When I am not working on my ‘blog, coaching clients, or studying to become a drone mechanic and pilot, I am a full-time stay-at-home-dad (SAHD). My son is coming up on year and a half old, and he can, as toddlers are, both an absolute joy and a real handful.
Today was a hard day. Toddlers go through intense stormy periods where they are trying to process so much data that they simply can’t mind the respectful boundaries that they had mastered just a few days earlier. Today my son hit, bit, poked eyes, ran away from me without a diaper on, hid my phone, threw yoghourt on the floor, banged my smartphone on the furniture, and intentionally threw his toys (and mine) in hard-to-reach places.
He also gave me hugs, played a great game of peek-a-boo during bath time, and laughed at every joke, but those are things that I appreciate more when I take the time to reflect intentionally on the good of the day.
On my own better days, I can enjoy the beauty and wonder of watching my son to learn about the world and transform from a helpless, sleepy, crying baby to a hyperctive ball of energy with a clever mind and a fantastic sense of humour. But even I can’t make every day one of my better days.
On days like today, it is easy to feel frustrated, rejected, and put upon. Even on good days, being a SAHD can be an emotional grind. If you want to keep working, you generally have to do so late at night, after the diaper pails have been emptied, your wife’s lunch made, and the bottles washed, sterilized, and mixed. If you aren’t careful, you will find yourself slipping into a level of passive domesticity that ill make you dull, lazy, and unattractive.
Let’s be honest here, to most men on most days babies and toddlers are boring. Like most men I am not blessed with the miraculous gift that many women have to find very small children fascinating. (If you are interested, there are actual physiological reasons for this, see Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain for the science.) It isn’t that you don’t love your children in a way that you never could have imagined before you had them, you love them deeply; children fill a hole in your life that you never even knew that you had. It is just seeing the innate beauty of their growth and letting their sense of wonder rub off on you is far from easy. Taking care of a child all day can grind you down.
There was an article on Narrative.ly a little over a year ago entitled “The Soul-Crushing Reality of Being a Stay at Home Dad” that I have always meant to respond to in which a man writes about the boredom and depression he feels as a SAHD. It captures the demons I grapple with on days like this perfectly. But at the same time the article repulses me, because the author wallows in these feelings. He chooses to feed is feelings of bitterness, loneliness, and dejection. He “loses himself” and becomes a sad shadow of who he was. The majority of the piece is an ungrateful and self-indulgent lament of a man who feels beatified for playing the victim.
Letting yourself fall into this kind of depression not only will make you miserable, it will make your child miserable, too. In that sense, it is a supreme dereliction of your duty as a child. If you want to be a good parent, you have to start by taking care of yourself so that you can bring your best self into the nursery.
That starts by learning to be a master of your feelings: you don’t have to hang on to the negative feelings. It doesn’t matter how stormy your toddler is: you have a choice to focus on the happy moments – and strive to create them.
And it means doing what it takes to hold on to your sense of self: If you want to remain healthy, attractive, and sane, you can’t be just a stay-at-home-parent; you need to have hobbies, a business on the side (or two, or three), a part-time job, or something. Even if it means missing a little sleep and cramming as much as you can into you kid’s 90-minute naps as possible. Otherwise, this role will eat you.
Most importantly though, it means taking the most incredible opportunity that your child offers you to be a better human being. To answer the question very child poses to a thinking man the moment that they are born:
What do I want to teach my child about being a good person? What are the qualities I want to teach them to value?
Because here is the real trick: if you want to teach your children to be a thing, you have to exemplify it yourself.
Personally, I want to teach my son to be Honest both to others and to himself. I want to teach him to be a Reasoning person. And I want to teach him to live with Integrity. I want to teach him Self-Mastery,
If I want him to embrace those qualities, I have to live them myself. I have to be straightforward and honest. I have to hone my mind and use it. I have to make sure my deeds always reflect my words, and that my words always reflect my values. If I find myself unable to act on my values, then I have to reexamine them. I have to work on controlling my feelings so that they serve me rather than being a slave to them.
For each of those qualities I have to put my money where my mouth is. I have to say what I think when it might cost me, just not when it is easy to do so. And when I am feeling hurt and reject, I have to confront those feelings and put them aside…
…To take the time to wonder at my son and feel gratitude for my wife for giving me the opportunity to guide him into being a good man from the start.
…And to try and make tomorrow one of my better days.