The night my wife went into labor with our first son, I found myself staring at a mounted television in the birth center in between contractions: Bruno Mars danced on stage, spinning in a shiny gold jacket and slim black tie. As he snarled and sang during the Super Bowl halftime show, I sipped lukewarm coffee and imagined telling my future son or daughter who performed on their birth night. Cara was bracing for more contractions and breathed rhythmically. Hee hee hoo. I rested my hand on top of her white-knuckled fingers and leaned over the bed, as the nervous energy channeling through my limbs manifested in a hum — a Bruno Mars song. Cara jerked her arm up in the middle of a contraction and forcefully covered my entire mouth.
“Shut the hell up,” she said.
My eyes widened and cheeks flushed as I became aware of my awkward hum. I felt the eyes in the room focus on me. Never one to sing in front of others, I glanced at the grinning doctor and nurse on the other side of the bed. I wanted to crawl into a dark hole.
Two days later, after a grueling labor, Cara gave birth to a 10-pound boy with a ring of hair wrapping around his head like a small friar. We named him Henry. His birth ushered me into new territory; it acted as a freeing mechanism, diverting energy I had previously used to worry about what others thought into the never-ending work of a stay-at-home parent.
Becoming a Stay-at-Home Dad: The Clothes
The transformation started with my clothing. Never known for my style before parenthood, I played it safe with a golf shirt, khaki shorts, and running shoes, but now as stay-at-home father I am accustomed to wearing coffee-stained sweatpants and spit-up–covered T-shirts.
Twice a week, I drive my son to a program at a nearby church and park our now-dusty, trash-filled Subaru between the glossy shades of minivans. Fit moms in fancy yoga pants march their kids into the building, while my son and I, wearing our T-shirts and sweatpants, weave through the boys and girls in their smocked dresses and rompers. Unshaven and unshowered, I walk the hallway to Henry’s room too sleep-deprived to care about my appearance. I don’t even want to know what the other families think of us.
The truth is, I needed parenthood to knock loose a few false layers and draw me closer to my true self. I don’t think I could have done it without it. “Just be yourself,” people say, as if it is that easy. Telling someone who is anxious to “just be yourself” is like asking them to jump out of an airplane without checking to make sure their parachute is working.
Finding the Dad Role
Parenthood has been a safe space for me to relax and grow more comfortable with who I am, but I recognize it is not freeing for everyone and, unfortunately, can be the opposite: a rigid role. Parents in our culture are often expected to be either perfect providers or perfect caregivers (sometimes both) and forced into a position that allows little wiggle room. They feel the pressure to add false layers to their identity because they fear the disapproval that comes when gender roles are defied.
My wife is the breadwinner in our family. Both of us have felt guilt, frustration, and disrespect because we tend to move against the expectations of dominant gender roles. We cope with humor.
Over lunch, while kids were away at school and daycare, I asked my wife, “Did you know males seahorses give birth?”
“Yes,” she said, “did you not know that?”
“Not until I read National Geographic for Kids. What I’m trying to say is that I want to carry our next baby.”
“It’s easy to say that when it’s not a real option.”
“Would you say the same to a seahorse?”
“You are not a seahorse.”
Instead of rigid roles, I wish parenthood provided men and women with a space to explore themselves. Parenthood should be an opportunity to expand into what Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and author, called the “fullness of our existence.” Or if you prefer less high-minded wisdom, you can listen to my college roommate’s advice: “If you can’t be yourself, then who can you be.”
There have been times when I have felt the pressure to conform to traditional ideas of a father. I have tried to be the dad known for his grill skills and handyman knowledge, but I’ll never be that dad because I’m the dad who watches The X-Files in the bathtub with the lights turned off. I’m the type of dad who reads literary magazines in his spare time. I’m the type of dad who wears a T-shirt with the periodic table on it and the words “Dad: The Essential Element.”
Finding Dad, Finding Myself
With my 20s now in the past and my 30s soon expiring, I find it harder and harder to maintain the energy for false fronts. Maybe it is a reckoning with my true self. On a recent weekday morning, at the Home Depot, I took Henry with me to the bathroom. Without a stroller to contain him, I held him, a squirming toddler, in my arms as I stood at the urinal. He reached for the shiny flush lever and pulled it up and down, distracting him long enough for me to pee. But as he pulled the flush lever for the 10th time, water rushed to the edge of the porcelain, one flush away from leaving me standing in a puddle. I yanked his hand off the lever and attempted to distract him by initiating a call and response. “Hello, hello, hello,” I said, words echoing off the cinderblock walls. He giggled. “Hewo, Hewo, Hewo,” he repeated, eyes widening as his voice echoed. Our bathroom litany included tractors, monster trucks, and farm animals, concluding with a word learned at lunch the previous day. “Pupusa,” I said. “Poo-poo-sa,” Henry screamed while the water receded. The urinal crisis was averted.
I shifted with him to the sink and Henry waved his hands under the motion sensor. As we scrubbed hands, a toilet flushed in a far stall. A toilet flushing? I had assumed the room was empty. A middle-aged man emerged from a far stall, magazine rolled in his palm, face scrunched. He marched to the sink. I offered a polite smile, but he refused eye contact and scrubbed his hands, shaking his bald head. After he finished, he looked at me with an expression that could only mean one thing: what kind of weirdo leads their child in a bathroom screaming contest?
I attempted another polite smile as if to say look how cute and mischievous these creatures are. But he shook his head one more time and marched out the doorway. “Poo-poo-sa,” Henry shouted, giggling and waving his hands in the water.
Now the only adult in the room, I looked at myself in the mirror expecting to see a flushed face. But it was not. The crow’s feet on the sides of my eyes appeared deeper and the bags underneath darker, but inside I felt no embarrassment. A light feeling arose in my chest. For someone who would have wished to crawl into a dark corner prior to fatherhood, this surprised me. It felt like growth. I smiled as I took one last look in the mirror.
Some days, I’d give anything to be childless again, to focus on my desires and enjoy freedom from parenting responsibilities. But I recall how much energy I wasted before parenthood worrying about what others thought of me, scrambling to cover my insecurities. By no means am I free of self-doubt now, but I don’t want to revert to the version of myself that was consumed by it. I’m thankful for the power of parenthood as it reshapes my identity and dissolves burdensome self-consciousness. So often it is the forces you have no control over that shape you most.
On a Friday afternoon at home, I texted my wife, who works remotely from an upstairs office, to make sure she wasn’t in a meeting, then turned to my toddler son and said, “It’s time!” His eyes widened as he pulled down his shorts and ripped off his T-shirt and diaper. I removed my clothing, too. We climbed the carpeted stairs to the second floor and approached the door to the office. I raised my finger to my lips so he’d remain quiet (as quiet as a toddler can be). He leaned against me, ready for action, as if he had waited his entire life for this moment.
I quietly counted with my fingers — one, two, three — and flung the door open. We rushed into the room. My wife jerked her neck to see who barged into her office as we screamed and ran in circles behind her desk. “Neekid, neekid, neekid,” Henry yelled. My wife ripped off her headphones, laughing. We kept circling and shouting. I joined the chant. “Neekid, neekid, neekid.” We ran for a few more minutes (until I was out of breath) and abruptly left the room, exiting as a two-person, father and son, streaking flash.
Later, sitting on the couch, my wife pointed out that I have experienced a reversal in parenthood. My outside appearance has never looked so messy, but my insides are calmer than ever. I’m not sure if I agree, but I am grateful for the new freedom given to me by parenthood.