It’s time someone stood up for functional clothing. It’s time someone spoke out against intolerance towards pocket aficionados. It’s time someone showed support for those who love to carry freight against their thighs. It’s time for someone to champion the cargo short.
Every hour a pair of cargo shorts are tossed into a garbage bag and sent to a thrift store. They sit in a pile, neglected, waiting for a middle-aged father in need of a man purse. Yet, so many cargo shorts don’t find homes because of fashionistas who stigmatize them with arbitrary rules, deeming them the tacky clothing of the underclass, reserving them for pro wrestling fans and zookeepers. They are viewed as pants for the clueless, for those who traded their dignity for comfort. Guys like me.
2016 has been a brutal year for cargo short enthusiasts. Haters have beat us down with negative posts, memes, and pie charts. We’ve suffered. We’ve been pushed to the margins, ostracized by mainstream fashion. But we will not be dismissed any longer as mere remnants of 1990’s fashion. Who do you think we are? Fanny packs?
You can make fun of my man purse if you like but I ask you: how much crap can you fit in your pockets? Cargo short pockets can hold: car keys, smartphones, wallets, headphones, sunglasses, sunscreen, snot rags, pacifiers, baby bottles, trash, hot sauce, wipes, diapers, matchbox cars, ammo, grenades, and dog poop bags. Really, you can put anything in cargo shorts. In college, I used them to transport chicken fingers.
I believe its my right to wear comfortable and functional clothing without harassment. As an act of resistance, I offer five ways to raise awareness and fight back for our beloved shorts:
1. Take a picture of your favorite cargo shorts and post them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Share a memory to raise awareness, a time when they were there for you. Camouflage cargos earn bonus points. #CargoShortsForever
2. Go to your local cargo short dealer and invest your money in a new pair. You deserve a new shade of gray. Use your money to send a message that the demand for cargo shorts is alive and well. The people want functionality! #CashforCargos
3. Pay it forward. Gift a pair to a friend or neighbor or coworker. It’s time to share the wonderful functionality with someone else. It might be the thing they need most. #Pockets4everyone
4. Hold a cargo short rally outside of your local congressmen’s office. Our representatives need to know there is a growing movement to support casual dress. They need to know we stand as one for pocket rights. Make signs, banners, and t-shirts. #Cargorights
5. Talk to your children and grandchildren. We need to speak to our youth about the importance of functional clothing. It’s up to future generations to keep the multi-pocketed dream alive for decades to come. Your kids might act like they don’t want to hear it, but deep inside they admire your passion. #Cargo4thenextgeneration
Sure, many people left them behind in the 90’s, but we are the faithful remnant, called to pass the torch. We will still be around when your skinny jeans are no longer hip and resting at the bottom of resale store bins. The cargo short is for every man and woman. It knows no class or race or creed. It’s functionality breaks down barriers. Our pockets can unite us around the world.
I stand with and in my cargo shorts because they have stood with me since my sophomore year of high school. My cargo shorts are one with me. And if you want to take them you will have to pry them from my cold, dead hands.
After a week of childcare, I need a break. Often, I’m too tired to leave the house so I stay home and do my own thing, but this presents a challenge. Avoiding small children around the house is like trying to escape a monster in a B-grade horror film. No matter where you turn they will find you.
To help me navigate around the house without getting sucked into my kid’s tractor beam, I created a list of parenting duties I’m NOT doing on my break. This is not intended to be a rigid set of rules just a recipe for sanity. And a friendly reminder.
10. For starters, I’m NOT wiping anyone’s ass.
9. I’m NOT disposing of any boogers, snot, or nose gunk.
8. I’m NOT spending my time moving glass objects away from edges.
7. I’m NOT watching Paw Patrol.
6. I’m NOT engaging in popsicle negotiations.
5. I’m NOT allowing small people to occupy the bathroom with me.
4. I’m NOT refereeing toddler/canine wrestling matches.
3. I’m NOT receiving or giving belly blows.
2. I’m NOT allowing tiny fingers in my crevices or orifices.
1. I’m Not sharing my peanut butter toast. It’s the only thing holding me together.
Okay, now its time to hear your list. What are the parenting responsibilities you are not doing on your break? Leave a comment.
I love moving with small children. It’s no problem as long as you enjoy exploring new levels of exhaustion. I learned during our recent move that August is an ideal time. In the brutal heat, you will consider leaving your whining children behind. You will discover who you really are when you slam your thumb in the truck door. Make sure your mother-in-law or someone else you wish to impress is standing nearby. But hands down, the highlight of moving is the short-term stress placed on your marriage. For twenty-four hours, you will get to flirt with divorce.
I believe there are five stages to moving with children:
Stage 1: Two fools standing in a front lawn next to a sold sign. This is so exciting! Let’s rent a truck. Purchase overpriced cardboard. Order an unaffordable couch and try out fancy mattresses. We are having a blast. While we are it, let’s pose our child in a large box and share it on FaceSnap. Moving is awesome!
Stage 2: Ugh. Packing sucks. Why do we have so much junk? I thought we put the George Foreman grille in the yard sale. Did we not donate the back-up microwave? Why the heck do we have so many juice glasses? We are not wealthy. By the way, I can’t find the car keys. I’m pretty sure the toddler packed them in a box buried in the corner of the garage. We might never find them again. Why are we doing this again?
Stage 3: Standing in line at the U-haul store. I’m staring down the obnoxious man complaining non-stop and causing the line to stretch out the door. I second guess what truck size to order. My wife is inspecting the new house and texts me to let me know someone left urine in the upstairs bathroom and it smells like a middle school locker room. Wonderful. If our marriage survives this event, it will be by the grace of God. If I remember correctly, it was included in the vows: on moving days, you will take deep breaths, resist the urge to stab your partner and delay contacting a divorce lawyer until seventy two hours after the move.
Finally, we are loading the moving truck. My arms are about to fall off. Please tell me why we chose to move in the middle of summer. I’ve not sweated this much since high school gym class. And I just spent the last thirty minutes trying to move a crib into the truck. They are the furniture from hell. I hate their awkward shape. I hate putting them together. They make me want to set things on fire. And I swear if my spouse gives me one more set of instructions I’m gonna commit a murder-suey in our new home before we ever sleep in it. Things are not looking good.
Stage Four: There are different levels of tired. There is marathon running tired, which I will never experience because I’m too lazy, and there is birthing a baby tired, which I will never experience due to biology, and then there is moving tired that falls somewhere under these two. It’s the type of tired that aches across your entire body, confusing muscles you have not used in ages. Paper cuts. Bruised hands. Sweat drenched shirts. And an inability to speak complete sentences by dinnertime.
During this stage, any thought of efficiency or organization flies out the window. All you can think about is the pain ending. Over. Done. Stopping. So, you throw crap in boxes, mixing kitchen utensils with lawn care or bathroom supplies with wine glasses. You no longer care that your toddler is digging through the box of kitchen cutlery. In fact, you are glad it is entertaining him for a minute. This is moving tired.
Stage 5: The move ends. Not the sentimental moment you wanted, but it is over. No fancy goodbye. No made-for-television moments including a wave goodbye to the old house. None of that nonsense, just prayers of thanksgiving for the conclusion of a process that broke you and nearly dissolved your marriage and led you to question your commitment to parenting. Now, you can exhale. Lean against a pile of boxes. Or just go to sleep. Of course, you swear you will never move again but we know that is unlikely. Time will cause you to forget the suffering.
Remember this: When the delusion seizes you again and you hear yourself talking about how much you look forward to moving. Pause. Take a deep breath. If necessary, slap yourself. At the least, hire professional movers and know its worth the cost to maintain your sanity.
His unrestrained emotion made me uncomfortable. Something inside me needed it to stop. The more he cried the more I wanted the camera to move to another athlete. I needed distance. And then the middle-aged male coach placed his arm around the young gymnast’s shoulders. Too much. It’s one thing to tear-up with red eyes and another to release them uncontrolled. Did they not know they were on worldwide television? Men do not cry like that in public. No. Couldn’t handle it. Needed it to stop.
Last night, my wife and I sat in the loveseat enjoying our nightly viewing of Olympic competition. She turned to me, “I’m loving this guy’s emotion. He’s just letting it flow.” Part of me wanted to dismiss the crying because it was men’s gymnastics. From a macho, American perspective, this was not a “real man’s sport” like football or baseball. I bet the men who tend to compete in gymnastics are overly emotional.I bet the sport draws this type of personality. As I listened to myself, I could not believe my inner dialogue. I was startled by the hyper-masculine judgment that surfaced within me. A critical voice reappearing from a dark corner. I consider myself a sensitive dude, one of the guys in touch with their feelings. A man willing to be honest about what stirs inside. You know, a forward thinking guy. Yet, I could not deal with the crying Brazilian.
The camera switched to other athletes, but it kept coming back to the raw emotion pouring out of the expressive gymnast. Overwhelmed. Scrunched Face. Tears. He had just finished a fantastic floor routine. The commentator noted the tears stemmed from joy because he realized a metal was within reach. It was only a matter of which one. When they announced the final scores the young man, now standing on his feet, released more emotion with open gestures. He won silver. He exploded with excitement.
As the Brazilian’s emotional response increased, I couldn’t ignore my discomfort. It was relentless too. Hounded me. Reminded me that was it not okay to express this level of feelings. It was not acceptable to accept another man’s freely flowing emotions. Not in that setting. Couldn’t handle it. Needed it to stop.
When I woke this morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the young gymnast, hands in the air, tears unrestrained. I thought about his gentle coach who wrapped an arm around him, not trying to calm him or stop the tears. He just sat with the young man. Shared the moment. Offered words of what appeared to be celebration and encouragement. He embraced him like a friend. A family member. A human being.
The more I digested the scene, I realized how perfectly natural the gymnast’s expression was in that moment. Completely appropriate for a young man who reached a goal he worked towards for years. I can’t fathom the sacrifices he made and the commitment and discipline necessary to compete at the Olympic level. He had every right go let the joyful tears flow. And it was my problem that I had an issue with it. Not his.
His emotional display terrified me. Translation: I feared how others would perceive me if I released a similar, unrelenting cry. I worried others would see me as weak, soft, and inferior. Deserving rejection.
I can’t help but view my response through the lens of fatherhood. I am raising a boy. A boy moving through the toddler years and displaying wild flashes of emotion, often emotions he does not know how to control. But the day will come when he will learn he has the power to control them and I hope he will find a healthy way to express his feelings. Not the bottled-up, macho version of American masculinity but something along the lines of the cry released by the young, Brazilian athlete. I hope he cries tears of joy and sadness and frustration. A gushing river. Whatever the moment warrants.
“What do you want for Father’s Day,” my wife asks.
“Sausage balls,” I say.
“Really, that’s it?”
“Actually, I want sausage balls and a fifteen minute chair massage at the mall.”
“You are kidding, right?”
“No. I want sausage balls, a sketchy mall massage, and an ESPN 30-for-30 marathon.”
“We will take you to lunch.”
“As long as it involves sausage balls.”
What are you giving your stay-at-home dad this Father’s Day? Maybe you are considering giving him a fancy meat preparation guide, maybe you are considering a Make-Your-Own-Hot-Sauce-Kit, maybe you are considering a laser guided beard trimmer, but these gifts will not do. I cannot speak for all SAHD’s but here is what I want on Father’s Day:
Time for myself. I want what every stay-at-home parent desires, an opportunity to regain my sanity. I want to pee uninterrupted and shower for more than two minutes. For your SAHD, it could mean giving him a fist bump as he walks out the door to ride his motorcycle, visit the art museum, attend a monster truck rally, read a book in a coffee shop, or catch a matinee. Encourage him to do whatever tickles his fancy.
A little bit of appreciation. How about a banner across the living room that reads: “We love our primary caregiver!” This might sound rediculous, but I don’t think you understand the challenge my ego has endured as a SAHD. When was the last time someone celebrated a male who chose to forego employment and paycheck to care for children in a role traditionally filled by women? Look. I’m not asking for a medal, just a banner. Alright, I will settle for sausage balls.
Fun Time With Spouse. I want a childless and stress-free outing with my wife. Drop the kids off at grandma’s house. Call a babysitter. Do whatever is necessary to make this happen because it would be so refreshing to eat dinner, have a drink, and chat without a little person pulling on my sleeve and interupting my conversation. I want to laugh with my partner and talk about something besides Paw Patrol. After dinner and fun, we can relax on the couch, snuggle, and finally finish the last season of Mad Men. For a night, we will pretend to be newlyweds and deny that our lives are run by a twenty pound tyrant. It will be lovely.
So, now you have an idea of what to do for your SAHD on Father’s Day. It’s up to you to celebrate him. He earned it. Recognize him on this holiest of dad days. Got it? Good. And whatever you do don’t call him Mr. Mom.
You are about to experience a deep, mysterious bond with a tiny creature that will turn your world upside down. I know its cliché to say “kids change everything” but its true. This new relationship will most certainly test your limitations, surprise you, and reveal parts of yourself you did not know existed. I am excited for you.
I think your best move is to admit now you are in over your head. Humble thyself and acknowledge you don’t know what you are doing and ask for help. I wish I could say I was prepared to be a father, but I was not. Sure, I anticipated dirty diapers, spit up, and sleeplessness, but I did not understand how a child alters every facet of your life. Nobody does. This is okay.
What changed in my life?
The moment my son arrived he was as grey as a sheet of newspaper, face scrunched, and soundless. Dangling him by the neck, the doctor passed him to a nurse who darted to a warming table where she rubbed his chest. My mind raced with thoughts: Why is he not crying? Is he breathing? Is he alive? In that vulnerable moment, a new sense of fragility seized me. You will feel this too. Your insides will wobble like jelly. Babies have a knack for waking us up to our illusions of control. This is healthy.
Another thing your precious baby will provide is a new lens to see the world through. This lens will magnify your true priorities and draw them towards the center of your life. And it will filter out the not-so-important stuff. I know you think you understand the importance of family, but your little one will give you a richer definition. Mother Nature will grow a bond between you and your child so deep it will reach to the center of your being. An unfathomable connection. This is a beautiful thing.
Speaking of beautiful things, a few days ago I watched my neighbor push his newborn in a stroller for the first time. My neighbor typically bounces around his front lawn and marches to work, but on this day he moved at a snail’s pace, clutching the handlebar, head down, and maintaining eye contact at all times with his baby. He moved so cautiously it appeared he was strolling a load of dynamite at risk of blowing up any minute. Mother Nature worked her magic on him. It was magnificent.
For the first month of my son’s life, I stared at his stomach and watched it raise and lower with each breath. In the middle of the night, I woke and sat straight up in bed, consumed with fear my child was lost. Of course, he was always sleeping in the bassinet next to the bed. You will probably be equally anxious. It’s okay. This is normal.
I’m betting a new level of happiness will fill you, the kind so rich that it only arrives on the special occasions of life–weddings, graduations, and anniversaries. The experience of your first child is unparalleled and so fulfilling that the corners of your mouth will stretch across your face wider than ever. Enjoy it. Bask in it. Put work aside and allow yourself to be consumed with the moment. Just do it.
Oh, and be sure to tell your spouse you love her and celebrate the tremendous miracle she performed to bring this baby into the world. It’s an act we will never truly appreciate as men.
In addition to new levels of happiness, parenthood will surprise you with parts of yourself that lie dormant. Caring for my son taps into the sensitive, nurturing, and patient side of myself. It teaches me that I do not have to bow to rigid, traditional views of fatherhood that do not suit me. It challenges me to not divide the roles of provider and protector from nurturer and caregiver. It encourages me to be a whole person. I hope it will do the same for you.
I don’t mean to portray parenthood as an ongoing mountaintop experience because you will eventually end up in a valley, maybe a dark one. There will be moments that nearly break you. At 3a.m. when your child screams, thoughts will cross your mind you will be too embarrassed to share with others. When your child bites you on the inner thigh you will be tempted to toss them out the window. You will be so sleep deprived you will get on the subway going the wrong way multiple times or repeatedly take the wrong exit. Be kind to yourself. This is hard.
Parenthood has pushed me to the edge, especially as my son’s primary caregiver. For the first time in my life, I am taking medication for anxiety and sleeplessness. For an undercover control freak like myself, a small child is the best joke the universe could have played on me. Above, I mentioned illusions of control. Yeah, mine have been shattered. Shattered to pieces.
Instead of asking how things have changed, I think a better question to ask is how they have not changed. I struggle to answer this question. My son has reshaped nearly every aspect of my life, mostly for the better. Two years later, its hard to imagine life without him. (What that heck did I do with my time before him?) I believe your life will be reshaped for the better too. It might take a while for you to see it this way, but I think you will come around.
Many people portray parenthood as a type of death: a loss of freedom and time and opportunity. I don’t think this is accurate. Of course, it is a tremendous sacrifice, but is also an opportunity to fulfill our potential as human beings. Parenthood is not a roadblock or a limitation, but an opportunity to grow and mature. I hope you will see it as an evolution of yourself, an unlocking of a new dimension.
A Dad Still On The Learning Curve
P.S. I recommend investing in a quality coffee maker.
When I resigned from my job to care for our infant son, I fancied myself the perfect progressive father. One year later, I’m an isolated, energy-sapped, diaper-dodging mess, wondering if I’ll ever be able to make this work.
I bounce Henry on my shoulder at two o’clock in the morning. He moans and raises his head to survey the dark living room. He stares over my shoulder, eyes wide open, examining the shadows. Breast milk soaks my t-shirt, along with drool created by tiny, jagged teeth piercing his gums. I push his head back down with my palm, but he resists and releases a defiant scream. I bounce. I bargain with myself. I would donate a kidney for a full night’s rest. I would empty my checking account for a nap. I would never eat again at Five Guys Burgers for a few moments to shut my eyes.Outside, the red line train hums at its stop near our fifth-floor apartment. My foggy brain registers the conductor’s muffled voice echoing from the speaker. Chicago stills during the early morning hours, but our living room remains active; a street light glimmers between the blinds. I bounce. Henry’s hot breath rushes from his lungs. The train departs, humming northbound into the night.
I lower us to a multicolored foam play mat and lie flat on my back. Henry leans on my chest like a professional wrestler pinning his opponent. I close my eyes. The toilet flushes in the apartment next door, my neighbor ridding herself of another cigarette butt. While Henry listens to the rushing water, I consider my options: toss him out the window or ask my wife for help. However, neither of these options are included in the deal. I am on the clock, so I must remain conscious, battling an opponent with a delicious scalp and wonderfully chubby legs. Wandering through my hazy mind, I attempt to remember why I signed up for this job.
While staring at the ceiling, my mind focuses on choices made after Henry’s birth. I embraced visions of myself as a hip, progressive father — a modern dad unburdened by rigid, traditional views of fatherhood, a man not forced to divide the roles of provider and protector from nurturer and caregiver. At the end of spring, I resigned from a soul-sucking job to care for Henry, four months old, while Cara returned to work at a non-profit in the heart of the city. We desired to leave behind suburban life and a lengthy commute, well suited for many families, but stressful and impossible in our particular situation. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the north side of Chicago, near Lake Michigan, a promising place to stroll along the shore.
* * *
On a balmy summer morning, a week later, I walk the streets of Chicago carrying Henry in a long, green band of cloth wrapped around my torso. He flails his arms and kicks his legs against my waist, studying passersby. We absorb the light reflecting off Lake Michigan’s choppy surface while walking Jolene, our thirty-pound sheltie mix.
“Did you tie the wrap?” women ask.
“Yes, I watched the YouTube instructional video a thousand times,” I respond.
The soft wrap becomes a projection screen on which others display their parenting views. Women offer warm smiles, sometimes clapping. Men stare, dressed in their sleek suits, with furrowed brows. A teenage boy, arms hooked with his girlfriend, whispers loud enough for me to overhear, “Now, that’s the image of a man.” Another scruffy, bearded man in his twenties, standing on a busy street corner, points and roars. The neighborhood policeman leaning against the wall of the 7-11 informs me, “The first time I saw you wearing this thing, I thought you were Middle Eastern.” It is an odd thing to hear said to a pale, blue-eyed male with a Southern accent.
The wrap and I become one. I wear Henry to prepare dinner. I wear him on the subway. I wear him to the DMV. In line, a young woman with fashionable short hair approaches me to discuss the wrap. For ten minutes, she tells me about her experience with the wrap and how she proudly avoided a stroller. She speaks like we are members of a special baby-wearing club. Before moving on, she nods as if we are part of a movement. I nod back.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, six months old and wrapped against my chest, Henry studies the museum visitors nearby, resting fingers on their chins. Contemplating Picasso’s Mother and Child, I absorb the rich grey, brown and flesh tones, amplified by the neutral white wall. I recognize the mother’s gaze. I saw it on my own face in a photograph taken on the day my son was born. The mother tilts her head downward and stares into the eyes of the infant anchored in her lap. She resembles a classical sculpture more than a living person. Her large, rounded features provide a haven; her tender eyes underpin the playful baby, holding his foot. The mother’s gaze shines a light into the recesses of my heart, into a part of myself I was conditioned to hide. Her tethered soul sends blood rushing through my chest.
I learn that Picasso, in the early stages of the painting, included a father next to the mother and child — a father who stood over the boy, dangling a fish; a father who disappeared; a father covered with layers of paint as if he never existed. The warmth in my chest fades.
I cannot offer a precise definition of a father, because there are as many types of fathers as creatures in Lake Michigan. I consider that many children equate fathers with absence. Fathers absent by choice or from circumstances beyond their control. Fathers not known and children reaching for their ghosts.
* * *
“How was the day?” Cara asks.
“We survived,” I mumble.
Henry drops his bottle and lunges from my lap to crawl toward his mother. Cara sets her work bag on the table and embraces him, their faces gleaming. I sit down on the gray IKEA couch to regroup and brainstorm dinner plans. The odor from a diaper explosion lingers in the trashcan and our one-bedroom apartment appears to have been ransacked by thieves. The floor is a minefield of Cheerios, wooden blocks, and teether toys.
During the bedtime routine, I retreat to the bathroom, a closet-sized, windowless space. While the fiberglass tub slowly fills with hot water, I shut the door and turn off the lights. Pipes whistle in the walls, guiding water to rooms throughout the building. Stale cigarette smoke creeps through the vents courtesy of my chain-smoking neighbor. As I lie down, ripples splash against the tub and back against the sides of my body in the pitch-black room. For a few minutes, I close my eyes as the water stills.
When motivation arrives, I reach outside the tub for the iPad planted on the floor nearby, and rest it securely on my chest. The screen flashes large, red block letters on an inky background. An endless menu appears, offering an escape. My scrolling index finger struggles to decide what to select. I should watch an award-winning foreign film. I should watch a documentary. I should watch a TED talk. I must not waste this opportunity. What I really want is to watch 1990s television. Don’t do it. You know you want to.
At the tap of my finger, the glass screen flickers, revealing an explosion, lifting flames high in the remote Wisconsin woods. Minutes later a deputy sheriff, first to arrive in the dense forest, approaches the fiery scene. He encounters a strange, invisible creature that scorches him to death. In rapid succession, the events hook me before the haunting theme song of “The X-Files” and its monster-of-the-week storytelling transports me into hazy nostalgia. I swallow it like a pill.
* * *
On a breezy fall afternoon a few months later, during a visit to Whole Foods, we strike the samples. I navigate the aisles with Henry wrapped to my chest, maximizing our sampling potential. The organic apples, tomatoes and squash sparkle in the florescent light. A blender buzzes in the corner. I pick up a black cherry, bite it in half, and lower it to his mouth like a mother bird. This moment ignites a genial surge in my heart, a memory I pledge to preserve, a memory I would not have expected a year ago. We share pineapple, fancy cheese, tortilla chips, bite-size pizza, and hummus. Despite knowing Whole Foods does not align with our budget, we eat a shameful amount. At any moment, I am certain a manager will ask us to leave. If so, it will be worth it.
As fall turns to winter and light fades to dark early in the evening, mysterious bites appear on our legs and arms. The exterminator examines the Ziploc bag containing the reddish-brown, oval parasites that crawled underneath a shared wall. He instructs us to vacate the apartment for several hours.
After returning home, Cara bounces Henry to sleep in the bedroom. The gas heat fails to keep up with single-digit temperatures. The Chicago winter, winds whipping and snow accumulating, shoves life indoors. Slowly, our one-bedroom apartment transforms into a cell, difficult to leave after dusk. I withdraw to the bathtub.
My iPad provides enough light to turn on the tub faucet and raise the water temperature. A bead of sweat forms on my forehead and rolls down the side of my face into the bathwater, while Fox Mulder, eccentric FBI agent and unexplained phenomena expert, enters the moonlit woods, racing to gather evidence from a crash site. While a strange, invisible creature lurks in the remote woods, escaping government officials, Mulder finds himself captured in a makeshift military jail. Dana Scully, Mulder’s straight-laced and skeptical partner, arrives to free him. She scoffs at his far-fetched explanation; he is frustrated with her naivety, but due to his confiscated camera there is no evidence to present her. Once again, the truth brushes against Mulder like a strange creature in the water before slipping away.
Here is my truth: I am scared. I do not know how I am going to make it through the winter. I feel isolated. Beyond caring for my son, I have no energy or presence to offer the world. I want to write, but a numb brain struggles to shift into gear. I want to enjoy the winter wonderland, but only see tundra.
* * *
In the depths of winter, I sit on a frigid toilet at three o’clock in the morning, one eye open, too tired to stand. Unable to sleep, I grab the flashlight to inspect my son’s crib for bedbugs. I scan the light over his tiny, perfect feet. No bugs. Next, I turn to our bed where my wife lightly snores. I wave the light over the mattress. No bugs. I inspect the box springs and frame. A reddish-brown speck is wedged in a corner crease. I spread the crease. The speck crawls. I grab it with a tissue and drop it in a sandwich-size bag.
I lie on the couch, resigned to the reality of bedbugs. Resigned to my isolated existence. Thoughts of failure spin in my mind. I am failing to keep bugs from biting my wife and son in the night. I am failing to provide for my family. I am failing to keep them from breathing secondhand smoke in our bedroom. The old tapes, ingrained in my brain from a hyper-masculine upbringing, play over and over in my mind.
At six o’clock in the morning, the State of the Union address delivered on the previous night plays on my iPhone. President Obama’s words fill the kitchen. I disassemble the coffee grinder, remove the stale grounds, and wipe it clean with a small brush. Steam raises the lid off the silver kettle on the stovetop; water spews from the narrow, s-shaped spout. Henry, on my hip, waves at the hissing kettle. I remove it from the stove eye. I tare the scale. I grind the beans until they are reduced to a sand-like texture. I pull the tray from the grinder and breathe the freshly ground beans. Henry leans his face over the tray and pretends to take a deep breath. His blue eyes widen. A burst of applause comes through the iPhone speaker.
I pour steaming water over grounds, which rest in a red, ceramic funnel on top of a glass pot. I pour enough to saturate them, causing the water and grounds to dance together, creating a mushroom-shaped bubble that collapses after thirty seconds, the signal for more water. I pour four hundred grams of water in a slow, circular motion; rich, brown liquid drips into the pot. My ears tune to the President’s words.
“Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave. Forty-three million. Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home.”
I recall a meeting before Henry’s birth. Responding to my request for paternity leave, my employer slides a thin piece of paper across the table, full of language resembling a legal contract. While reading the mechanical response, I shake my head at the decision to deny my request for two weeks of paid family leave. After three years, it is clear they do not value me, much less my pregnant wife; nor do they want to offer support when we need it most — hundreds of miles from our family and support network.
The coffee finishes dripping. I pour a steaming cup into a porcelain mug. Henry fidgets as the steam rises.
In the living room, while I sip my java, Henry rolls on the foam mat. Sharing five hundred square feet with a nearly one-year-old cellmate is like living inside a pinball machine. Henry bounces off the changing table, couch, kitchen cabinets, bookshelves, and television stand. In the afternoon, we shift to the hallway; he crawls and knocks on random doors, while our thick-haired Sheltie dutifully follows. Together, we inspect doormats and plug-in deodorizers; we ride the elevator.
To escape, in the middle of winter with several feet of snow piling on the ground, we scurry to Super Foods, a corner grocery below our apartment. A gust of wind burns my cheeks, forcing Henry to tuck his head in my chest. He whimpers. Upon entering the store, Henry emerges with two brown ears and limbs swallowed by the fleece bear outfit my mother mailed from Tennessee. He trades smiles with the cashiers and the owner, an elderly Eastern European man who mesmerizes Henry with his accent.
Henry and I squeeze past a line of customers wrapped in long winter coats and waiting to purchase lottery tickets. We plod across the cereal aisle examining box covers, spending several minutes admiring Toucan Sam and Lucky the Leprechaun. We land in the produce section. I quiz Henry. I hold potatoes, grapes, pineapples, broccoli and bananas in front of his face. “Ba-na-nas.” The corners on his face rise. “Ba-na-nas.” His lips open revealing his jagged teeth. “Ba-na-nas.” He giggles.
At the cash register, I purchase a bunch of bananas to justify the trip. The elderly Eastern European man amuses Henry with facial expressions. After their exchange, I hustle back to our fifth-floor cell, leaning into the face-numbing wind, holding a bear and bananas.
In the apartment, I sit Henry on the kitchen floor, place the bananas in the fruit basket, and remove our heavy clothing. I open the refrigerator door, grab the water pitcher and pour a glass. Henry crawls to the colorful containers resting on the wire shelving, while I slide to the floor and lean against the faux-wood kitchen cabinets and extend my legs into a V shape. The tile deadens the muscles in my ass. My sweatpants reveal stains ranging from coffee to breast milk to blueberry yogurt. Artificial light beams from the refrigerator, while the brutal wind whips against the windows of our apartment. Henry’s rounded legs squat to lower clanking salad dressing bottles to the floor. My neighbor’s door slams, echoing in the hallway.
I doubt you will find refrigerator entertainment as a technique in a legitimate parenting manual, but it’s the only trick left in my bag. Henry hands me a head of broccoli and wobbles back toward the manufactured light. Leftovers from breakfast burritos fill my nostrils. In a bottom drawer, he discovers a bag of grapes, removes one, and turns toward me, grinning; he holds the grape at eye level as if turning a precious stone in the light. I force the tired muscles in my face into a half-smile.
I glance at my iPhone’s display. My wife will not arrive home for another three hours. I am a shell of myself, beat down by a blue-eyed creature barely weighing twenty pounds. I do not know how to raise myself from the tile floor. I have the physical strength, but emotionally I am unable. I sit. Henry explores the refrigerator. I question my fitness to care for him. I don’t know why I thought I could do this by myself. Naivety. Delusion. Immaturity. I don’t know, nor do I understand how I got lowered to this tile floor.
* * *
On a Saturday morning a few days later, I walk Jolene along the shore. The edges of the dim, grey horizon blend with sheets of ice on Lake Michigan. Crisp air blows off the ice, drying my eyes. Layers extend from the shore beginning with several feet of snow resting on solid ice, which alters to floating ice chunks packed together, bumping into thin sheets expanding to the skyline. My butt rests on an ice block posing as a bench near the sidewalk that wraps around the water. I have not smelled anything since the exhaust I inhaled crossing Lakeshore Drive. My dog’s breath steams out of her nose.
I imagine the creatures beneath the coated lake, the freezing water driving them to the depths. Their movement limited. Their existence pressed downward. Down to the muddy bottom.
I do not remember the last time happiness surfaced and shattered the expanding sheets over my heart. My emotions do not move; they dive to the recesses of my heart. I want someone to launch a large, jagged rock on to the frozen surface. I want someone to shatter the layers, create a hole large enough for my feelings to rise. A gaping hole, so big, the person I once knew emerges from the dim waters. I will hand a rock to anyone willing to hurl it. I cannot do it myself.
* * *
Cara and I sit on the grey IKEA couch. I stare at tropical images shuffling on the flat-screen television. Henry sleeps in the bedroom. The red line train hums northward, while a man digging in a dumpster sings in the alley. Cara’s large green eyes scan our family budget on the laptop. Her shoulders sag and brow furrows.
“Here are three options,” I say. “First, we stay in Chicago, but I will need to get a full-time job and Henry will go to childcare. Second, we stay in Chicago, but I will need to get a flexible part-time job, continue caring for Henry, and we will squeak by financially. Third, we move to Tennessee and get closer to family and our support network.”
Cara studies the grim budget. She tends to be decisive. I debate, waver, and second-guess.
“We need to move to Tennessee,” she responds.
“We can stay here but we will need to…”
“No, we need to move. Life in Chicago with a child is not sustainable,” she says.
We sit on the couch. The decision made itself and provides relief despite being laced with failure. We will return seeking balance after our world was turned upside down, seeking to recover from the shock of parenthood. The grueling routine of childcare will remain, but we hope a wider circle of support will ease the burden. We will move forward not on our terms, but on Henry’s.
At the end of spring, we pack boxes and a handful of friends load our belongings on a rental truck. We abandon our couch and bed in the alley to avoid transporting bedbugs. On a Sunday morning, Cara and Henry board a flight to Nashville, while I stack the final boxes in the truck, pressing them inward with my shoulder as I pull the door down and secure the latch. I step into the cab, start the engine, and roll away from our apartment building. Our time in Chicago fades as life shoves us forward.
I merge on to Lake Shore Drive. The road winds southward along the shore to exit the city. People walk the beach and bounce volleyballs and toss Frisbees. I imagine the creatures below the surface, no longer coated with ice, and wonder what life stirs. For the next seven hours, I will sit alone in the truck wondering what life stirs within myself. Wondering if my soul will thaw. Wondering if my true self will return.
On Wednesday mornings, a few minutes before ten o’clock, my two-year-old son and I arrive at the YMCA. I restrain him from escaping my lap while wrestling off his shoes. Once free, he darts across the shiny floor to the bounce house.
Small bodies scramble through the netted door, while screams echo off the cinderblock walls. A pack of children jump and tumble causing their arms, legs, and torso to ricochet off the plastic walls. In the inflatable wonderland, my wide-eyed toddler contorts his twenty-five pound body. He is so intoxicated by the excitement the only thing on his mind is bouncing.
I enjoy the break and tend to stand nearby keeping one eye on my son and one on my smart phone. The bounce house helps me maintain my sanity. Yet, at a recent visit to the castle-shaped house, my son summoned me through the netted window. “Da da,” he yelled. His tone made clear my presence was requested. Initially, I brushed him off with a smile and encouraged him to return to tumbling, but he did not relent.
“Da da. Da da. Da da,” he yelled. I had only one choice and that was to make my way towards the bounce house door. I stuck my head through and he grabbed my finger and leaned back with all his weight. Already in my stay-at-home dad uniform: grey sweatpants, long sleeve t-shirt, and 1990’s Nike sandals, I agreed to climb into the chaos.
At first, I felt self-conscious as the only adult in the bounce house, but I didn’t have long to consider my feelings because my son charged me with reckless abandon. He tackled me and we collapsed into a plastic crease where he infected me with bounce house joy. Despite their often difficult temperament, two-year-olds have a refreshing lack of self-consciousness.
Whether on the changing table, in the bathtub, or rolling in the bounce house, they care little about who is watching them and embrace the present moment. As a thirty-five year old, I cannot say the same. My mind stretches a million different directions and floats in a sea of anxiety, worry, and stress. My head is like a bounce house, but the thoughts deflecting off the walls are not joyful.
Inside the plastic castle, we chased each other around in a circle yelling at the top of our lungs. We lowered ourselves on all fours, while imitating our favorite animal noises. We launched into the plastic walls and rolled from side to side. As air compressors hummed, our bodies pressed into the elastic house and I was set loose by a twenty-five pound tumbler who rolled away the tightness in my mind and heart.
Parents need breaks and sometimes you got to check out during playtime to regain your mental health. I get it. However, my recent experience in the bounce house convinced me parents also need to play, not only for their children’s sake, but for their own. The moments we resist play the most are often when we need to roll, tumble, and jump. It is so easy to forget how to amuse ourselves and engage in an activity for no practical or serious purpose. Small children offer a gateway to enter the present moment and experience the joy of letting loose.
I believe we are designed to play whether we are eight months old or eighty. The need for amusement is part of human nature and children help us to recover the playful parts of ourselves we ignore and neglect, the parts we lose in adulthood but desperately need because playing is just as important as paying the bills, mowing the lawn, and eating a well rounded meal. When we deny ourselves play we become dull people.
Playing is a behavior that comes natural to children. We can allow them to take the lead. When they tug on our fingers all we need to do is follow. I’m glad I followed my son into the bounce house because I needed him to remind me how to play. We had a blast and we only got in trouble once. It was a minor offense: a runny nose. I understand their concern because the downside of bounce houses is they are plastic cesspools. After you finish jumping, I suggest you wash your hands, wipe your child with an anti-bacterial cloth, and set your clothes on fire.
Where there is sleep deprivation, provide long uninterrupted naps.
Where there is destruction, allow acceptance of messiness.
Where there is frustruation, let me take deep breaths.
Where there is terror, remind me life is fragile and never was under my control.
Where there is defeat, remind me tomorrow is a new day.
Where there is isolation, remind me of public libraries, Chick Fil-a playgrounds, zoos, and art museums with kid rooms.
Where there is exhaustion, remind me leaving my child under the care of another is okay and necessary for my sanity.
O, God, grant me patience not only with my toddler but with myself for I am an imperfect parent doing my best to raise a small person in a chaotic world. It’s okay to make mistakes. You are asking me to do my best to love my child and leave the rest to you. Amen.
The lights dimmed until the room was dark. Projected on a large screen was a silhouette of a breast pump bottle. Written across it in pink, cursive letters was the title The Pump and Dump. Over 200 women packed the comedy club to the rafters unleashing a wave of feminine energy. Untethered from their babies for the night, their chatter bounced off the walls as servers scrambled to refill their cocktails. I sat in the booth next to my wife with folded arms.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
I have done many awkward things for women: browsed Victoria’s Secret, purchased female hygiene products, transported breast milk, and carried large purses. But at the top of my list is attending a moms’ night out comedy show. As a stay-at-home dad, I spend my days surrounded by moms at the zoo, on the playground, and at the library’s story time. The last thing I desire is to spend free time at a mommy social gathering. Yet, yearning for a night out, I found myself entering the club with my spouse on a weeknight.
MC Doula, a blonde-haired woman with a glowing smile, strutted on stage to applause. She sat down at a small table draped with a black cover and kicked off the party with a push of a laptop button. Music and slides played as the ladies clapped and screamed. MC Doula’s partner, Shayna, followed her on stage with guitar in hand. I anticipated a deluge of mommy jokes.
Shayna, with long brown hair and matching eyes, launched into a song titled “Swings” describing pushing her child on the playground as her “cross to bear.” Her voice mimicked the back-and-forth monotony as she playfully listed the activities she would rather do than push her child. I found myself relaxing in my booth and chuckling. My own dreaded parenting activity came to mind, which involves tiny fingers in my belly button. My toddler son has turned it into a painful game we play on a daily basis.
My guard dropped as I realized the aim of the show. I was not at a “girl power” rally or a husband-bashing session. MC Doula and Shayna shifted away from a prudish, perfectionistic image of parenting and dared to take an unflinching look at the reality of raising small children. Topics ranged from staring at your child’s butt hoping they poop, to confessions of embarrassing parenting mistakes, to frustrating food moments at the table. Of course, they dished out their fair share of jokes directed at men, but I must say they were warranted.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
On stage, a remarkable space opened to share the burdens of parenting. Sitting in the sea of women, I laughed throughout the entire show and found myself struggling to catch my breath during a song titled “Mama’s Boy,” a song about the bond between mother and son and the inevitable tension with a future daughter-in-law. In the song, the mother expresses her hopes for their relationship, including a wish for her son to be gay. The crowd roared.
During a break, I used the restroom. While a line extended from the women’s room along the club wall, I entered an empty men’s room. I thought I was alone until the latch clicked on a stall and a man exited. We made eye contact, smiled, and nodded as if we both agreed not to acknowledge our presence at a moms’ social event. Standing in the narrow bathroom, maneuvering around one another, we were two guys out of only a handful of men at the show.
After returning to the booth, the room darkened again, and I laughed equally hard during the second half. As the night progressed, I became less aware of the gender differences in the room. Although the show was geared toward women, I felt like the common denominator was the fact we were all parents—adults doing their best to meet the exhausting demands of children. It dawned on me that part of the problem is we really do focus too much on society’s gender roles instead of the common challenge of parenting.
Parenting small children is hard and isolating. They turn your world upside down and leave you scrambling for balance. My moms’ night out revealed to me how much parents need a space to acknowledge their experiences. Our culture tends to pressure parents into wearing a badge of silence and smile as if parenting is a walk in the park. We perform a disservice to each other when we don’t allow room for honest discussion about child rearing. The worst thing we can do is keep silent, grinning and bearing it, pretending we are not drowning.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
The Pump and Dump show offered me a lifeline. It was honest. It was raw. And it was damn funny. It inspired me to tell the truth about parenting, not only for my own mental health, but for the sake of others. MC Doula and Shayna declared 2016 “The Year of the Mother,” a year for moms to commit to being kinder to themselves and other moms, a year to exit the mommy wars and acknowledge parenting is hard for everyone and we are better off supporting one another.
I agree. Although, I believe the same can be said for dads. In fact, I think all parents are better off when we support each other and acknowledge we are doing our best to nurture our children.