It’s a cold Sunday morning and as I park the car, I can already feel the day’s reins slipping out of my grasp. Both girls are finally awake in the back after an hour and a half’s aimless drive around the streets of Brantford. I call it naptime chauffeuring and I can’t stand it. It’s my very own compact form of North Korea on wheels. Once more around the block, James; idle, adjust the radio or stall and face the consequences. Before turning the ignition key I stare into the middle distance in silence just long enough for a parking-lot passerby to cast a concerning glance through the windshield. I can feel a thick layer of driver’s fatigue now settling nicely on top of the bedrock of over-caffeination and sleep deprivation.
It’s a one-man-pit-stop-crew blur of unbuckling, dressing and wrestling before I somehow make it into the grocery store. I opt for a shopping cart with the solo baby seat mount even though at ten months, Billie is an absolute cannonball and the harness looks medical on her. Amelia is still groggy and now unimpressed that there’s no room for two in the sedan chair. She decides to stage a threenager protest and bottleneck the shopping cart bay. I negotiate peace with the exchange of a banana in front a small audience of impatient cartless shoppers.
Billie hates to be on her back and her seat reclines at an angle that teeters perfectly on the unacceptable. She screams as I frogmarch Amelia around the aisles and finally to checkout. The woman behind the conveyor belt eyes me up and down. My look is slovenly and pre-renaissance. Amelia is sporting a black eye from a recent run in with the sharp corner of a clothes rack and Billie’s blocked tear ducts have given her the look of Rosemary’s baby with raging conjunctivitis. I read the cashier’s face. What have you done to it! What have you done to its eyes! I have only managed a handful of purchases but in between the barcode beeps there’s still time for the inevitable.
“Is that all they’re wearing? It’s freezing out there! Where are their coats?”
After a pregnant pause, I explain that because it’s not recommended that young children wear bulky winter jackets in their car seats, I had rushed into the warmth instead of spending more time dressing them outside in the cold. The excuse does not pass muster and all eye contact and conversation comes to a shuddering halt.
My years as a stay-at-home Dad are almost at an end and although I’ve felt the urge many times to map out my perspective on child care, I’ve felt unable to pinpoint my thoughts in the ever changing territory of parenthood. What I didn’t want to write was a laundry list of complaints because despite the challenges, the experience has been an enriching one. This certainly wasn’t the first time I had been reprimanded for negligence nor was it a particularly scathing attack but as I swore under my breath and counted the fourteen seconds it took to push the girls from the sliding doors to my parking spot I decided it was time I tried.
“I have always felt that if you know what you’re going to do in advance then you won’t do it.”
– Frank Gehry, Architect
Primary caregiving for my children has been the hardest job I have ever had. Beyond learning the skills of how to nurture and protect a human, I have had to reframe my sense of self-worth, practice abnegation and empathy daily, rediscover imagination and boredom, contend with isolation and loneliness, navigate a parenting industry and popular culture still riddled with cruel stereotypes and face up to my own gender prejudices.
“When a father puts in long hours at work, he’s praised for being dedicated and ambitious. But when a mother stays late at the office, she’s sometimes accused of being selfish, neglecting her kids.”
– Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States of America in 2016
My experience taking care of new life, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is lived slowly and intensely: I stumble and get up, I’m sad, confident, insecure, I feel scared and joy and love. If I’m not distracted then it’s just me, the girls and the now. Emphasising the present can at times make me feel incomplete and restless as if I should be doing something else. The days are long but when I concentrate on my experiences and sense of the world through them – it does not, in fact create a void; rather, it fills these precious moments we have with them on earth with an intensity, urgency and inherent meaning. It insists that any hopes and desires that we strive to share must be realized in this life, or not at all.
“To be the father of growing daughters is to understand something of what Yeats evokes with his imperishable phrase ‘terrible beauty.’ Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened: it’s a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else’s body.”
– Christopher Hitchens, Journalist and Writer
To make parenting happier and healthier for me, I have had to let go of my outmoded expectations of work and redress the “Protestant work ethic” attitudes I had inherited towards honest labour. I realised too that since becoming an immigrant, my relationship to work had grown even more perverse and neurotic. My right to live in Canada hinged for many years on the specificity of my skills in industry and my eligibility for gainful employment. I realised that I was in fact labouring under the illusion of an almost puritan belief in the redeeming value of staying in my calling. It took me some time to come around to the fact that under the heading “Occupation” I am listed as “Homemaker” on my permanent residency application.
“I am positive that if I’m lucky enough to live to a ripe old age and I’m on my deathbed and I’m thinking back on my life, I won’t be remembering some speech I gave or some law I signed. I’ll be remembering holding hands with one of my daughters and walking them to a park. That’ll be the thing most precious to me.”
Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America
Caring for others needs to be more valued across the board. Some parents want to work outside the home, and some don’t. To me it changes nothing in guaranteeing the satisfaction of parenting or ensuring a child’s success in life. I have wrestled with the idea of returning to industry constantly but I owe the privilege of weighing up that decision to Canada’s gender inclusive parental leave policy. Without necessary supports like subsidized child care or mandated paid parental leave, we are limited in our options to choose from when deciding how to best care for our children.
I do hope more dads choose to stay at home, and not just to buck the social expectations that they shouldn’t or won’t do a good enough job. Instead, I want them to show all of our children that fathers are as involved in parenting as mothers in many ways, and I want them to feel first hand the unrealistic standards society places on women as the “designated parent”. It’s hard to deviate from the beaten path and I still get nervous being the only man in a room full of mothers but I realize that I’m in a rare position that neither women nor the majority of minority groups share: most everyone is rooting for me. Aside from the occasional snarky remark or back-handed compliment, people are all smiles and support.
“The overwhelming sentiment from a parental point of view is that of a desire to protect and look after your new treasured charge. You would do anything for them to ensure that their life is rich, carefree and full of love. Little by little that feeling of protection diminishes and is replaced by a sentiment that was there from the start but just becomes stronger and stronger until it outweighs all others, pride.”
– My dad’s Speech on my Wedding Day in 2012
I owe my biggest debt of gratitude to my parents’ and my partner’s example. Raising children takes a toll on your relationship and requires a steadfast commitment to a common creed. Breaking down gender misapprehensions on my side of our partnership has required an equally shattering force from Cassie’s direction.
But I’d also like to thank every woman who over these past years has started a conversation with me at the park, invited me over to their home for play dates and held open the door for me and the girls. And a thank you too, to all the men who have given up their seats for me, helped lift the stroller down from the streetcar, and who have never once cast aspersions on my motives or asked me what else I’m doing for work these days.