A few weeks from now I mark my ninth anniversary of being a stay-at-home dad, or SAHD if you’re really into horrible acronyms. That is damn near a decade! I’m also well past those demanding first years of my children’s lives, those years before the glorious respite that is grade school. The ones that society unanimously agrees men are incapable of handling alone; the mothering years, if you will. Based on these two arbitrary standards I’m both a veteran and an expert.
As such, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the lessons I gleaned during these nine years as primary caregiver and homemaker with any newbie or soon-to-be Dads out there contemplating my still far less traveled parenting path. Hey, if there is one thing the internet desperately needs it’s more sanctimonious advice from a non-credentialed blogger.
You won’t be the great parent you thought you’d be.
I’ve forgotten a lot over the years. Age and sleep-deprivation will do that to you. But if there’s one thing I remember with crystal clarity it was my self-promise to be the greatest dad in all of history. That’s natural, I suppose. I can’t imagine a new parent who doesn’t embark on this adventure without such intentions. But for a stay-at-home Dad this desire is amplified if only due to the rarity, and thus pressure, of the gig itself.
I waltzed into my first days on the job ready to rewrite the history books on what it meant to be a great Dad, my sweet, innocent one year old daughter the unknowing guinea pig. Not only did I have a future adult to mold and ultimately impress when she looked back on her incredible childhood, but I had millions of Moms out there to astound with my remarkable caregiving chops.
Of course, that never happened. No matter how hard you try, you’ll come up short. I wasn’t a bad Dad but I wasn’t what I dreamed I would be; what I promised myself I would be. That’s a damned hard thing to accept some days. But you won’t be a failure because of it. You’ll be just another parent who learned on the job, got some things right, got some things wrong, and did your best.
Thankfully the bar is set really low.
Here’s the good thing about what I just said, or the sad thing, depending on your point of view. The bar is set really low for stay-at-home dads. Nobody expects us to do this to begin with, never mind excel at it. All the men you’ll meet will assume you’re only doing it temporarily and not by choice. You know, until a “real” job comes along. All the women you’ll meet will immediately think you’re fantastic for even trying. And they too will assume you’re only doing it temporarily.
That may all sound really crappy and terribly patronizing, and it is, but it takes a lot of pressure of you because hey, you’ve already over-achieved in their eyes. Disproving archaic television Dad tropes is not only easy but guaranteed to land you a bit of hero worship from nearly everyone you’ll ever meet. Trust me, not being saddled with the dreadful expectations mothers (especially some mommy bloggers) place on each other is a blessing to be cherished.
It’s not as hard as most people think or desperately want you and everyone else to believe it is.
I’m fully expecting to catch some flak for this statement, but I stand by it fully. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that my job as a stay-at-home dad is much harder than, well, apparently every other job on the planet. Stay-at-home moms especially want the world to believe that childrearing is unquestionably the most difficult job in the world.
It’s not. Oh, I don’t doubt it is for some. It undoubtedly is for those with special needs children or other unique cases. All rules have exceptions. But those singular situations notwithstanding, it isn’t that hard. No, it wasn’t always easy. There were plenty of trying times, as anyone who’s gone through toilet training can attest, but it’s nothing like the martyrs would have believe.
But it definitely takes some luck.
And I was surely lucky. Both my kids slept and napped well. They played independently well and eventually they played with each other well. There’s no secret I can share to make this happen for you. I am no toddler whisperer. I just got lucky. Take the luck when and if you get it. Potty training was hell for me so it’s not like I was always lucky.
However, if I can make a bold statement based on nothing but my own anecdotal evidence, I would say 98.473% of all troubles with small children stems solely from them being tired. Rested kids are happy kids and happy kids are the bloody easiest kids to care for. So make sure they always get the sleep they need and boy do they need a lot.
And here’s something a lot of new parents don’t like to hear; that means you will have to adjust your schedule and your lifestyle. You have all day. There’s no reason to be grocery shopping when junior should be napping. Your needs and especially your wants are secondary now. So, yeah, you might have to sit around and watch Matlock reruns after lunch for a couple hours. Big deal. That’s a hell of a lot better than trying to pick up a screaming toddler off the grocery store floor while eye daggers from dozens of strangers knife into the back of your skull. Besides, Matlock was awesome!
It can be mind-numbingly boring.
The difficulty level is so low, in fact, that there are times when you will be bored out of your skull! This is partly due to misplaced expectations but also the reality of having your life ruled by a creature that needs to nap every couple hours.
My expectation was that I’d be meeting all sorts of parents, mostly moms, at the parks in our community. All of us would be out walking our kids and playing with them at the playground, meeting each other and building friendships and community and all sorts of other odious fifties-style urban living fantasy stuff.
The reality was that over the years of doing this with my kids (prior to them being in school), I only ran into other parents a mere handful of times. Usually, all the playgrounds were empty during the day. Most parents in my neighbourhood work and send their kids to daycare or have nannies. I joined a play group at a local community centre just to witness other parents with kids twice a week. So venturing outside was as dull as being cooped up inside.
As the kids aged this became less of a problem. We could actually do stuff together. Exploring was more fun as their curiosity ignited. But when they’re little, bound to strollers and napping regularly, good lord does the boredom hit hard.
And it can be just as lonely.
You’ll be alone … a lot. I honestly didn’t mind it so much. Or so I thought. I’m not a super social guy. Looking back, though, it probably bothered me more than I admitted to myself. At least there’s email and Facebook and dozens of other outlets that weren’t available to our mothers when we were kids. With only a telephone offering me access to the big world outside I’d have been a veritable mental mess.
So find out where the moms hang out and join them.
It may be 2017 but lots of moms (and some Dads) are still doing exactly what you’re doing. They are out there. You just have to find them because they likely won’t be your immediate neighbours. The neighbourhood parks may be empty but there are plenty of playgroups filled with other great stay-at-home parents looking for a bit of social interaction with beings capable of speaking complete, coherent sentences.
I live in a large city so my options were plentiful. I found a great group run by local moms in the community next door. I met some amazing women there and made great friends, some of which I now consider my best of friends and our families do things together regularly.
So ask around. Check your community newsletter or search online. I guarantee you will find a playgroup or something similar where you can enjoy adult interaction while the kids play in a group setting. Who knows, they may even wish to talk Matlock.
Seriously, they’ll adore you.
You’re a man choosing to do something our grandmothers were expected, dare I say forced, to do. In some corners of society they still are. I think most women appreciate your willingness to step into their shoes. Not completely, mind you. You’re not walking around in the uncomfortable four inch stilettoes for an entire day but you’ve boldly slipped on the peep toe flats for a few hours.
Yes, there are the odd stories to the contrary out there, but my experience has been nothing but terrific. Maybe because we’re vastly outnumbered in such forums we men aren’t nearly as threatening as usual? Whatever the reason, unless you’re exceptionally creepy or dickish, the stay-at-home moms you meet will treat you very well. You’ll be an honourary member of the sisterhood, though you won’t get any travelling pants. But I did get invited to Girl’s Night by the moms in the playgroup I joined which was fantastic though surprisingly unlike my fantasies.
Just be prepared for conversations you never thought you’d have.
Once you’re accepted into the group and make some friends, brace yourself for what’s coming. You have to realize you’re now “one of the girls” and that means you’ll get front row seating for one of the more popular conversation topics at playgroups; birthing stories.
Like war buddies reliving past glories (and horrors) over a few pints at the Legion, moms bond over their own variation of war stories. And believe you me, these can get pretty damned intimate and occasionally horrifying as well. There’s just no preparing for that moment a recent stranger drops the word “cervix” in conversation with you.
Sure, it’s all meant to shock you. And it often will, especially if your own wife’s birth experience was relatively uneventful. But remember, it also means they trust you and accept you so enjoy it as best you can. You’ve now got a new tribe. Savour that. And when you get back home you can be thankful for you penis all the more.
Help out wherever you can.
Be it playgroup, preschool, or elementary school, get involved. Volunteers are always needed at these kid focused institutions and they’re going to ask relentlessly for help. Some preschools even require your help as a condition of acceptance. It’s a great way to give a little back to the community as well as helping the time pass when you’re bored. Maybe Matlock gets bumped for Golden Girls every Wednesday. You can glare at the TV in horror for an hour or you can make playdough for preschool. It involves Kool-aid. Trust me, you’ll love it.
Most importantly, though, your involvement will provide a wonderfully unique and rare perspective for the kids. And they do notice. There aren’t a tonne of Dads waltzing around during the daytime hours at home or at school. Your very presence makes you special, a novelty, and most of the kids really dig that. They’ll be all over you and it’s a fantastic feeling.
Plus it doesn’t hurt to nudge the teachers and Moms out of their comfort zone a little bit. They’ll appreciate your being involved and it maybe shows some of the gals a different way of doing things.
But remember that it remains a predominantly female vocation.
My son’s first year of preschool saw me get volunteered (thanks Dear) to be the official maker of playdough each month. I was required to conjure a monthly batch of playdough, matching the official colour of the month, for the kids to play with. At the end of the year I, along with the other volunteers, were given a thank you gift from the staff and kids. That gift? Flowers.
Is that a sexist gift? Maybe. But it speaks to the reality of the childrearing industry. This preschool was owned by women and fully staffed by women. Most of the kids were dropped off by women and picked up by women. Not surprisingly, all the volunteers were women. And when it comes to thank yous, women get flowers. Still don’t think there was gender bias in this gift? The flowers were chrysanthemums. ChrysantheMUMs!
Was a small hand tool too much to ask for? Maybe a chunk of meat? And if you are dead set on flowers, why not something masculine sounding like Snapdragons or Wolfsbane? A Venus Flytrap would have been pretty manly. Ooo, Lungwort; that’s got a Dad kind of ring to it. Hell, why not one of those giant flowers that smell like rotting flesh!
Most of all, savour the experience.
You’re getting to do what almost no Dad got to do in the past and to this day very few Dads get to do and that is watching your kids grow up in real time. First word, first step, first successful potty usage; odds are those are going to be your experiences exclusively. And that doesn’t even begin to touch the thousands of amazing, hilarious, and strange incidents, questions, and actions that your children will live each and every day.
These are sacred moments that none of us remember from our own lifetimes. You’ve been given the privilege of sharing them with another human being who will look to you to be their memory in the years to come. Savour this honour.
Because it’ll be over way too damn quick.
Few clichés are more truthful. Both my kids are in all day school now. The cuddles in bed are dwindling. The hugs are fewer. The goodbye kisses at the school yard have stopped. They are amazing in entirely new and fascinating ways but those precious “little kid” years are gone already. Despite the boredom and the loneliness and endless Matlock reruns it all went by so quick. It already feels like forever ago. I miss it. Except the potty training. I miss everything but the #$&%ing potty training.