sentence. After a while, the timeouts are fewer and fewer.
Coincidentally, it seems, the numbers of infractions that would lead to timeouts is dwindling.
Statistically, it’s clear: the crime rate in your house is falling.
This happy circumstance has been brought about by little yelling, no violence and few incarcerations. The only change in your correctional approach seems to be that you have somehow managed to lower your expectations and in so doing, they have somehow managed to exceed them. In demanding less, you are getting more. When the occasional nose of one child connects with an intentionally errant elbow attached to the arm of her sibling, you pause, wait to see if reconstructive surgery might be required, then sit back and await events. As often as not, the erring party is soon, unprompted by you, responding to the inevitable tears by hugging the injured party and expressing what seems like sincere regret, though the same sorrow-filled child might be thrusting a knee into the groin of the other within the next half hour.
But, it seems, they will live what they see. The less you force them to conform to your will, the less they try to make others do the same. And the more bear hugs you administer in a day, the calmer the bears will be. They don’t bite or maul you or each other as much any more and you can let them out of their cages without fear of them reverting to the wild. Soon, they won’t even need a leash.
Good zookeepers love their animals. They don’t beat them, or yell at them, or tell them they’re really gonna get it when Mommy comes home. They just feed them, clean them, talk to them kindly, give them toys to play with and shelter them from the wind, rain and snow.
And if a squabble or two breaks out, they chalk it up to the workings of the natural world and try not to intervene too much.
As a stay-at-home dad, you learn to do just about the same. You expect trouble. It comes, now and then.
You check for blood.
And move on.
The Midnight Rodeo
By the end of the day, a stay-at-home dad’s bedroom is the one place in the house that holds out some prospect of sanctuary. Of peace. Of rejuvenation. He can venture into no other area of his property where he can hope for similar asylum – not the TV room, not his office, not even the bathroom. Or the garage. He can be sure of attracting a crowd in any other location he chooses.
But the bedroom is different. No matter the storms of the day, calm is a possibility when he can finally stretch out under his covers and rest his weary head on his pillow. Of all the things he has done over his lifetime, this is the one daily act he has performed in much the same way since his childhood, with more or less the same results. He curls up in his fetal position, lets his mind drift, and hopes for the blessed relief unconsciousness can offer.
However, as you are now keenly aware that no area of your life has remained unaffected by the arrival of your children, you should have been able to foresee that even this little bit of peace would not go unchallenged. Soon, there is a boy standing beside you in the middle of the night, asking for entry into your last domain. You roll back the covers and admit one. You remember being granted the same privilege when you were small. It seems only right that you return the favour.
But that simple act of allowing your four-year-old son to bunk in with you means the complete end of the repose you held out all day long as your one and only hope for the restoration of your physical and mental resources, slim as they are becoming. Now, instead of peacefully slumbering between soft, clean sheets under a warm, fluffy comforter, you are engaged, over the next few hours, in a sometimes frantic struggle to survive what at times resembles a wild rodeo of bucking broncos and at others, a rowdy, professional wrestling match.
How your boy derives any rest at all from his many, long hours of nightly sleep you will never know as it seems he never stops moving. Arms and legs are involved in an almost constant thrashing about and your job becomes one of trying to avoid being injured by these erratically falling limbs, much as you might dodge flying debris during a violent windstorm. Despite this, you will manage to doze off again, but will soon be startled back into consciousness by the back of a hand smacking you in the chops. At other times, you’ll awake to find two feet massaging your face, toes apparently trying to work their way up into your nostrils. Sitting up, you see your son on top of the covers now, with his head facing the foot of the bed and his feet facing your head. Much of your night is from then on spent trying to arrange him properly back under the covers.
At times, your new bedmate will sit directly up in bed and as you watch, will fall back on your face or upper chest. You catch him in mid-tumble and try to direct him back into a suitable reclining position. As the evening wears on, you behave very much like a rodeo cowboy, trying to catch and rope an over-exuberant calf. Unlike the cowpoke, however, you are working without the benefit of broad daylight and have no ecstatic crowd cheering you on. It is lonely work, trying to protect yourself from serious harm as you occupy an ever-decreasing share of a mattress with a boy intent on having it all.
Although he hasn’t yet taken to snoring, your son is not exactly a silent partner in this nighttime enterprise. At times, he laughs out loud while sound asleep, at others, whimpers, even lets out a cry or two. Sometimes, he sneezes as if to raise the roof, sending you scampering about the darkened kitchen looking for tissue paper to sop up the results. On occasion, he’ll even yell something out, which raises you from a dead sleep to an upright position, wondering whether a war party has invaded the building.
On occasion, throughout all this, you will turn in defeat onto your side, with your back to your boy, only to look into the cherubic, young face of your daughter, standing by the bed and begging admission to the midnight rodeo. You fling the covers back and admit one more. Now, when you count in your wife, the population of your bed has swollen to four. And you wonder how this strange circumstance ever came about. You remember, in your single days, picking out this very bed in your neighbourhood furniture store. You watched the delivery man set it up for you. You remember your first night in this double-sized nest, thinking yourself in the lap of luxury to be now able to enjoy so much room.
“Where did all these people come from?” you lie awake and wonder now.
You do not have a large house but it isn’t tiny. Every bit of it measured in, there might be fifteen hundred square feet of living space. So then why are the four inhabitants of it condemned to spend a good portion of their night all confined to a space about the size of a billiards table?
Your daughter blends into the scenery and acts as a bit of a buffer between you and the orbiting limbs of your son. But she registers her presence too with the odd flying kick. She laughs in her sleep, now and then, and rehearses many of the protests she uses during the day, such as “I wand to do ehhtt!! I wand to do ehhtt!!”
By morning, as you rise from the tangled rubble of sheets, pyjamas and children, and stumble to the bathroom, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror there and realize that something the cat dragged in would look good compared to you. You knew, though you never knew how completely, your children would take your days. You hadn’t guessed they’d also take your nights.
But as you crawl back into the warm and cosy cot with its burgeoning – but beautiful – residency, some part of you knows this is good. This is very, very good. Maybe that part of you that used to sleep in this very bed alone at night and wonder if there couldn’t be more to life than what you had at the time.
And, after all, as the owner of the one room in the house where monsters won’t go at night, you have no choice but to throw open the gates to all the refugees who are fleeing them. Because it is these same two, little exiles – and their mom – who have helped chase away your own nighttime monsters of loneliness and fear for you.
Besides, when it gets just way too crowded, you can always head for the couch.
Where you used to sleep before you bought the bed.
Play It Again, Dad!
If a child were a tape recorder, he would come equipped with only one button: play. There would be no stop button and no dial with which to turn down the volume.
What is it about playing that is so important to small folk? Why do they never even once pass up the opportunity to play in exchange for the chance to rest awhile, maybe gaze out the window or read a book?
To the dad tape recorder who only has two buttons – fast forward and pause – this never-ending intrusion into the time he would like to spend worrying and working is a bother. To a child, if a parent is awake, he or she has no reason not to play. Dad might come up from the basement, tool box and wrenches in one hand, stepladder in the other, workboots on his feet, electric cord slung over his shoulder and the boy will pop a question, the answer to which can only be yes.
“Do you want to play with me, Daddy?”
Another time, you may be sick. On your back in bed, heating pad warming up your cold parts, ice pack cooling down the hot, delusions starting to form in your brain, when your girl stands on the floor beside you and whispers in your ear, not words of condolence or concern, but the command, “Daddy, let’s play!”
All dads, stay-at-home and otherwise, must understand this: short of being in possession of a coroner’s certificate declaring you legally deceased, you will never have a valid reason for turning down your offsprings’ request that you join them in play.
The type of play or particular game doesn’t much matter, to you at least, but after a while you will notice a pattern. While Mom will be called on no less to take part in play, the level of energy she will normally be expected to bring to the activity will be significantly less than that required of Dad. She will be allowed to wile away an hour lying on the floor doing puzzles with her brood or in a comfortable chair filling in the blanks in a colouring book. While her husband might start out doing those things, too, he will soon be seen tearing through the house, a child limb-locked on his back, another around his leg. If Dad isn’t moving, the reasoning seems to go, he isn’t playing.
Which brings up another woeful concern. You might have an idea that play of any kind, for two children, four and under, might qualify you for the Dad of the Year Award. Far from it. Children know if your heart’s not in it and will call you on it.
“Dad. You’re not playing rye-eat!”
So, though your energy’s depleted, your heart is low and your thoughts are obsessing with getting some rest, you are now required to chase a ball around the kitchen at breakneck speed, smiling all the while. Shakespearean actors on the finest stages in the world are asked to do less by their directors.
And they, at least, have understudies.
But buck up! These days, though they appear long to you now, are in reality, very short. And one day, in a sentimental fit, you’ll find yourself trying to revive a game that never failed to delight.
“Hey guys. How be you be the cops and I be the thief?”
“Nah,” they say in unison.
They’re curled up together, in your chair, looking through a book.
It’s great when they can entertain themselves. But, now that they can, you have to accept that you won’t get offered as many good parts as before. Your goal should be to settle into a satisfying career in a supporting role.
And to never have your character completely written out of the play.
More Guilt Please!
Before children, you thought you knew what it was to feel guilty. Not sending a birthday card to a friend on time or at all could have you walking around for days wondering just what kind of lout you were. Telling a white lie to avoid a social engagement left you feeling like a heartless brute.
But as with many of your reactions to life in the days before your nest filled up with young ones, the guilt you felt back then was a mere pinprick compared to the full-scale open wounds soon to be inflicted on your soul. Eventually, as the day-to-day grind takes its toll, you can easily fall into pretty much a constant state of remorse, almost all of it unsubstantiated by the true facts of your relationships with your kids.
The basic problem seems to come down to this. They want more; that is the law of their lives. You want them to have, and can only manage to give them, much less than the more they seek, whether its more candy, more TV, more fun or more you.
A stay-at-home dad is especially prone to feeling the sting of regret because he is the one who seems to be standing in the way of his kids having more of what they really want all day and that is their mom. You fret about the circumstances that landed you in the playhouse five days a week and sent her to the workhouse. If only you’d worked harder, worked less, been nicer, been meaner, smiled more, smiled less …
So, your heart sinks twenty times a day when, even in the middle of rolling around with you on the floor laughing and seemingly having the time of your lives, one of your children will stop, look at you sadly and say, “Daddy, I want Mommy home!” And the other one, suddenly made aware of Mommy’s absence, begins to cry in response.
Below that big one are all the strata of the limitless guilt mine, with a new strike to be made wherever your pick lands. You don’t cook as well as Mom. You don’t kiss boo boos and make them all better the way she can. You are not as free in the letting department as she is. (“Mommy lets us do this. She lets us do that.) You can never play hide and seek endlessly as she appears to be able to do. And worst of all, you have the patience of a pet dog, waiting to be taken for its walk: you howl at even the slightest delay.
Your children, of course, can survive the less-than-perfect care you give them, compared to what Mom can provide. In fact, a little note-comparing with Mom after the tykes are in their beds at night reveals that some of their product claims for Mom result in, if not outright false advertising, then at least gross exaggerations. No, she doesn’t give them lollipops ever day after lunch, nor does she let them walk the sidewalks downtown without holding her hands.
In fact, you soon begin to marvel at the creativity of these two young and smooth manipulators who have quickly figured out that Mom, besides being perfect, can be used as a valuable bargaining chip in the daily contract negotiations between them and their father.
But, you are slow to catch on.
“Are you sure Mommy lets you ride your tricycle all the way to the park?” you ask your boy.
“Yes. She does,” comes the earnest reply.
An hour later, you somehow pull a buggy containing your daughter home from the park while juggling a boy in one arm and a tricycle in the other.
Young children don’t know much, but they know what they need to know. They closely study their environment and the people who are managing it and become adept at making things go their way. If pleading, badgering and stretching the truth won’t do, they soon discover Dad’s Achilles heel: he can’t stand to feel guilty. And they play to that little weakness.
“It’s okay, Daddy,” says your big-eyed boy. “You don’t have to play with us. You just sit there in your chair and rest. We’ll cover you up with your blanket. And we’ll just play here on the floor.
“Mommy will be home soon, anyway, and she’ll play with us.”
Five seconds later, you are lying on your side on the floor, making zoom zoom sounds as you push a little toy car along an imaginary highway while a girl sits on your shoulder and lands a helicopter on your head.
A dad, groomed to be breadwinner and chief provider of family fortune, also has to deal with a daily audit of the family possessions with particular attention paid to the many worthwhile items missing from that list. Some days, it seems every sentence spoken by his children is prefixed with, “I wish we had …” This could be followed by: motorhome, new house, new bike, cat, dog, gerbil, in-ground swimming pool, big-screen TV, van, hamster, bunny, pony, farm, new brother, new sister, a cow, truck, motorcycle, summer cottage, private airplane, pond with frogs. And every toy shown in every catalogue delivered to the house between January and December.
Sometimes, at night, after the kids are asleep, you sit in your creaking old chair in your creaking old house, and try to think of ways to get your hands on a quick million dollars to top up the obvious shortfall in your family’s material possessions. Soon a sleepy-headed child wanders from her bedroom, whimpering, and is scooped up in the arms of her Mom.
“No, I want Daaaaddddeeee!!!!” you hear her say.
And you feel a little better. With all your deficiencies and the obvious privations your children are forced to live with due to your failure to bring a tycoon’s earnings into the house, now and then it seems the only thing they really want more of is you.
And your time.
You have lots of those two things.
So, you take your child from her mother’s arms and gently tuck her back into bed, whispering a song in her ear and smothering her cheeks with kisses.
And in the days to come it occurs to you that an hour spent lying on the floor, zooming cars and renting out your head for use as a heliport, will make them forget all about big-screen TVs and motorhomes.
But not hamsters.
You’re gonna have to get one of those.
And truly, what kind of dad doesn’t give his kids a hamster?
Details! Details! Details!
There was a day when you took great pride in your ability to remember dates, names, conversations, figures, poems, songs and phone numbers. In fact, based on the glowing comments of relatives, friends and colleagues about your innate proficiency in this area, you often secretly wondered if you weren’t some sort of borderline genius, or, at the very least, equipped with a photographic memory. You also obviously had great reasoning powers that sprang from a mind as nimble as a squirrel on a backyard fence.
Now, four years after the introduction of children into your household and one year after you decided to stay home to look after the two of them, you don’t spend much time secretly thinking about your great mental powers any more. That is because the evidence has been gradually piling up that seems to show your IQ has been on a steady decline. And you don’t think about your potential for genius any more simply because you have been gradually losing your ability to think. Now, most of the time, you simply react.
“Put that down!”
“Because I said so.”
“But why can’t I have it?”
“I don’t know why. You just can’t!”
“Okay. You can have it.”
This is the state the experience of being a stay-at-home dad will bring you to: you cannot even logically explain to a thirty-inch boy why he shouldn’t be running around the house with a twelve-inch butcher knife.
But it is in the area of short-term memory that you will suffer the greatest decline. Day on top of day filled with stress, worry and ricocheting emotions, will leave you practically incapable of focusing, of listening, of concentrating, of memorizing, of … of … of …
Where was I?
It becomes downright embarrassing and frustrating. Once a month, it seems, or even more often, you cart your brood off to doctor’s office, hospital, or clinic where you sit attentively listening to the medical specialist tell you, in simple layman’s terms, what is causing the rash, hearing loss, cough, or swelling in one or both of your young ones. You desperately try to grasp the words of the doctor or nurse, because you know that come 5 p.m., when Mom arrives homes from work, you are going to have to submit a detailed report on the findings of the medical community. But, you are aghast to realize that somewhere between the examining room and the parking lot, as you hustle the kids out, supervising while they return the waiting-room toys to the toy box and kneeling on the floor as you fight to put footwear on the flailing feet of children lying in pools of winter-boot water, you have forgotten every single medical thing you were told just five minutes ago.
You strain, on the way home, to recall something, anything, that was said. Nothing comes back. You tremble at the thought of the inquisition to come.
“What did the doctor say was causing the vomiting?”
“Ah, let me see. Let me see. Hang on. I’ll get it. It was something to do with, to do with …”
Before you’re done painting the complete picture of your total ignorance, your wife is on the phone to the doctor’s office, getting the word for herself.
Also dreaded, for the same reasons, are trips to the pharmacy to get prescriptions filled.
“Has your child ever taken this medicine before?” you are asked.
“No. I don’t think so,” you say.
“Then here’s what you do. Make sure he takes it on a full stomach. Dilute one teaspoonful in four ounces of orange juice or water. Give it to him at four-hour intervals. No more than four times a day.”
“Have you got that?”
But by the time you get yourself and your charges to the front door, past row upon row of breakable but colourful bottles, small cuddly toys and racks of chocolate bars and candy, the instructions are completely gone.
Ten minutes later, interrogation over, your wife is on the phone to the pharmacy.
In your defence, it is hard for a man to concentrate on the words of the person in the white coat who is addressing him while his peripheral vision, like a store security camera, is relaying images to his brain of children throttling each other in the corner or preparing to break some sensitive, expensive piece of highly prized medical equipment that it took two years of community fundraising drives to purchase. This does not explain how your wife, in similar circumstances, is able to do it, but all you know is, you can’t.
Worse still, your forgetfulness is not restricted to visits to the various medical establishments around town. Gradually, it takes over almost all areas of your life. Bills start to go unpaid, or are paid twice. Licences don’t get renewed on time. Cheques go uncashed for so long, the banks will no longer honour them, leaving you to go back humbly to their source and ask for new ones.
And then you start showing up in the shops around town with no idea why you are there. You know you were supposed to get something, but what was it? On three out of four such shopping excursions, you are reduced to phoning your spouse to check again on the contents of her shopping list.
Soon, names of long-familiar faces cannot be retrieved any more. Along with memories of events that took place mere weeks or months ago.
A man in this predicament must learn to adapt, first by insisting on everything being written down, and secondly, by making no promises. It is bad enough to not be able to cart home a few bits of plain information about earaches from the doctor’s office, but when those inevitable middle-of-the-night awakenings come where you sit up in bed, suddenly remembering a missed appointment or unfulfilled commitment, you realize the extent of your trouble.
Far from being the amazing computer system with unlimited storage capacity that you had come to liken your brain to, it is now clear that what is available to your use is a once-efficient, but aging model with limited hard-drive space. It has simply been overloaded too often, for too long, and has been shutting down as a result. The possibility of upgrading the system, at this point, is slim. Your only chance is to purge the existing machine of information no longer in use, in order to free up room for more.
In other words, give it a break now and then – a drive in the country with favourite tapes, hot coffee and no kids, would be recommended.
It is also suggested you stop trying to run some of the programs on your system that have been giving you trouble. Let your wife book time off work to escort her flock on their various visits to the health-care providers while you lie back in your easy chair and try to recapture a happy feature of your earlier life that you’d completely forgotten all about.
The afternoon nap.
Something truly worth remembering.
“Can You Can’t Handle Us, Daddy?”
The truth, it seems sometimes, comes sooner and more vividly to the young and the innocent. While their elders struggle to stay afloat in great pools of anxiety, self-delusion and wishful thinking, children have a way of cutting through all the pretense and getting to the heart of the matter. Politics, business and the law could all make great use of their abilities to see – and to state – things clearly.
And so it is that one day, as you’re helping your tykes brush their teeth and fretting nervously about the toothpaste dribbling from their brushes onto their shirts, your boy grabs your chin with his small hands, points your face towards his, and asks you, very earnestly, “Can you can’t handle us, Daddy?”
And though it may sound like an inappropriate thing for a father to say to his four-year-old boy in reply, you blurt out, in an unfamiliar flash of honesty, “No, son. I can’t handle you. I can’t handle you at all.”
This seems like a terrible admission to make, but the confession now delivered, it seems to release a calm in boy and in dad alike. After almost one year of trying to fit size nine feet into size seven shoes, you have finally realized the heart of the dilemma. No amount of prying or tugging or squeezing or pinching is going to get that footwear on you. Because the shoes you are trying to wear belong to Mom. And the forlorn look on her face as she returns from her outside job each day so plainly indicates that for the past year, she’s been out there slopping around in your oversized clodhoppers.
Each of you, in your way, can dutifully fill the minimum requirements of the roles you’ve taken on. But neither one of you wants to. So, in the absence of desire, your efforts are half-hearted, often grudging, though the results don’t always show it.
Your son’s truth-serum injection during teeth brushing one morning, becomes the basis for many late-night discussions. What do you want? What do they want? What do we want? What do we need? What’s the worst that could happen? What’s the best for all of us?
And then one day, you break the news.
Mom’s coming home.
A cheer goes up.
Dad’s going out to work.
Dad, you can stop cheering now!
Fare Thee Well
So, you are free at last.
The world has been set right.
Mom’s at home.
You’re off to work.
You say goodbye to your two little darlings at your door and step out into the sunshine, feeling its rays penetrating your skin with a warmth you haven’t felt in almost a year. You breathe deeply of the fresh morning air, and briefcase in hand, stroll to your car.
Life is getting good again. There is a stop at the restaurant on your way to the office where you leisurely sip on your coffee and nibble on your morning muffin, as you calmly peruse the news in the paper laid out before you. No one wants some of your food. No one spills juice across your headlines. No one wants to go to the washroom. No one wants a chocolate medallion out of the little dispenser by the front door.
What value can be placed on peace?
In a few minutes, you enter the universe you left behind and this is where you belong. Computers hum. Telephones ring. A fax machine clicks and clacks. People rush about doing this and doing that. Things are being accomplished. Important things.
You can feel the significance oozing back into you as you sit down at your desk, prepared to take on the challenges of the day.
Then, it happens. Out of the blue.
A tear forms in the corner of your eye. It escapes and, accompanied by another, begins to etch out a rivulet down your cheek.
Your boy is at home, sitting on someone else’s lap, laughing at the cartoon moose as it chases the cartoon beaver around the backyard with a cartoon bat. As he giggles, he snuggles his head into someone else’s chest.
Someone else is tickling your girl under the chin as she has her diaper replaced on the change table. A few minutes later, it is someone else’s voice she hears softly singing in her ear as she lowers her head and nods off at nap time.
And yes, it is someone else who is soaking up the juice that just got spilled on the carpet.
But that someone else is also soaking up the love of your children, now, during the time it used to flow over you.
And you suddenly realize, though you pretty much guessed it before, that your year in hell was about as close to heaven as you might ever get.
And your tears are of joy, not of sorrow.
And of gratefulness for the circumstances that allowed you the experience of a lifetime.
The phone rings.
“Hi Daddy!” says your boy. “I miss you, Daddy!”
“Hi Dadda!” your girl comes on the line. “I wuv you, Dadda!”
You spent a year without a paycheque . . .
And never turned a bigger profit in your whole working life.
“I love you too,” you whisper into the phone.
That is all that matters, in the end.