Two months at home -- just me and my 6-month-old daughter, Audrey. Not many men these days take paternity leave, but to me, it seemed like a fairness issue. My wife, Kirsten, took time off to care for Audrey, and it was my responsibility to do the same.
Then, as I watched Kirsten and little Audrey bond, I started to get excited -- why should moms have all the fun? I dreamed of long, idle days in the park, reading the paper, my faithful companion snoozing at my side in her stroller. But as Kirsten's leave came to an end and mine began, I became scared to death. Would I become an exhausted wreck -- or closer to my brand-new daughter than I had ever imagined?
The answer was yes... and yes. Fellas, I'm here to tell you: Being at home with your baby is even harder than it looks. My back aches, my calves are scorching, and my nerves are shot. Sitting behind a desk has nothing on the emotional stakes of stay-at-home parenting, the recognition that you alone are responsible for a little life.
But when I started witnessing Audrey's milestones -- sitting up, eating her first solid foods -- I learned to stop groaning about the housework and start appreciating what was in front of me. (Did I mention that Audrey learned to say "Dada"?) Guys, trust me. It's worth it. Just remember to lift with your knees, not your back.
I'm starting my leave with a list of 16 or 17 things to do, almost none of which are Audrey-related. Staying at home -- whether you're a mom or a dad, it seems -- has as much to do with housework as it does with parenting. I know I have laundry to do, I'll have to go to the supermarket, and I'll have to cook dinner. I hate all of those things. Resigned, I open Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything -- a sensational beginner's book -- and choose turkey chili.
The first thing I do as I leave for the supermarket with Audrey is lock us out. Oops. Luckily, my neighbor has keys and lets me in. Take two: Audrey and I make it through the market, but just as we reach the front of the checkout line, I discover I've left my wallet at home. Back to the house we go. Clearly, I'm a little nervous, wondering how long it will be until she starts bawling or -- my big fear here -- finds out she's being cared for by a complete amateur.
My first real parenting dilemma surfaces a little after 2 p.m. I realize that Audrey napped for only 45 minutes in the morning. She doesn't seem interested in napping now. Do I push a nap on her or toss her in the stroller and visit my friend Dorre, a mom on maternity leave with her 6-week-old, and risk bringing a cranky, overtired baby into a house that's already filled to the brim with cranky, overtired people?
I decide to brave the journey and grab my wife's diaper bag, only to discover that it doesn't really fit me; it's built for smaller shoulders. So I grab a backpack and stuff the diaper bag inside it, the makings of a new system. Audrey sleeps 30 minutes or so on the way to Dorre's and is happy during the visit.
We get home just before Audrey's bedtime. She's not cranky in the least and falls asleep easily. My decision appeared to be all right, which is good, because I have no prayer of even thinking about cooking until Audrey is asleep. When Kirsten comes home a bit dazed from reentering the working world, she gives me high marks for the chili, but admits she's sad that Audrey isn't awake. "I wanted to cuddle her at work," she says, "but I couldn't."
I, however, feel like a hero. I handled my first day with aplomb. Then Audrey wakes up crying. Maybe she's overtired? My decision doesn't seem so great after all. Kirsten gets to cuddle her all she wants now, but I am puzzled, trying to find an explanation as to why Audrey's up. Then I realize that there may be no explanation at all.
Audrey is in her Ultra-Saucer and happy. (Thank God for the Ultra-Saucer.) This gives me a second to get her laundry out of the dryer. I come back and to my relief, Audrey is still cooing away. Do I have time enough to fold the laundry right there? Sure! Time enough to change a lightbulb? Why not? The respite ends and she starts getting bored and whiny. So I lift her out and begin carrying her around.
But I'm running out of time. I need to send out a birthday card to my mother, and it must make the 4 p.m. mailbox pickup, which means we might as well have an outing and go somewhere for her 4:30 meal. So I have a lot to do before we go, and with Audrey in tow it's not so easy. I find it's impossible to sign, address, and stamp a birthday card while carrying and amusing a 6-month-old baby who can't sit by herself and hates lying down. (The Ultra-Saucer is no longer an option; she's been there, done that.)
We get through it somehow; she whimpers on her activity mat as I fill in the card. All the while, I'm talking to her: "Okay, Audrey!! We're wishing Grandma a happy birthday! And we're including little wallet-size pictures of you with Mommy and Daddy!! What do YOU think? Do THESE stamps look nice?" But Audrey can clearly smell my desperation; it's primal. And she is officially cranky.
We'll need some food for our outing, so I try to make a bottle with Audrey tucked under one arm. But I can't do it one-handed like my wife does; I'm just not that good yet. So I have to put her down, which makes her furious, even though I'm doing the funny dance that normally makes her smile.
Once I'm done, Audrey notices that the bottle isn't going in her mouth, but in the diaper bag. To add insult to injury, I'm stuffing her into her snowsuit, which she despises. By the time she's strapped into her stroller, she's officially wailing. But as soon as we get outside, she becomes interested in the world around her. I smooch her tummy. She giggles. All is forgiven. And we make it to the mailbox in time.
I finally get what stay-at-home moms say about not knowing where the time goes. Naptime is my most frantic (and coveted) time, my only chance to clean the house or pay bills. And the list never gets shorter. The chimney cleaner comes -- hooray, he's off the list! -- only to announce that the flue that connects the boiler to the chimney needs fixing. Oh no! Yet another onerous chore on the never-ending list!
Three days into my little adventure, I realize that I have only made it through the first stage of stay-at-home parenting: Not allowing the baby to die. I have yet to work on the finer points, like figuring out the chores and working around the needs of a small person who can't walk or speak English.
Audrey and I head to music class. Kirsten took her to the first seven; I am taking her to the final three. As we enter, the moms in the class look over at me, then down at the stroller.
"Hi, Audrey!" they say in unison. "Hi," I say. "My name's Bob." "We'll just call you Mr. Audrey!" one mom says.
The blood rushes to my face. Was Kirsten called Ms. Audrey? I don't think so. When I get home, I call my sister and tell her what happened. "Don't sweat it," she replies. "It's Audrey's music class. You're just her assistant." I can't argue with that.
In the class, the adults rock the babies, singing and helping them clap and play with rattles. The babies stare up at them with alternating wonder and confusion. And then, in the midst of a not terribly exciting experience, I notice that Audrey is sitting up on her own, much better than she was doing at home. Maybe it's because she sees other babies doing it, or maybe she's so distracted that she's not thinking about sitting as much as doing it. But I'm elated.
It's a huge moment for Audrey. And for Mr. Audrey, too. The politics of parenting, I'm learning, play second fiddle to the baby. I shouldn't let my role upstage hers.
As if being Mr. Audrey weren't threatening enough to my masculinity, Kirsten's and my roles are now officially reversed. I'm the one who's home all day, and I must admit, I feel especially needy when my wife comes home from work. I find myself expressing hopelessly generic feelings like, "We don't spend enough time together." And Kirsten, in turn, tries to downplay my problems -- she doesn't want to think about any trouble at home because she's too busy with work issues (and her own separation guilt about Audrey). She reminds me of me, when I was at work.
Half the problem is I'm both isolated but never really alone. During the day I'm either with Audrey or cooking for Kirsten and me. I have no free time for myself. I feel a little lost, and I miss my male friends. To help me out, Kirsten arrives home early tonight so I can see my friends Chris, Dimitri, and Pete.
But a few minutes before I leave, Pete calls to cancel because Dimitri can't make it. "Can I come over to your place anyway?" I say. Pete thought he was doing me a favor by letting me off the hook, but I am really craving adult interaction tonight.
So I go. Conversation is slow, but I am determined to make this work. I fire question after question at Chris and Pete, swerving out of conversational dead ends until the talk flows freely. I really need this. Allowing myself a night out helps remind me that I'm still me.
I'm starting to get it now. This job is one part crisis management, nine parts cruise director. If you don't schedule something to do, there is nothing to do.
This afternoon I find myself inside the house, trapped by the rain (the stroller canopy leaks) and dumbfounded as to what to do with Audrey. Finally I swoop her upstairs and rifle through her drawers -- say, what does your mom keep in here, anyway? -- and find a baby sling. We try it on and she really enjoys it for a while. It kills some time, but more than that, I'm having fun. Goofing off with my kid is becoming this job's biggest perk.
The challenge is maximizing Daddy fun time and minimizing the chores. It's a shame that I'm not together enough to plan several meals in advance, because going to the supermarket every day is getting old fast. Take today's dilemma: Do I cut into Audrey's nap and go buy pork chops now to beat the coming rain, or do I wait and risk getting soaked?
And there is one lingering question: How much longer can I put off vacuuming the living room?
I'd been hearing about a neighbor of mine named Errol who runs a playgroup for dads. I finally met him, and he invited Audrey and me to join. He started his group, he says, because he'd been hanging out with a lot of moms, and "the eighth time they invited me to go shoe shopping, I said, 'Enough!'"
Today, Audrey and I trek to the playgroup. Most of the kids are older than Audrey, and it's fantastic to see her take delight in watching them run around. I imagine for a moment that I am a brilliant parent, giving my child a valuable social experience. Then I accept that I'm also relieved to have found adults with whom to share parenting experiences. The lesson: Being with others helps you understand and bond with your baby.
Daddy's first mishap: As I pull Audrey out of the car, I tap her face with the door. There's a mark on her cheek. I'm overwhelmed with grief and guilt. Driving home, I actually start wondering if my daughter is really safe with me. Then, a moment later, I wonder if it isn't just my pride that is wounded, because Audrey isn't even crying. At the end of the day, you can barely see the mark. At least that's what Kirsten says, and I realize that what you learn from mistakes matters more than feeling guilty.
It's Saturday, and Kirsten and I get ready to head out for the day with Audrey. I find myself doing things that a few weeks ago I would need prompting for, like packing up food and bibs. It's nice to have that kind of confidence.
Later, Kirsten asks me where we keep Audrey's towels. The tables have turned! I rearranged Audrey's drawers yesterday. Is the gander as good as the goose now?
Probably not: Kirsten has also noticed that I've basically given up on cleaning. Spending as much time as possible out of the house hasn't turned me into the world's best homemaker.
But I'm changing in other ways. I can relax more around Audrey now. A few days before, we were marooned in the house during a blizzard. I just took it easy, curling up around her on the floor as she played. I've learned how to be both active and passive at the same time, an interested participant in her play, not just an entertainer.
The real joy comes from watching her change. She really has a personality now; she can hold a ball, and she'll grab at my nose and laugh like it's a little joke. When I started my leave, Audrey was a completely different baby. And I was a completely different dad. Oh, and making the bottle one-handed? I can do that now.
Work starts after New Year's, and I'm a little troubled. Will I see Audrey for only an hour a day for the rest of her life? Will I start taking her for granted as if we had never had this time together?
I confess, though, that I'd feel more worried if we hadn't. I learned how to be alone with Audrey without fear. I became sensitive to the frustrations of stay-at-home moms. Best of all, Audrey and I know each other better now; there's a shared vocabulary, most of which consists of words I doubt anyone could spell.
Yesterday, I had the chance to visit a friend, but I chose to spend the day with Audrey. We went to the library and I read her books. She was the only baby there, and she spent most of her time laughing at the older kids. They all got a kick out of her. So did I.
Robert Kolker is a contributing editor at New York magazine.
Originally published in American Baby magazine.