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Once upon a time: reading to my daughter Grace

Once upon a time: reading to my daughter Grace

It seemed dramatic at the time. Well, there was a lot of blood and a fair amount of unmanly screaming. But when the flow had been staunched and I had established that all my digits were still in place, I realised that slicing into your fingers with a nine-inch, precision made German chef’s knife was an occupational hazard in my line of work. You see, I am a stay-at-home dad.

A couple of days later, still looking like Edward Scissorhands, I met my friends for a drink in the Stag’s Head pub. For me, it was a rare evening out; for them, it was a regular Friday night post-work haunt. One was on crutches (a tricky black run on a recent skiing holiday) and another was limping (torn cruciate during Wednesday night five-a-side).

What about you, they asked. What’s with the bandages? “Oh these,” I said with a airy wave of what was left of my hand, “a Henkel knife and a tricky red onion.”

It’s at times like these I realise that staying at home, doing the shopping, cooking, cleaning and looking after my four-year-old daughter is actually a job. It may not be fulltime (I’m able to work it around a local election campaign I’m involved in, for instance) but it can be pretty full-on.

This acceptance that child-rearing and housekeeping is a real job has been slow in coming. (Just ask the feminists.) When I took a redundancy offer from the newspaper where I worked, I thought it would be nice to spend more time with my little girl. She had come along late in our lives; indeed we counted ourselves lucky that she came along at all. It seemed likely that she would be an only child, and there would be just this one chance to see a child of mine grow up. I took it.

I was a bit freaked out at the beginning. It was lonely work. We went to Palmerston Park, but no one played with us. We went home again, and no one called on us. I searched the faces of mothers pushing prams when I was out pushing my own, but their eyes stayed resolutely down. I liked going to the bakery around the corner, or to the newsagents, because people spoke to us there, and took an interest in my little girl.

We tried going to “mother and toddler” groups at the local library. This was a strange world, somewhat reminiscent of a country dance where no one is brave enough to break the ice. Mums and their progeny sit around the outside of a large room while the kids crawl into the middle, play and mix and snatch each other’s toys happily. Their parents try not to look at each other, or more accurately, try not to look at me.

 When I imagined my life as a stay-at-home-dad, I dreamed of parently comraderie, of coffee mornings or lattes in a café where I and the mums I had befriended would chat about the relative merits of Mamas & Papas and Gymborie or the price of bouncy castles. The reality in the early days was different: Grace and me alone in Starbucks, me nursing a cappuccino and her spreading a hot chocolate with sprinkles over a wider area that you would have thought possible.

Really, it was my neighbours who saved my life. My nextdoor neighbour – who is mother to four girls – included Grace and me into her plans, parties and playdates, while two doors down on the other side, another mum was friendly and supportive. It’s amazing how a little kindness can have a big effect.

Then she started in pre-school. At first, the other mums regarded me as an oddity. Their kids were much more accepting. “That’s Grace’s dad,” they would point out to their mothers, who, having been introduced in a roundabout way, thawed a little. After a while, the invitations to playdates started to come in, and I knew that at last I was accepted. I was one of the girls.

Women, I soon realised, have this stay-at-home parenting thing sorted. They are much better at networking, at applying the social lubricant, with a remark here and a compliment there. They seem to naturally gather in groups, whether to play tennis or have coffee in the few spare hours that pre-school brings. Throw a man into one of these situations, I discovered, and the dynamic is altered. The conversation changes, the tone shifts. It’s not a sexual thing necessarily, it’s just that putting a man into an all-female group is bound to change things, just as putting a girl among a group of men would.

Once, on a sunny afternoon last summer, when I was still on the foothills of my journey to stay-at-home daddery, I got a glimpse of what it could be like. I had to drop off a present for my nephew. Oh, why not bring it along to Maria’s, said his mum, we’re going there for lunch. Maria’s turned out to be a newly renovated 1950s house in Blackrock, with fresh pebble-dash and cream marble tiles. The kitchen was all gleaming steel and Corian. Inside, the children, all in the seven to ten range, were playing tennis on the Wii. Outside, the mums were seated around a designer garden table on a granite patio, drinking  Chardonnay and picking at puddings from the Butler’s Pantry. This, I thought, is it.

My glimpse of how the other half lives was all too brief. The day after, I was back to my round of school-lunch-park-supper. Then, in the park, something happened. My daughter decided to try the “big slide”. I’d been edging her towards tackling it for ages, but she is a naturally cautious child. But today, she was going for it. Of course, when she got to the top, she changed her mind. She wouldn’t go back down the steps or slide down the slide. She started to cry. Suddenly, there were mums everywhere, coaxing her this way and that and reassuring me that their Jimmy was just the same. Once again, I was one of the girls.

Looking back now, a year into my new life, I realise that if I had treated it as a new job, I would have cut myself some slack and given myself time to adjust to a new way of living after so many years on the testosterone merry-go-round that is national newspaper journalism. But I expected it to be perfect from the get-go. It took me several months to settle in to the whole mums/kids social thing, but of course that was only one part of my new portfolio.

The housework was killing me. I am a naturally tidy person. Indeed, my wife might say I was borderline obsessive-compulsive. But even I, a man who likes to have the blinds in the front bay window level, was wilting in the face of endless sweeping, folding and tidying up. Some religious mystics recommend that you make a meditation of your daily repetitive tasks. I doubt any of them had to sweep the kitchen floor several times daily in the wake of a small female crumb machine.

Then there was the cooking. The endless round of shopping, chopping (fingers excluded), cooking and washing up was getting tiresome. I began to agree with my wife that it was boring drudge work and that when I am on my deathbed I am unlikely to be comforted by the thought that I kept my kitchen surfaces clear.

As it turned out, my decision to turn myself into a 1950s housewife coincided with the greatest economic disaster in world history. I fretted about taking on more work. I got involved in local politics. I worried that, at some future parent and teacher meeting at Grace’s “big school”, I would be the only one arriving on a bike, searching for a spot to lock it up amid a fleet of Mercs and Beemers.

But gradually, I learned to slow down. I learned to give my attention entirely to Grace, rather than wishing away the time with her so I could get back to the computer or work or that article. For me, this was a difficult lesson. Children, as Andrew Clover says in his book Dad Rules, are like Victorian gentlemen scientists: they like to stop and examine things. They stare are leaves and flowers and wonder at raindrops. It’s a good idea to stop and wonder with them.

So, a year into being a home dad, I’m finally enjoying it. Sometimes I have to remind myself that this is the life I have chosen, and not something I am grudgingly doing under sufferance. The social side of mine and my daughter’s life together has come together (her schedule is still a little fuller than mine), and the house is running pretty smoothly. Happiness, I have discovered, is a contented child, a supper in the oven, and level blinds in the bay window at the front.

Some things I’ve learned

  1. Never feel guilty about not getting stuff done.

The transition from a results-oriented job to the more process-oriented world of children is difficult. Don’t beat yourself up about all the things you’re not doing.

  1. Slow down and be there

Kids are pretty quick to notice if your mind is elsewhere, and they usually do something dramatic to bring you back into the here and now. Peeing on the floor of Milltown’s chic organic store Wilde & Green will do it.

  1. Have a routine

I’m not a fan of Gina Ford’s methods, but I do agree that children appreciate being fed at regular intervals. If Grace is crying, it’s usually because she’s hungry or tired (or wants a Cornetto). Regular mealtimes and bedtimes are good.

  1. Be a man

There are two pitfalls I have heard other SAHDs mention: letting your child be the boss, and trying to be too like a mum. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that sometimes you have to be the boss, and kids need boundaries. They also benefit from the different energy a man brings to the role of parenting.

  1. Take time out

In the US, there are fewer than 900,000 SAHDs, but over five million stay-at-home-moms. In Ireland, the figure for SAHDs is about 8,000. The possibilities for isolation are obvious, so it’s important to get a network going. You will have to be proactive about this – make those calls and arrange those lunches/drinks. No one is going to do it for you. Enjoy!