Adventures in Fathering

Four out of five, because it’s impossible to get them all together…

When you take over as a full time parent, people always seem to have expectations for your success or failure. Dads are particularly singled out with these expectations, but not in the way one might think. From what I have experienced, the male of the species is expected to do a lot less.

I get compliments all the time about my kids. I suppose I could just chalk it up to how good they really are, and beautiful, and smart. But most of the compliments seem to be aimed at me. But I am only half of the reason they are how they are, if that. Would people compliment my wife like that? Would they compliment her if she had to wrestle all five of them through a church service? They tell me I’m doing so well bringing them week after week, would they do the same to her?

The double standard seems to assume men aren’t as capable of parenting as women. Fathers are inept creatures, barely able to juggle one child, let alone five.

Frankly the assertion makes me laugh. Yeah, my kids are a handful. They are constantly moving, vibrating really, and sometimes they make noise at inopportune times. They treat me like a jungle gym. They stand firm in “no” and make me drag them by the leg into certain places. But it isn’t hard. It’s exhausting sometimes to be sure, but not “hard”.

I love them. I love the challenges they bring. I love watching them make connections and grow and learn. I love that they force me to be strong and active. I love that they ask complex questions and make me think. If I was not actively involved in their lives I dare say I would atrophy.

I pity the men out there who don’t have kids, or at least act like they don’t. I pity the men who don’t know their kids well enough to know what discipline works for what kid (hint: they are individuals, every one is different). I pity the men who never engage with their kids, physically or mentally, for they will grow olds quickly without the exercise.

Most of all I feel a bit grumpy towards the men who fit the stereotype of inept and aloof. They are the reason for so many misplaced compliments towards men like me. They are the reason I will get five compliments to every one my wife gets. They are the reason my kids never get told how awesome they are, everyone is too busy being surprised by me.

Next time you see a lone father (or mother) with well behaved (mostly) kids, compliment all of them.

They’ll appreciate it.

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The Beautiful Life

“Expedition Happiness” Watch on Netflix. Or don’t.

Sometimes when I read blogs or watch documentaries all I can think is “How do these hipsters make it look so easy?”

I don’t know what kind of world these people live in, they are always young, always attractive, frequently childless, and always seem to have an endless stream of money. They seem more like fictional characters than real people. You have to wonder what they do for a living, are they ever stressed? Do they get bored? Do they fight? Where is the ugly in their life?

Sure, sometimes the bus breaks down, the visa gets denied, or the cake in the oven falls. But these people always seem to handle it with a smile. Or at the very least they look gorgeous while crying.

Well, that ain’t my life.

I get sick. Nothing productive happens for days at a stretch. My kids make giant messes, animals get into my trash, my trailer sometimes smells like something died in it.

People thrive on positive. We love comedy and run from tragedy. We live vicariously through these adventurers and beautiful hipsters. We don’t like our conventional lives, so we read about theirs and forget our problems for a bit.

But who’s to say your conventional life is ugly? Who’s to say you aren’t living a beautiful life, even if it isn’t quite the adventure these people seem to have? Life is a gift, even with its warts and wrinkles. Life is beautiful even with the sickness and the smells.

You don’t have to read blogs or watch fru-fru documentaries (both of which I do. Too much.) to enjoy a beautiful life. All you have to do is start enjoying yours.

Tight Spaces

A trip to get internet…

When you live in a tiny space, you tend to know well your living partners.

Every cough, every fart, every bump into the wall. Every single time they go to the bathroom (where is that WD-40?). You hear all the quarrels, all the laughs, all the times they play a little too rough with the cat.

There is a certain level of intimacy that you simply don’t get in a sticks and bricks house. There are no rooms to lock yourself up in, nowhere for the kids to hide. You go outside for alone time, or you kick them out. Or you simply hide in the van. Or you get over it and accept that these are in fact your children and you will never escape them. Much of the time though, someone’s going outside.

You get creative in the marital department. It’s really not much different from when we were co-sleeping with toddlers and newborns. We have curtains and did I mention that van? We even have a tent if we need a “night out”.

Tight knit spaces seem to make for tight knit families, at least at the ages they are at. We’ll see how it goes in later years…

Seasons

This is my third season.

In fire, we describe a firefighter’s experience level in terms of “seasons”. A typical season is six months long and can be quite arduous. Sometimes the season is busy and physically demanding, sometimes it is slow and mentally exhausting. Sometimes it is a bit of both.

This is my third season as a stay at home dad. So far I find that parenting is a lot like that as well.

My first season began in Truth Or Consequences, NM. My wife handed me the keys to our truck and trailer and said “don’t destroy our house.” She went off to fire boot camp and left me to find a camping spot for five kids, two cats, a dog, and me. I never felt so free and optimistic. I was newly unemployed, and she had no job prospects, but I felt like we were finally headed in a good direction.

That first season we stayed with family in Virginia. She worked 60 hour weeks and I battled family disagreements, juggled school and play, and tried to keep seven people fed well. It had its problems, but for the most part it was easy. I felt like I accomplished something. I felt that I had it under at least some control.

Then came the second season. After a fire season in New Mexico, we returned to our home in Florida. I now had to worry about more than just a couple rooms and a trailer. I had an entire house to care for. I stumbled. I failed. I succeeded in some, I completely missed the mark in others.

It wasn’t completely the role reversal we were going for, and I almost wonder if that is part of where the struggles came from. I still worked. I still tried to take on more than I could. I let some things slide and over focused on others.

I didn’t even realize my failures.

Now I am in my third season, the beginning clearly marked by a new living space and a stable schedule. I have only 200 square feet to care for, not nearly the same distraction as 1800. I have been given an opportunity to make a good season.

This is going to require focus and determination, two things which don’t come to me easily. I intend to learn in a small space what I couldn’t in the impersonal space of extended family’s houses or the “large” overwhelming space of an entire house. This tiny space doesn’t require too much work, unlike the tiny people in it. They are going to be a main focus this time in a way they weren’t in previous seasons.

If I can’t handle this, I definitely can’t handle a “normal” living quarters.

Lessons From The Other Side

Early in our marriage we decided that we wanted to homeschool our children. Even before our lurch into libertarianism we were convicted that public schools are no place for the minds of our children. We were further convinced that one parent should always be present in the lives of our children. This means we made a conscious choice to live in a single income family.

For ten years our single income came from me. During this time our family expanded from two young lovers into two lovers and five crazy loinfruits.

(The loinfruits hate photos (and shoes), except for the eldest)

Two months ago when my seasonal employment ended we decided to do something outlandish (for conservative folks like us) and let Nicole work while I stay home with the kids.

After ten years of telling her what I think she ought to do in her home I am now the one running the show. And I am drowning in it. I used to think “that’s an easy job”, not as a comparison with my job, just as a mindless judgment. I used to give her all kinds of hints and tips that I thought were soooo helpful. “Why don’t you try doing this?” I would say, empathetically and sincerely. In reality, I had no idea what I was saying.

I am now the one who is one twitch away from snapping at the kids for running through the house like wild banshee after being told not to 59 times. I am now the one wondering why the laundry never ends or why the kids insist on using 5,000 forks in one day.

I am also the one watching a weary, exhausted spouse come home and turn off. The one hoping to have one decent conversation in the day because all they have dealt with is childish conversation with little people who can’t empathize at their ages. I’m the one knocking the children off of their beleaguered parent, telling them “Mommy is tired, be kind, leave her alone for a while and let her breathe.” All the while wishing that maybe Mommy could just take them away for a few minutes and give me some rest.

Being on this side of the stay-at-home parent dynamic has been one of the most humbling experiences since I broke my collarbone, two ribs, and a shoulder blade last year. I was laid up for almost two months, physically unable to move much due to the pain. I had to learn to swallow my pride and accept the help of others. While that was a physically humbling experience being a SAHP is an emotionally and mentally humbling one.

There is so much one hopes to accomplish in one day, and so many obstacles getting right in the way, that the day never seems complete enough. One drops into bed feeling like nothing was done and tomorrow nothing more will happen. While physically capable of accomplishing the goals, one never feels emotionally like the goals were met (even if they were physically met, which they never are actually.)

Thus there is a desire for empathy from the other parent who quite frankly has no clue what’s going on.  He or she has spent all day outside of the home and away from the children, oblivious to the chaos that has been occurring all day. While one may be physically fine, the enormous amount of emotional and mental support needed at the end of the day is staggering. There is an excellent reason God made parenting a two person job. Even if a single person can physically accomplish all of the tasks of parenting, housekeeping, and bringing in a family income, they often do so at the expense of their emotional and mental health. Super kudos to those that do by the way. Y’all are some special people.

Even working on dynamic firelines where one has to be concerned about getting burned up has not prepared me for the mental taxation of several tiny voices all demanding equal time and treatment. The overwhelming number of details one must keep in one’s head is staggering even when compared to the number of variables on a fire line.

This job is not the most difficult job physically, there are jobs far more physically demanding. This job is not the most difficult mentally, brain surgery is probably much more mental. I’d even be willing to bet that this isn’t even the most emotionally draining job out there. But cumulatively SAHP is the most difficult job I have ever encountered.

Much grace should be given to the stay at home parent. More humility needs to be exhibited by the breadwinners of the house. These people are doing a difficult task, and probably the most important one as well. Cut them a little slack if you run across them out in the world and their kids are orbiting them loudly and perhaps a bit chaotically.

Which brings me to another point. 

If you see a father with his horde of children, don’t assume that he is incompetent or unable to handle them. Don’t assume that he was conned into “babysitting” his kids or that he is miserable (even if he is, it’s not likely to be because he is a dad.) Don’t look at him with pity or call him “brave” or “strong” (unless of course you would also do the same for mothers).

Men are capable of parenting. If you assume that the men you know are not up to the task, perhaps you should hold them to a higher standard. If you do see them struggling (as any parent does at times), don’t draw attention to their failures. Don’t make them feel like maybe they aren’t doing well by suggesting that they must be worn out or using the well meaning but much overused phrase “you look like you have a handful!” Give them some grace and maybe even a helping hand, as you should do for anyone you witness struggling through life.

Above all else, don’t give them a pass when they are genuinely being negligent. Don’t play the “poor incompetent dad, I hope his wife is coming back soon.” routine. If he’s slacking, call him out. If he’s spending most of his time staring at a screen or a magazine or book, while his kids are climbing the walls or destroying displays at the store, call him out on his lack of discipline. He can and should step up to the plate and at least try to engage his children in play or conversation.

Encourage fathers to hold their children to high standards in behavior and respect of others. Encourage fathers to discipline children and raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Encourage fathers to be vulnerable with their kids, play with them, empathize with them, let them know their father loves them and has feelings about them and about the world around him. The encouragement we need to give to fathers is part of the encouragement we need to give to all men, but I’ll touch on that another time. For now I’ll leave it at this:

Becoming a stay at home dad for this season has been an eye opening and humbling experience. All the folks who do this full time for years on end have my utmost respect. All of them need grace and patience as they navigate the hardest job in the world. Please give it.