I’m a three-time stay-at-home dad of two: a seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. That sentence has way too many hyphens in it. Where was I? My first stint as full-time carer for my daughter was by choice; I’d been freelancing in the marketing/PR field for a while and earning well, so when my wife’s maternity leave ended, I decided to take some time off to bond with my 9-month-old daughter.
This was in mid-2011, before shared parental leave became a thing in the UK, so it was in many respects an odd experience. My daughter and I certainly bonded well, but it was hard work looking after a baby as she said her first words (“Mummy”, predictably, even though I was the one with her all the time) and took her first steps (in the gardens of Hampton Court Palace, no less). Many were the days when my wife would step off the train home to find us waiting outside her carriage, with me thrusting our little bundle of joy at her and begging to be allowed to go see my friends down the pub as I just couldn’t take it anymore. The feedings, the attempts to get her down for naps just so I could have a break, the nappy changes – and oh GOD the projectile vomiting and poo!
On the other hand, the cuddles, the way her face used to light up whenever she saw me after a nap (except that time I had a haircut and she burst out crying when she saw me afterwards), sharing toys (and half-eaten food), her lifting my glass to feed me a beer of an evening, watching as one word became two, then three, four, and her first attempts at sentences. In short, getting to experience every moment of her changing from a crying, poo-ing blob of helplessness into a real person with her own personality: these experiences are priceless.
There is nothing that can prepare you for the reality of looking after a baby or infant full time. It is relentless. It will reward you with the highest of highs and sucker-punch you with the lowest of lows (sometimes from minute to minute) and it has to be experienced to be believed and understood. The best analogy I can think of – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – is that having kids is like being in pain: I can tell you how much it hurt to have my appendix out, and you can understand that on an intellectual level, but until you have had your appendix out you simply can’t truly understand.
For all that, though, the experience was an incredible one, well worth finding myself almost always the only man at the packed-out soft play centres and play groups. The understanding it gave me of the tough, tough role that has traditionally been thought of as the mother’s has, I believe, undoubtedly made my marriage – and indeed our whole family unit – a much stronger one than it otherwise could have been.
The following two times I’ve been a stay-at-home dad, including as of this writing, have not been by choice. This is not because I didn’t want the experience again, but rather to droughts in the amount of contract work I’ve seen hitting my plate. Such is the life of a freelancer: it’s either feast or famine. But these days, I note with pleasure and approval that I’m far from the only dad doing the school run, or joining the play groups, or running around the soft play centres and playgrounds. There is still a very long way to go, but more and more, I’m not the only dad stopping the inevitable fights, cleaning and bandaging scraped knees, consoling a bumped head, and swapping childcare war stories. This can only be a good thing, and I hope all these, and future, stay-at-home dads will benefit in the same way as I did from this unbearable, but unmissable, experience.
James Hafseth is a freelance marketing and communications professional.