The Home-Dad, Part 2
Read Part 1
Getting out of the house can serve several needs. There is the obvious need to simply get out, to explore, to see something besides your own familiar home. You and Junior can quite quickly wear out each others welcome, and going someplace can be quite refreshing. It will provide you with something to talk about, and may inspire a new project at home: a new idea for the building blocks or Lego set, new things to draw, new stories to tell. It literally will broaden your horizons.
Getting out also exposes you both to new people. While that can be bad or good, depending on who you meet and where, it is usually a good thing. Even if you just watch them, people have always fascinated children and adults. Remember though, being a man with a child you will be an oddity in almost every place you go. This opens you up to, at worst, rude comments and looks or, at best, warm recognition of the important work you are doing. The latter, sadly, is rare, and the former more likely. The norm tends to be somewhat condescending expressions and comments from moms and others - well-intentioned but tiresome - and misunderstanding. "Oh, how nice; giving mom a day off?" and the like are common approaches.
But don't go out with your shields up. That only sets you up for disappointment and anger. Most people will probably ignore you, which is fine. It is just that moms with kids don't elicit the kind of response that dads with kids do. People are more likely to offer suggestions and comments to a dad out with his children with the assumption that you are making a special effort to be with them. Again, this is very rarely a malicious insult; it is simply misunderstanding. Your patient, smiling answer that, in fact, this is your full-time job, and that no parent ever "baby-sits" their own child, will at the very least inform and correct them, and may lead to a new friendship. When you go out, it is important to be open and friendly.
Another benefit to getting out is the chance to relax and pay some attention to yourself. At the playground or park, Junior may settle in to playing happily by himself, or may find a pal to climb around with. While you still need to keep an eye on him, you'll find a welcomed moment to think on your own. The exercise of a brisk stroller-walk will do wonders for your disposition, and the fresh air and sunshine will help too.
Making outings a regular part of your routine is a good way to make sure you do it. A daily walk is almost a necessity, and finding one or two days a week for another more lengthy outing will keep you on schedule.
Getting out by yourself is also important. Whether to the library for an hour or two on a weeknight, or an occasional day trip to visit friends, you need to be on your own from time to time. The benefits are obvious: the chance to enjoy complete thoughts, to get away from the interruptions and chatter, to attend to your own needs.
The pleasure of a good playgroup cannot be overstated. Even a not-so-great playgroup is a blessing. The chance to be with your peers - other young parents who are going through exactly what you are going through - is highly desirable. Your kids will have the chance to play with other kids their age, and can begin to develop some important social skills. For them to be with other adults in a safe, supportive environment is good, too.
The adults talk about problems they've been having, solutions they've found, and generally "talk shop." It is very refreshing to have "work-related" conversations with people in the same line of work as you. The kids, meanwhile, either play with each other in the playroom or play near-by the adults. It depends on the kids and how well they know each other.
The nature of your playgroup depends entirely on what kind of people are involved, and what they want from the experience. A larger group might be more likely to go a more organized route; a smaller group will probably be informal. The ages of the kids also makes a big difference in the nature of the group. A group with kids the ages of yours will most likely satisfy your needs as well.
There is another important consideration for fathers looking for a playgroup. You will more than likely be the only man in the group. You will more than likely be the only man who has ever even approached the group. Your gender will not necessarily be a problem, but realize that this is solidly traditional mother's territory, and you might not be welcomed with open arms. It's not so much a matter of the mom's discriminating against you and being nasty and rude, as it is a sense of invading proprietary space. Imagine hanging out in the ladies room; that can be what it is like. If you are trying to get into an established, smaller group, you may find that the moms have found a comfortable level of intimacy that your presence disrupts. A larger group might be more accommodating.
You will likely find, though, that the mom's invite you right in. Quite often, women look upon a home-dad as a refreshing change from what they are used to. They think it is great to find a man who understands what it means to be a full-time parent. Some may have a difficult time accepting you as a peer, but your job is to be confident and let them know you are right there with them. Try not to be pushy, but if the group you've found is something you want to be a part of, be persistent. It may take a little while to feel comfortable in the group. They will see soon enough that you are a competent caring parent.
So many, if not all, new parents think they are going to finally be able to get at all those projects they've been putting off. They think they will have a lot of free time; after all, the baby is going to be sleeping most of the time, and even when she's awake, she'll just be sitting there. Surely I can tackle those home-improvement projects or get to work on my novel or finally learn to play the guitar.
What all of these parents find is that none of this stuff gets done, or at least not as much of it gets done as they had hoped. No one seems to know exactly where the time goes, but we all know that it definitely goes somewhere.
The trick is to lower your expectations for what you can get done, and for how perfectly you'll do it. Some days, just getting that load of laundry done will be a great accomplishment; other days you'll be a whirlwind. This is where all those old feelings of being productive come into play. And this is where you'll have to either let those feelings go, or find some other way to feel productive.
For men, being productive is the yardstick by which they are measured. In the work-place, their value is tied directly to how productive they are. That's where the encouragement, reinforcement and support come from. Switching from the world of work to the world of home means going from being productive - and being rewarded for being productive - to working harder than ever before, but not producing anything. It can be very difficult getting past the expectation that they be producers. As a result, self-esteem takes a nose-dive, and men's sense of who they are can get quite confused.
First of all, remember that what you are doing is helping with the family bottom line. Second, you've got to set aside some time for yourself to do some work. That work can be anything that makes you feel busy - building furniture, doing home improvements, writing, painting, a part-time home business - and makes you feel like you are doing something. In fact, in caring for your children, you are doing something very important. But without the outside recognition for that job, it can sometimes feel like you're just wasting time.
Perhaps the most important thing to do when you are feeling unproductive and lazy is to keep a list of everything you do for a week. Write down every little thing that occupies you, from making coffee in the morning to climbing in to bed at night. You'll be surprised how quickly that list fills up, and after the week is out, you'll have some concrete proof that you have been busy. Hopefully, there will be plenty of entries like, "Played with Junior for an hour." That is some of the most important stuff you can be doing, and must be included. Save the list; it will be interesting to refer back to it in later years when you can't remember what it was like.
Being in touch with other new parents, moms as well as dads, will go a long way toward relieving your feeling of wasting your time. Having someone to compare notes with and complain, laugh and maybe even cry with, to share the ups and downs of everyday life with can rescue your sanity. You'll quickly find that feelings of being unproductive are common, and also that the value of the work you are doing is understood by your peers. Just as your old professional associations helped with your former career, so too your new "professional" associations will give a boost to your new one.
Finally, realize that this child is only going to be making such huge demands of your time for a few years. Before you know it, he will be off and running, finding things to amuse himself with. Every day, you'll see him approach and master new skills, and he'll demand less of your time. Six years can sound like forever, but it passes in the blink of an eye. Almost anything you've been dying to do, but can't get to, will still be there after Junior starts school. Those first six years, at home with you, are the most important in his life. After all, that is why you are home with him in the first place, right?
So let the laundry wait until tomorrow. The dishes aren't going anywhere. Right now, the most important thing is hunkering down with your child on the carpet and exploring the universe together. It's a well-worn expression, but no less true, that no one ever went to their grave wishing they had spent less time with their kids. You have a very rare opportunity to be there to guide and lead your child through those first critical years. Nothing you do for the rest of your life, no matter how important it might be, will ever match this.
© 2005 - 2012 Hal Levy and the above captioned author.