Friday, May 18, 2007

Paternal Expectations

On a cool and rainy spring morning about one month ago, I saw my wife to the door after three months of maternity leave. I took a picture of her as she lingered by the gate under her umbrella in the drizzle. A random person looking at that particular image might be forgiven for failing to discern its true significance. Unlike most great thresholds in life, it was not marked by ritual paraphernalia or ornamental signs of collective observance. Yet it was no less meaningful for that. In our nuclear morning solitude we bid our mutual farewells. She walked down the street, got on the train, and went back to work. I picked up the paper, shut the door, and became an "at home dad."

I had worried about that moment for some time. Up till then, I had had an ally and a teammate in my wife, as well as the psychological advantage that comes with superiority in numbers. As soon as she walked out the door, it was me and baby. I had some idea of what might lie in store. I had been "hosed" several times already by my son at the changing table, and our pediatrician had cheerfully told me that "Spot" (I do call him that) could send stuff out the other end at an even greater projectile velocity. So I envisioned a sort of involuntary Jackson Pollock experience, a deux, with our home a cubic canvas that changed by the hour. This would all be accompanied to the tune of great wailing (his) and gnashing of teeth (mine), leaving my wife to find me, by the end of the day, a broken reed, an empty shell of a man.

As with most expectations of things we have no direct experience of, it didn't work out that way. Though it is physically exhausting, and I am convinced that a clinical psychologist unaware of my extreme sleep deprivation would diagnose me as having a borderline personality disorder, the experience so far has exploded all sorts of preconceptions: about being a parent, about being a father, about being a father who stays at home to change his baby's diapers, and about how those three things fit together. At the same time, it has left me clutching at cliches as I try to write about one of the most profound -- and utterly common -- of all human experiences.

As the mental fog of sleep-deprivation begins to roll back in, the best I can say for the moment is this: I couldn't feel more normal. My wife walked out the door to catch the train, and I went back upstairs and gave Spot a meal. She wanted to get back into the swing of things, and she has; we needed her to shift back into high-earning gear, and she has. We wanted Spot to be cared for by a family member, and he is; I wanted to combine my caregiving role with a low-gear career from home, and I am. We're fortunate, and it seems like it's a happy -- though particular -- resolution to our particular family situation.

But when the spare mental capacity allows me, I do wonder if perhaps there is something unusual about what's going on, as if our life together were a photo negative of the 50's ideal, with me holding baby at the door as mommy goes off to work, and all the novelty that this implies. Of course it's not a symmetrical role inversion; unlike the stereotypical 50's housewife, I have an advanced degree and work experience; I also anticipate managing some version of my current career while raising our son. Neither of us subscribe to any overarching normative presumptions about what "men" and "women" are and should be doing. Perhaps that puts us at odds with some deep social mentalities; perhaps that means that when I strap my son into the Baby Bjorn and go do some errands, I'm part of an avant-garde, a part of something that is really truly new, a taste of the future. I would like to think so. But whether it is part of a rising trend, or just some interesting yet limited expression of the current configuration of post-industrial capitalism in North America, I'll leave to the sociologists.

But if parenting is about presenting our children with role models, about exemplifying how to live well, then I think we might be onto something that's worth passing on.


Chip said...

hey cp, welcome to dd!!

I had to laugh at your Jackson Pollack fears. I still remember the velocity and the door that was on the receiving end when I changed my daughter's diapers.

As for the sahd role, you expressed it well, I think, I remember feeling something similar, and feeling really happy about it. And now, thinking back to my sahd days, I still feel really happy about it.

Doodaddy said...

Being a stay-at-home dad, I have to say, is the best job ever. Sure, there are moments of loneliness for adults, physical exhaustion, and (usually, at least) marital stress... but those are fleeting and solvable.

Good luck!

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Great first post. And welcome to Daddy dialectic, Chicago Dad!

Chicago Dad and I met during my recent trip to Chicago; his house was literally across the street from my hotel. And I thought, gee, we've got three west coasters and an east coaster at Daddy Dialectic, maybe we need someone from the third coast...

chicago pop said...

Hey everyone, thanks for letting a Midwesterner join the club! I spent some time in California -- 9 years, in fact(I won't tell you which half) before moving to this little university neighborhood between Barak's condo and Lake Michigan. Looking forward to more of the great stuff I've already come across on Jeremy's blog (including links to other cool daddy blogs!)

Anonymous said...

Don't let anyone tell you this is strange or new or that you are. Twenty years ago this week, I went back to work 3 weeks after our 2nd child was born, leaving my husband at home with the baby boy and a 3 year old girl.

Yes, we all survived; quite well, too. Take advantage of the greater acceptance and openness you will find here. Such support is a God send.

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