Yesterday, my wife came home from work and posed a question that, for a moment, almost made me cry. “How was your day?”
Thinking back on the 8+ hours at home with my four-and-a-half-year-old son Felix made me feel like a volcano in an eggshell. There were the bright moments of doing arts and crafts and working together to make Chinese New Year decorations, the dark spots when we snapped at one another in the lead up to lunch, and then that long, silent stretch in the afternoon of playing with LEGO that felt both lovely, as my imagination wandered, and boring to the point of suffocation. At times, when telling myself I should be valuing this quality time with my son instead of wishing I had another fifteen minutes to sit down and write, I experienced confusion and guilt.
In short? “It was intense,” I told my wife. And then I wondered if staying at home with a child is more intense than other jobs.
“No, I had an intense, emotional day too,” she said. “Doesn’t everybody?”
Well, sure. We’re all people with feelings, and working with others can be challenging and difficult. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to believe that the emotional life of a stay-at-home parent is bigger, more extreme, and sometimes even overwhelming, a much greater challenge to the spirit than the majority of jobs that people do. Here’s why:
1. You’re exhausted.
Whether your child is very young and so wakes in the middle of the night for feeding, or whether he falls asleep around 8 PM freeing you to do all the chores, work, or catching up on personal relationships that you couldn’t complete when your kid was awake, life as a parent is tiring. No one functions well when they’re sleep deprived and exhausted. Little things (like stepping on a truck left underfoot when you’ve said again and again to straighten up the toys) feel big, and big things (like your kid purposefully grinding cereal into the couch while he’s watching TV just because he wanted something to do with his hands) become huge. No wonder a day at home sees you seesawing from euphoria into despair at the drop of a hat.
2. You have no personal space.
It’s not like you can take retreat for a few minutes of privacy, or at least I can’t, without turning on the TV. Felix is right there at my side, all the time. He head butts me in sensitive places, peering between my arms when I open the fridge to retrieve jam for his PB&J. He lurks outside the door while I use the bathroom asking, “How much longer?” He literally sits in my lap as we build LEGO and then whines that I’m not helping him find pieces. I have little recourse to take a breather, or give myself a break — a long lunch, an extra fifteen minutes, maybe even an afternoon off. When I’m with Felix, I’m with Felix, and I can’t quite control how close he’s going to be. I have no space to just be a person and blow off some steam, or work through my feelings and then let them go. I’m feeling claustrophobic just writing about it!
3. You can’t escape.
Forget this job, you might think to yourself in times of stress — or perhaps you’d use a different f-word. You might even get fed up and look for a new gig. Perhaps starting the search is all you need to realize that this job is just one of many, and that you have some control over what you do in your life. Parents lack that control. Felix isn’t going anywhere and neither am I.
That commitment (which is a beautiful thing, really) can make the boring, long afternoons feel endless. I know that in reality they are a single tweet in the feed of life, but as I sit there thinking about how many of these afternoons I’ve lived through and how many more there are to come, his round little head starts resembling an iron ball that I’m chained to, and I pine for independence. Whenever you feel like your stuck, with no options, the harder it is to remain calm and see things clearly, and so you’re feelings run away with you.
4. You have no personal time.
Like some sort of intergalactic monster, these little creatures don’t just gobble up your space, they eat your spare time as well. From the moment you open your eyes in the morning till you close them again in night’s sweet darkness, you feel like almost all of your time is spent caring for them, thinking about them, or talking about them. Even a date with my wife is liable to become a mini-summit on the state of Felix, rather than a romantic time to make googly eyes and exchange sweet nothings. This is part of the deal of parenthood — I get that — but that doesn’t mean that I’m always happy about it. Sure, it’s better now than when he was an infant, but still, time once spent curled up with a book or pursuing a creative project or cooking an elaborate meal is gone, given up to toys and storybooks, and the chores of keeping a little kid happy, healthy, and ready for school. I don’t always resent him for this, but I do sometimes, and that can amplify any negative emotions I experience during the day.
5. You can feel isolated and alone.
It can be difficult to talk to non-parents about the challenges of staying home with a child without seeming too whiny. “But you don’t get it you guys, I had to play trains for over three hours!!” Cry me a river, right? Sounds like a piece of cake compared to what most people have to put up with all day. Some of my childless friends don’t even ask me much about my time with Felix or how I’m doing as a stay-at-home dad, it’s just not in their realm of experience.
Other parents can certainly relate, but most moms and dads don’t talk honestly or realistically about their time with their kids — it’s always “great” or “fun,” never mind-numbing, frustrating, strangely unfulfilling, or anything this side of unsatisfactory. What kind of a parent doesn’t like spending time with their child? Wait! Don’t answer that.
And so we don’t talk about these things with anyone, and they fester, which of course leads to a hot mess in your head. Now don’t get me wrong — there are many amazing moments during a typical day spent at home with my little guy too, but those are things we talk about. The negative stuff has no exhaust valve. And as for the bizarre mix of ups and downs over the course of a regular day … well, I don’t always have words for the weird, wrung-out, over-wrought way that leaves me other than human. The intense emotional turmoil of life with a kid keeps me present to the fact that I have feelings, beliefs, and needs; that I’m ever changing, prone to mistakes, striving to be better, appreciative of beauty and warmth, short tempered but searching for patience. That I am, in other words, alive.