Although the actual date has been lost in the haze of 4:30 AM wake-ups, vomit avoidance strategies, and small-scale railroad construction, I believe that this week will mark the end of my fourth year as a Stay-At-Home Dad. This morning I found myself perusing old entries in my journal and stumbled across a date which was heavily underlined, 6/8/09. A few months after the birth of our first son I found myself in a difficult employment situation. Two years earlier I had left what once was a near dream job to branch out into something completely new. I found myself working for one of the kindest and most patient men I have ever had the honor to meet. He was exceedingly gracious to this young man who was as out-of-depth as he was brash and arrogant. He led our organization with a quiet humility that I would only truly appreciate years later. Unfortunately, there were others in the organization seemingly bent on watching it all burn. Trapped between bottomless patience and endless viciousness, I writhed like a caged animal with no way out. It was a time of spiritual crisis where I simultaneously begged God for both victory and escape. For months I struggled and squirmed and whined until one day, 6/8/09, when I made the following journal entry:
Today is the day. I have been set free. This is not my struggle. It is not my fight. There is something else. Out There.
Little did I know that I was only two months, and an entire world, away from a life of diapers and bottles. If I had even a suspicion, I certainly had no idea how distant “Out There” truly was or how far I would be stretched beyond any previous understanding or experience. How far beyond “hard” I was about to travel. So, in August of 2009 I left the “working” world to be a Dad, only a Dad.
Our culture is trapped in a transition between two lies about parental roles. The first lie says that a man’s worth is tied up in the size of his paycheck, his ability to provide for his family. A woman is defined by her ability to bear and raise children. I had never been paid exceedingly well for any of my previous work, but the inability to quantify my full-time occupation with a number haunted me for months. It left the nagging question of what defines a man. Had I simply become a woman with a penis?
My little internal struggle was interrupted by a much more important crisis. Our eldest son, Jacob, was born with an enlarged left kidney. As we later learned, the ureter on that side was kinked where it left the kidney, preventing urine from flowing into his bladder. The backlog of urine would cause the kidney to swell until the pressure became great enough to push past the kink. As Jacob grew it was only a matter of time until the swelling became great enough to cause him pain. That time came when he turned one. Jacob would wake up in the middle of the night screaming with pain. There was nothing we could do to help the poor tiny child as his back arched in agony until the urine pressed past the obstruction. Jacob was scheduled for surgery, which went well, but there were problems with his recovery which led to the most difficult and perhaps most enlightening week of my life. Months later I wrote my thoughts on the experience:
Back in March I was driving home from the hospital at midnight. Nicole was at home with Jacob. His surgery earlier in the week to clear a blocked kidney hadn’t gone well. Urine had been leaking out of a hole in his side for days. The bags we had been given to collect the urine didn’t work – kept falling off. Thus the midnight trip for more supplies. I was exhausted, stressed, angry, and knew my son was headed for another surgery if he didn’t stop pissing out of his side. But then I realized something. This “family thing” is the greatest thing I’ve ever done. Nicole and I were given this challenge because we can handle it. To set aside yourself to care for a child who needs help, to be strong and love my wife while she loves and is strong for me is a gift more valuable than all the gold in all the world. This is why we say that God is good. 8/30/10
I had found my response to the first lie. Manliness isn’t found in a paycheck. It lies in the midst of the struggle to set aside yourself, abandon your own wants, desires, even hopes, to try your very best to be a blessing in the life of another person. Manliness lies in the broken and bloodied body of a man nailed to a cross for no crime other than love. In that one horrible week I had found a picture of manhood which I could pursue as a Stay-At-Home Dad. Am I just a woman with a penis? Maybe. But there is no shame in it. If this is the path I am called to travel, the cross to which I will be nailed, than it is the most manly of things to travel that road and hang on that cross.
The second lie our culture tells us is that whether man or woman, you can have it all. Being a parent doesn’t mean sacrificing careers, or even hobbies. You can pursue your dreams while outsourcing child care and still be a wonderful parent. Recognizing the realities of time and space reveals this lie as impossible. We are given a finite, unknown, amount of time in this life and every moment we choose to spend in one location is a moment we cannot spend in another. The basic reality is obvious, but I still fell for the lie.
I’m blessed with a mother who gives each of her children one day of free childcare every week. When I first began staying home I chose to use that day to pursue my master’s degree. With a baby who napped well, I was able to attend school almost full-time. Then the second son came. Caleb is a blessing sometimes disguised as a crazed chimpanzee. School slowed to a trickle and missed opportunities began to accumulate, and sting. Potential publications remained potential. Employment offers were turned down. Fascinating volunteer opportunities had to be ignored. My beloved bicycle sat in the garage, neglected. Anger and resentment began to build. It seemed so unfair that I sacrificed so much while friends went on to achieve success and my wife got to have a career. I loved those two little boys very much. But on many days I would have traded them for a career if I could have.
One day, obsessed with myself, I had a chance encounter with a man a Wal-Mart, a man who can only be described as an angel. In a few short moments of interaction he changed my entire perspective. I came to realize that this job I do means giving up any ambition I have of doing anything for myself. This goes far beyond surrendering my desire to have it all. It means surrendering even my expectation to plan my day when I wake up in the morning. It means that, to soothe an awakened child, I must set aside this writing right now . . . and not take it up again for hours, or days, or years, or perhaps leave it unfinished forever. And this is not only acceptable, it is the job and the job is exceedingly good.
It sounds insane, a grown man abandoning employment and ambition in order to change diapers, a lot of diapers, but it remains the greatest thing I have ever done. The opportunity to set aside whatever dreams I once had to allow my wife to pursue her own dreams is an opportunity to love which I had never imagined possible. The chance to raise three little boys, our third came just last month, is a challenge imbued with a goodness and depth of meaning beyond any rigor I could have anticipated. It is a challenge that is not about me, yet defines me. It is the role I was made for but never imagined. How do you raise a man to love both others and the truth? How do you teach him to be respectful but not deferential? How do you train him to be chivalrous but not condescending? And the biggest question, will I dare for baby #4 without hanging myself with my shoelaces? I can’t wait to find out.