Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Stay-at-home fatherhood

One of the best features of New Zealand's parental leave laws is that the year of unpaid, job-protected leave can be split between both parents. Lauren finished up her stint in April and it's my seventh week of being a stay-at-home dad.

I've got a fine role model for this - my father's held the home front and looked after a succession of kids for decades, while mum went to work. It was a rare man who took on that role back in the 80s and it's still unusual now. Though things are slowly changing, even in liberal Wellington there are few stay-at-home dads. For example, when I take Amotai to a baby-focused activity (e.g. sing-a-long at the local library) there's about one man for every ten women. I've not seen another man at the Plunket talks I've been to.

It's a shame really, as the dads are missing out. Just as Lauren did, I'm enjoying my time at home. Here's some of my thoughts on it.

I had a good bond with Amotai anyway - you really have to screw things up for your baby not to like you. But being at home has made it stronger. Lauren's still rightfully numero uno - if he's upset when we're both home, he'll go to her - but my little boy and I are tighter than we were.

Where'd our baby go?
Speaking of little boy, Amotai seems to be approaching toddlerhood at breakneck speed. He started crawling - well, dragging himself across the floor - the first week I had off. Now he can pull himself up to his feet and loves to go exploring around the house.

That's absolutely delightful, but also means the 'little monkey who gets into everything' stage has begun. The reason  I realised he's learnt to crawl was because he's managed to get to the phone from the middle of the lounge. He was happily chewing on one of the cords. He'll happily chew on anything - toys, rusks, toes, table legs, DVD covers, the wet and dirty wheel of the pram, nuclear fuel rods. Gone are the days when you could plonk him down with some toys and know you were safe to wander off and do some chores.

Anyone who thinks that being the stay-at-home parent is a cruisy deal hasn't done it. After preparing drinks, feeding, cleaning, changing, playing, rubbish, dishes, laundry and miscellaneous chores like getting groceries or vacuuming, I typically get about the same amount of time to myself I get at work - an hour or so.

Having said that, one of the advantages over work is that I set the agenda for the day (with a lot of input from Amotai of course). Any deadlines are self-imposed and there's no meetings that aren't social. It's nice.

Crikey, babies generate a lot of mess. There's the cluster of toys that get cleaned up every evening, but much worse are the various bodily and food wastes that mean we need to do a load of washing a day to stay on top of the laundry. It's worse now that he's eating a lot of solid food. He insists on holding the spoon and feeding himself and generally, with assistance, gets most of it in. Unless he doesn't like it, in which case it gets flung in a 360 degree range. Now we've belatedly started giving him lots of actual food, meals take upwards of half an hour. Patience is a must. Having the laptop at the table with the internet on helps. Though I guess it's only a matter of time before a blob of baby mush gets catapulted onto it!

The internet
Is a wonderful, wonderful thing, but is also the biggest time waster since whittling. It's a trap that many a person who's stuck at home falls into. I feel icky after I've spent a long while idly surfing, just as I do after I've eaten a bunch of junk food. Fortunately I'm not addicted to Facebook (status update - I just had lunch!) or any online games, so things are under control.

Conquering the drudgery
So, if you're not ranting on some forum, checking the political news from Burkina Faso or getting your half-orc battlemage to level 49 on World of Warcraft, how do you fight off the inevitable boredom that comes from doing more or less the same things day after day? Dad calls it 'suburban neurosis' and you can feel it creeping in when you finish doing some cleaning and remember you'll shortly be back to square one. There are always more dishes/dirty clothes/bits of lint on the floor coming in your direction.
I think there are three keys:

  1. Get out of the house every day. Whether it's popping to the supermarket or library, doing a baby-focused activity, seeing a friend or just going for a walk, you feel liberated. I'm told babies really enjoy the different sensory experiences too - Amotai certainly does. Cars! Leaves blowing in the wind! Old ladies smiling at him!
  2. Have a project. This is a goody, as not only do you feel virtuous when you make progress on your novel/knitting/garden/scale model of the Bismarck, but you also have something to procrastinate from. 
  3. Remember it's not forever! I'm only at home for four months, so of course it's all well and good for me to say that. I imagine if you're doing it for longer, it would be helpful to always have something to look forward to in the near future, like a holiday. Man, are we looking forward to a possible trip to Samoa next year.
Savor it
It's a different world when you're at home during the week. A world of pensioners, prams and great gusts of noise whenever the local school has playtime. A world of the excellent Nine to Noon, which I've rediscovered, and terrible television, which I avoid. A world of watching your baby learn, grow and be insanely cute. I'm savoring it.

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