I hadn't intended on being a stay-at-home dad; the thought had never crossed my mind.
I didn't know any men who were "caregiver #1." For our family, it was just the practical choice: As a classical musician, my schedule was more forgiving during the day. Our vague plan was for me to stay home with the baby-but my road to fatherhood shifted before I knew what happened when our daughter, Jenna, was born two months early.
I fell into the role of Mr. Mom very quietly. I wasn't ashamed of it, but somewhat in denial. I would discuss my new "caregiver" life to people, but only if they asked the right questions. It took a while for me to own the experience of being Jenna's daily protector/feeder/nurturer. In doing so, I gradually discovered what an amazing gift I had been given.
When Jenna was about 5 months old, after a last-minute baby sitter cancellation, I had to take her along to teach some music lessons. One of my colleagues, a ferociously talented former college classmate, stopped in to meet Jenna. "Joel," Arlene said quietly, "that is the best work you've ever done."
I didn't quite get it, yet. How could this cute bundle of baby possibly be worth more than decades of serious musical performance?
A year or so in, I had found my rhythm: feedings, walks, diaper changes, trips to the park. Since I had to weave in my work schedule, there were constant calendars to configure, as well as timing the day so we could greet my wife, Jenna's mom, at the train station. I managed to not screw things up too badly, just an occasional gaffe like locking the keys in the car one on a cold winter's day. But I was still not fully owning being "Mr. Mom."
Jenna and I started taking day trips during her toddler years. At the Lincoln Park Farm-In-the-Zoo, the barn cat got most of Jenna's attention. A ride on the Yellow line was always a good afternoon, and I was able to parlay those rides into a "practice" trip to O'Hare, so when the time came for our family to fly somewhere, going to the airport wasn't a big deal. As people watched us, and smiled, I felt more and more comfortable with being the caregiver.
When Jenna entered preschool, I was the only dad in the room-on a daily basis. I didn't quite fit in with the moms and started feeling a bit resentful. Could they not see that I was doing the same stuff as them, and almost as well? Perhaps this is where my parental "ownership" finally started to emerge.
As the years progressed-trips to the library, hardware store, and supermarket-we got our bonding on! I walked with pride, holding this young lady's hand, just doing daily errands. I suspect that Jenna was getting the better part of the deal; while I searched for furnace filters or books, she somehow ended up with an impressive collection of beanie babies.
One memorable day, Jenna sent me off to rehearsal wearing stick-on earrings. Maybe I just forgot to take them off-or maybe I was starting to get it. Fast forward 10 years, when I met up with a long-lost college chum. He'd been travelling the world on business, with little time at home. When asked what I was doing, I sheepishly mentioned my stay-at-home dad-ness. Without any hesitation, he said he would have loved to have traded places, having missed lots of time being with his kids. Hearing this finally allowed me to fully own the mantle: "Mr. Mom."
From the "cyclone" of day to day errands, trips, and appointments, it was hard for me to see the big parenting picture. I knew my efforts were going towards something important. I just didn't have the luxury of stepping back to see what was being accomplished. Now, I get it. I really get it. I was given a great gift: to be there, every day, in helping Jenna find her way in becoming the fantastic person she is.
I am proud to have been the primary person on call for our daughter's growing years. I own the title "Mr. Mom", and given the chance, would happily do it all again.
Joel Cohen is a proud father, husband, and member of the Chicago classical music community