Editor’s note: True gender equality doesn’t happen until more women are in the office and more men are in the home. It’s time to normalize stay-at-home-dads, and we’re excited to do our part by elevating the voices and experiences of SAHD’s across America.
Life Moves Pretty Fast
Author: Hunter Van Nuis
In 2014, I became a father for the first time with the birth of my son, Berkeley. Two and a half years later, our little family grew with the addition of our second son, Oliver. I have watched my sons–now ages 5 and 3–grow and surpass any and all expectations I could have ever dreamed for them. There isn’t a day that goes by where they don’t continue to remind me of how lucky I am to be their dad, and how being a dad is the most important job I will ever have in my lifetime. Don’t get me wrong — I have certainly had many rough days…days where the boys whined endlessly and I could feel myself losing my mind. I sometimes approached this important role with cynicism and frustration. But, things changed when my then-four year old sang a Christmas song in his tiny voice as we prepared to take down our holiday decorations, and I was rocked by the realization that this time with my kids is so short, and moving way faster than I can handle.
Wild, Wild Life
My wife (Steph) and I knew leading up to Berkeley’s birth that we would have the incredible and rare opportunity to both stay home with the baby for the first six weeks of his life. What we didn’t know at that time, however, was how hectic things were going to be for our family in those first few weeks of his life. A few days before Berkeley was born, our ten-year old labrador had an extremely invasive and impromptu surgery after it was discovered she had tumors growing in her abdomen and back hind leg. This resulted in me having to ping pong back and forth between our apartment and the hospital as I catered to both my wife and newborn child, and our dog who was also in need of constant care. Oh, and if that didn’t make things crazy enough, we were also in the midst of a move back to San Diego from Los Angeles — with Steph and the baby hunkered down in our mostly empty LA loft, while I made repeated U-haul trips between LA and San Diego. To this day, I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around how we were able to keep all of those plates spinning at once while still also somehow being able to devote nearly every waking hour we had “oohing and aahing” over the amazing little human we had created.
The subsequent weeks that followed involved the standard first-time parent experiences –learning how to function in a sleep-deprived state; identifying the most effective methods to get your baby to sleep for more than fifteen minutes; worrying that you are feeding your baby too little; trying to figure out if something is wrong with your baby when their face turns beet red and their body tenses up or if that’s simply just them pushing out a poop (it’s almost always the latter); and simply learning how to parent this little human that you created.
As my wife’s maternity leave neared its end and her inevitability of returning to work appeared just on the horizon, I began to become anxious about the transition that was going to take place when she walked out the door and left me alone to take care of a six-week old baby. I guess I should mention here that I am a stay-at-home dad (SAHD). Early on in my wife’s pregnancy, we discussed what our plan for childcare would be and decided that the best thing for our son would be for us to buck conventional stereotypes and have me stay home with him while my she continued in her career. One of the primary reasons for this decision stemmed from the fact that my wife is immensely smart (like super, duper smart) and extremely accomplished, and it would be absurd for her to give it all up. There was also the fact that I had yet to fully figure out what I wanted to do with my life in regards to a career, so this kinda just made sense. As it turns out, I wasn’t prepared for the mental, physical, and emotional toll this decision would have on me.
Learning to Fly
When I first decided to become a SAHD more than five years ago, I remember initially feeling excited but daunted by the job I was taking on. While it wasn’t lost on me how lucky I was to have the opportunity to be home with my young child full time during the early years of his life, it also wasn’t something I had ever pictured myself doing. This left me feeling doubtful that I would be a decent stay-at-home parent–or a good parent in general. Taking care of a baby with both parents home is difficult enough. I couldn’t even begin to fathom how the hell I was going to be able to do it solo for eight to nine hours a day, five days a week. And it wasn’t always easy. There were many days early on when I was still learning the ropes of being a SAHD where I’d already be at my wits end by mid-morning. There was a lot of crying and tantruming caused by sleep deprivation and exhaustion–plus, I also had to deal with Berkeley, who also sometimes cried and tantrumed. Over time, things started to click. I started to get my footing and more importantly, I really started to enjoy what I was doing. I felt like a success. I had a happy son who was thriving developmentally while I was satisfied and fulfilled by my newfound role. We had found a rhythm and perfected our routine.
Then Oliver was born, and my joyous, casual scenic drive down the coast highway with Berkeley morphed into an off-road adventure like something out of a Mad Max movie. My wife and I did pretty well juggling life with both kids for the six weeks she was on maternity leave. But within a week of her going back to work, and me flying solo with the kids, it was all too apparent to me just how mentally destructive and physically exhausting this new chapter could become. Everything I knew about being a SAHD up to this point now felt foreign to me. This forced me to look deep within myself to figure out if I had the mental strength to continue and be the positive influence my children needed me to be. I knew deep down that I did, but I was scared; more scared than I had ever been before when it was just Berkeley. I had two kids, in two completely different stages of life who desperately wanted (and often legitimately needed) my full attention, and I simply didn’t feel like I was capable of giving them what it was they deserved. I wanted to be better at it. I did not want to simply survive the day — I wanted to enjoy it.
And, because we are apparently fans of self-torture, we bought our first home — a fixer — when Oliver was six-months-old, and I did 80% of the renovations myself. At this time of insane uncertainty as a SAHD, I was also juggling home renovations–squeezed in around my wife’s (thankfully flexible) work schedule, packing, potty training, weaning our pacifier addicted toddler, etc., etc. I was stretched to my max, exhausted, tired, and constantly busy. When the home renovation dust started to settle, I worked to re-establish my rhythm with the boys.
Do You Realize?
I am sure this applies to most parents, but as a full-time SAHD, I’ve often had a hard time getting myself to look past the chaos that is my day-to-day. More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve found myself getting too caught up in a stressful moment and losing sight of the big picture. But when you’re at your wits end and can’t seem to find a moment to catch your breath, the big picture often gets shrouded from view. It is easy to lose sight of the old adage that the days are long, but the years are short. I — of course — had heard that, and knew at some level it was true, but it was not something I’d ever really thought much about. I was just so tired. I felt like I was living through the longest days, yet not even getting to experience them. I did not want to feel exhausted and on edge, but with everything on my plate, it was hard to keep perspective. Fortunately, the light at the end of the tunnel was around the corner, even if I didn’t know it.
One day last year around Christmastime, I was blind-sided by what can only best be described as an epiphany. Berkeley was walking around the house singing a random Christmas song with his innocent little voice, and it hit me like a ton of bricks as I realized just how fast time is indeed flying by.
Maybe it was the Christmas cheer in the air, but at that moment – just like the Grinch – my heart grew three sizes that day. The weight of this realization crushed me, and my only reaction was to break down and cry. There was a lot of crying…and not just regular crying. No, no, no. This was that ugly kind of crying where your face gets all scrunched up and distorted looking. I was a wreck, and I spent at least the next week crying over the fact that my kids were growing up faster than I liked and there was nothing I could do to stop it. There was no pause button for me to hit, or a way for me to pump the brakes. Nope. My children were just going to keep on getting older and bigger. And their childhood – along with their innocence – was eventually going to start to fade away. It was a heartbreaking realization that left me feeling gutted. But for as gutted as it made me, it also made me aware of just how cynical I had become in regards to parenting and being a SAHD. It made me realize how much time I had wasted in moments of frustration and exhaustion. It made me hyper aware of the wasted time and energy spent battling over unimportant things like putting on shoes faster.
Here Comes the Sun
And like a flip of a switch, my entire outlook shifted. I became far more lenient and tolerant of their antics. I stopped yelling at them when they did something wrong, and instead opted to de-escalate situations by offering them hugs and positive support. I started to carefully collect and store every drawing and note that Berkeley gave to me, and recorded Berkeley singing every Christmas song. After a few weeks of ugly crying and smothering the boys with countless hugs, I emerged a better, more well-rounded parent — a parent who no longer takes for granted the opportunity of being a SAHD and constant presence in the lives of my children during their early formative years.
Unlike the Christmas snow, the mental shift I experienced during last Christmas never melted away. I am not a perfect parent by any means, and I still occasionally find myself in arguments with my children over silly things like putting on their shoes (seriously, why is this such a problem?!?), but those battles are now few and far between. I am also constantly reminded of the passage of time, and frequently find myself becoming emotional from simple things like catching a quick glimpse in my rearview mirror at Berkeley as he sits in his carseat, or going to kiss Oliver goodnight only to have him place his hands on the side of my face and say “Goodnight, Daddy. I love you.” I know that there is still a lot for me to learn about becoming a parent, but I’m proud of the dad that I’ve become, and I know that I would not be the version that I am today if it weren’t for being a stay-at-home dad.
Author bio | Hunter Van Nuis is a stay-at-home-dad managing everyday life for a family of four. He is also a self-employed home designer and builder specializing in remodeling and landscaping.