It’s a wonderful, full life for this stay-at-home father and teacher.
I am up no earlier than 5:15 am, though it is usually closer to 6. I enjoy the quiet moments as I make coffee, where the bulb over the sink is the only light as I shuffle around getting the beans from the pantry, turning on the kettle. Eventually, crepuscular light creeps in the kitchen’s east facing windows as I pour my cup of black coffee. I like my coffee plain, and strong enough that you need to cut each sip with a knife and fork; a friend once asked me if I knew that my stove-top espresso maker made nine (smaller) espresso servings, not just one cup of strong coffee like I drink it.
But with four kids and 57 students, I need a muscular cup of joe this morning as I start to grade before the sun comes up.
I have two workdays, but they blend into each other throughout the day. My first is as a stay-at-home parent to my and my wife’s four kids. I’ve been home since my second-oldest, The Boy, was born six years ago. When my wife was pregnant with him, she got a job offer in Washington, D.C. She would make slightly more than we were both making together in Atlanta. The only problem was, the job offer came in late April, when all the teaching jobs were already taken, making finding a job difficult, especially in an area 650 miles away. And that was before we realized that my entire teaching salary would probably go to daycare for a toddler and an infant. So I became a defacto stay-at-home parent “just for a year,” I would say, to ease our transition.
I thought about returning to work, though. The next Spring, the only job offer I got was at a start-up school where the principal wanted us there every day from 7am to 6pm, all for the same low, low, low salary I made my second year teaching in Atlanta. Now we would have to pay MORE than my salary for daycare. No thanks. We discovered that me staying at home wasn’t perfect, but it was better than daycare, and less stressful than daycare drop offs. Our quality of life was higher: no rushed daycare drop-offs and pick-ups, no weekend family time fighting lines at the grocery store, no need for horrible slow cooker meals we’d pretend were delicious and not just borderline burnt. And after teaching, I’m used to the repetition and measuring out of the day in hour-long teaspoons. I’ve been home ever since. We have 100% more kids now, bringing us to 3 girls (ages 8, 3, 1) and one boy (6).
Some days it isn’t perfect, like those days when I don’t talk to another adult between my lovely wife leaving for work and her return. But I’m happy to spend time with the kids, working at a job where I can wear pajamas all day, read books to squishy little people, and have our house run smoothly. I respect families with two working families because I don’t know how they do it. Life is hard enough with a parent at home doing all the stuff that needs to get done.
I also work a second shift as a writing instructor to bigger kids two evenings a week at the large public university nearby. When I got the latter as a way of keeping my resume from having a decade-long black hole on it, I thought being a college instructor would be glamorous: I’d use words like “crepuscular” and wear a sports coat with patches on the elbows. Unfortunately, I found out in orientation that you get the elbow patches only when you get tenure. And it only went downhill from there as I became familiar with the academic ghetto of adjunct work. I don’t think about all that, though, in the mornings. I’m only thinking about the 57 memos I have to grade, where I get to discover what topics my students have chosen for their term paper projects.
Like most teachers, my students make my job endlessly entertaining, especially when it comes to what they choose to write about. This morning is no exception. Amongst the serious, highly useful and prescient term paper projects (e.g., pedestrian safety on traffic-congested campus, helping tutor local middle schoolers in STEM subjects, redesigning a computer science course to make it more welcoming to female students), there are some highly amusing ones. For example, the campus gym needs to make another weight room with no less than $3 million worth of weights to be useful. The dining hall needs more hot sauce (an in-depth comparison of Tapatio versus Cholula to be included). McDonald’s needs to get rid of the dollar menu because it attracts homeless people who make one student feel unsafe since “everyone knows homeless people commit crimes regularly.”
I sit on the couch, quietly using comments to help my students see past their stiff thinking and solidly mediocre writing. I wake up early to work because my kids wake up early: especially my 8-y-o daughter and 6-y-o son. I’m lucky if an older kid isn’t sitting next to me by 6:15. I tell them to learn something by reading a book. Then I try to ignore them. And even though my wife and I share parenting duties until she leaves for work, when either my 3-y-o daughter or my 15-m-o daughter wake up, no grading gets done. So my teaching hat gets replaced with my main hat: at-home parent. I don’t need to spend much space here convincing anyone that parenting is a full-time job, even if it only pays in hugs and kisses–none of which can pay the mortgage.
The morning routine soon gains momentum like $3 million worth of weights rolling downhill. Breakfast. School lunches. Getting kids dressed. Convincing the 3-y-o preschooler that a sleeveless nightgown isn’t a good idea when it is 39 degrees outside. Compromising with said preschooler and dressing her in tights. Telling the 6-y-o that he can’t have tablet time any of the 54 times he asks. Explaining to the 8-y-o budding chef that cooking scrambled eggs on high heat isn’t a good idea. Helping the oldest scramble eggs again, and teaching her how to soak a pan full of burnt egg paste in soapy water.
Today is different, though, since The Boy has a doctor’s appointment. As I start thinking about getting out the door, my wife texts me that the Beltway has been shut down because a truck was on its back, 18 wheels in the air; she helpfully warns me I should get going. But since hustling all four kids into the car is only slightly more complicated than Eisenhower’s D-Day plans, we only leave 10 minutes earlier than I planned. I drop the older one off at her bus stop on the way out of the neighborhood, then steel myself for what I will find. As soon as we turn out of the neighborhood, I find ourselves into a scene from Mad Max, if Mad Max had no high-speed chase scenes and was instead just stop-and-go traffic and honking.
There isn’t much to be done, as all the streets on this side of town are filled with cars being shunted off the freeway. I quickly learn that there are normally a lot of cars on a freeway. After thirty minutes, the baby has decided she has had enough of the “Chair of Despair,” and starts crying. This is not good because the baby has the preternatural ability to hit a pure note that is like a spike of sound piercing my skull and setting it ringing. She has learned this is very effective in getting whatever she wants, from water to more ice cream. Except we are in a car, and as much as I want to, I can’t get her out of her seat and drive with her on my lap like I imagine every child was required to ride by law during the Depression. Eventually, I figure out an alternate route that gets me within 2 miles of the doctor’s office. Things are going great. We are moving. When we get close enough to see the doctor office’s street, half a block from the main road that the Beltway is closed and all cars are required to exit. It takes us 39 minutes to go those last three blocks.
We entertain ourselves despite The Baby’s banshee impression. From a certain blogger’s story, I loudly demand, “Where’s my hot ham?! I need a little fish!” The bigger two kids will pretend to throw them at me. “Here’s your ham! Here’s your fish!” Then we all laugh. Except the baby, who continues to scream. When we hit the hour mark, I rummage through the diaper backpack on the passenger’s seat next to me and find a chocolate bar. “After an hour in the car, everyone gets chocolate!” I proclaim to cheers from all non-screaming children. The Baby sees what the others have and starts crying differently in the universally accepted message “I want what they have!” She stops crying long enough to eat the chocolate, and rub her tummy with her latest word, “Ummmmmm. . . ”
We reach the doctor’s office and park, 35 minutes late, 95 minutes after we left the house. I unbuckle The Baby and Preschooler and we all begin walking toward the office. Because it is a parking lot, I carry the baby and hold the Preschooler’s hand as we make our way through the parking lot. I realize that I had just been complaining that the road was a parking lot because we were moving slowly; now that we’ve parked, and are in an actual lot with mostly non-moving cars, I hold the Preschooler’s hand because “Careful! We are in a parking lot!” so evidently everyone drives maniacally fast here. I make a note of it to use this linguistic paradox and similar ones (e.g., we drive on a parkway but park in a driveway, etc.) to start my class tonight with something fun. I usually use YouTube videos, but this one seems more relevant to a writing class than last week’s digressive, 5-minute tangent about what “What Does the Fox Say?” and “Call Me Maybe” teach us about knowing your intended audience.
Everyone is late because of the traffic this morning. The doctor is just treating the day like the starting time got bumped 30 minutes. The two bigger kids play a game in the empty waiting room of being kings and princesses (always a princess, never a queen), while slithering from chair to chair. The Baby practices climbing up chairs and sitting in them. I praise the kids for their creative play. I praise Baby for her new skill. She claps along with me as I cheer for her and her newly discovered way to hurt herself: evidently she realizes innately that this would be the perfect time and place to fall and split her skull open.
By the time we leave the office, it is 12:30, and these kids need lunch. As a reward for their good behavior on the drive and in the appointment, we go to McDonald’s but don’t see any homeless people mugging customers, a gun in one hand, a $1 McDouble in the other. I make a mental note to ask my student which McDonald’s he goes to in order to avoid it. I know I shouldn’t like McDonald’s, either as a parent or as an academic. The list of negatives is long, even without counting marauding bands of homeless. Factory farmed food. Working conditions. Low wages. Too much sugar. Too much fat. Too much Americaness. But when I bite into one of the kids’ leftover nuggets, I am 8-years-old, back at my grandmother’s kitchen table, eating nuggets and fries for lunch–one of the few treats to look forward to about going to visit my mother’s mother. In the same second, I’m both parent and child. The paradox makes my head spin for a second, where I find myself surprised: “Where did all these kids come from? How can they be mine? And I live in Maryland?” But that lasts less time than it takes a French author to swallow a madeleine, and I am back to being daddy.
Especially since the preschooler does a ballet leap right into the side of the table, splitting her lip. I hold her on my lap and comfort her; ever since she was really small, whenever she’s hurt she wants me to say “cuddle, cuddle, cuddle” while rocking her. Even as she gets older, this works, even if less frequently than it used to.
When her tears finally end, we pack up and hold hands walking back to the car.
This essay first appeared on O Mighty Crisis.
Photo: Carissa Rogers