There’s a lot of bad stereotypes about men caring for children. The Bumbling Dad is its own pop culture trope, and a quick image search for “when dad is left alone with kids” finds:
The caregiving bar is set pretty low for dads. They’re expected by society at large to be lazy, reckless, selfish, and to just generally not take the job seriously. With our first child, my husband and I shared parental leave. And on the surface, it might have looked like he fulfilled some of those stereotypes:
- Frequently left lunch dishes on the table until they had to be cleared away to make room for our dinner? Check.
- Enjoy whole days where nary a chore or task seemed to cross his mind? Check.
- Take more naps than I did when I was on leave? Check.
- Feed our son more fries and Goldfish crackers than I would have been okay with? Check.
- Take silly, sometimes scary photos/videos to show me at the end of a workday (like the time his friend captured a shot of my 10-month old being thrown so high in the air that Dad’s hands were entirely absent from the picture)? Check.
Yet, despite these things, I’m trying to take more of a ‘paternity’ leave myself with baby #2. Because more important than any of those tangible differences are the bigger picture, truly invaluable things I learned from watching my husband on parental leave:
1. I can have the mantra: “it’ll probably be fine,” and most of the time, I’ll be right.
On my first mat leave, I lugged a fully-prepared arsenal of supplies wherever I went – more diapers than I could possibly need, bibs, clean pacifiers, two extra changes of clothes, blankets galore, a book to read, gear for various weather conditions, the snuggly, the stroller… even if I was only going out for a half hour. John could leave the house with nothing but the kid and a sunhat tossed into the wagon, not knowing if he’d be out 10 minutes or 2 hours. I worried about and planned to cover every possible outcome. He figured if he really needed something, he could make it work or just go home again, and believe it or not, he rarely had to.
So I’m trying to find the happy middle ground these days. My diaper bag is lighter and I’m out the door faster. I still need more than a sunhat, but I’m a lot better than I used to be.
2. I don’t always need a to-do list.
I not only had a running to-do list that I tried to tackle daily, but also a spreadsheet (yes, I’m embarrassed) of my planned ‘big’ item for each week of my leave (extra embarrassment because this was a my clever way of having ‘reasonable’ expectations). I’m pretty sure John’s only formal to-do lists during his entire five months at home were the ones I made before heading off to work or shared in Google Keep. And sometimes it drove me nuts when he didn’t even check them, let alone finish them. But what struck me most was it didn’t bother him the way it bothered me to not finish the list. Sure, he would apologize if something he’d agreed to do went incomplete, but he wouldn’t wallow in self-disappointment and irritation over the lack of accomplishment the way I had.
So with mat leave #2, I still have a running to-do list, but the items have longer, mostly unspecified time frames, which takes the pressure down. I have specific tasks I want to get done some days, but others, I just wake up and go with the flow, see what we (really just I at this point, since bebe is only 2 months old) feel like doing with ourselves. The result? Some of our daily walks are pleasantly destination-less, and I’ve even managed a couple of teas on cafe patios, if you can believe it.
3. I can (sometimes) embrace life at baby pace.
This is not something moms are supposed to say about babies, but here it is: life with them can be really. effing. boring. Especially a newborn. You’re stuck in an endless loop of very basic activities: eat, poop, sleep, repeat. For some people, this cycle stretches out relatively rapidly and doesn’t include nighttime hours (lucky ducks!), but with my first son, we more or less did this on a 2-hour cycle for about the first 3-4 months of his life. By the time my husband got him, our little one was much more interesting, and John completely embraced the baby pace. Not only did he love the slow crawls across the front lawn, the drawn out experiments of learning to eat peaches or a muffin, but he was actually happy to let his own life reflect that pace, too. (It’s hard to be happy about that when you’re fixated on a to-do list… see how these things get tangled?)
I’m really excited to have the whole year at home this time, because just knowing that the second (better, in my opinion) half is waiting for me, I’m able to embrace even the newborn pace of life. I have actually been following the advice everyone gives but which I just couldn’t bring myself to follow the first time around: I nap when the baby naps, at least a few times a week. I’m also trying (not always succeeding) to avoid rushing the basics of my own life. Like taking extra minutes to make a nutritious, tasty breakfast instead of just wolfing down Cheerios so I can get to the laundry, or treating a shower as its own leisurely activity instead of something to just get done so I can move on to the dishes.
4. I’m a stay-at-home parent, not a housekeeper or maid.
Compared to my husband, I carried higher expectations for myself while on leave for non-parenting household labour, and more guilt about not getting things done. He seemed able to compartmentalize, to accept that his new full-time job was taking care of our kid, not taking care of our house.
This trap of high pressure expectations and ensuing guilt was one of the main things I wanted to avoid on my second mat leave, and I’ve been doing a pretty good job so far. Bonus: lower expectations make me feel more productive
5. If my kid is alive and happy, I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to do.
I also had high expectations for myself about my kid’s development – or more accurately, my development as a parent, which would be reflected, I thought, in my kid’s development. So it drove me crazy that I couldn’t figure out his nap schedule, for example. I was sure he wasn’t sleeping through the night because I couldn’t figure out his daytime sleeping schedule, so I drove myself more crazy with charting his sleep patterns and even (embarrassed, again, to admit) drawing graphs to see if there were correlations between, say, afternoon nap length and more sleep at night. There were none. John didn’t worry about any of that when he was home. He just did whatever worked to get the kid to take a nap when he was tired, and trusted that eventually things would work out. Guess what? They did. That kiddo now sleeps through the night like a champ. He still does not nap like one.
With our new little guy, I still need more ‘control’ than my partner would in my shoes, and I still track his sleep. But just so I know how long it’s been since he’s last slept or eaten, or which boob he was on last, since I have trouble remembering these things – thanks, baby brain! And I do it on an app – way easier than the pencil-and-paper routine I had going last time. The result so far seems to be a more laid-back, happier me and a calmer baby. Double win!
6. Just savour it, dammit!
All the tendencies I had – to try to prepare for everything, to worry about household chores, to fret about and impatiently anticipate the next stage in my kid’s development – made it pretty hard to savour the extraordinary situation that I was temporarily in and would never have again, at least not with this child. It might be true that it’s harder to savour the early days of parenting with your first child, simply because you don’t know what the hell is going on most of the time, and you’re just trying your best to muddle through (or, at least, I didn’t, and I was). So maybe it’s not surprising that I think I do much better at savouring time with my second babe in these early days.
But my husband seemed able, despite the sleep deprivation, first-time-confusions, and constantly-changing stages our son went through in that first year of life, to still savour his time with our kid. Maybe he had some greater, big-picture vision that grounded him in the knowledge that this time was precious. Or maybe he just had enough of a laissez-faire attitude and lack of concern for the managerial side of staying home that he was able to be present in the moment because he wasn’t even aware there was anywhere else to be. Either way, I’m bringing out my inner John this time around, and let me tell you, sitting on a blanket with my kiddo, at least for part of our day, doing absolutely nothing but looking up at the trees feels just glorious.