When I found myself pacing back and forth down the narrow hallway of our apartment on a Friday afternoon holding my crying baby, talking to myself, frantic and partially disoriented (a result of excessive exposure to crying babies, I've come to learn), waiting for Margaret, a chapter head or something from the local La Leche League, to return my calls and help me get this crying baby to take a bottle, it hit me: I am a stay-at-home dad.
I am startled as I look down on myself pacing in the hallway. Am I really waiting for a breast-feeding consultant to call me back? Am I really here all by myself with this screaming little bundle of joy?
The role of stay-at-home dad came with a lot of baggage that I didn't even know I was carrying. When I was growing up I didn't know of any stay-at-home dads. Orange County, Calif., in the 1980s was not exactly a place where men gathered with their babies and sat in beanbag chairs with their shoes off to discuss how they were feeling and what their new son or daughter was up to. After all, it has an airport named after the prototype for American masculinity, John Wayne. "Stay-at-home dad" to me meant bad sweat suits, a widening belly barely covered by stained, thin T-shirts or a guy who stayed at home so that the electronic ankle bracelet he was wearing wouldn't alert his parole officer and get him thrown back in the joint.
But here I am, pacing and praying to the mammary gods that the lady from La Leche League will call me back and tell me how, by what form of manipulation, deception and at this point outright coercion, I can get Sam to take the bottle. His mom is at work from 8 to 4:30 every day and Sam has decided to go on strike against the bottle.
Not only must I now contend with the social stigma of being a stay-at-home dad, but Mother Nature herself seems to be revolted at the idea that a child should be away from his mother, I think to myself as I pace and bob up and down, down the hallway holding Sam. He would rather, by instinct, be with his mom; he must hate me for staying home with him. This must be a hunger strike against my presence.
When he cries like this I like to put him in his stroller and walk up to Golden Gate Park or just around the block -- anything to get out of the apartment. Sometimes when I'm feeling especially liberated and fancy-free, and I have beaten back the ghost of John Wayne, I will even put Sam in one of those baby carriers that you wear on your chest and waddle confidently around our neighborhood with him. I will sometimes have one of those wide-angle moments and say to myself, "For Christ's sake I'm like a Blackfoot squaw with a child in my papoose. Shouldn't I be, like, conquering Wall Street, or doing something in front of a computer and wearing a headset? Shouldn't I be showering at the gym in the mornings, putting on a smart casual outfit and striding downtown to do something?"
People naturally do a double take when they see anyone -- let alone a 31-year-old male -- walking down the street with a baby that appears stapled to their chest. "Hmmm ..." is what I imagine the group of old Chinese ladies are saying to themselves when Sam and I walk by. Going by a construction site is the worst, though. Men driving back loaders and big tractors peer through the cloud of dirt at us and I half expect a catcall. They're out here moving earth and digging trenches and I'm bouncing my boy on my chest and singing "This Old Man" -- though I sing like a ventriloquist when we go by construction sites.
What can I say? These ghosts that haunt me are determined and deep-seated. I struggle with them every day.
I had two early ideas of what it meant to be a dad who stayed home with his children. First, the losers: the guy who stays at home all right -- passed out in an easy chair among empty cans of Oly in front of "Jerry Springer"; or the weird guy who wears nothing but fatigues and sits in a beach chair in his driveway while his kids run wild; or the dad who always wears a bathrobe, a little too loosely tied, with a racing sheet in the pocket.
The second archetype for the stay-at-home dad is the millionaire who spent too much time dedicated to his work and the pursuit of the almighty dollar, and now, after reading "When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple" and attending a doctor-ordered retreat -- filled with mud baths, meditation and this "really far-out grass you can drink" -- has decided to make a "paradigm change" in his "life operations" and stay home with his youngest child to participate in all that he missed as he provided for his family.
The first case is met with scorn, rightfully so. There are enough stay-at-home lowlifes in this world and I know you don't want one in your front room watching your baby. The second group is revered, however, for realizing that life is all about running through sprinklers with your kids, not faxes, taxes, paperwork, IPOs and such. The catch, of course, is that these guys are running through the sprinklers on their monstrous, well-manicured lawns behind their poshly decorated ranch-style houses -- houses paid for with a life of faxes, taxes, paperwork, IPOs and such. The wives sit on the porch drinking fresh fruit smoothies or mimosas and read the New York Times, still in their Tai Bo workout clothes.
Reality, I'm here to say, is somewhere in between for this stay-at-home dad. Although I did, early on, occasionally watch Springer while Sam napped, I found it too uncomfortable. I now watch no daytime television and I am never passed out. I am a reasonably well-functioning, fully participating sole daytime care provider for our 5-month-old boy. We live in a small apartment with no backyard, pay rent every month and are better off financially with one salary and no child-care expenses. Neither of us has the energy to be making fresh-fruit smoothies.
Not that I'm complaining. I am home by choice. I looked forward to the chance to spend the first year of my son's life with him at home. My wife and I made a deal that I would stay at home the first year and she would work; she will then return home and I will go off to work.
All of my adult life I have preferred the company of children to adults, so I was anxious for a reason to retreat from the adult world into the world of a baby. Although I'm aware of the possible psychological consequences -- my own arrested development, my preference for listeners who are unable to respond, etc. -- I have come to accept it.
Babies are where it's at. With babies you can act naturally, drop all pretenses and just be your goofy self. I will catch myself doing the river dance in front of Sam as he lays on the floor, while I sing "I've Got the Love of Jesus in My Heart." And what is so natural about that? you might ask. Well, actually, I'm still not sure. However, I now know that this song-and-dance man was in me all along and hadn't yet seen the light of day. It's safe to assume I wouldn't be doing the river dance in the lunchroom of some office building somewhere. I lose my socially shaped self in trying to keep Sam happy, and this new self emerges.
This cheesy clown self operates on the premise: the sillier, the better. Bring on the furry, cuddly little animals. Squeak my nose like a bike horn. Watch my tongue dart in and out of my mouth while I open and close my eyes. I'll try anything to make Sam laugh. No gag is too silly; all gymnastics are appreciated.
I came into this with certain, shall we say, romantic notions about what it would be like to spend a year at home with a new baby. I assumed what a lot of the men I know secretly assume -- one of those male beliefs that, like a fraternity handshake, is never revealed to outsiders: that going to work is more demanding and grueling than staying home with a child. When I tell other men what I do, the typical response comes with a little grin or tilt of the head that implies: "Well, you lucky S.O.B., how did you work that one?"
Others, like me, are more pragmatic: "That's great. Now you can write and paint and do all the things you want to spend your time doing, all the while participating in your child's life."
After just five months with Sam, I find this idea so funny that I almost can't keep typing. I had visions of myself painting my watercolors, with Sam in his bouncy seat in the corner watching me intently, the sun streaming in through the blinds and the cooing of my new son inspiring my creative expression; or after an afternoon of quiet writing, during which Sam, in the fantasy, is again somehow entertaining himself, I read Sam what I have written and learn to read his face for what he really thinks.
What, for God's sake, did I think my infant could do? Solve a crossword puzzle in the corner while I attend to my inner spirit? People seem to forget that babies can't be given a 2,000-piece Monet "Water Lilies" puzzle and be told to enjoy themselves for a while.
With Sam I feel what a comedian must feel when he is bombing in front of a crowd. I am seized with terror and panic that I am going to run out of material, or that the material I have just won't work with this particular crowd on this particular night. I get sweaty palms when I discover the fake sneezing is no longer able to keep Sam happy. Maybe I'll try the simulated-stuffed-animal attack. I rub a furry chick into his belly and growl just playfully enough to not scare him. When this doesn't work, it's "Wheels on the Bus" singing time.
The wheels on the bus go round and round
Round and round
Round and round
The wheels on the bus go round and round
All day long.
If a song like this happens to be working, then you want it to last as long as possible. This calls for what could be termed "baby-song scatting."
Oh, the exhaust manifold goes click click click
Click click click
Click click click
Oh the exhaust manifold goes click click click
All day long.
I spend a lot of time working on new material with Sam. I rest in between shows. The older he gets, the more material I can use: props, music, a little costuming, juggling, double entendre, irony.
He does sleep, of course -- for about 45 minutes out of every three-hour chunk. This is how I now view time, by the way -- in three-hour chunks. For the other two hours -- taking out 20 minutes or so for feeding, or a screaming fit that accompanies another day in his hunger strike -- it is a "Give it your best shot, buddy" sort of a day.
It's during these two hours that you act in ways that make you glad you're not being videotaped. You sing '70s power ballads; you do deep knee bends, holding the baby and singing show tunes (I had no idea I knew so much Broadway music). You do voices for stuffed animals. You blow up your cheeks and pop them for the baby so many times your cheeks feel as though they've torn and opened up. You crouch over your baby making faces that you've never made before -- even tucking your chin into your neck to accentuate the double chin you try to hide from everybody else. Nope, here it's all pretense aside, baby, this is show business.
I've had to adapt to life with Sam. It is neither easy, as part of me thought it might be, nor has it been a time for me to learn pottery or something, as my other half saw it. Sam has given me gifts that I didn't know I was looking for: the loss of pretense and posing, a fresh new way of looking at the world. It's as though he has wiped clean the dusty windshield through which I viewed life.
Sam loves "I've Got the Love of Jesus in My Heart" and all other Catholic schoolboy songs I can remember. He loves the singsong cadences; me, I love them because they allow me to, once again, sit in the long yellow-brown wooden pews at St. Cecilia's Church as a fifth-grader at a Friday all-school Mass. I hear the high-pitched scream-singing of schoolchildren to such gems as "Praise Him," whose lyrics, full of symbolism and verve, go:
Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him in the morning
Praise Him in the noon time
Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him till the sun goes down.
Before I had Sam to sing these songs to, I seldom looked back on that time. If I did look back, it was with the hip cynicism that I, and many of my generation, let pass for intelligence. I remembered the alcoholic priest or the fact that none of us wanted to be there in the first place. I remembered all the shame I learned back there.
But now I love to sing those songs to Sam because I love to think of all those kids on sunny Friday mornings: boys in salt-and-pepper pants and white blouses, girls in plaid jumpers (a plaid found nowhere in the world except on Catholic schoolgirl uniforms), 600 first- through eighth-graders belting out "Praise Him," or an incredibly off-key, echoing version of the "Our Father." I think of all of the giggling fits I had while sitting in the cold, hard pews at those Masses. It would start when someone farted. Everyone would try not to laugh. You could not move a muscle or you would get detention; this just made us laugh even harder and forced us to cover our faces with our hands as though deep in rapturous devotion. Tears streamed down our faces; each time one of us caught our breath, another would start losing it. This went on until our stomachs hurt and we feared that if we laughed any more we might actually pee in our pants.
Sam has given me this gift of a fond memory viewed with the sentimentality of the cheesy clown. I admit it still feels frighteningly simple and square -- my pretense of hip detachment has woven itself tightly into my soul -- but to hold Sam in my arms and sing him sappy church songs is one of the best, most joyous things I have ever done in my life.
Believe me, I didn't think I'd be one of those people who wrote about his kids and how one time the kid puked on him and taught him grace or something. I did not want or envision such a thing. But such is the power of this gift from Sam: He has puked on me and he has taught me grace.
Say it loud and say it proud.