The Education of a Stay-at-Home Father

My daughter is screaming.

The other children all have on their sky-blue nursery school T-shirts, but Helen—for no reason that I or her teachers can discern—refuses to wear hers. “You have to put on the blue shirt so you won’t get lost at the amusement park,” I tell her (thinking, Why must she wear the damn shirt if I’m going to be with her the whole time? and why, out of all these kids, must mine be the only one throwing a tantrum?), but her response is to drop to the floor and writhe while the other children and teachers and class mothers watch her, and watch me, the only father in sight, the one parent who can’t handle his child. It doesn’t matter that she’s cheerful and cooperative most of the time; right now she’s acting like a beast with her foot in a steel trap, and I have no idea what to do. In the end I carry her—straining against me, still screaming even though I’ve stuffed the blue T-shirt into her diaper bag—onto the yellow bus and down the narrow aisle, holding her feet so she won’t kick anyone in the head. The bus rumbles and roars, we bounce through the neighboring towns, and Helen’s inexplicable rage slowly abates, as it always does.

At the amusement park, she rides the merry-go-round four times, and we take the train together three times, and I watch her intently grip the little steering wheel of the pink boat as it goes around and around in its circular pool, her smile of pleasure compressed slightly because she feels me watching: my heart aching with adoration for my beautiful girl, this smooth, round-faced little person who is no longer a baby but her own willful, incomprehensible self.

This is a story of misery and joy.

I never wanted a job. I’m a writer; every job I’ve ever held has felt like a theft of my  time. And so, when my wife’s maternity leave ended, we agreed that I would stay home with our three-month-old daughter. Jennifer would commute to the city and bring back the money, since she earned more than I ever had and actually derived satisfaction from her work. I, meanwhile, would rock Helen on my shoulder when she cried, mix the Enfamil, and write during her naps.

The arrangement made perfect sense—but I hadn’t anticipated the terror, or the boredom. Each morning, as I woke and remembered that I would be responsible all day for this vulnerable, alien creature who depended on me entirely and couldn’t speak, I would cover my head with a pillow for as long as possible, paralyzed with fear. We had just moved from Manhattan to Montclair, New Jersey; for living space, broad-aisled supermarkets and a car, we had traded in the buzz and dazzle of the city I loved. Condemned to solitary confinement and sensory deprivation, I took Helen out for long walks in the snow, hoping to see other people: a Manhattan habit, pathetically unsuited to the suburbs. The wheels of her carriage barely fit through the narrow shoveled paths, and caught constantly on slate sidewalk slabs that had been lifted by tree roots. Just as mothers forget the pain of childbirth, I can’t remember how I got through those first few months.

The loneliness eased once she began to speak—but other anxieties remained. Like the President of the United States, I had to live with the knowledge that the smallest of my actions would have consequences. The way I talked to Helen now, and how I dealt with our conflicts, would create happiness or neurosis in her future. If I continued to say Don’t as often as I did—”Don’t walk in that mud,” “Don’t put your hand so close to that candle,” “Don’t fling those tax papers in the air”—a little cop might grow inside her head, who blew his whistle each time she got ready to do anything remotely adventurous. I tried to censor myself, to let her get dirty, explore, and make minor mischief, but more often than not, my need for order overpowered my good intentions.

There was another anxiety, less comical, lurking behind the others. What if a child needs to be with its mother, or at least with a woman, in order to grow up whole? I mentioned this concern to a few friends, most of them women, and they all (being friends) assured me that I was a great father, that Helen was lucky to have me at home, etc., etc. The question remained, though: Will she get what she needs from me?

My ambition to be a writer has always involved visions of glory. From college on, I worked hard, confident that I would amaze the world by my thirtieth birthday, soaring above friends who became mere doctors and lawyers.

It didn’t happen that way. After twenty years of hard labor, I find myself more or less anonymous. No prizes, no fame, no money—just a bunch of stories in literary magazines, a children’s picture book, and a novel to be published by a small press. Instead of smiling in the sun of universal adulation, I lack even the normal respectability of a job.

And how do I spend my days? At home with a three-year-old, making a few thousand dollars a year from freelance writing while my wife earns four-fifths of our money.

There are two things to say about this. First, many women who give up work to stay home with their children report the same discomfort. In this country, if you don’t earn your own money, no matter how worthwhile your reasons, you end up feeling small and embarrassed. Second, for a father especially, earning little or nothing means walking around in a permanent haze of shame.

Fortunately for me, my wife is less scornful than grateful, because our daughter (unlike many) has a parent at home during the day. I consider it a testament to her character that she doesn’t disdain me for doing what most people, in their heart of hearts, consider a woman’s job. Among friends and family, though, I suspect I’m viewed as a nice guy who has failed. Men friends never ask about or comment on my situation—the Code forbids it—but I imagine they would rather go to work in a salt mine than trade places with me. And my elderly neighbors, most of them born in Italy, must watch me pushing Helen in her stroller when other men are working and wonder, Che cosa fa? What’s this guy doing?

 When I’m with Helen, though (i.e., for most of my waking hours), there is little room to brood over injuries to my pride. Our days are a stew of errands, sudden rages, and unexpected joys. The reality of the work pre-empts self-pity.

Underlying everything is exhaustion. She wakes each day before seven, hours before I would like her to. We hear her thundering feet coming our way, and I hide under the covers. Climbing into bed between us, she tells Jennifer about a dream or about a toy she covets. Then, on weekdays at least, I drag myself out of bed and help her choose her clothes for the day.

My yearning for sleep makes me dull company on these weekday mornings. The moment we get downstairs, Helen says, “I want to watch.” I’m only too happy to turn on Sesame Street or a Disney video, so I can dress her while she’s too mesmerized to impishly put her legs into her shirtsleeves. Even in my drowsiness, though, when she climbs onto my lap for socks and shoes, I can’t resist tickling her and making her wiggle and laugh.

You never know whether the morning will go smoothly or horrifically. When the pediatrician changed her vitamin dosage and the new pills turned out to be square instead of round, we had fights every day for weeks because she refused to take them. I would stand between her and the television, blocking her view of Barney and insisting, “They’re the same vitamin! It’s just a different shape!” and she would do her best to ignore me. One day she said dismissively, “Would you go in the kitchen?”—a teenager, ten years early.

While she’s neutralized by the TV, I dress, shave, make her lunch for school, and fortify myself for the inevitable struggle over… turning off the TV.

Simply saying, “Okay, time to turn it off” would produce a tantrum, so first I warn her, “In five minutes, we’re going to turn this off and eat breakfast.” Then I come over and put her on my lap, giving her the remote control. “After this skit,” I forewarn her. When the scene is ending, I say, “Now,” and she says, “Not yet!” and I say, “If you don’t turn it off, I will.” Here she will usually hand the control back and say, “You do it”—except on the days when she goes berserk.

I don’t understand what causes her tantrums, but I do know they usually come when she hasn’t eaten in hours, or is overtired. Crabby and antagonistic, she fixes on something she can’t have—a video that we’ve already returned to the library, or Cocoa Puffs for lunch—and when I say, No, she whines, then demands, then screams. I can’t count the number of times I’ve carried her howling to her room, or to the car, or out of a restaurant. Lately, as the intervals between tantrums have grown longer and I’ve come to expect more or less reasonable behavior from her, I find that her sudden eruptions of contrariness provoke my anger almost instantly. “Don’t do this!” I snap. It never helps.

While Helen is in school, I race to cram three careers into three and a half hours: writing fiction, writing grant proposals for pay, and fixing anything that has broken in the house (or planting flowers, mowing the lawn, etc.). Having stolen this bit of time to do the work I care about, plus the work that earns me money (and therefore the right to hold my head up), plus the household tasks that gnaw at me if left undone, I’m happier than at any other time of the day, and look forward to seeing her again.

When I pick her up from school, she comes running at the sight of me, calling, “Daddyyyyyyy!” and banging into my crouching embrace. She’s been doing this since her first days in nursery school; it’s just a ritual by now, but it still lifts my soul every time.

We rarely leave school right away, because Helen usually wants to run around the lobby or the front lawn with her friends. She especially likes playing with boys—the rougher the better. She dives into the snow with them, flops down on top of them, and shrieks exuberantly. It’s good to see her from this distance once in a while: to remember, after our battles, that she’s only three feet tall.

After lunch, Helen goes upstairs with me. I draw the shades in her room and read books to her while she eats one last snack. (She can never seem to eat a full meal in one sitting. If I don’t give her a snack, hunger will keep her from napping.) On cold winter days, she nestles against me and looks at the pictures, and then the welcome warmth of her body becomes a reflection of the love she draws out of me. These are some of our best times.

Our worst times come when she refuses to nap. She’s three and a half now, and many of her friends have given up their naps, but she still seems to need hers. (She sleeps like a rock once she’s out, and behaves monstrously if she stays awake.) Still, I’ve been living for a year with the guilty sense that I’m forcing her to sleep, imposing naps on her tyrannically for my own convenience. Nearly half the time I have for my own writing comes during her naps, and the possibility that she’ll deprive me of even one day’s session drives me almost to hysteria. The day after she moved from a crib to a bed, she came out of her room nine times, frustrating me to the point of rage. I lost my patience, screamed at her, even pinned her down by her arms on the bed. “Don’t do that, Daddy,” she sobbed, and I saw myself in a stark light: selfish, violent, and wrong. It was the low point of my life as a parent.

Remorseful, I gave her everything she asked for (TV, ice cream, candy), and recognized in that overcompensation a second defeat.

Most days, though, she sleeps well in the afternoon, and we enjoy each other’s company for the hour before supper. Sometimes we play baseball in the unfinished basement (last month she managed to hit the red ball with the big purple bat for the first time), or get fries at Burger King and share them while doing the grocery shopping, or blow bubbles in the backyard with the neighbor’s granddaughters. When we’re having fun together—energetic fun, the kind that requires me to gear up and overcome my middle-aged inertia—I enjoy myself more than I have in years. She asks for ballet music; I put The Nutcracker on the turntable and we dance together like Baryshnikov and Thumbelina. I twirl her overhead (watch out for that ceiling fan!) and leap ridiculously across the living room, and she laughs a laugh of total satisfaction. She wants this dance to never end.

Jennifer and I take turns making large pots of food on the weekends, and microwave the leftovers during the week. Dinner always begins as an enthusiastic mother-daughter reunion, but often degenerates into a struggle to get Helen to eat. She would devour a ten-course meal if we let her eat in front of the television (I know because we used to do it), but at the table she nibbles just enough to take the edge off her hunger, and spends the rest of the time clowning. “Look at me!” she says, wearing a strand of spaghetti across her lip as a mustache. Jennifer loses her patience first, because this is the beginning of her time with Helen and she wants felicity, not a fight with a daughter who climbs down from her chair after three bites, saying, “All done.”

If Jennifer’s coaxing escalates to angry scolding, I sometimes intervene, to avert war. Without planning or intending it, we fall into the roles of Good Cop and Bad Cop. It’s not hard to see why: when one of us gets furious, the other one reflexively steps in to protect and reassure Helen. The amazing thing is how well it works—just like on TV.

(On the other hand, Helen’s tantrums sometimes set off family battles. My wife has a temper of her own, and Helen’s rages upset her even more than they do me. If she suppresses her anger at Helen, then it seethes inside her until she explodes at me instead. There is always some way in which the tantrum was my fault: I didn’t give Helen enough notice before shutting the TV, I tried to fit too many activities into one day. To be criticized when my nerves are already on edge is intolerable, and so I shout louder than either of them, furious that I have to deal with two raging females instead of one. These are virtually the only fights Jennifer and I have, but it depresses me that we have them at all.)

After supper comes the hand-off. While I clear the table in comfortable solitude, Jennifer takes Helen up to play in her room or take a bath. My wife would prefer that the three of us spend this playtime together, and I agree that it sounds idyllic, but the truth is, I stay away as long as possible. By the end of supper, I’ve spent seven hours with Helen (more on weekends), and I don’t think it’s ogreish of me to want this time off.

The last hour or so before bed is Helen’s sweetest time. We take turns reading to her while she eats her last snacks of the day, and she takes cuddling pleasure in the books, commenting enthusiastically and noticing connections between stories. (“Notre Dame Cathedral!” she cried when it appeared as a backdrop in Madeline, after she had watched her Hunchback of Notre Dame video several dozen times.)

The night rarely ends in complete harmony, though. “Good night, Helen,” we say. “Sweet dreams. See you in the morning. And don’t come out.” Futile words, because she always comes out of her room, as many as five times in a night. (I know, I know: This is the price of having her nap.) Jennifer and I huddle in my office, because we don’t want to go downstairs only to have to come back up five minutes later, when Helen emerges and says, “Something is wrong.”

Except for sleep, dessert in the dining room is the only chance Jennifer and I get to be alone together. By this time, though, both of us are usually too tired to talk much. We resolve to get babysitters and go out more often, but the resolution never lasts more than a month or two. We’re falling into a deadly pattern—we see ourselves falling—but we’re too exhausted to catch ourselves. I keep hoping we’ll do better in the future.

What a distance there is between my long-ago fantasies of fatherhood and the tired, irritable reality. I once saw a man in Riverside Park carrying his little son on his shoulders, and both of them were so radiantly happy that I grieved, because I doubted I would ever find a wife, much less father a child. Back in my studio apartment, I strummed my guitar and sang the Beatles’ lullaby “Good Night” in a thin, high voice, sorrowing over the love I would never have a chance to give to a child of my own.

Since then, I’ve carried Helen on my shoulders dozens of times, just as blissfully as that stranger in the park—but now I know that there’s much more to the story than ecstasy. When Helen comes out of her room after bedtime, I carry her back and sing “Good Night” to her with her head on my shoulder—but instead of heart-wrenching tenderness, what rises in me is impatience, because she starts singing along with me and laughing, she won’t go back to sleep, and I can’t have even a half-hour alone with my wife.

 Having described my days with Helen, I ask you: Would the account be any different if I were Helen’s mother?

Or, to put it another way, are there differences between a father at home and a mother at home? I can only speak for myself, because I’ve yet to meet another man who stayed home with his child. (To be honest, I’ve avoided meeting them, for fear they might turn out to be better fathers than I, or else suicidally depressed.) The only real male/female difference I’ve noticed is that I sneak more peeks at the newspaper than any mother I know, including at breakfast and lunch, when a better person would be talking to his daughter. Nevertheless, the stereotypical images of bumbling, irresponsible fathers—who let their children eat pink and purple junk food when Mom’s not around, or who keep watching the ball game while the kids are climbing on the stove and exploring the knobs, or who can’t say No when their little angels beg for hideous plastic monsters—all seem ludicrously unreal to me. They are stock characters from the sitcom division of America’s collective unconscious; if they have any basis in reality, their models must be men who spend no more than an hour a week alone with their kids.

An astute observer could probably detect other differences between me and my female counterparts, but those differences would be dwarfed by what we share. Once you take on this job, it reshapes you. Your concerns become not those of a man or woman, but of a Parent: finding activities for your child that engage the body, mind and spirit (and that get you through the day); creating a balance between rambunctious freedom and civility; locating toilets at the necessary intervals; and avoiding tantrums whenever possible. Every new mother must learn to be more patient and generous than she has ever been before; and fathers (if they choose the role instead of having it chosen for them by a layoff) are capable of the same growth.

One thing I never expected to achieve is contentment. Yet, for most minutes of most days, I find that I don’t yearn for my life to change.

I may not be famous. I may not have won the National Book Award. But, for the first time in my life, the disappointments don’t outweigh the pleasures, and my daughter is the reason. Loving her and feeling connected to her has given me an alternate happiness; her affection counterbalances rejection. After twenty years of striving, I now have something to satisfy me, something more than hungry ambition. It seems I may even be able to enjoy my life.

At no time, not even during her tantrums, do I wish I had arranged things differently. Helen has become my joy, my most important responsibility, my identity. When we’re apart for more than a few hours, I miss her intensely. (On a four-day vacation, while Jennifer’s parents stayed with her, I took out my pictures at least three times a day to see her face.)

Having been home with her since she was three months old, I’ve had the extraordinary experience of watching her grow, in tiny increments. Each day, I’ve heard her say something she couldn’t have said the day before. A few weeks ago, this child who still says “fidgilator” (meaning that large appliance in the kitchen) captured our relationship in metaphor: holding a toy dinosaur’s mouth up to my thigh, she said, “This dinosaur, he’s going to eat the whole you, and there won’t be any you any more.” But after the meal was done, she reconsidered and said, “Now he spit you out and there’s you again.”

I’m so proud of her: proud that strangers call her adorable, proud when her teachers marvel at her politeness (instead of saying, “More juice!” like the other kids, she says, “Could I have a refill?”), proud that she has the desire and ability to make people laugh. Though they might find it odd if they knew that my wife is the one who supports our family, strangers on the street glow at the sight of a father and daughter who enjoy each other so much. As much as any mother, I derive a sense of justification from Helen. No longer do I steel myself for gatherings of family or friends because I still haven’t reached my goal; now I take pride in being the father of a spunky girl whose antics draw smiles wherever we go.

Staying home with Helen has strengthened me and relaxed me. When we’re together, I walk with a calm confidence that I never felt before. I no longer worry what anyone—neighbor, friend or relative—thinks about my failures and successes.

I’ve achieved a certain comfort, in my household and in my town. I’ve met parents and children through Helen’s nursery school, and have turned playground encounters into friendships. But my comfort is about to be exploded.

In less than a month, our second child will be born, and I’m terrified. I dread the further narrowing-down of my work-time, I fear Helen’s jealousy, and I don’t know how I will get through another year of caring for an infant. (Starting from scratch again, when it took so long to get this far!) True, it won’t be as lonely with Helen there to keep me company—but I’m almost four years older now, and the mere idea of a newborn makes me want to cover my head with a pillow all over again. I learned to be a father to Helen, but I haven’t become so paternal that I’m happy to give up another chunk of my life to my children.

Tucked away among my complaints, though, one small consolation glimmers. Helen, who never stops changing, has grown more independent lately. She doesn’t snuggle against me as much as she used to, and I miss our closeness. I’m thinking that it won’t be so bad to have that warm, fleshy bond again with a second child, for a few years at least. It may not cancel out the frustrations that lie ahead, but there is sweet pleasure in the thought of another little person running into my arms and shouting, “Daddy!”

[Originally published in Room to Grow, a collection of essays, edited by Christina Baker Kline.]