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By Jeremy Adam Smith
In 2004, my son Liko was born. Everything--the tree outside the window, the dreams I have at night--changed.
Suddenly my job, which had consumed so much of my life and imagination, seemed like only the shadow of real life. I quit. My wife went back to work and I joined the ranks of stay-at-home dads.
It was just me and him, and it was scary. Liko, a confirmed breast addict, could not nap without his mother. When I'd set him down, he'd wail inconsolably, relentlessly, reaching out to me. But when I picked him up, he'd fight back, kicking and arching his back, his little hands pushing off against my chest. This'd go on for hours.
I'd put him in the stroller and walk. He'd cry and fall asleep, but when I stopped--in a bookstore, a coffee shop--he'd wake and cry again. I'd keep moving through Noe Valley and the Castro, sticking to the side streets, going up the hills and down, up and down.
Time slowed, and with every minute I'd feel more and more isolated, more and more anxious. Was this now my life? I'd see three people laughing in a picture window, and want to be one of them.
I learned to let that go, let myself get lost. On foggy days the hills of San Francisco floated around me like deserted islands. I'd study the cornices and gables on the Victorian facades, watch the tsunami of cloud spill over Twin Peaks.
Later, Liko learned to fall asleep in my arms. I'd carry him through all the rooms, stepping carefully around the bouncy seat, the swing, the baby gym, the high chair, the toy basket. I'd do this for hours.
One day, I sat down in a rocking chair and he stayed asleep. I took a book down from the bookshelf. It was the best book I'd ever read; I don't remember its name. One afternoon as the room darkened, his eyes snapped open and he said "Dada" and smiled: he was glad to see me there with him.
Today, he naps on his own and I am never afraid to be alone with him. I even meet other stay-at-home dads at Noe Courts. I'm aware that I'm supposedly part of a trend. I've read that since 1994, the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled, from a contemptible 76,000 to a pathetic 147,000--that's about 1.7 percent of all the people who take care of children full-time.
Even in liberal, gender-bending San Francisco, I'm still usually the only dad in Liko's music and swim classes, still a man in concentric worlds of women and children. I stand out, and I stand outside the circle, listening to conversations I can't participate in. I know I'm hurting my career prospects. I know that some men (and some families) look down on my choice.
I wonder all the time if I shouldn't just give up and get a full-time job. I do have a professional life, by the way. In fact, I have an office downtown--getting up at 6 a.m. and in my office by 7--and I more or less love my work as a freelancer.
Sometimes, when it's still dark and I'm standing in line for coffee, I can feel my old life twitching like a phantom limb. I want to jump out of line and go running back to 2003, when I could just decide that today I'm going to sit in a café and read, and then later I'm going to see a movie, and then after that I'll go to the Make-Out Room and get drunk with my friends.
At noon I come home and my wife goes to work. We don't see each other much these days. I know she'd rather be the one to stay home, and at that moment of transition, my guilt is overwhelming.
It's probably impossible--and there's no shame in this--for a non-parent to understand the heaven and hell of being a parent. It's a whole cosmos unto itself, ruled by Satan on one side and Jehovah on the other, and you never quite feel whole--or at least, I don't. There are two of me now, one who yearns for freedom and the other who wants nothing more than to see my son sleeping on my lap, holding me down, lifting me up.
I'm still in the process of being transformed in ways both bad and good. Maybe in time I'll grow up and the two sides will merge into a whole person. More likely, judging from the patterns I've seen in my family and in older parents, it'll be a seesaw, with one side and then the other getting heavier, lighter, heavier, wishing, accepting, wishing.
In April, I met a dad at Douglass Park. He had a 9-month-old.
"Got the day off?" he asked. I told him that I took care of the baby while my wife was at work.
"Every day?" he continued.
"Sometimes we have a sitter," I said, "when I have too much work to do."
He looked at his baby, who was trying to lick the sand.
"I've never been alone with her for more than three hours," he said. "That sounds scary, to be alone with a baby all day. What do you do?"
I told him: "Nothing much. I was scared at first, but now I'm just nervous and tired all the time."
"Uh, that really sounds terrible."
"No," I said. "It's great. You should try it." n
Jeremy Adam Smith lives on Castro Street with his wife, Shelly Doo, and their 2-year-old son, Liko. When not chasing balls at Noe Courts, Jeremy blogs about the politics of parenting at http://daddy-dialectic.blogspot.com/.
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