The turn in spirit is inevitable, a sudden ambivalence. Longing for a few hours without the kids, I rush around the house preparing the children for a day with a care provider other than myself. With eager anticipation I spread the peanut butter and jelly. I wash the breakfast dishes, pack extra clothes and try to eat something myself simultaneously. Trying to get out of the house by a set time produces a frenzy that is exacerbated by the need of our 18-month-old, Colleen, to be held. All the while, our 3-year-old, Brigid, dances and twirls around singing today’s chosen morning jingleher latest composition. She spins backwards knocking her head against the oven, and that catchy tune suddenly becomes a whaling lament: I hurt myself! She appears surprised that anyone performing acrobatic stunts in a space the size of a shoe box would end up hurt.
In what seems to be a fraction of a second, I find myself dropping off the two children at their day care. Colleen, our youngest, has been a delightful charm since the day’s initial rush subsided. I find it quite difficult, now, to let go of her. She looks, feels and is, to my prematurely nostalgic sensibilities, absolutely adorable. Poignantly, I realize how fleeting these moments are and tremble at the portent. There will be a time when these children will grow far beyond my ubiquitous, daily scrutiny.
How could I give her up for a day? I ask myself. Am I foolish to plan some time each week in pursuit of interests of my own that do not relate to the care of these two little children? I live with contradictory emotions. I long for some sort of break from the tedium of too much time spent exclusively with young children, for work with an end product more tangibly evident or simply for solitude. At the same time, I cherish the children’s presence. This captures the tension that constitutes life when parenting young children full time. It is a tension that has forced me to look for meaning, purpose and direction in this daily routine at home with the children.
Four years ago, after much thought and prayer, my wife decided to pursue a career in medicine. Once she was accepted into medical school, additional choices needed to be made. Her successful pursuit was accompanied by another momentous change in our lives: we were caring for a newborn. We decided that I would stay at home to raise our daughters. At that time, I began to learn and appreciate all the more what mothers more than fathers have gone through over the ages. Hard work accompanied by sleep deprivation was wearing. Near total loss of independence and the inability to complete tasks took adjustments. Withdrawal from social interaction that I had in my former job and the opportunities to work jointly with others on projects were other losses for me.
It is hard to believe that four years at home with the children have passed. If I had known at the outset the number of years that I would be fully occupied raising children day in and day out, I would not have been able to imagine how to gain personal sustenance on a daily basis to accomplish such a task. I ascribe to the general belief that God accompanies each of us personally on our journeys. But in the middle of the very real, tangible particulars of every day, it remained a puzzle to me how to find what I thought I needed in the way of spiritual affirmation, peace and growth.
Even today, as I entertain the question of how to locate meaning and satisfaction in what I do, another part of me resists the inquiry. Should I even be allowing myself to ask these questions concerning self-fulfillment, satisfaction and vocation? During moments of such existential questioning, I find myself first looking for some kind of validation, that it is worthwhile and O.K. to examine whether what I do (commit to life as a stay-at-home dad) is the best thing for me to do with my time, talents and training. Only then can I actually examine this role in which I find myself.
Because my choice as an educated and trained man to become a stay-at-home parent is not conventional, because it goes against so much of what I aspired to in younger years, and because it does not mark what our world calls a productive, achieving, successful life, I am particularly susceptible to the temptation to look forward to another time in my life when my daily occupation will be more fulfilling.
On the other hand, parents of children who are older than our girls tell me to enjoy these early years. They are precious. The adolescent and teen years do not carry the same rewards. Even amidst the moments when I find my hands more than a little tinged with the contents of a dirty diaper, I do not dispute what they say. I have to admit, for example, that there are numerous comical moments that make up each day and bring with them great joy.
There was the time in the supermarket when, wielding a full shopping cart, I had to take my potty-training daughter behind the deli counter into the men’s room so she could go. In itself this was not so bad. However, accomplishing this task while wrestling with another determined toddler who, bursting with a spate of curious energy, explored every less-than-sanitary item in the bathroom along the way, was another matter. For all those in earshot, the scene we created and the discussion we had about urinals, how boys go to the bathroom and other such topics was very educational indeed.
In addition to these times, there persist more silent, mental difficulties that can accompany a parent at home with children. As blessed as I have been on this journey, with two healthy children, I also wrestle emotionally with an internal struggle over my choice to stay home and raise my girls over choices to further my own career. There is a surreal quality to parenting full time. In my mind, there is an ongoing dialogue marked with unspoken questions: Is this real? Can I really be spending my time focusing on bowel movements, equal distribution of trivial toys and crumbs of bagels? Who was playing with what first? Is it really necessary to go into the physics of why a crumbled granola bar cannot be made whole again? Am I actually going to argue with her about the pink butterfly shirt that clashes horrendously with the yellow and green lily pad-patterned pants that she is determined to wear?
Gradually, I find myself arriving at the point where I embrace those questions more peacefully. I can trouble myself with broken granola bars and bananas that will not fit back into their peels and other exercises in futility, because by entering fully into the unique lives of these little children I come closer to imitating what we believe our God does for us. It is not unusual for me to lie in bed at night and recall the day’s activities playing before my heart like the waves of a returning tide lapping the shore. At such times I see what a gift it has been for me to have this opportunity to be at home with the girls. I also learn, yet again, that I was not alone in all that transpired over the course of the day. Peace echoes inside. That peace has probably been there all along. It is my vision that has been adjusted. As I come closer to gazing more consistently in the right direction for those small affirmations, I realize that God is present.
What has brought about this change and realization for me is probably the result of a combination of factors. Given the demands and endearing moments that caring for these little ones entails, I have been led to a more radical effort to appreciate the immediate present. I have also been repeatedly shown that I must change my limited approach to seeing the presence of the divine in my life.
Intellectually, the idea of finding God in all things has never been difficult to accept. Somehow, the presence of God in a person’s life can be evident in much of what takes place regularly if one is open to seeing it there. The face of Christ, for example, is to be found in one’s neighbor, in the poor, or in doing what love requires at any given moment. Because so much of my spiritual formation has emphasized the need to find time alone for prayer with God, I have most often sought God in the silence and in quiet, reflective moments amid life’s routines. The idea that God is to be encountered in the innumerable persons, responsibilities and ways a person directs his or her energies is a liberating approach to the search for the divine in everyday life.
Appropriating this theme on an existential level, however, is an ongoing lesson I have had to learn in growing stages over the course of time. With some wonder, I am discovering the need to look for God in the changing circumstances of my life not just once, but in gradual, evolving ways. When I was newly married, certain amounts of solitude that I had previously relied on for natural, easy times of prayer were exchanged for the opportunity to see God at work in my relationship with my spouse. It took time to adjust to this new manifestation of God’s activity. Looking for the presence of God as a campus minister, with its late nights and weekend demands, required another adjustment in focus. Now, immersed in the lives of these children, the idea that God is to be encountered in different ways at different times has afforded me encouragement that God’s presence is to be sought and can be found in the middle of the creative chaos that often surrounds the lives of small children.
My choice to be a stay-at-home parent was not approached from the coldly calculated perspective of actions and consequences. There were other considerations my heart made, to which I had to listen if I were to live in peace. People have told me that I could always put the kids in day care and go back to work. But if our lives are guided, upheld and affirmed by a personal God, then it is not simply a matter of us alone choosing what to do with our lives. What I have done with my life so far, what has been assembled out of past choices and decisions, has somehow blended with God’s design. As much as I have made choices for my life in the past, I see my life presenting me with a certain task right now. In order to raise these children in the way we have intended, I still place preeminent importance on my ability to be at home with them. My own sense of peace, the well-being of my children and their own potential revolve around my continuing in this role.
Aware of the potential for self-deception, I have chosen this unfamiliar path as a stay-at-home father. I interpret certain moments as times of affirmation, that the Lord does in fact walk along this path with us, that we are blessed in it, that Christ’s great gift of peace can be found along the path that is chosen with trust. This path changes direction. It can take time to discern the best new route. Perhaps it is the one we are already on. Perhaps the direction of our gaze needs to be altered. Like another great lesson brought to humanity by the life of a small child, I continue to look at the little ones with whom I spend most of my time as a piece of my own incarnate redemption.