I first became a stay-at-home dad on January 1st, 2008. I left behind the world of cubicles, meetings, and the countless emails that were needed to remind me of both. My daughter was just under two, my son was 4 months old, and my other son wasn’t born. As I look back now almost 13 years later, I’m still proud of that guy that decided that being there every day for his kids was important. And at the same time, I remember the disasters that happened along the way. I have those memories.
The first two weeks that I was home, my daughter got sick for the first time. Projectile vomit was my new paint scheme. The baby couldn’t be left alone for 5 seconds without screaming. My wife was in another city getting ready for her new job. There were no breaks. There were no respites. There was no cavalry because I was the cavalry. I ended up having to shower without a shower curtain just to keep an eye on everyone.
Several years later, I was in a new house and a new city. I was on the back porch looking at an almost dead bunny. The cat had dragged it in and left me a little present.
I couldn’t let my toddlers see this. They were too young to understand the nature of cats, and they love bunnies. And honestly, I was a bit worried what they might do with the cat. So, I grabbed my shovel and did what dads have to do. When I was finished, I turned around to see both of my toddlers behind me. They had watched the entire event.
On an adventure, I thought it would be a great idea to take my children to see a historic old jail from the 1850s. I loaded them up and invited my newly discovered dads’ group. The dads group changed everything for me. It gave me a place to vent, to find support, to get advice, and to take to weird places.
We went to the jail expecting history, but I did not read the entire website. This is a mistake I would make a lot. The jail was actually on a pilgrimage for Mormons.
At the time, my daughter was potty training. My daughter flashed her brand-new underwear to the tour guide and then proceeded to ask if she was also wearing underwear. And if so, my daughter would like to see it. I spent the next two hours trying to prevent my daughter from pulling down the dress of our tour guide. One of the other kids puked on the shrine that was part of the jail.
On a different adventure, I took another bunch of kids to the Glore Psychiatric Museum. They were all still toddlers. I thought it would be educational. Once again, I didn’t really read the website. It turns out that the history of psychiatry is full of torture devices from the medieval area and all the mannequins in the exhibits looked exactly like a mom. Oh, and it’s haunted too.
When my daughter was about to start kindergarten, I decided that I hadn’t taken advantage of my time as much as I should have. When kids begin to grow up, it seems to happen so fast. One moment you’re cutting heads off bunnies and the next they are leaving you all day; a part of you walks away.
So I took the kids to see the world’s biggest ball of twine. One the way, we stopped at a historic Victorian house built by a Mr. Dinsmore. He was a bit of an eccentric. The house was made of concrete, and logs, and decorated with nightmares. Sculptures that leer high above. Also, Mr. Dinsmore is still there 80 years after he died. He is preserved in the same way that the leftovers in my fridge. But to my kids’ credit, they took it in stride and were more grossed out than scared. I was scared, though. He looked like a zombie.
When my youngest son was born, we went to see Big Brutus. This is the second-largest earth-mover in the world. It’s 5 stories tall and you could fit two minivans in the shovel. There is a picture of me carrying my 3-month-old son up a flight of stairs and he looks so small. I look so big. And those stairs, in hindsight, do not look that safe.
On a dirt road to nowhere, I told my wife that if we just went fast, we could make it through the mud. She doubted me, but I convinced her to gun it. We made it about a hundred yards before getting stuck as the kids roared with laughter in the backseat.
Dad pro-tip: Never take kids to something called Spook Cave which is a tour that begins in a bass boat that almost sinks when 4 at-home dads and their kids climb in. Cave water is very cold.
My two oldest kids are teenagers now. When we go on the dad’s trip now, 12 years straight, they hang out exclusively with the kids they met at playgroup. They’ve known everyone since they were babies. It’s a very weird feeling seeing a kid you helped potty train look down on you because he is 6’5”.
But when those kids are alone and not aware that I’m listening, I can hear them cuss. Their inflection on the words and how they choose to use them leave no doubt to which father they learned those words from.
These are some of the highlights of my disasters of the last decade. There are many more. Times when I didn’t think I could do it. When parenting was overwhelming, and the anxiety would sneak into my chest and my forearms. They are the basis of my book The Ultimate Stay-At-Home Dad Manual. Those disasters that have defined who I am as a dad.
But those are my memories. The moments I cherish every single day. The ones that bring a smile to my face when I tell the stories. The anticipation in the eyes of the listener when I start a story with “Let me tell you about the time I accidentally showed the kids a dead body.”
When the anxiety comes or depression begins to hit on cold winter days, those are the memories that get me from one day to another. That is where I learned that I was always better than I thought I was, and the decision I made over a decade ago was the right one.
I talk to a lot of new dads. I give them what advice I can. But maybe the biggest advice I can offer is to embrace the doubt. That when you think you are doing things the wrong way, or that other parents are judging you, that’s when you are making those memories that will last you a lifetime. Give up the expectations of others and instead focus on what you expect or yourself.
For me, that means happily moving from one disaster to the next because I know that’s where the best memories come from.