Family Man: A Beautiful Mess
The other day, I got one of those calls parents dread: “It’s Stacy from the preschool office. I’m calling about Benjamin.”
class=MsoBodyTextIndent style="TEXT-INDENT: 0in">About .07 seconds elapsed between this and her next sentence, but that was all I needed for my parental instincts to go into panic mode. Images of my child bleeding on the circle-time mat, crushed by an avalanche of construction paper, flew through my mind.

class=MsoBodyTextIndent style="TEXT-INDENT: 0in">“He’s fine,” Stacy continued, anticipating my panic. “He just threw up. We need you to come get him.”

class=MsoNormal>A moment ago, I had been scared to death that my son had been sucked under by quicksand behind the swings, but upon hearing that he had upchucked at the “friendship table,” I was thrilled. Here was a genuine, minor emergency that I could answer in the middle of the day. I picked Benjamin up, bought him Gatorade, and cared for him the rest of the day – all without the anxiety of missing time off the work clock.

class=MsoBodyTextIndent style="TEXT-INDENT: 0in">Several months back, I underwent one of my many life crises. Our second child, Jacob, was 6 months old and my wife, Wendy, and I were still acclimating to life with two kids. I was working a ton of hours, at the office and later at home. I frequently missed dinners.

class=MsoBodyTextIndent style="TEXT-INDENT: 0in">Worst of all, Jacob often looked at me blankly, as if to say, “And you are … ?” Benjamin was frequently telling Wendy, “I can’t fall asleep until I give Daddy his cup of air.” (The “cup of air” involves my son pouring imaginary flavors in a pretend nightcap for a calming end to the day.) Because of all my extra work hours, I was missing my cups of fresh air – my kids.

class=MsoNormal>The Daddy Track

class=MsoNormal>After an unhealthy amount of soul-searching, I stepped off the linear track of career advancement and created a more flexible work schedule. As a result, I’ve had time to regularly change diapers, instead of just the occasional wipe up. Jacob has gotten so used to it, now he only poops when I’m the one with him. I’m also no longer inept at feeding him and have learned to imitate his dance moves. Recently, when we brought a runny-nosed Jacob into bed with us, he patted my chest and whispered one of his first words: “Dada.”

This was it. I had transformed from a nonentity to a key player. (My wife, who does so much of the childcare, couldn’t sleep the rest of the night because she had yet to hear him say “Mama.”)

With Benjamin, I’ve had the chance to drive carpool on field trips, read books to his summer-camp group and observe ball games and karate lessons. This past Thanksgiving, I awkwardly helped build a scaled-down Mayflower. My son was giddy about having me there. I lingered in the classroom some days and witnessed the secret life of my preschooler. I saw how he served himself lunch on “hot meal day” (he didn’t eat much) and learned about his job of the week (“I go outside, check the sky, and I tell everyone about the weather”).

Fighting an Uphill Battle

While many of today’s fathers don’t have the same schedule I do, I’m encouraged by the growing trend of dads hanging out at the park with their kids around 3:30 p.m. Still, many workplaces expect their employees, especially dads, to always put their day jobs first. One corporate accountant told me he sneaks out a back exit to pick up his child from school. Another friend took time off to care for his sons while his wife was out of town on business. Upon returning to work, his boss joked, “We must not be keeping you busy enough if you have time to go play with the kids!”

Fathers have an uphill battle to alter work stereotypes and expectations. But, I believe it’s worth the struggle, even if all isn’t perfect when you make the changes. I still find myself drifting to the computer to check work-related e-mail while the kids run around. Sometimes I fail to return work messages while I’m at Piano Play class. It’s kind of a mess.

But it’s a mess that fits my peculiar personality and allows me to be there for Benjamin when his tummy’s upset and for Jacob when he’s looking for a parent to hug at 2 p.m. on a Thursday. For now, it’s a mess I can live with. I’ll have plenty of time to clean up when they’re in college.