Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Being a Stay-at-Home Dad

Hooray for my Full-Time Dad!
A very good friend of mine is about to embark on a totally awesome part of his life that, when he looks back on it many years from now, he will likely remember as the best thing he ever did. He has just begun a six-month paternity leave and, in just a few short days, will become a full-time stay-at-home Dad when his wife returns to her job. He will be writing a blog about his adventures, entitled Daddy? Are You Awake? and I urge you to check it out (I've also linked to it permanently in the side column of my own blog page). He has not attached his own name to his blog; therefore, I will refrain from doing so here but anyone who knows both of us will easily "crack the code". I envy him these next few months, because I was also my own children's Primary Caregiver when they were very young—albeit slightly older than his two are now—and nothing I have ever done in my life since that time can come close to being as satisfying, productive, wondrous or just plain fun as those brief years were. It's been nearly two decades since I embarked on that journey myself; there are days where it seems like forever ago and others where I swear it was just last week. Before I had kids of my own I never thought of myself as someone who had any kind of connection with the little folk—nor, really, any affinity for them—but all of that changed like a switch being flipped "on" the moment my son was born. Actually, I think it really changed the moment my ex and I found out we were expecting.

Tim and Jill the summer I became a full-time Dad
Last June, right after Father's Day, I touched on those halcyon years in a blog post about being a Dad; I'll probably repeat myself a little in this post and I apologize for that in advance. I know I mentioned the circumstances of how the hand-off of Primary Caregiver from my ex to me came to be—she was offered a job at the same salary as mine with about 1/3 the total hours each week—and the transition took place very quickly indeed. When I told my employers that I would like them to find someone to replace me so I could stay home with my kids they did so within forty-eight hours, which made my head spin a little bit but at the same time gave me no opportunity whatsoever to rethink my decision, not that I would have in any event. So it was that in the spring of 1993—between the Jays' two series wins and just before the Kerry Fraser vs. the Leafs debacle (because I measure much of my life by the sports around me)—I came to understand that the myriad hours I put in each week as a McDonalds manager couldn't hold a candle to the time commitment of being a Full-Time Dad. But that was far from the only difference: the effort/reward ratio was overwhelmingly in favour of "reward" for the first time in my "working" life.

Jill on the playground while her brother is in school
My kids were four and one-and-a-half years old when I began to spend full days with them. Jill was still in diapers; Tim had not yet started Junior Kindergarten. Their ages were absolutely perfect as far as I was concerned and I spent the next two-and-a-half years seeing the world through their eyes every waking moment. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world because I loved doing it; however, I found that when I took them to events such as library read-alongs or play dates (which weren't really a "thing" yet) I tended to be the only Dad there. I saw this change quite quickly during the time I was a full-time Dad, but somewhere along the way the progression completely stopped and reversed itself and I really don't know why. It doesn't seem to be any more prevalent now with my friend about to give it a try than it was in my day. I have to tell you, in my opinion Dads don't know what they are missing.

Hallowe'en 1994
This is not to say that my time as a Dad was incident-free. For one thing, right before Gillian turned two (October 21, 1993; later that night Curt Schilling shut out the Jays in the World Series) she developed a barking cough that got worse as the day progressed. I had taken the kids to Markham to see my Mom but we came home early because I didn't like the sound of that cough. My instinct, though, is not to see a doctor for "every little thing" so I took the kids to a pediatric walk-in clinic that I knew of, only to discover it was closed. When the regular clinic close by proved to be too crowded to wait, I decided to just drop in on my kids' regular pediatrician for a quick look. As luck would have it, that was the only time—among countless visits we made there over the years—that he had a resident working with him; he took one look at Jill and said, "What are you doing here? She has to go to a hospital right now! She's almost blue!" and dispatched that resident to go with us to Sick Kids so she could streamline the admission process. I dropped her and Jill off at Emergency and took Tim to park the car; by the time we got back—not even ten minutes later—Jill had been admitted, taken into a room and put on a ventilator. That was the scariest thing I have ever seen in my life. There were several doctors and nurses looking after her—at one point the head of Pediatrics was in the room and checking her out—and all I could see for the most part were Jill's wide eyes staring at me over the oxygen mask. Her Mom got there as fast as she could and we watched and waited while they filled Jill full of oxygen and epinephrine, trying to open up her air passages so she could keep breathing on her own. It turned out, they told me at the time, that she had developed croup and it couldn't have gone untreated too much longer. When I asked a nurse about it the next day, I said that I was surprised that so many people were there to look after Jill because I had heard "croup" bandied about quite freely when I was a kid. "Oh, he has a touch of the croup," people used to say, much like they say they have "the flu" when they really don't. As a result, when they told me upon admission that Jill had croup I actually relaxed because I thought it wasn't very serious. "Oh, it's very serious," the nurse told me. "For a while there we weren't 100% sure she was going to make it." Let me tell you, those are words you never, ever want to hear as a parent, but especially when you were the one solely in charge of deciding how sick your child was and procrastinating before bringing her in to see a doctor. That was a very dark day. Jill's Mom stayed with her at Sick Kids that night and I took Tim home to sleep; I picked the ladies both up the next day and saw a much-improved little girl who had no real memory of how bad things were the night before, which was a true blessing.

Christmas, 1994
There were plenty of other moments where one or the other of the kids got beaten up a bit (not by other kids, though). All were handled with great aplomb by their Daddy, except for that croup incident. I've looked back on it often and can think of nothing I would have likely done differently with the knowledge I had at the time; now, of course, with the internet constantly at my fingertips I would have checked the "barking cough" symptom, found "croup" and its seriousness and been at the hospital hours earlier. That's the huge upside of the age we now live in. The downside is that it's much easier to be distracted from actually looking after your kids than ever before. When I was home with mine, the worst time-suck was the television, so I tried to control it as much as possible. We had the stereo on far more often than the t.v. (and my kids loved hearing Fred Penner and Sharon, Lois and Bram almost as much as they loved hearing Green Day and other current music) and we went out a lot. All year round I took those kids out every single day, pretty much in any weather. I mean, we tried to avoid thunderstorms whenever we could but winter was the best time to get outside. I don't know why, particularly, but I thoroughly enjoyed getting my kids dressed to go outside. I absolutely loved it, which must mean I have a screw loose somewhere. In fact, I seemed to have a natural affinity for dressing them at all levels, from the diapers all the way out to boots and mittens, and it was that way for me from the very first hours with Tim. Again, I never would have seen that coming in my "previous life", but it went a long way toward leaving me with wonderful memories of the times my kids were in their supposedly "Terrible Twos" and...whatever epithet parents use to describe their "Threes". I don't remember any of that. I swear to you, the first six years of my kids' lives were the greatest years of my own life, bar none. It makes me wonder if perhaps I should have been working at a Day Care all this time.

Dressed for Mother's Day brunch
Unfortunately, the end came to those wonderful years and it came in a very sad way: my wife and I—probably because she was now seeing too much of me after I left McDonalds—split up in the fall of 1995. Because we both still wanted to do whatever we could for the kids, I saw them every single night for the first few years, most times putting them to bed after supper and sometimes even getting to feed them supper first. If memory serves, for the first few months—until I found full-time work with Zellers—I took them to Day Care and picked them up again quite frequently as well. It was far from a perfect arrangement, but under the circumstances it may well have been as close to perfect as we could make it. If we could have managed to keep our marriage together, I would have stayed home with those kids until they were both in school full-time, which was two more years away. But the thirty months or so that I was a Stay-At-Home Dad were the most fulfilling, the most exciting, interesting and rewarding months of my life. Nothing else has ever come close and, unless Sarah and I are lucky enough to have a child of our own, nothing ever will. I cannot believe more men aren't lining up to try it for themselves, I really can't.

So I hope to relive some of those old thrills vicariously through my friend, not only on his blog but by hanging out with him when I can. My main recommendation to him: be ready to have a whole new world open up. If he's doing it right, he won't want to go back to his old job in six months!


  1. It is encouraging, at least, that "Stay at home Dad" is a familiar phrase to most people. No longer do we live in the era of "Mr. Mom" or "Daddy daycare". Even diaper and baby wipe advertisements are starting to show dads as active, involved caretakers. I hope our pal has as wonderful an experience as full-time daddy as you did.

    1. Well, that's a good point. But the advertisers are slow to catch up, for sure, as you and I have often discussed. It's hard for men to make this kind of change if it's continually assumed that they are idiots when looking after their own kids. It makes me sick to see some of these portrayals.

      I hope his experience rivals mine, too. :)


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