What do YOU do?
Martin Wolterding grapples with the transition from breadwinner to full-time father.
I never planned on being a full time Dad. It never occurred to me that I would ever be taking care of an infant full time, four days a week. While I've always enjoyed being with children, full-time carer simply wasn't part of my self image. I've had two decades of schooling, trained myself, developing skills as a teacher and Environmental Scientist. Since adolescence I've carried a mental image of the sorts of things I'd be doing as an adult and primary carer for an infant wasn't among them.
Then I met and later married Rosemary, a women 16 years my junior. Rosemary is an intelligent woman with bright aspirations to succeed, to excel in whatever she does. She has plans for her life. So, at the age of 46 I found myself in Australia working as a University Lecturer, enrolled part time for a PhD study, with my wife writing her thesis.
Our son David was born two years later, during a time of great changes in our lives. Rosemary had her first job about the same time as my three year lecturing contract ended. Seemingly overnight I found myself at home, caring for a 3½ month old infant. I found the new role daunting at first. That first morning, as I sat with David on my lap, trying unsuccessfully to get him to accept his first bottle of expressed mother's milk, I doubted whether it was going to work. Both David and I shed quite a few tears that day.
Well, we persevered and soon David and I began to fit into our new roles. I'll never forget the first time we looked deeply into each other's eyes while he fed, connecting in a way I'd hitherto only dreamed about. Suddenly, watching his open, beautiful face, looking into deep blue eyes that went on forever, waves of love welled up in me. Within a few more days I, a middle aged, over-intellectualised male, began feeling a whole new sheath of emotions. I found a love within myself that made no demands, and felt a deep sense of gratitude to God for the gifts I was being given. I only realised how much I'd changed when on my once a week trips to the University, I found myself literally counting the hours until I could get back to my baby.
However, it took a year for me to become completely reconciled with my role as carer. I continued to "look for a job" subconsciously hoping I wouldn't get one. The realisation came as I drove to a job interview for the position of Ocean Ecology Coordinator for Greenpeace - a great job. During the two hours I crawled through slow Sydney traffic I realised that were I to get the job I'd become a stranger to my son and partner. By the time I'd arrived I didn't want the job.
I found taking care of an infant relatively easy. Somehow I already had all the tools and skills I needed to do a good job. After years of paid work I found the problems of taking care of my son refreshingly uncomplicated and solvable. They were generally all short term and immediate in nature, starkly contrasting with the long, ongoing, often unsolvable problems of employed work.
That's not to say that I felt no discomfort about my uncommon social role. When I grew up in the '50s, there seemed only two types of men. There were the successful men who worked full time, supported their family completely. The second type were the failures who couldn't hold down a good job. There seemed no middle ground. A healthy man who lived off the earnings of his wife was a parasite. As an adult I intellectually understood the absurdity of this rigid dichotomy but emotionally this message still remained. At first I dreaded the question - What do you do? My first responses, half lies, overplayed the importance of my studies. Only incidentally did I mention that I also took care of my infant son. It took at least two years before I felt sufficiently comfortable with my role to answer that "I'm a Dad".
Since one can only interact with an infant on an emotional level, I didn't know what to do at first. When however, the situation arose it turned out to be far easier and more enjoyable than I had ever imagined. I found that combining parenthood and part time study (mostly at home) worked extremely well for me. Using my heart and head in equal measure over the week, established a balance in my life I'd never had before.
A baby is almost infinitely adaptable. It has no preconceived idea of what activities are appropriate and what are not. I found my own sometimes unique solutions to daily problems. When our car needed repairing, David "worked" alongside me on it or we both went down to the garage and sat around watching the mechanic fix it. True, I was the only customer who brought his baby but the blokes there soon got used to that and even began to enjoy having him around. I began to relish bringing my young son into normally child-free spaces. There is nothing like the fresh vitality of a child to cut through the professional bull. I told myself that it was good for him to experience what people did for a living and that it was good for professional men and women to see a man with a child. Mostly however I took him simply because I enjoyed being with him, to see the world afresh, through his eyes. Moreover, having him with me greatly helped me reorient myself and re-prioritise my values. When on a trip to the Sydney CBD we watched the clones in dark suits, the careworn faces of men and women, weighed down by unrelenting stress, his presence reminded me how lucky I was to have gotten out of that trap. There but for the grace of God, go I.
Every Wednesday, our kitchen table became my laboratory workbench where the seagrass I'd collected the day before was measured and examined. David was my Research Assistant. As long as I reserved a handful of the green shoots for him to suck and cut his teeth on he was happy to watch me work. My data books include a multitude of his personal entries and contributions. In reality, we were in the same business. We were both conducting research; each of us running our own series of experiments to learn more about the world around us.
I also experienced the feelings of isolation many mothers go through. Whereas when a lecturer I thought little of speaking to a class of over 400 students, within a year as a house dad I felt nervous in front of a group of 30. My feelings of isolation were deepened by the absence of a close network of other men in a similar situation. There were too few men taking care of young children for us to easily become acquainted. We knew each other by sight, we nodded to each other but rarely spoke. The housewives on my street, despite their superficial words of support, seemed distinctly uncomfortable in my presence. I have a strong suspicion that the local play group dissolved and later reformed so as to eliminate me as a member. In an attempt to end my isolation, I joined a men's group forming in my area. It helped a great deal.
Society as a whole does not take notice that there are men out there who take care of children. Many people would retch if they knew the places I've been forced to use to change my baby, parking lots, toilet stalls - any semi-dry horizontal space where I could lay him down. Most "Mother's rooms" are attached to women's toilets and off-limits to men with children. I know, I've tried. At one time I figured that a soiled baby was sufficient excuse to invade these well lit, well laid out, comfortable facilities. But I soon gave it up. I became too sensitive and couldn't take the frosty reactions from the women inside. In the end I preferred the damp tile floors, the urine stink of the men's room floor.
The role reversal has been difficult for Rosemary as well. A precious 45 minutes of play with David in the morning and the same amount in the evening are insufficient for both of them. I sympathised with her feelings of estrangement as she missed milestone after milestone of David's development. She saw her son change before her eyes without having had the opportunity to enjoy stages now past. A good mother, with skills well honed caring for younger siblings, Rosemary had assumed that she would be the principal carer to her children. Only too late did she realise the mutual exclusivity of a full time professional career and the joy of being with and raising a child. I believe the concept of "quality time" is a fraud. The quality is there only if the quantity is. Full-time employment simply doesn't allow sufficient time with one's children to be there for the special moments that only occasionally come.
By the end of my first year with David, I'd undergone deep and irreversible changes. I'd developed skills and confidence in whole new areas of life. I've learned, through direct experience, that I'm capable of loving, as fully and deeply and unconditionally as any woman. I've touched and explored a tender, patient side of myself that I never knew I had and I've had my life priorities reoriented 180 degrees.. Today David is five years old. In two weeks he goes off to "big school". As I reflect upon the past four and a half years it becomes clear that they were for me the greatest, most challenging, most enjoyable time of my life.
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