In “The Magician’s Nephew,” by C.S. Lewis, the character Uncle Andrew tricks two children into traveling to other worlds as part of an experiment he’s performing. Later in the book, he is pulled into one of those worlds, Narnia, as it’s being created. There he is confronted by talking animals he can’t understand and of whom he’s afraid. The animals decide to plant and water poor Uncle Andrew, and take a liking to the unusual creature:
They were really getting quite fond of their strange pet and hoped that Aslan would allow them to keep it. The cleverer ones were quite sure by now that at least some of the noises which came out of his mouth had a meaning. They christened him Brandy because he made that noise so often.
After spending time being the full-time parent and housekeeper of a family, one can sympathize with Uncle Andrew’s situation. Running a household is at times being surrounded by people who, although they are fond of you, don’t really listen to what you’re saying or understand why you’re saying it. After a few days, you have a much greater understanding of Facebook Wine Mom memes.
Men think they know what their wives are doing at home while they toil away at the office, but there’s no crueler teacher than experience, and it’s given us a whole new perspective on what it’s really like to be the full-time caretaker of a house and the often unruly inhabitants who live in it.
For some, our experience is borne of temporary necessity—say, taking care of business after a knee surgery. For others, it’s a product of realizing that taking care of business requires reconfiguring traditional roles. In either case, we men tend to find there’s more reason than we may have originally suspected that we see those harangued moms walking like yoga-pants-clad zombies around Target at 2 p.m.
Regardless of how we recognized the full implications of the term “stay-at-home,” there are certain truths we have learned from the experience.
It’s Exhausting, On So Many Levels
Around 1230 AD, Villard de Honnecourt drew a sketch of a machine he believed could work infinitely without an apparent energy source. Over the centuries, many others have tried to design perpetual motion machines. Clearly, they had all at one point been parents, because a young child is the very model of such a device. Children do not stop moving. Ever. Even when they are supposed to be sitting.
My kids are incapable of sitting. You should see the moves they can put on a chair. Everything but their ass goes in the seat. It’s mind-boggling. Don’t you know how chairs work? Is it really that comfortable to do a perma-handstand on the thing?
Drew Magary is not exaggerating. At dinner, children act as though they are auditioning for admission into the Cirque du Soleil. That they achieve this feat without ever actually ingesting food makes it more impressive.
During the day, kids are a whirlwind of motion, noise, and random demands. The amount of movement required to keep up with them comes as a surprise, especially to the knees and back. With the first, you notice more. By the third, you learn to distinguish between normal crashes and those that might have caused destruction, between regular shrieks and shrieks of anguish.
The physical exhaustion pales in comparison to the mental and emotional fatigue children can inflict upon a father’s soul. Kids are amazing and wonderful until you put them in the same room with one or more of their siblings. Sure, there are the beautiful moments when they play well together, but human nature being what it is, there are also some alarmingly nasty fights.
More often than not, the intensity of the fight is inversely proportional to its cause—when kids are in the mood for a throwdown, they will go full thunderdome over a single Lego brick. It would be nice to say that these quarrels always end because of the Solomonic wisdom our words gently administer, but nine times out of ten, the Dad Voice is required.
Sometimes, the Dad Voice causes tears in more sensitive children. Tears cause exasperation, and exasperation leads to more tears, and at those times, there’s no choice but to turn to our new best friends: Mr. Walt Disney and Netflix.
Just Admit It: Your Au Pair is Digital
We all dream of being perfect parents who send our children outside where they build forts and have adventures, at least when we’re not reading to them and taking them to museums and engaging in other stimulating mental activities. As with all most other dreams we had prior to children, those died about the time the first child emerged and took a dump in the incubator while the nurses checked her over. Now, we abide. And how do we abide?
By doing exactly what Disney wants us to do. We buy those disks and digital copies and pop them on while uttering a silent prayer that our little angels will go 84 minutes without attempting to blind one another or take out the electric grid for the entire neighborhood.
Sure, reading is great, and the kids love it. Board games are even better, especially since most satisfy children’s desire to watch you go temporarily insane as you attempt to explain the rules of Chutes and Ladders for the 987th time. While outside is also generally great, sometimes it’s inhospitable, and stupid government busybodies tend to frown on sending your children out in thunderstorms and other inclement weather.
So, given that you can’t find any vagrants or Lionel Hutzes around to watch the kids, you relent and turn on the tube. Is hearing “Let It Go” for the millionth time maddening? Perhaps. But it is rather hummable, and the rhythm is perfect for hacking through a door with an ax.
The Splendid Glory of a Natural Invisibility Cloak
Under normal circumstances, fathers have a glorious out: invisible dad syndrome. In almost all situations, particularly those occurring in the middle of the night, when a child walks into a room she only sees Mom. There are probably scientific explanations for this that were discussed during the birthing classes that involve parental bonding and such, but that was two kids ago and most of us tuned out after being forced to watch the horrifying birth videos anyway.
Regardless of the cause, invisible dad syndrome is the closest most of us will ever get to having a superpower. Dad can be sitting on the couch watching football while mom is engaged in an activity that is actually useful to the household but, without fail, when the kids need something, the first word out of their mouths is “Mom!” This is true even if you are in the same room with the children and your wife is in a completely separate part of the house.
While this inures dads to the screams, pains, and trifles that children experience, it also leaves us underprepared when it’s our turn to attend to those screams, pains, and trifles. So when fathers are deprived of the security blanket that is invisible dad syndrome, we are forced to confront the Hobbesian reality of parenting small children all by ourselves. It’s not pretty.
Do you remember that feeling you got in elementary school when you walked into your classroom and saw a substitute teacher? It was the thrill of realizing the balance of power had just shifted, temporarily, into the hands of the students. There is a similar dynamic at play when invisible dad moves into the role of full-time caretaker. Children know what you don’t, and they will ruthlessly exploit every weakness they see.
Mom Has Always Had All the Power
It only takes a few days of being a full-time caretaker to realize that the natural cloak of invisibility is a sham. You don’t have a superpower—your kids are just better judges of competence than you ever realized. For that reason, they are drawn to your wife. We’re not trying to say that fathers are incompetent or endorsing the “bumbling dad” stereotype that bad sitcoms and commercials far too often perpetuate.
We are simply acknowledging a simple truth: this job is really hard, and our wives have always made it look effortless. When working full-time, men leave the house for at least 40 hours a week and, in that time, our wives are civilizing the kids, feeding us all, and keeping the house organized. When our kids call for mom they are not trying to undermine dad. They’re just calling for an expert.
When we try to take over and run things, the house and the family actually devolve. The kids abandon all pretense of effective communication and simply grunt and growl when it’s time for another slice of pizza. Also, you’ve fed them pizza for the past four nights with leftover pizza for at least one lunch. There are clothes everywhere, and a family of raccoons is threatening to take over one of the bathrooms. One daughter is wearing pajamas pants with a Christmas gown, while another child is in danger of forming dreadlocks.
When you go out in public like that—with Punky Brewster and Rasta Junior—people give you a pass. You’re a man and you’re spending time with your kids, which apparently warrants praise in this day and age. Maybe the knowing mothers you encounter are simply aware that to even get out of the house you had to first do battle with the raccoon family so as to give the kids some toothpaste to spit out on the bath mat.
Matching Clothing? What an Idea
Moms don’t get that pass, even though they should. No, they soldier on, insisting the kids live in raccoon-free houses and wear clothing that not only matches, but is also actually intended for outdoor wear. They ensure the little ones don’t have to dodge piles of laundry and what was once food but has become science experiments as they head to the bathroom to brush out the dreadlocks. They ensure the kids know it’s the letter B, not the number B. All they ask for in return is an occasional moment of quiet and some horrible macaroni art.
Dads can, and do, learn how to approach raising young ‘uns and running a house. Some can even do it with the same level of competence as do the moms. But spend any time attempting it, whether because of short- or long-term need, and you’ll quickly realize that moms typically run the household and civilize the children for a reason: they are much, much, much better at it than we and much, much, much less likely to burn down the house or lose a kid somewhere in the process.
Accepting that truth makes us realize that being a stay-at-home dad is a humbling experience, but not an unpleasant one. Yes, your wife is better at this, but at the end of the day if your house is still standing and relatively clean, and the kids are asleep in their beds and not wandering outside or destroying the living room, you can count that day as a win.