One day I was on top of the world, getting kudos and high fives for being a pioneering, stay-at-home dad. The next I was being snubbed and fast becoming the subject of whispers and unsympathetic silences. Such were the nuances of fatherhood in the early 1980's.
I didn't set out to trail blaze or make myself some sort of shining example. "I just want to spend more time with my daughter Summer," is what I told those who asked. "I want to see what it's really like to be the primary caregiver of an infant/toddler."
Of course, this meant not working much, if at all, outside the home. At first, I embraced this new autonomy, since I fancied myself a writer and would now have time to sit down with my trusty Smith Corona for a few hours every day while my daughter napped and knock out the great American novel.
Truth be told, I was wearing the fatherhood badge of courage and showing off a little too much. I had an article published about my active participation in childbirth, attended university classes on childhood development and was energetically involved in our neighborhood babysitting coop. While this activity drew skeptical looks from the older generation, it seemed to elicit praise, or even jealousy, from my peers.
Or so I thought.
Because before you could say "Goodnight Moon," I found myself having to constantly answer questions about my employment status. Worse, I stopped being invited to the Wednesday playgroup and being used as the primary back up for the babysitting coop moms who needed a break during the week. So, by the time Summer went off to half-days of pre-school at 17 months, I was holding my own pity party. Beyond the lack of a job or any career prospects, I was coming to the conclusion that Summer was worse off for having me around so much. "She's too aggressive," the day care staff would remind me when I picked her up after lunch every day. They'd also point out that she was only hanging out with the boys and refusing to take naps. The latter meant that she and I would wage a war of wills every afternoon about her sleeping routine. Two guesses who won those battles.
Try as I did to be upbeat about our post-daycare time together, I started to dread those afternoons. Not even music, one of my usual antidotes, was helping, probably because my wife had dredged up a bunch of old 78-and 33 1/3 RPM recordings from her childhood, classic stuff like "Antoinette the Clarinet," "Bobo the Oboe" and "Mike Malone the Slide Trombone." Some vinyl Burl Ives, too. Thus, that winter our daily afternoon ritual included hot chocolate, the records, maybe a little hokey pokey, followed by a story and a nap. Maybe. Usually I nodded off before Summer with visions of orchestras dancing in my head.
Some days I just couldn't take those songs any more, so with the old turntable spinning and my wife not around to monitor the tunes, I'd slip on an old rock and roll 45 I'd found in the pile of records. These weren't the best of the best, but it sure bested Bobo the Oboe! Of course, as sharp as my daughter was, she immediately knew these records were not part of her usual repertoire. She even seemed to suspect her mother would disapprove.
"This will be our special secret, honey," I'd remind Summer as I'd put on the We Fives' "You Were on My Mind" or "Party Lights" by Claudine Clark. Soon we were listening to those golden oldies more than my wife's childhood classics. But there was downside to that, too, because those songs made me nostalgic for my youth. I was hip and cool when those songs were popular and now here I was, an unemployed househusband with no prospects, a hyperactive kid and no other guys to commiserate with!
To top it off, that winter went on forever. It became more than a season -- it was a state of mind, a destination. We couldn't get away from it and were rewarded with recurring sinus and ear infections. Mondays were the worst, and this particular Monday I got an earful from one of the daycare staff about Summer and a call from a parent who pretty much seconded the staff's emotion. And what awaited me was Burl Ives and Antoinette the Clarinet!
I put the records on and sat in the corner. Summer, now almost two, sensed my mood and sat down as well. This wouldn't be one of our hokey pokey afternoons. Finally, Summer glanced over at me, an earnest, concerned look on her face.
"Play 'Troubles,' Daddy," was what I thought I heard her say.
"What sweetie?" I smiled my daddy smile at her.
"Play 'Troubles,' Daddy," she repeated.
I was stumped. What in the heck was she talking about?
"I'm sorry honey, I don't know what you mean."
At that, my precocious toddler walked over to a stack of old 45s and pulled out a copy of "You've Got Your Troubles" by the Fortunes and handed it to me. I didn't remember ever playing the song for her, but I put it on the turntable and we both listened.
"I see that worried look upon your face
You've got your troubles, I've got mine."
The words went right through me. I knew this song, was a senior in high school when it was popular, but hadn't given it two thoughts since then. Now, I could only sit, tears welling in my eyes, tears of nostalgia to be sure, but tears of embarrassment, too, for being so weak and vulnerable in front of my daughter.
"You've Got Your Troubles" quickly became our favorite song. And spring finally did arrive that year. And I knew then, as I know now, that I really didn't have any troubles at all. I was lucky enough to stay at home and spend precious time with my darling daughter, who celebrates her birthday this week, and watch her embark on life's journey. Hell, those were the most trouble free days of my life.