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The Stay-at-Home Dad's Dilemma

When my son was born, I was certain I would be a natural. I bit off way more than I could chew.
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The midwife and her assistant swooped through our bedroom like magicians, vanishing any trace of bodily fluids, while my wife, Annie, and I took turns cradling our baby boy Avishai skin-to-skin.

“Moms and babies have a natural bond,” Annie said, matter-of-factly. “Dads can’t compete.”

My wife and I jokingly clash about ridiculous things all the time. (If she told me she ate a salad, I’d tell her I ate a tree without dressing.) This felt different. She made the bond comment not realizing it wounded me, but the instant I held my son in my arms, I realized I wanted my heartbeat to soothe him when he cried. I knew I’d jump at every opportunity to make sure it was the rising and falling of his teensy head against my chest that lulled him to sleep. I wanted him to carry warm emotional memories of me spooning him smooshy fruits and singing his favorite songs. If this was a competition to bond, I wanted to win.

Avishai didn’t latch, so Annie resigned herself to near-constant pumping while I finger-fed him through a tube. We schlepped from our Albany apartment across counties, to chiropractors, a lactation consultant, and the famous local tongue-tie-guru. While I desperately wanted Annie and Avishai to succeed at breastfeeding, every time I cradled Avishai to my chest and inserted my finger into his mouth, our eyes linked, briefly sparking a magical connection. All he could see was me. I knew to cherish those moments men rarely had. The disappointment of not breastfeeding nearly destroyed Annie while I perfected the art of the swaddle and soothed Avishai’s gassy stomach, furtively beaming as Avishai and I became fused. Although she planned to take months off from her state job, she rushed back to work, and I played supportive husband, happily asking to go even more part-time at my social-work gig. I become a stay-at-home dad.

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If this was a competition to bond, I wanted to win.

The decision was easy since I had support from Annie’s sixty-seven-year-old mom who commuted from Brooklyn to help Monday through Thursday. She cleaned, stuffed the fridge with stew chicken and escovitch fish, and watched Avishai while I worked. On days it seemed Avishai wouldn’t stop bawling, we took turns rocking him, dancing around the kitchen, laughing and singing “Tiny Winey,” a tune from Jamaica, where my mom-in-law grew up.

Then the holiday season hit, travel was harder, and Annie’s mom was worn out. She craved the familiar seasonal city lights. For over a month, I felt trapped with a four-month-old. To get Avishai to nap, I rocked him for hours. If I sneezed, he threw tantrums unceasingly. I spent full days bouncing him in his bouncer, imagining ways my catastrophic mistakes would destroy his future.

Every day, I had flashes of ways Avishai could become irreparably injured. I’d be walking down our household’s stairs, my arms wrapped around his waist as he balanced on mine, and envision myself dropping him, his head split open on the hardwood floor. One afternoon, he tumbled out of his bouncer, flat on his face, and I rushed him to the doctor, certain I concussed him. As I sat in the pediatrician’s office, it felt like my predictions were true: I couldn’t keep my son safe. I shook as the staff did a quick check, attempted to quell my nerves, and sent us home. Every night, Annie returned from work and scooped up a fed and somewhat-rested Avishai so they could coo at each other with twinkling eyes. She snickered victoriously, still thinking we were competing, not realizing how much it hurt me. I fell into the couch, holding back tears.

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As I sat in the pediatrician’s office, it felt like my predictions were true: I couldn’t keep my son safe.

Around this time, a mom I barely knew noticed me pacing the temple hallways one Shabbat morning: my eyes bleary, Avishai strapped on my chest. She told me about a Mommy and Me playgroup at a nearby synagogue. The group’s name didn’t bother me: I’d never have gone to a daddy group. I, too, judged fathers--knowing many didn’t play their part. All the magazines I’d read were marketed towards moms. I’d recently seen a book for dads with a cover that had flannel-clad lumberjacks on it. I went to medical professionals to treat my son, and they acted confused by my presence. I heard horrible jokes about being “daddy daycare” or “Mr. Mom,” and I’ve been over-complimented by strangers whose jaws were hanging: “Wow, a father who knows how to change a diaper.” Still, I bought into the stereotypes: if dads didn’t take on core caretaking roles or bond with their babies, I wanted nothing to do with them. I wanted to be with the people who had that magical connection—mothers.

So I went to Mommy and Me. At first, I didn’t talk. I plopped Avishai tummy-down onto a blanket and watched his head wobble at his surroundings. During play time, another dad went out of his way to say hi. A couple moms did too. The other father played with his daughter in the back while a group of moms gathered near the entrance. I didn’t care that the dad was left out, I didn’t want to associate with him either. I sat to the side, softly singing to my baby. When I heard other parents gripe about their family life, I felt shame—I had a supportive spouse, frequent assistance from an in-law, and the privilege of only having to work part-time, but still felt overwhelmed. More moms started talking to me, noticing fatigue on my face. Some gave advice. Some pawned rambunctious boys on me for “man time” (annoying). Some said nothing. Eventually, I opened to the other side-sitters, including the other dad, who turned out to be a great listener. I heard moms share stories about their mistakes and fears and feelings of inadequacy. They shared about struggling to make it through the day with their kids. When their partners returned home, the dads bathed in hugs and acted like it was play time. I understood the moms’ pain. We shared tales of firsts: steps, birthdays, and words. We waved at our kids beaming at us nearby: “Oh yes (insert kid’s name), nice plastic pizza thing.”

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When Annie’s mom resumed her visits in late January, it was just as I was feeling more confident. I could fulfill Avishai’s needs, even if he got a bump every now and then, but she was so helpful that I felt guilty turning down her support. I’d wake overjoyed to feel Avishai’s hands pawing my chest, and she’d rush in and grab him, dressing him in clothes she’d purchased from Macy’s. She’d feed him grapefruit and yogurt for hours. I felt purposeless. Parents in playgroup told me to take all the aid I could, so I began escaping, doing work in coffee shops. It stung that Avishai didn’t cry when I left the house. I still took him to his medical appointments, kissing wounds after shots. Still nestled him in my lap at temple. I fed and changed and napped him the days my mom-in-law wasn’t there, but he barely noticed I was gone the days she was around.

Then my wife and my mom-in-law got into a dispute over Avishai’s sleeping habits right before the pandemic hit. My mom-in-law stopped visiting, and Annie began working from home. The first week, we were giddy to be together, ignoring schedules to form a band of drummers to Avishai’s Music Together CDs, but the second week turned into a nightmare. I tried to get the now one-and-a-half year old Avishai back on a routine, and Annie zipped in whenever, eating a popsicle, acting surprised. (“Were you reading to him?”) I’d fume that she interrupted plans, that the moment she entered the room, he forgot about me and the book—mostly that he ran to her. Three minutes later, she’d announce she had a meeting and disappear into her office, leaving me with him screaming for her.

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Pre-pandemic, she’d return home excited to hang out with Avishai. I took pride in being the established caretaker, but appreciated breaks at night. This changed. By the time the pandemic hit, she was a couple months pregnant with our second baby and exhausted. After work, she needed a nap. I’d be stranded with Avishai as he incessantly cried to be picked “up and down,” with his entire hand in his mouth, as teething destroyed our evenings. The family had to eat, so I’d blast endless Music Together as Avishai tore through cabinets, anything to give me time to cook. Annie picked at my meals, upset that I twisted my face when she popped downstairs off schedule. She started eating in her office. Then one night, after an especially tantrummy week from Avishai, I saw her at the kitchen table so I attempted to join her on the settee as Avishai watched Little Baby Bum in the room next door. She turned away, and seemed to be furious.

I was flooded with emotions. While I knew I’d been working tirelessly to care for Avishai—to sooth him and love him—I equated being a good father with being a good husband, and good meant no one was mad at me. I couldn’t give her the space for her feelings because mine were all encompassing. I mentioned how unappreciated I felt, and she replied, “Other stay-at-home parents do this twenty-four-seven and get no credit.”

I equated being a good father with being a good husband, and good meant no one was mad at me.

It was true, but that didn’t make it right. I knew me crying wouldn’t help my cause, so I made space so we could both calm down. A day later, I told her I was overwhelmed without her mom’s support, but wanted to succeed. “I do all this work with Avishai,” I said. “When you come in, I instantly lose him."

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She said she wanted to be a part of his day, too, without me grumbling about the schedule. I realized how deeply I hurt her by cutting her out. I realized how unappreciated I’d made her feel, too.

We talked about ways to work her in more fluidly because she agreed Avishai benefited from routine, and she thanked me for stepping up during the pregnancy. She texted before coming downstairs, to make sure Avishai wasn’t in the middle of anything, and Avishai and I treated her like a grand guest when she joined us for lunches, complimenting my cooking as Avishai did his nummy-food dance. The joy of being acknowledged made my stomach jump. I thanked her, too, for taking Avishai on nature expeditions and occasionally giving me breaks.

Whereas I once yearned to fill Avishai’s every need, the standards I put on myself nearly destroyed me. There were days I’d read him book after book and sing nursery rhymes till my voice and body wore thin. The pandemic allowed me to drop expectations. I had to. Some days we just enjoyed TV together cuddling. On especially special days, Annie joined us for our cuddle parties.

Those spring and summer months, I earned the relationship with Avishai I yearned for. We spun and clapped because we were happy and we knew it. We discovered new animals on YouTube. I cooked Avishai noodles, and he cooked me four-course meals made of plastic. After Zoom playgroups, I missed the post-session hangout, when everyone vented, so I shot buddies messages but felt guilty—I didn’t want to tell them how great my family was doing amid the pandemic. Then I remembered they were the ones that gave me confidence to make mistakes and sometimes cry, to let things go so I could survive. We video-chatted with Granny, too, and she started mending things with Annie. Avishai strung words together, asking inquisitively, “What’re you doing?” as we prepared for the new baby, making sure we all felt supported, cared for, and loved when they arrived.

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The day after Avishai’s second birthday, I fed him lunch, changed his diaper, and snuggled him close in bed. He was caressing my chest with his eyes tight when Annie crawled into bed too, yawning. She decided it was break time at work. Avishai rolled away, nuzzling close to his mommy, as she wrapped her arm around his waist.

She peeked up at me, smirking, but when she tried to nap, he wiggled and squirmed. Minutes later, she rolled him back into my embrace, where he drifted off. She whispered for me to come over, and I cuddled her to sleep.

Jay Deitcher is a part-time writer, former social worker, full-time stay-at-home dad from Albany, NY.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Jay Deitcher
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Jay Deitcher is a part-time writer, former social worker, full-time stay-at-home dad from Albany, NY.
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