How I Went From Daddy Denial to Becoming a Stay-at-Home Father

Dirty diapers made me squeamish, but turning my baby over to a stranger was more than I could stomach. That's when I decided to step in.

Michael Rovner and his son
Courtesy of Michael Rovner.

I held a baby for the second time in my life at age 46. My wife Keisha was quick to snap a picture, but not because we'd been trying to get pregnant.

"You're holding her like a stack of firewood," Keisha said dryly, and stuck her arms out like a zombie coming in for a hug.

There was no reason why I should be a natural with children—I’d rarely see them in bars or while working for newspapers and magazines. I'd been single for 15 years, dividing my time between work and play.

The one thing that made Keisha believe I'd be a capable parent was that I'd spent the previous decade and a half caring for Tippy, my mostly blind, completely deaf, toothless, elderly Shih Tzu.

"You're so good with Tippy; I just know you'll be a great dad," Keisha said.

Then in one year, my mother, father, and Tippy all died. Keisha and I moved in together and she got pregnant. I also left the content agency I'd started five years earlier.

The beginning of a new life

In the weeks after we brought our son Wolf home from the hospital, I was terrified to be alone with him. I was afraid he'd get hurt or that he wouldn't stop screaming. Keisha became increasingly concerned about what she called my inability to bond with him.

"This is a really important time. You need to hold him, talk to him so he learns your voice," Keisha said. I reluctantly obeyed her. Wolf was so delicate. I was convinced I'd drop and break him.

Nothing from my single life, including taking care of Tippy, could have prepared me for the relentlessness of parenthood. Wolf went through 10 diapers a day. I'd tie a bandanna over my nose and mouth before I changed him. He spit up after every meal. His diapers leaked. He'd release a fountain of pee. He slept only in short bursts. There were frequent bouts of screaming until his eyebrows turned bright red. The whole situation was loud, messy, and frightening.

Historically, the men in my family were more comfortable at a blackjack table than changing table. My own father proudly admitted that he rarely changed my diapers. And when I asked him if it was true that he went to play poker when I was an infant with a high fever, he replied, "It was a regular game. I wasn't a doctor, and your mother was taking care of you."

Later in life, my father showed up for me in any way possible, but I remember as a teenager, he confided in me that babies weren't that interesting to him. I figured he was just being honest. At the time, I agreed. I took the message to be, if babies weren't that interesting to me either, that it just reinforced my manhood.

Keisha had 20 weeks of maternity leave. I saw this as time for them, not us, to establish the most important bond of all. But she felt so alone taking care of Wolf; she thought that she'd made a huge mistake. Keisha saw my indifference to my son as selfish and immature. As usual, I was confused. I wasn't sure what my role was supposed to be.

The single guys I knew were in complete agreement with me that I was facing an overwhelming situation, that I should hire someone and get back to work. Guys with kids had equally strong opinions about my behavior.

"You're in denial about having a kid. You never talk about him," said my friend Jonathan, a father of three.

"Do you really want to hear about my kid?" I asked defensively.

"No, but that's not the point," Jonathan said, adding, "If you want to be a good father, do the things a good father does. Pick him up, change him, talk to him, and sing him to sleep."

Four months had passed and I kept putting off conversations about the childcare that we needed to put in place after Keisha went back to work. She wanted me to help her find a nanny or else the nanny would be me.

I was incapable of looking after Wolf for more than a few hours, so I started interviewing nannies—three a day. We went with a soft-spoken woman from Tibet who promised to give Wolf daily massages with oil. Watching them together, I thought he'd be better off with her than me. She could show him affection in way I thought I wasn't able to express.

Going from daddy denial to caregiver

The nanny was scheduled to start on Keisha's first day back at work. The day before she returned, Keisha walked me through Wolf's routine so that I could show it to the nanny. Learning my son’s routine well enough to teach it to someone else made me realize it wasn't that difficult. It occurred to me: I could do this.

When Keisha came home and asked me how it went with the nanny on the first day, I said, "We're paying someone $20 an hour to watch me take care of Wolf. Plus, he seems to prefer me anyway."

I decided to tell Keisha I was going to take care of our boy. Secretly, I figured, if it didn't work, I could always hire help later, but I wanted to try. I expected gratitude because I was stepping up, finally.

I told Keisha: "I want to try looking after Wolf.”

"There's no such thing as 'looking after' when it's your kid. It's called being a father," Keisha said.

"Regardless, nothing is going to change," I replied. "People say this is the hardest job in the world. Try running an agency, collecting invoices, begging work from coders, and arguing with designers when something doesn't look good. By comparison, the kid seems somewhat reasonable," I added.

"The kid?" Keisha repeated. "You mean your kid."

In the past, I'd do whatever I could to escape an uncomfortable situation. Now I was trying to be a good dad by doing the things good dads do. I wasn't just writing checks. I was getting my hands dirty. I'd stopped wearing the bandanna as a mask when changing him.

One day, I called Keisha at work. I told her that Wolf had napped, had a fresh diaper on, and just finished a bottle, but he wouldn't stop crying.

"He wants you to hold him. You have to pick him up and give him a hug," Keisha said.

"I don't think that's what he wants," I said, but I did it anyway.

He gripped onto the front of my T-shirt with his tiny little fingers. He pushed his mushy face into my chest. Snot and tears were followed by a burp of formula still warm from his stomach. I wiped the front of my shirt with my palm and carried him over to the sofa where he fell asleep on my chest. It was getting better. Or maybe I was getting better.

I stopped thinking about caring for my son as a distraction. I started to think of being a father as my job and hoped that I could do some paid work while he slept.

Eight months had passed and Wolf was becoming more mobile. It became impossible for me to do anything other than chase him around the apartment. I found a part-time nanny who'd take a couple shifts a week, but scheduling complications meant Wolf and I were on our own again.

I learned that as a parent I needed to be both flexible and resourceful. I also knew that it wouldn't be long before he was off to pre-school. I could enjoy the fun parts of what were long, tiring days by remembering that our situation was going to keep changing.

Just like with Tippy, Wolf and I fell into a routine. Occasionally, I'd tell Wolf that he was a good boy, and I'd think of Tippy. I'd scoop up my son in my arms and hold him close to me, not at all like firewood.

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