So, yeah, I was paternity-leaving before Mark Zuckerberg made it cool. It’s so trendy now. Parental leave is a hot topic in this country because somehow it’s surprising that raising your child is a good idea. I love that we even need to reference studies to “prove” this fact because, unfortunately, you can’t just scream, “The Europeans are smarter than us!” and not come to work for 365 days. The total destruction of traditional gender roles has left American companies falling over themselves trying to understand the new workplace landscape in case they ever meet Ronda Rousey. Women want to work AND have babies, men want to raise the babies, and this is all good for profits? Fortunately, I work for a company that gets it.
But there’s nothing like dad’s first eight hours alone with a baby. It is an entirely different experience than being the slapstick entertainment between nursing sessions. When Julia sprinted off to work and back into a world of adult conversations and people who don’t potty in their pants, and left me alone with Will, I looked at him with probably the same expression that my dog saw on her first day with me: “Well, I guess you’re mine now. Wanna go play or something?” I didn’t read many parenting books because I have instincts. The result is that I learned A LOT on the job.
Hospitals only tell you the facts that’ll give you nightmares and fail to mention encouraging things such as, “Babies are our nation’s most underrated comedians.” Will’s reactions to every new experience made a trip through the kitchen feel like we stumbled into Fantasia. The look of pure wonder and excitement on his face when he saw the microwave open for the first time was so spontaneous, bizarre, and fun to witness that it might be the best joke I’ve ever heard.
Will is also a human laugh track, which is a self-confidence booster when I’m trying to make him laugh but the opposite when he giggles 10 times harder when the dog casually walks into the room. But despite the total lack of a coherent sense of humor, a happy baby is an easy baby. This was such a relief because I always assumed that a child was just a chore until they learned how to play catch.
2. Enrollment in the underground Cool Dad Club
I probably shouldn’t even be talking about it, but the Cool Dad Club is a silent support network where other dads can low-key let other dads know that their effort (and, sometimes, suffering) is respected. Let me be crystal clear, it is not bro-ish. There are no “whattup” head nods. Recognizing a fellow member in good standing is communicated by AT MOST one second of consensual eye contact. That’s all that’s needed to convey empathy, appreciation, and solidarity. I say “good standing” because there is a standard to uphold and a hint of judgmentalness in our behavior.
For example, when I would head out for our morning walk around town, I knew I’d be encountering other dads, so I always made sure to have my shit wired tight and not be the guy who couldn’t get his act together and was making men look like Homer Simpsons. It’s one thing if Will was having a rough moment and I was handling it like a calm professional, but it’s quite another if I was unorganized to the point where my inattention to detail was causing the meltdown.
Not coincidentally, our club’s rules for taking your baby to a grocery store are the same for surviving a crisis situation: act confident, don’t disgrace your family, and bring plenty of diapers. The morning walks were a good barometer for the rest of the day because if I earned eye contact from another dad, then I knew was making the grade and everything was going to be smooth.
At least once a day, I get mad at the fact that the ’80s are getting farther away by the minute and, no matter how hard Hollywood tries to Jurassic Park the Ninja Turtles, they’ll never be rebooted successfully. I suffer from whatever the disease is that gives you nostalgia. Man, being a kid was fun, right? But have you tried it recently? Our paternity leave agenda was: play with toys, experience new places, take naps. AND IT WAS DIFFICULT.
It was not the Calvin and Hobbes life that I remembered. I was equal parts bored, busy, and annoyed for five days before I realized that I was trying to fit my adult life into a baby’s schedule. I learned that if I was going to enjoy paternity leave, and not just survive, I had to channel my inner Calvin’s carefree attitude where time isn’t a thing and playtime is the purpose of life. It took a serious mental adjustment, but once I abandoned the idea that I’d be able to squeeze in emails or sneakily stay in touch with current events, I found that I could go to the park with Will for three hours every day or read the same book about hippos 50 times and feel like that was the extent of my world.
The best moment was the first time Julia got home from work and I hadn’t been counting down the minutes to her arrival. She just showed up, and I could barely speak conversational English because I had spent too many hours mimicking barnyard animal sounds. Although I’m clearly Hobbes at this point, it was fun to act like a kid again, once I remembered how.
My biggest fear of paternity leave was that Will would take one look at me and scream forever, only taking breaths long enough to fill his diaper. I’m not his mommy, his giver of milk and life, and that’s not an acceptable thing to be. But, surprisingly, once Julia was out of sight, Will didn’t even notice. And like most men, he’s a different person when his favorite boobs aren’t around. He didn’t cry for milk ONCE, so the lack of mommy actually gave us some flexibility with his schedule and activities.
While Julia only left the house four times (not joking) in his first four months of life, Will and I were out the door with the dog and on the move first thing in the morning and only returned when we got bored of having too many awesome adventures. Paternity leave taught me that dads aren’t ill-equipped substitutes for moms. I got to have my own special, unique experiences with Will that brought out new qualities and tricks in him.
Fortunately, I’m still able to channel my inner Calvin for the limited amount of time Will and I do get together each day. There are no more three-hour trips to the park after breakfast on weekdays, but I’m able to be perfectly present for at least one good play session and that’s (hopefully) enough to remind Will that I’m still a #cooldad. I’ll miss the paternity leave days, but I’m glad I took every single last minute that I was allowed. If anyone suggests that’s a bad idea, tell them sorry but you can’t hear them over your child’s hilarious toots.