A Prayer for Coffee: How to Avoid Tossing your Child Out the Window

Four years ago, during Lent, I quit carbonated beverages and searched for a healthy alternative, so I ordered McDonald’s coffee on the way to work and loaded it with cream and sugar. I purchased the largest cup available and forced it down my throat. The cheap coffee jolted me through the front door of my workplace. Eventually, I upgraded to sophisticated coffee, but more on that later.

I need you to know:  coffee has become my friend, addiction, and hobby, but mostly it keeps me from tossing my toddler out the window.  I need it.  I cling to it.  Without it, I am a mess.  If you are the parent of a small child, YOU need coffee too.

Following the birth of my son, coffee became a way of life.

“Dada,” he yells. My eyes struggle to focus in the dark room.  Henry sits erect in the bed like a meerkat on watch.  He jerks his finger through the air and repeats my name. I need to file a sleep extension, but that ain’t gonna happen. He’s awake, so I’m awake.  It’s 5:30a.m. I need coffee.

Before rising, I offer my daily prayer. God, grant me the coffee I need to keep my toddler son alive, courage to make it through this day, and wisdom to order more coffee. Amen.

I need prayer.  And I need coffee.  I need both before and after the day unravels.  If you are the parent of a small child, YOU need the Almighty and coffee in your corner.  I repeat:  you need high-octane java to propel you through the day, especially when your toddler bites you on the inner thigh like a rapid dog.

In case you are struggling with your need for coffee, allow me to provide YOU, a sleep-deprived parent of a small-child, a few examples of when you need a cup of joe:

1.  You repeatedly get on the subway going the wrong direction.  Been there, done that.

2.  You pour breast milk in your cereal.

3.  You decide to take your dog to the ground floor of your building for a pee break, and find yourself in the elevator holding your baby and a leash with no canine attached.

4.  In mid-sentence, you find yourself struggling to remember a basic word like fork.

5.  When you find yourself dazed on aisle 4 of the grocery store, and you snap awake on your feet but have no clue what you were trying to find.

When you decide to quit life, coffee is your best option.  It’s a necessity for toddler supervisors.  Let me break down our morning ritual for you (yes, I said our ritual because my toddler participates).

Henry and I take the grinder apart and empty the stale, trapped grounds.  I brush it clean.  The scale turns on, so I push the tare button.  I measure twenty-six grams of beans and let Henry dump them into the top of the grinder.  They grind to sand-like powder, while Henry, my Jedi apprentice, hangs on my hip and motions towards the kettle.  We fill the silver kettle with filtered water and set the stovetop to high heat.  My favorite part comes next. I remove the plastic tray containing the fresh grounds and place it under my nose.  I inhale.  Henry pulls the tray towards his nose, breathes deeply, and yells.  “The Force is with you young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet,” I say.  I don’t want him getting cocky.

The steam pushes the lid off the silver kettle.  I grab it from the stove and pour water into a red funnel resting on a glass coffee pot.  I pour enough to saturate the grounds, which leads to a magical dance between the grounds and water, until a mushroom-shaped bubble forms and collapses.  It’s time to pour 400 grams of water in a slow, circular motion.  This is what my wife means by obsession.  The steaming coffee moves through the paper filter and drips into the pot.  My work is done. We observe the coffee collect in the pot.  Henry grows restless.  “Patience you must have my young padawan,” I remind him.

I drink coffee at 5:30a.m.  Mid-morning, I drink it during Sesame Street.  In the afternoon, I drink it when I lose momentum.  On the worst days, I wish I could hook myself to a coffee IV.

An Open Letter to the Nashville Zoo

Note: I think open letters are dumb, but, lately, everyone writes them, so I’m going to write one too. Enjoy my fury. Just kidding, everyone knows I suck at expressing anger.

An Open Letter to the Nashville Zoo:

I tried not to like you. The only reason I visited you was for my toddler son, Henry. He needs to learn about the animal kingdom, and you are the only place nearby offering this service. What’s my problem with you? Truth be told, you depress me. Large animals held captive in confined spaces sadden me. Call me a “bleeding heart,” if you like. Free the beasts, I say. Give them the wilderness they deserve to roam. Okay, I’ll step off my soap box.

You probably think I have too much time on my hands if I am writing you an open letter. I know there are bigger problems in the world. Listen: I understand you provide an educational tool. I get it. How else do we to teach children about saddle-billed storks and alpacas? I appreciate you introducing my child to meerkats, but that doesn’t mean I have to like you, and don’t expect me to purchase your merchandise. Although, I admit your sleek, yellow logo with the giraffe silhouettes looks snazzy and its hard to resist your ALL DAY ICEE for $7.45.

I “bit the bullet” and brought Henry to your gates this past summer. We arrived at 9am because we roll on a toddler schedule (if you opened at 6:30a.m. it would fit our schedule better). My intitial fear was the possibility you might put my son in a cage because his behavior often resembles a wild animal. Just in case, I strapped him tightly to the stroller to limit his movement. Thank you for not caging him.

Okay, let’s get down to business. Let me frog-march you through our day:

9:15a.m. The goats start the party. Henry releases a high-pitch squeal, rapidly waves his finger, and struggles to escape my arms. His feet kick before hitting the ground. Grabbing my finger he directs me to the Nigerian dwarf goat. Preferring an eye-to-eye encounter, he squats and stares at the sun-bathing goat. Squeals and finger-waving abound. His eyes risk popping out of his head. To match his enthusiasm, I squat, examine the tan and black face, and run my fingers over the goat’s coarse hair. Henry giggles. We visit each goat in the Critter Encounter Area, observing older children groom the goats with plastic brushes. We learn the hooved creatures contain a four-chamber stomach allowing them to regurgitate food and rechew to prevent waste. Who knew goats are a model of efficiency? Why didn’t you tell me sooner they have been domesticated for 10,000 years? Holey moley! Before exiting, Henry runs circles and screams in the pen. Poor animals. They deserve overtime pay.

9:45a.m. The Caribbean flamingoes huddle in the lagoon. I hold Henry, arms wrapped around his waist, above the railing. He closes one eye and squints the other to avoid the sun. A large group (maybe 20-30) of the pink birds gather in the corner of the lagoon nearest us, while the rest plod, individually, through the water, heads down, searching the lagoon floor. Their rod-like legs and s-shaped necks set them apart from the average bird. It blows my mind that flamingoes, during mating season in the wild, gather in colonies ranging from 5,000 to 100,000. Whoah.

A pair of flamingoes, in the center of the group, dance around one another, snapping their heads back-and-forth. They squabble like an old married couple. Henry’s wandering eyes focus on the dispute. Back and forth they snap their beaks trading insults. The flamingoes immediately surrounding them squawk causing the next layer in the group to sound off creating a chorus of squawking rippling through the colony. Henry extends his tiny finger to point at the dramatic birds and glances back at me for an explanation. “They are mad because they were forced to move from South Florida to Tennessee,” I say. He stares at me as if I am speaking nonsense. The squabble continues for a few minutes eventually dying down, so we move on to the bamboo trail.

10:00a.m. Henry toddles down the sidewalk inspecting the bamboo that creates a canopy blocking the blazing sun. The koi swimming in the fake stream, winding around the walkway, draw him down the path. He sticks his head between the rails to watch the fish circle in the water. On the trail, we see a red-ruffed lemur, clouded leopard, and yellow-back duiker. Actually, I watch the lemur, while Henry admires the floodlights hidden in the shrubbery; the artificial lights are more interesting to him than an exotic animal from another continent. I could have taken him to the lighting section of the hardware store. Whatever. It’s time to visit the African porcupine.

Let’s get something straight: African porcupines are cooler than North American porcupines. There is a big difference between the two, like the difference between a sedan and a monster truck. Okay, I exaggerate, but the African porcupine is my new favorite mammal. I’m not sure what that says about me. I don’t care, mostly because the quills on the African porcupine are rad. The lengthy, black-and-white striped quills attach to the African porcupine’s rear like a fierce war bonnet. If a African porcupine receives a threat, the quills raise and it walks backwards towards the aggressor giving off the appearance of a larger creature. Awesome! By the way, I just thought of a genius idea: I plan to dress Henry as a African porcupine for Halloween. Don’t tell my wife.

10:30a.m. The Shell Station, an “interactive tortoise exhibit,” buzzes with kiddos. Two dozen tortoises calmly crawl on wood chips ignoring the sugar-crazed kids stomping in their home. Tweet this: #Prayforthetortoises. Henry scans the station with a stunned face. He struggles to makes sense of the moving shells, so he pats a tortoise on the back to make sure he is not hallucinating.

“How old are these turtles,” I ask? The young man supervising the exhibit sighs. “These are tortoises,” he says. His tone suggests he is not impressed with me. Yet, he gladly provides me the detailed story of the Sulcata tortoise. “One minute,” he says. In mid-conversation, he speed walks to the far side of the station to flip over an upside down tortoise. The children clap. He is the hero of Shell Station.

Henry explores the station and greets each turtle-oops, I mean tortoise- with a pat on the shell. All is well with the plant eating reptiles, until he attempts to ride a large tortoise like a horse. Yikes! It’s time to leave when toddlers hitch rides from reptiles.

11:00a.m. We exit the zoo. Daddy needs more coffee. We hit the Hardee’s drive-thru and head home for the sacred hour called nap time.

While Henry dreams of goats, I develop a persuasive argument to convince my wife an African porcupine costume is an awesome idea. Okay, enough about African porcupines. So, this is the part where I own up to the fact you completely won me over this summer. I admit it. The Nashville Zoo rocks! You had me at African porcupine. Sorry, I had to slide that comment in before I finish writing. Because you are amazing, Henry and I now dedicate one day a week to visiting you. Zoo Fridays! After I get coffee flowing through my system, we load up our Subaru to explore your amphibians, fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds. Today, we look forward to visiting your new baby giraffe, Enzi. Thanks Nashville Zoo!

Sincerely,

Billy Doidge Kilgore

P.S. I included a picture of the African Porcupine.

8 Things NOT to Say to a Stay-at-Home Dad

Stay-at-home dads receive peculiar comments. Why? In the minds of many people, we remain a new concept. Despite a significant increase in men choosing to provide full-time care for their children, we are at odds with mainstream gender role expectations.  The comments and questions we encounter range from innocent to insulting. It never fails at the playground, grocery store, or doctor’s office someone will offer their opinion. To be fair, there are many people, especially women, who praise our efforts, but there are more who question our status.

I want to help my fellow dudes by sharing eight things not to say to a stay-at-home dad. This is not an exhaustive list. Actually, it’s only the beginning.

8. Does your wife wear the pants in your family? Choosing to stay at home does not mean I surrender power in my marriage. My wife and I understand marriage as a partnership, which means both of us wear the pants. If truth be told, as a stay-at-home dad, I rarely wear pants, unless I am leaving my home. My son and I spend the morning in our underwear. My son probably thinks his father only wears pants after noon. If this means others believe my wife wears the pants in the family, I’m comfortable with that because she literally does.

7.  Did you lose your job? So, it’s hard for you to imagine a man choosing to stay at home. You assume I was forced into this situation because I got fired, laid off, or proved generally incompetent in the workplace. Allow me to offer you a thought:  if you can’t fathom a man choosing to stay at home to care for his children, perhaps, you hold a narrow understanding of fatherhood. Bear in mind, masculinity is not determined by employment. Stay-at-home dads are dudes whether they are employed or not. Please don’t assume we are inadequate employees.

6. Are you trying to be unconventional? No, I’m not attempting to make a statement on gender roles. I am doing, at the moment, what makes sense for my family. While my wife is a great mother, my temperament is better suited to stay at home. I am content with the intense, yet unstructured, life of a stay-at-home parent. From early morning until late afternoon, I patiently endure blocks thrown at my head, yogurt spit on my face, tiny fingers in my belly button, and naptime battles, while resisting the urge to thrown my son out the window. I don’t need a medal, but it would be nice if you gave me a badge to wear on my sleeve.

5.  “When are you getting a real job?” Seriously? Have you spent more than ten minutes with a toddler? Since you asked this question, I’m guessing you haven’t because monitoring a toddler all day long equals pure exhaustion. Parenting small children is the toughest job and it comes with no salary or benefits. If they choose to skip their nap, prepare for hell.

4.  “Do you feel weird allowing your wife to be the breadwinner?” Listen here:  the 1950’s called and they want their gender roles back. If you are threatened by a woman earning more income than you, that is your problem, not mine. Real dudes do what is in the best interest of their family, not their ego.

3.  “Are you babysitting ?” This question makes me want to thump you on the forehead. Please stop asking it. You would never ask a woman my age that question. I’m parenting my child, a responsibility required of every father, whether stay-at-home or not. Babysitting is what sixteen-year-olds do for gas money. Just no.

2.  “Are you Mr. Mom?” No, I am not Mr. Mom. That title was funny twenty years ago, but now it’s dumb. I am a dude, not a woman. As a stay-at-home dad, I don’t need to alter my gender in order to want to care for my children. Stop asking that question.

1.  “You must have a lot of free time. Do you watch TV all day?” I watch an hour of TV most days with my toddler son. At the moment, we are watching season two of True Detective, season four of Game of Thrones, and season one of House of Cards. Actually, my television consists of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Curious George, and Sesame Street. I can tell you the letter of the day, but that is about it regarding television. During the first year of my child’s life, the only free time I had during the day was nap time, which meant I crashed on the couch to regain my sanity.

Next time someone asks why I am a stay-at-home dad, I’m going give them my friend and fellow stay-at-home dad’s standard answer: “I retired at thirty-five after winning the lottery.”

The Gaze, Picasso, and Fatherhood

I adore the first picture taken in the hospital of me and my newborn son.  My eyes gaze on the small face resting against my chest. The dark rings below my eyes, formed from my wife’s two and a half days of labor, extend to the top of my cheekbone. I tilt my head to study the tiny features of the face cradled in my hands, only a few hours old. My soul intertwines with the nine pounds of soft flesh sleeping in my arms.  A sacred beginning unfolds.

In Pablo Picasso’s painting Mother and Child, I recognize a similar gaze.  At six months old, at the Art Institute of Chicago, Henry and I viewed Picasso’s famous painting.  A mother, draped in a white robe, her infant sitting in lap, tilts her head downward to look in the child’s eyes. She resembles a classical sculpture more than a living person; her large, round features provide the child a harbor.  They are tethered by the mother’s body language.

I hold the picture of myself and Picasso’s painting side-by-side.  My gaze in the photograph sets the tone for my relationship with my son. The bald, blue-eyed creature becomes the center of my world. Early in the morning, I wake with him and stare into his eyes, while I sip my steaming coffee and feed him a bottle. Upon finishing, breast milk runs out of the corners of his mouth as they raise into a smile.  His face reminds me of my holy responsibility as a father.

The mother’s gaze offers protection from hostility; the child anchors down in her crossed legs.  The emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of the infant is underpinned by the mother’s eyes.  I imagine only the child in the picture, lying on the floor, mother absent, and emptiness overcomes me.  A connection lost.  A foundation of support vanished.

Picasso painted Mother and Child following the birth of his first offspring.  I discovered at the museum he included a father early in the creative process, but painted over him for the final version.  Why did he remove the father?  Did he believe only a mother can nurture a child?  I envision the father standing next to the mother and child.  He gazes into the child’s eyes.  The gaze knows no gender.  Its roots are in the soul of both men and women.  It sprouts from a divine place.  A child arrives and a light switches on; suddenly, we witness the most gorgeous creature.  Mother Nature has performed her finest work.

I don’t know the reason Picasso removed the father.  I do know when I look at the picture of myself and my son a few hours after his birth, a warm sensation fills my chest.  It reminds me how naive we are to categoricaly divide motherhood and fatherhood, as if they have been cleanly severed.  The relationship is complex.  “Fatherhood and motherhood aren’t separate conversations, despite the unique parenting experiences you find at any single point on the gender spectrum,” writes Jason Tucker.  I wholeheartedly agree, they are entangled.

How do we define fatherhood?  We discuss it alongside motherhood, because parenting a child is more complicated than the portrayal offered by Picasso’s painting or society’s narrow gender roles.  Both are fluid, not static.