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How to survive in the trenches

BECOMING A BETTER PARENT

While no one can tell you how best to care for your own kids, there are certain tricks-of-the-trade that will help you become a better parent:

* Read. There are plenty of resources available for at-home parents, and even a few for home-dads. Check out your local book store and library; more titles about fatherhood are arriving all the time. There are quite a few parenting magazines which, although not expressly for fathers, will provide you with lots of useful information.

* Listen, listen, listen. To your kids, to your partner, to yourself. You can learn a lot by listening, both to their words and to their non-verbal communication. Active listening not only tells you a lot about what's going on, it empowers those you are listening to.

* Trust yourself. The skills and know-how to be a good parent may be in a book, or more likely are the result of experience. But instinct and intuition will see you through times of doubt and uncertainty. And in trusting yourself to know the best thing to do, you'll be way ahead of anything the books can tell you.

* Never stand when you can sit; never sit when you can lie down.

ISOLATION-BUSTERS

Isolation is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for new parents, and it's even harder to break for home-dads. But here are quite a few things you can do to make connections and ease your isolation:

* Being public and proud of what you do, returning smile for smile, and especially returning smiles for scowls, will work wonders. The more you get out and about, the sooner the people you deal with regularly will come to know and accept you. The cashiers at the supermarket, the clerks at the bank and the post office and, most important, the neighbors will eventually come to see you as just what you are, another parent doing his job.

* Go to a play group, if you can, and join in the conversation. You will find plenty of common ground with the moms, and you'll find their company to be very refreshing. (See below for more about playgroups.)

* In the same vein as the play group are activities like Baby-And-Me day at the YMCA pool, or the unfortunately-named Mommy-And-Me sessions at a local gym or community center. These take a certain boldness for dads to muscle in on, but you'll be surprised at the supportive reaction.

* For fathers of school-aged children, get involved with your parent-teacher association. Volunteers are always needed, and fathers in the classroom are a special treat for teachers and kids alike.

* Most cities and large towns have hidden within them a men's center, and most of those centers can direct you to existing men's groups. You might even get lucky and find a father's group.

* Check with therapists who are involved in men's therapy. They might be able to direct you to some father-friendly activities.

* Try posting a notice in your local newspaper or community guide, seeking other fathers to get together with, either with or without kids, to share experiences. You might be able to find a father or two in your church community. It might be scary at first, but it is worth the effort.

* Several computer on-line subscription services, like America On-Line and Prodigy, have active father's groups that you can join. While it's not quite the same thing as meeting face-to-face, exchanging experiences and joining in a chat session on-line can be rewarding.

* There are even a few national newsletters and magazines to subscribe to. Again, it's not the same thing as hanging out with real fathers, but it certainly better than nothing.

* Through all of these activities, keep your ears open for any mention of father-related programs, activities and organizations in your area. A lot of times, home-dads find each other through word-of-mouth; someone who knows you hears of another home-dad, and helps the two of you get together.

GETTING OUT

It's a bright sunny day, you and Junior are getting sick of looking at each other. You need something new; where do you go?

* If you see the world through the eyes of your child, you will be able to find quite a few places to visit right around your home. Naturally, city-dwellers will have much different destinations than rural fathers, but the principle is the same. Think of your immediate area in terms of shape, color and sound. The sooner you get the kids into the swing of things, being active and busy, the sooner they will become favorite companions.

* One nice thing about infants is that they are fairly portable. If you can get your hands on a baby carrier (There are quite a few different designs; be sure to test-drive a few to find what's best for you.), you can go for a hike at a local park or nature preserve, a beach or even a shopping district. Rain need not keep you and your little one inside. Art museums are pretty quiet; try timing your visit for nap-time. An indoor mall can be a fun outing if it's crowds you want.

* Crowds of people: Not only will this ease feelings of isolation for you, the noise and color and motion of crowds, either small or large, can captivate a young child. Realize that it can also frighten them, so be ready to beat a hasty retreat if this is not for you. Good crowds can be found at shopping malls-you can also do some shopping and have lunch there; at flea markets, farmers markets, and other events. Almost any big store will provide plenty to look at and listen to. Keep in mind, though, that crowds also can be dangerous to little ones. You will need to keep a close watch on your child, especially those that are not stroller-bound. You might also have to deal with a trangers questions about why you, a man, are hanging around the mall on a weekday afternoon.

* If you want to be outside, a park, beach or playground offers wide open spaces and other people. Even a walk down the street or around the block will be a welcome relief from your four walls. There are great places to explore no matter where you live, with no need to hop in the car. Remember, it may be old to you but to Junior it is all exciting. Playgrounds can usually be found at elementary schools, and these days can be quite elaborate. Watch out for recess-time; little ones tend to get run over by all those huge first-graders. Here, too, the fact that you are a man hanging around an elementary school could be viewed as suspect. The park and the beach are full of wonders: wild animals and birds (bring some stale bread or popcorn), sand to dig in (bring a small shovel and pail), woods, fields of grass, etc. The beach in winter can be just as interesting as in summer; the same goes for the park.

* More quiet times can be had at the library. Most libraries offer a story time for little ones, and almost every library has at least a children's section. You can settle down and read together, or, if you're lucky, Junior will be amused and you can find something for yourself: the latest novel, a magazine or a video to bring home. As with every public place, don't leave Junior unattended or out of your sight. Get a library card and check some books out.

* With access to a car, the world expands by leaps and bounds. A day trip can be a wonderful adventure. You can get out of or into the city, visit a farm or museum or find another destination. Visit a friend in another town. Keep in mind the car-capacity of your kids; you don't want to plan a trip that is beyond their ability to sit in the car.

* Remember, other new parents, both mothers and fathers, often feel as isolated as you do, and will jump at the chance to get out of the house. Taking the initiative and tracking down other parents might be difficult at first, but it can be very rewarding.

THE SURVIVAL KIT

For any outing, be sure to bring your Survival Kit. A back-pack or large fanny-pack will do, or an over-the-shoulder bag in a pinch. It's best to find something that leaves your hands free and doesn't get in the way. In the bag, you'll need to bring:

* Something to eat, mostly for Junior, but also for you if you want. Animal crackers, an apple: you know what you and Junior like best. Choose something easy to serve, something that doesn't need to be kept cold, and something not too messy. You'll also need a beverage, in a sippee cup or bottle; again, something that will not suffer for not being cold. Bring more than you'll think you'll need. If you're not going to venture too far from the car or stroller, you can pack a more elaborate snack in a small cooler.

* Change of clothes. At least a change of diaper, if you're in that stage, and a change of pants and underwear if you're not. A full change is a good idea, and doesn't take up much room. You never know what you'll encounter out there, so it's best to be over prepared.

* A few small toys, a book, some paper and crayons. Whatever the favorite toy of the moment happens to be, stick a few in. Paper and crayons can pass the time on your lunch break, and a book will keep Junior amused while you watch the people go by. You might want to bring a book for yourself, but don't count on reading any of it.

* A first-aid kit. Nothing elaborate, just a few band-aids, some antiseptic wipes, maybe a gauze pad or two. Kits can be assembled out of household supplies and carried in a plastic bag, or can be purchased ready-made.

* You might want to keep a few dollars tucked away. Many an outing has been rescued with the quick purchase of a small treat of some kind, and a dollar here and there can make all the difference.

* Keep the Survival Kit packed and ready to go, with the exception perhaps of the perishable snacks and drinks. Then, when the mood strikes, all you have to do is add the food and go. The idea is to make getting out of the house easy. Customize the Survival Kit to fit your needs and the needs of your kids.

* Having a destination gives you the motivation to get the car packed and get going. It may seem like a big effort at first, but the benefit to your sanity and Junior's will be well worth any bother. And once you've got your Survival Kit fine-tuned and a few outings under your belt, you'll wonder how you ever stayed at home so much.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

* Taking care of yourself on a daily basis will make your work as a dad easier and more pleasant, for you and the kids. Being in reasonably good physical shape makes it possible for you to chase a toddler all day without collapsing, and keep up with an older kids activities. Your emotional state is perhaps even more important, and it will take some effort to maintain an even keel.

* Make sure each day, or at least every other day, has some time for you to do something just for yourself: Ride your bike, play basketball, run around the block. Large muscle group activity is the best stress-buster around. Chasing children and picking up toys don't count. You'll find, after a while, that you'll have more energy throughout the day and your resistance to both stress and colds, headaches, etc., will be better with regular exercise.

* Watch what you eat. It may have been easy, when you were working out of the house, to avoid snacking. But now you're home, and the kitchen is right over there. Try not to finish Junior's lunch for her. Usually it is easier just not having treats and sweets in the house at all. Stock up on fruit and other healthy snacks. You'll be setting a great example.

* It will do you a world of good to get out by yourself every now and then. It doesn't have to be a major expedition; an evening at the library, to leaf through the current magazines, is all it takes. Reserve one evening a week, or a portion of the weekend, as your regular shopping time. Do the grocery shopping and take care of some of those regular errands that need to get done every week. Make sure, though, that whatever you choose to do is for you alone, not an errand or chore that you've been putting off.

* Arrange to share the weekend with your partner: you get Saturday afternoon, your partner gets Sunday afternoon, to do with whatever you each want. Once you've agreed to this arrangement, stick to it.

* Often, you can find a neighbor or friend to do a child-care swap with: you take their kid for an afternoon, and they take yours for another afternoon. This gives you a cheap, safe place to leave your kids while you go out on the town.

* Occasional weekends away can be very refreshing. Whether you like to be off by yourself, or visit an old friend, make sure you get the chance every now and then to take a little vacation from home.

* Your self-esteem-how you feel about yourself-is an important component to your overall health. If you're feeling sluggish and unproductive, take a class at the local community center or college, or think about some kind of home-based business.

PLAYGROUPS

Finding a playgroup is not as hard as you might think:

* Most towns and city neighborhoods have one or two community newspapers that list on-going events. Quite often playgroups will be listed here. Sometimes they are called Mother's Clubs, or Baby and Me events. You'll just have to be brave and invite yourself;

* Check with any friends you have with kids, see if they know of any on-going playgroups;

* Seek out places where playgroups might be held-community centers, churches, the local YM- or YWCA;

* Look on community bulletin boards at the library or grocery store.

* You may find that there is not a playgroup in your area. In that case, it is time to start one. While this is a little more difficult than finding one already running, it can actually be more satisfying, because you will have a lot to do with how it is set up and run. Again, you have to use what resources are available to you:

* Put a listing in that community newspaper. Usually these are free. Be sure to include your phone number and name. You might want to choose a day of the week and time, and any other qualifications, like age of children, that are important to you.

* Put up a flyer on any and every bulletin board you come across. Use the same format as you did for the newspaper listing. Don't give your address if you don't want; you can supply that later. Don't forget to list your phone number!

* Word of mouth is a great advertiser. Let everyone know you are looking for a playgroup. The more you get out and about, the more people you'll be able to spread the word to.

* You might want to try to establish a group for dads. With as many as 2 million home-dads across the country, there are bound to be one or two near you. They can be hard to find, and you will have to employ all your creative marketing skills to locate them. All the same techniques apply-the local newspapers, bulletin boards and resource centers, word-of-mouth, etc.;

* If you can't find any dads who are available during the week, a weekend gathering might work. Try setting up an event: a ball-game or theater event, a gathering at a Discovery Zone, playground or children's museum;

* Be prepared to start out with one or two other dads. Home-dads can be harder to locate than at-home moms;

* Ask your pediatrician if he or she has any patients who's father is the primary care giver. You might have to ask a few doctors in your area, but they're the ones who'll know.

ENTERTAINING YOUR KIDS

There are plenty of books to help you keep busy, and you'll come up with more once you get in the swing of things. It is helpful, though, to have a list of games and activities that they like pre-approved by your kids. Then, when you hear, "Daddy, I'm bored," you'll be able to reply, "Not for long!"

Quite often, when a child says, "I'm bored," what they really mean is, "I want to be with you." It is good to be able to put down what you are doing and pay attention to your child, find a game to play, read a book, or involve them in what you are doing. You might find that they only really needed to know that you were available, and a little close contact will satisfy their need.

While self-directed kids are great, and something we all hope for, even those kids who can play on their own all afternoon need our attention. Asking them what they want to do, and then cheerfully doing it, even if it is the millionth time you've played Candyland, is very important. Just as with a crying infant, the more you reinforce the idea that you are always available, the less they will demand that you demonstrate it, and the more self-directed and self-assured your children will be.

There is also a school of thought that says there is nothing wrong with boredom, and we need not teach our children that simply sitting and staring out the window is something to be avoided. Doing nothing is a time-honored tradition from days gone by. Lying on the grass watching the clouds go by, or tracing the raindrops down the window-pane--taking the time to just do nothing--is as important as being busy. Boredom also allows kids to find their own way, to solve their own "what do I do" dilemma. You'll be surprised at the creative solutions and deep thoughts they come up with after an hour of staring out the window.

Being content with ourselves is a skill that we loose as we get older, and something that we seem to place very little value on these days. We are so quick to turn on the TV or radio, to search out a book to read, to find something to do, rather than simply sit quietly and muse. We can teach our children a great deal about peacefulness and self-acceptance by re-learning to be quiet and meditative ourselves.

© 2005 - 2012 Hal Levy and the above captioned author.