My first day, a Monday, staying home with my 6-month-old daughter rolls around, and I’m afraid: that she’ll catch my severe cold, that she’ll cry all day, that I won’t know what to do, and that, above all, she’ll be angry Mommy isn’t home anymore.
Just make sure she sticks to a schedule. Do whatever it takes to keep her happy. She only naps for me if she’s in the baby carrier, so I stand with her strapped to me for each of her three 90-minute naps, reading and shifting my weight from one leg to the other and blowing my nose as quietly as possible. My daughter miraculously doesn’t catch my cold.
I make it through that day, through that week, through that year and the next. Come this January, I will have stayed home with my daughter for two years, and we’ve settled into a comfortable routine.
Step back to two months before my first Monday home with my daughter. My wife and I have decided it’s time to stop ignoring our financial reality. She graduated from college two years before I did, and she has a salary history to go along with the professional jobs she’s worked. I manage a secondhand bookstore. If one of us is going to stay home to care for our daughter and we’re going to pay our bills, it has to be me.
I suggest to my wife that she return to work, and she’s crushed that she’s not going to be home with our girl. But she agrees and contacts her former employer. Up to that point, I tell myself that it won’t matter if I’m not the provider, but when that conversation ends, I feel like a profound failure.
When I was in college I used to joke that my ambition was to be a stay-at-home dad, but it was never really part of the plan.
The circumstances are less than ideal, but everything goes well. That first week goes so smoothly that I now have a hard time remembering many details. Sure, it’s hard on my wife and I’m exhausted and sick, but our daughter’s happy, and one of us is home with her. Some time goes by, and it’s clear that having me stay home is working out.
Then the real fun begins. I start to think less about just getting through the days with her. Instead, I start to think about how I’m going to try to turn her into her daddy’s girl. I begin by saying that I need at least one activity a day, just something to do outside of the apartment. I take her to kids’ music shows at the coffee shop down the block. We go to readings at the libraries nearby. When we’re home, I feed her a steady diet of Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Tom Waits.
A couple months pass. She still naps only in the baby carrier, but now she’s only taking two 90-minute naps a day. When I feel like taking advantage of the spring weather, I strap her to me and walk to a quiet residential area, mystery novel in hand, so that I can read outside while she sleeps. She might be her daddy’s girl, but something tells me I’m not running the show.
I eventually join a playgroup and try some other new activities, such as baby-and-me yoga—or, as I think of it, my weekly reminder of how hairy and inflexible I am. I also pick a music class.
All parents project dreams onto their children, and I am no exception. I hope my daughter will succeed where I’ve failed and will have opportunities I missed out on. I learned a few three-chord songs on the guitar as a teenager, and used to sing—badly—at church when I was growing up. Beyond that, I have no real musical experience. I’m more confident in my ability to learn a foreign language than to read music. And so I’m thrilled at the idea of attending my daughter’s future piano recitals or even just hearing her loud garage band one day.
Of course, when parents’ dreams and the dreams of their children diverge, it can lay the foundation for a relationship defined by disappointment and resentment. I wish, or at least think I wish, my folks had pushed me to take piano lessons, play a trumpet, or at least tap my foot in time. I hate that I’m so tone deaf. I don’t want my daughter to be so inept. But what if she hates it? I won’t, or at least hope I won’t, push her so that she feels obligated to pursue music just to please me.
Maybe my folks understood something about me that I still don’t. I didn’t want to have anything to do with music lessons when I was younger, and I know they were listening to me. I appreciate that respect for the choice I made, but I regret making it.
So far, all of this seems a distant concern. My daughter is only 2 years old, and she loves the music class and the songs that we have to learn for it, especially when we goof around with the songs. She thinks it’s hilarious when I sing “Scarborough Fair” in my mock Henry Kissinger voice. But her imitation of my Kissinger imitation tops that. She goes crazy when I sing in a tragically off-key pseudo falsetto. She loves the drum I bought her six weeks ago.
When we’re in the class I try not to think about how silly I sound or look, because my girl has so much fun there. I’m the only dad in the class, and I can’t hide my voice: I can move up from the bass to the baritone range with effort, but I can’t reach any higher notes. Not that I even know what note I’m supposed to be singing.
During the dancing portion of class, I always think about the last time I tried to dance: I was 19 and had to stop after just 20 minutes because my back hurt so much, and I’m 27 now. My back hasn’t improved, though my daughter, thankfully, has stopped napping in the carrier.
Shortly before I started staying home, I was talking to a friend and mentioned what I’d be doing. He responded, “That’s great! I stayed home with my kids. You’re going to get to see a world most guys don’t get to see.”
At that time, when I was depressed because my wife couldn’t stay home any longer, that encouragement was helpful. Like any parent, I have tough days with my daughter. But this has been the right decision for my family, no matter the circumstances when we decided. Now that my daughter is acquiring new words, forming sentences, and singing along with her songs, I know how right my friend was. I’d love for my daughter to pursue music as she grows older, but I won’t need her to in order for this age to be special.
I no longer feel the weight of profound failure. I’m just home, with my girl, and happy for that.