Well, not quite a full decade — but a good eight years. What is that, like an octade?
Whatever it is, the salient point remains: I’ve changed my last diaper!
Sing it to the heavens, oh happy day!
It still feels weird to go places without the all-important and omnipresent diaper bag over my shoulder.
The other day I took the kids to the library and when it was time to leave I started gathering up the books they had picked when I instinctively looked around for the diaper bag before remembering — Eureka! I don’t have a diaper bag anymore!
I beamed a huge, cheesy smile and nearly skipped through the aisles of bookshelves as I savored that glorious thought. And while skipping (or at least walking in a spritely fashion), it suddenly struck me that for my mom, the eight-year point of diapers was just … another year of diapers, sandwiched between more of the same on either side. At her eight-year mark she was just hitting her stride. If it was her walking through the library right now she’d have six kids in tow (which is more than I even have), two of which were still in diapers (I now have none), and she would still have more kids on the way and another three or four years of diapers ahead of her. Which would put her final tally at something like twelve years.
What is that, a dozenade? A twelvecade?
Whatever it is: it’s a lot more.
I shuddered. The broad smile on my lips rounded into an “O” of awed respect. How did she do it?
Only now, all these years later, can I start to appreciate all that Mom did, all the sacrifice, and work, and love that went into raising us kids and making such a wonderful home for our family.
The thing is, before I became a stay-at-home dad, I thought I already understood all that she did for our family and us kids growing up. But over the past eight years that I’ve been a stay-at-home dad and actually experienced what it is to make the full-time commitment to being the home-nurturing parent, I’ve come to realize that I had no idea.
Just this year a younger friend preparing for marriage asked me what it’s like raising kids and making a home. She wanted to know what to expect, what to prepare for. I wished I had wise words at the ready, but truth be told I was rather flummoxed. Where to begin?
Probably with the laundry. Because you’ve always got laundry to do. It’s crazy—there is just always laundry to do, and lots of it. I made a big push on the laundry front as part of back-to-school preparations, and I was amazed at how the laundry hamper stayed full no matter how much laundry I did. A glimpse of the empty bottom of our laundry hamper is more elusive than a Bigfoot sighting. I felt like I was the subject of some weird psychology experiment, like someone was hiding in the closet to dash out and dump more laundry in the hamper as soon as I did a load, and then record my reaction when I came back and look at it and thought, huh? What gives? Didn’t I just do this laundry?
It’s like gaslighting by laundry.
Except the people pushing the buttons on your psyche are your kids. And they live with you. All the time.
I actually stopped to analyze my laundry phenomenon.
Oh, here’s another point for newbies just preparing to embark on the wild ride of parenthood: you will find yourself puzzling over strange things. Usually this is caused by extreme sleep deprivation.
Turns out that in addition to serving as a pressure cooker for psychological experimentation, parenthood also makes a great medical case study on the effects of prolonged and severe sleep deprivation.
I recommend coffee.
It won’t stop you from puzzling over odd things in a semi-stupefied state of intense drowsiness, but it does taste good.
So there I stood, sipping coffee and eyeing our apparently bottomless laundry hamper. As I considered this marvel of wire and mesh which seemed to possess the power of defying the physical laws of the cosmos, I did some mental calculations which revealed that if every member of our family wears just one outfit per day (and we’ve been potty training, which often yields multiple wardrobe refurbishments), that alone generates some forty pieces of dirty socks and sundry soiled garments per day.
Suddenly the mystery evaporated. Such is the power of coffee.
It’s no wonder our laundry machine is like a fast food drive-thru: open 24 hours.
And speaking of drive-thru’s, fast food is now my favorite meal. Doesn’t matter what kind, as long as it comes from a drive-thru. Because it’s not about the food. It’s all about the car seats.
Because if we pick up food from a drive-thru, that means everyone is strapped down. No one can climb into my lap while I’m trying to eat. And I’m buckled in, too, so there’s no springing up to move cups away from the edge of the table, or wipe up spills, or refill drinks, or cut food into tiny squares. Just can’t do it — it’s the law, you know. And that means that food from the drive-thru is the one meal when I get to just sit and eat (and drive).
There is just so much. All the time. So much to do. So much to do over again. And over and over again, again. So many questions, so much needing, so much helping. So much memorizing board books from reading them a thousand times — a week. Which can actually come in handy when you’re trying to get kids back to sleep at 3 AM in a dark room and you can recite their favorite stories from memory — letter perfect, which you have to because they have them memorized, too.
And it’s all so constant, from when you crack your eyes open in the morning until you close them again at night. Seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, year after year. There is never a moment when you can say: “Ah, everything is done. Now I will sit and relax.” It’s more like: “I can’t stand anymore. I think I’m going to collapse–right here, right now.” And you do—for about five seconds, until the kid you’re potty training calls from the bathroom, “I can’t lift the lid!” and you jump off the couch and dash off with a renewed energy and alacrity that not even coffee can produce.
But even more than the sheer quantity of labor or the constancy of the demands, over these past eight years one of the biggest surprises for me has been the discovery that parenting is a mind-exhausting, soul-stretching, creativity-taxing, endless odyssey in pursuit of ideas. It’s a constant quest for answers, a ceaseless search for solutions. (And I’ve also been pleasantly surprised at the serendipitous solace I’ve found in alliteration).
As a parent you are constantly wracking your brains for ideas. You always need new ideas for … everything. From what to make for dinners this week, to how to get the kids to eat, to what new books you can find for them to read, to how are you going to fit a desk in their room for homework, to how to get them to do their chores, to—seriously? You want to be a giant octopus for Halloween? How in the world am I going to do that?
But more than anything, you are always trying to unravel the riddle: how do you solve a problem like Maria?
I don’t mean a particular child named Maria. I mean the Platonic Form of Maria, the Every Child Maria, the Any Child Maria, the Metaphysical Maria. I mean The Sound of Music Maria.
You see, with your kids—with your particular Maria—there are so many things you know you ought to tell her. So many things she ought to understand. But how do you make her stay, and listen to all you say? How do you make a PB&J while holding a baby in your hand?
The thing is, your chief occupation and preoccupation as a full-time home nurturing parent is: nurturing. Trying to help your kids grow into strong, courageous souls. How do you do that? How do you give them gumption, grit, and grace? Self-confidence. Independence. Ambition. A good work ethic. Kindness. How to give them, or help them build for themselves, souls with a great capacity for joy? Love? Wonder? How do you help them grow in faith? Heck, how do you get them to be nice to their brother?
I have trouble even putting together particle-board furniture I order online. And those things come with instructions and all the parts you need already included. So how am I supposed to build souls?
It’s tough. It takes everything you have, and more.
Fortunately we have help from the Holy Spirit. And Grandma. (Thank you Grandma!) But it’s still a gargantuan undertaking you enter into with parenting, and it will stretch you further than you ever thought you could handle.
And all this goes mostly unappreciated. Even by those who, like me, think they understand — but really don’t. It can be discouraging. It’s funny: working a job outside the home, like my lawyering years, you get a constant stream of affirmation, of thank you’s and atta-boys. There are compliments and kind words from supervisors and co-workers and clients. There is always someone to notice and tell you, “good job.” And wonderfully, you get the satisfaction of finishing a job and having it stay finished. You get to close the file and end one task and move on to another—all so neat, so tidy, so complete and compartmentalized, and even alphabetized! You get to dress up in nice clothes and go to an office. You get to go out to lunch — and be able to sit down to eat your meal without driving! You even get a paycheck every week!
And my Mom had a really cool job — she was a fashion buyer for a fancy boutique. She got to travel on buying trips to New York City and Chicago throughout the year, where she was wined and dined, met with designers, attended fashion shows, and took in the occasional Broadway production. All of which she gave up — for us, her kids. And when she did, the affirmation faucet got turned off. But even with no one to notice her work (except of course Jesus), she poured her heart and soul into raising us and making a beautiful home for our family, a place of love and security where we could grow and dream and spread our wings to fly.
Well, Mom (Grandma now), it’s a little late, but I finally have at least a small inkling of what you did for us, and although it’s way past due, I wanted to say: thank you.
And to all you parents out there who have dedicated yourselves to being the home-nurturing parents for your kids and families: thank you!
And take heart, it may take forty years, but when your kids can finally understand, they will thank you, too.
Until then, post this on the fridge for the days you need a little sip from the affirmation faucet, and then put the kids in the car and go get a burger.
Copyright 2017 Jake Frost