Right before my wife picked up her purse and briefcase, she hugged me goodbye and said, “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”
“Suuuuure,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
Jessica walked over to the bassinet swing where our then 6-week-old boy lay swaddled from neck to toe. She leaned down and kissed Elias’s forehead and then tightened his blanket.
“Do you need me to show you again how to swaddle him?” she asked.
“No, I remember,” I said, kissing her goodbye. “I just wrap him up in blankets until he looks like a PEZ dispenser. I can do that. Don’t worry.”
“I’ll try not to,” she said, adding as she walked out the door, “Make sure you take some pictures.”
On that morning, my wife worried for two reasons: 1) Because she was going back to work for the first time since going on maternity leave. And 2) because it was my first day as our son’s sole Thursday/Friday stay-at-home caregiver.
Jessica wasn’t worried about my well being, of course; she was concerned about Elias’s. At the time, I didn’t blame her. The thought of leaving our one-and-only son in my care for nine-and-a-half hours without a chaperone worried me too. It’s not that I’m a bad guy, but it’s no secret that sometimes I have the attention span of a hyperactive squirrel trapped in a grocery store. While my ADHD makes me a rather interesting and charismatic father, Jessica and I worried that it could potentially make me a deadbeat nanny.
At the time, I was caring for Elias a couple of days a week because full-time child care costs the same as our mortgage. Since I already worked from home as a freelance writer, I agreed to do it. It made sense for our situation, but I confess, I wasn’t looking forward to it. Unlike the scores of female friends I know who have dreamed about being stay-at-home parents since they were old enough to ovulate, the thought of being alone in the house with an infant for an extended length of time didn’t tickle my hormones one bit.
For the first few weeks, when Thursday morning came around, I became anxious, which didn’t make me the most effective caregiver. Every time my son cooed, blinked, yawned or farted, I reacted like MacGyver attempting to defuse a ticking time bomb, except I was using breast milk and a number two nipple. Eventually, after I realized that my son’s syncopated siren of a screech couldn’t hurt me, and more importantly, that it was actually his way of communicating with me, I rested easier (and more gracefully) in my role. In time, I started to enjoy my time with him, and eventually I started looking forward to it. Well, most of the time.
There were a few surprises. For instance, it never crossed my mind that I would engage in a serious conversation with a stranger about the time I accidentally learned the flavor of breast milk. Now, it’s one thing when that kind of confession happens in the form of an awkward punch line that’s met with uncomfortable silence; nobody would want that. But it’s actually quite exhilarating when it occurs within complete context while standing in line at MaggieMoos.
However, becoming comfortable in my fatherly skin caused me some embarrassment. Like the time I was with Elias at Starbucks. I was waiting for a friend to arrive when I overheard a group of three well-dressed moms with kids in tow talking about breastfeeding.
“I use a breast pump when I’m at work,” one of them said. “So far it’s working all right.”
She looked around the coffeehouse to see if anybody was listening and apparently failed to notice me and my ears. That’s when she whispered, “But damn, that thing makes my nipples hurt!”
(Un)fortunately, I was able to read her lips. And what’s worse, I knew of a product called Soothies that my wife used when her nipples were sore from breastfeeding. I didn’t just blurt out my suggestion without considering the ramifications of my being a guy and offering this kind of information to a woman I didn’t know. But the woman kept going on and on about how her nipples were raw and sore and how her predicament was causing her to consider giving up breastfeeding. So when I felt I had constructed in my head the most non-icky manner in which to offer my suggestion, I tapped one of the women on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” I said. It went downhill from there.
The women stopped talking and looked at me in horror, as though I was an ad on Craigslist that began with DWM ISO. They didn’t seem to notice that I, too, was holding a cute 5-month-old, which from my perspective made me appear like “one of them,” a loving parent spending time with his son on a Thursday at Starbucks. At the very least I thought it made me appear “safe.” But as I shared with them my wife’s remedy for sore, irritated nipples, none of them offered any facial expressions that suggested my advice was warranted or even welcomed. When I finished my sales pitch for Soothies, the lady whose nipples needed comforting said, “Thanks.”
When my friend arrived, I told her what happened. “If I’d been a woman, I’m pretty sure they would have treated me differently.”
“Well, duh,” my friend said. “That’s because you don’t have boobs.”
It was sometimes odd being a stay-at-home dad in a world of stay-at-home moms.
My situation got me a variety of looks when I’m out in public with Elias. Some people seemed to feel sorry for me because they thought I was a widower. Others stared at us in wonder as if Halley’s comet was shooting through Dillard’s. I’m convinced a few people thought my “stay at home” status meant I was unemployed or lazy or a vegetarian, tree-loving socialist.
And then there was a look I got from my wife every once in a while, a blank stare that she gave me after I told her about one of Elias and my adventures. Her expression usually stopped me in the middle of my story. And then I smiled.
“Yes, Baby, I took pictures.”