Last week, I taught my son Antonio how to shave. He’s 15 years old now and sporting that little peach fuzz, caterpillar ‘stache that you can only be proud of when you’re that age. But, alas, as a member of his school’s JROTC program, he’s angling for some personal hygiene inspection points by breaking out the razor for his inaugural shave.
Wow. Shaving. Where did the years go? Has it really been that long since we took him home from the hospital? Yesterday, he’s chewing on his toes in a highchair and today, he’s shaving?!? How can that much time have elapsed since I took on the greatest challenge of my life? I’m talking, of course, about my Stay-At-Home Dad Period…
My wife, Carol, and I got the news that we were expecting in December 1996. It was soon after that when she first broached the subject of our possible role reversal, and it looked to me as if she expected a quick and emphatic “NO!” She nervously beat around the bush for a while, trying to set up the most compelling narrative possible in the hopes of convincing me to stay at home with my son while she went to work full-time. I had to stop her in her tracks, though. A look of defeat spread across her once-hopeful face as she braced for my rejection. That is, until she heard, instead, this fateful sentence from her dearly beloved:
“Stay at home? With the baby? At home, right? Meaning, at home and not at a job??!? I’LL DO IT!!! I will SO do it!!!”
She looked more than taken aback by my instant embracing of this idea, and she wrapped me up in a tight hug that said ‘I love you for understanding and letting me do this!’ And I was truly happy for her. Carol was the brightest woman I’d ever met, so to watch her toil for so many years at a long string of crappy temp positions that represented only a paycheck to us was heartbreaking. She was so qualified, but like many recent college graduates, she just couldn’t find a job that challenged her in the least. That changed, though, when she interviewed at a videogame company in Long Island in 1992.
As an origin story, her tale challenges the Apple Garage Myth for moxie. Interviewing for a lowly administrative position at first, she took a tour of the facility with the interviewer after the initial sit-down, and eventually ended up destroying him in a popular arcade fighting game made by the company. Thinking her chances were now shot, having over-competed her way out of the job, she was dumbstruck to find out that they now wanted her to supervise the company’s brand new Testing Department. At a videogame company. Did you hear what I said?? She would be playing videogames, all day, for a living!! What kind of job was that??? Who was I to stand in the way of that kind of nirvana?
So with the positive pregnancy test still in hand in late 1996, Carol must have been ruing her woeful timing just a little bit. She had climbed the mountain after a near-lifetime in the valley, only to be toppled by… a beautiful life-changing event like having a baby. Would her husband understand her need to follow through on this journey, to prove to herself that she was destined for and finally rewarded with a more satisfying work experience than just menial, secretarial tasks?
Oh yeah, her husband was cool with it. In fact, I was positively ecstatic about the whole turn of events. Just the thought of staying at home, Monday to Friday, while other people rushed off to work was enough to seal the deal for me. Who hasn’t dreamed of that very situation? I had. Often. The only difference was there would be a baby in the frame with me as well. No biggie, I thought.
I pictured myself sprawled out shirtless on the couch, eating potato chips off my bare chest, rocking the baby’s cradle with my foot as I watched NFL Films reruns from 9 am to 5 pm. In this scenario, the baby sleeps for probably 6 to 7 hours, waking only to smile and coo at me while I spoon-feed him his Gerber baby food, not leaving a single spot on his ‘Who Farted?’ bib. When Wifey arrived home with the bacon, I would happily fry it up in a pan, sated as I was by my blissful day of blazing new paths in the Dad Domain.
Ahhh, the dreams of a parenting rookie. They make me laugh now, and I mean a spit-your-drink-across-the-cafeteria laugh, not a grizzled-old-veteran chortle.
Another gem of mine, to cement the notion of how absolutely clueless I was in regard to the bee’s nest I was about to climb into: the first night with the baby, I asked my mother-in-law if I should set the alarm clock. When she asked, “What for?” I looked at her in disbelief before blurting out, “So I’ll know what time to feed him!” My mother-in-law is a stoic type, but she erupted with laughter after I’d finished with that corker of parental ignorance. “Oh, you’ll know when he wants to eat. Believe me, you’ll know.” She left the room laughing, and I still didn’t know.
Anyway, back to the Before-Baby Bliss. It was with visions of laborless freedom that I approached my new gig as SAHD. That’s what parenting websites and other Stay-At-Home Dads called us back then. That acronym didn’t catch on in a big way, did it? That’s probably for the best, as I came to discover that we SAHDs were not looked upon very fondly by the other parents at the local playgrounds, parks, and other child-friendly haunts that I frequented. And when I say ‘other parents,’ I mean mothers.
The mothers I encountered were pretty sure that something as biologically imperative as motherhood shouldn’t be left to someone without ovaries. Upon entering the playground, I was eyed with suspicion by packs of know-it-all moms. God forbid I tried to add to a discussion on parenting issues. The hairy eyeball was in copious supply on those days where I bravely offered any pearls of my very limited parental wisdom within earshot of the members of this Mommy Mafia. This freeze-out eventually convinced me to keep to myself at the park more often than not, causing me to miss a ton of virtual think-tank conversations on various childrearing topics, all beginning with the line, “Well, you know what Oprah says…”
The early going was fraught with a lot of rejection, much more rejection than I’d ever encountered in any other pursuit in my life. The ways that you could be wrong while caring for a new baby were manifold, and I sought out every one of those ways like a dying man crossing items off his bucket list.
“Bottle? You want a bottle??”
Bottle smacked to the floor.
“Wrong. Okay, no bottle. You need some Cheerios? Want some O’s? You love—”
Cheerios everywhere, thanks to a pudgy right hook to the cloyingly bright orange Cheerio container.
“Wrong. Wow, it’s not even 8:10 in the morning, my eyes are still half-closed, and I’m failing to keep a two-month-old happy at a land speed record pace. I should call my Mom. She’ll know what to do.”
I pondered getting a Batphone-type connection to my mother’s phone number—you know, the kind where Commissioner Gordon picks up the red phone and instantly reaches the Caped Crusader. Who had time to punch in seven numbers, or even one speed-dial key, with a shirt full of baby puke and a mind full of baby-induced mush? I needed advice, and I needed it now, dammit! My mom almost always answered on the first ring, and never betrayed any kind of ‘What does he want NOW?’ feelings during our many
therapy sessions phone calls. She was an oracle, a guru, my Yoda. Sometimes I called just to say thanks, to tell her that I had just finished cleaning up a mess so gross, so putridly inhuman, that I had to call and thank her because, more than likely, she had done the same for me when I was making those gross messes. I’d have built her a shrine…if I’d had a minute.
Underestimating the time crunch that parenting presented was a critical error on my part early on in the game. Veteran parents counseled me (very wisely, it would turn out, but it was utterly lost on me) to ‘sleep when they sleep, you’ll be much fresher for it when you both wake up.’ Huh? Nap? In the middle of the day? What was I, a baby???
Besides, if I did that, I might miss The Jerry Springer Show, and that was not happening. Jerry and his inbred guests, not to mention the slavering audience members, would become some of my closest companions during my son’s late morning or early afternoon naptimes. I would vegetate on the couch, getting intimately involved with America’s hillbillies, a demographic that I had little interaction with during my childless heyday. I was obviously missing out on a lot of schadenfreude-cum-entertainment, and I ate it up. Prone as I was on the couch, I also ate up my share of junk food, although not off my bare chest, as previously fantasized about in my early, pre-SAHD reveries. Jerry vs. Napping? A blowout win for Jerry. Sorry, 2,000 years of civilization and human evolution. One giant step backward for mankind, thanks to me.
But after a few trying months of stumbling through the day-to-day caring for my son, a funny thing happened: I got better at it. I don’t know when, how, or why, but I just know it happened. Diaper disasters were anticipated. Bottles were ready when wailed for. Tantrums were quickly nullified by pressing the right button. It got to the point where I felt like I was one step ahead of everything, like the way athletes say the game slows down for them in crunch time. Things fell into a rhythm and it made the whole experience much easier to handle, and the rewards became as euphoric as the rejections had been soul-crushing. It was still the hardest job I’d ever had, but I no longer felt like I was on probation and one more written warning away from being let go.
When we were expecting our second son, Thomas, in 2001, Carol didn’t have to ask twice if she could stay home this time. As great a ride as it had been, I knew that a 9-to-5 day job would be many times easier than what I had just been through, and so we switched roles yet again. It was bittersweet, but I knew that Carol would get just as much joy out of the experience as I had. Now it would become my lot to be met by the miniature cheering section when I came through the front door at the end of the day, and that was its own separate but equal slice of heaven. Having done both sides of the Dad role, I would urge any young father to leap at the chance to stay at home, if only to get more of an appreciation for how hard a job raising kids on a day-to-day basis really is.
And so it was with a lump in my throat that I schooled my now-15-year-old Antonio in the mysteries of the clean-shaven face. It’s a long way from swabbing his butt with Desitin all those years ago, but it’s a beautiful journey that continues with each passing day. My early worries about him have been mostly assuaged as I’ve watched him evolve into quite a responsible young man. I remember his pediatrician counseling me during the toughest part of potty-training, saying “Don’t worry. He won’t walk down the aisle at his wedding wearing a diaper.” Good call, Doc.
And he won’t have 5 o’clock shadow at the altar, either, if I can help it.