I can totally do this, I thought to myself. It was 6 a.m. on the morning of my wife's first day back to work after three months of maternity leave. She was getting ready to jump in the shower and take the train to Manhattan. I was preparing to take care of our little bundle of joy all by myself. "I can do this," I said aloud, but slightly less sure of myself as his wake-up screams pierced the silence of the house.
I was heading into stay-at-home daddydom willingly. For the past few years I had been working from home as a writer and an actor. It was a late-in-life career switch after 16 years of climbing the exhausting corporate ladder. I had mild success in my creative life. I appeared in a few TV shows and optioned a couple of screenplays, but I was definitely still a work in progress. Now, the idea was to keep working while raising my new young son.
During his first three months, my wife and I made a pretty good team. He had some sleeping issues that were difficult and a milk allergy that took us a while to sort out, so it was a bumpy road, but we handled it together. Now that she was going back to work it was just me, "mano a mano," with our testy 10-pounder.
What I remember most about those early days was how long they felt. I worked in a lot of miserable jobs over the years, but I've never stared at a clock as much as I did while caring for my little guy. My wife was working in New York City, so with the one-hour train ride from our suburban home she was gone from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. I'm embarrassed at how many days I would sit there praying for 6 p.m. to come. Plus, it was the dead of winter, which meant it got dark early every day, adding to the feeling of imprisonment that was sweeping over me.
It's not like my son was some great burden. He was just a typical baby. He slept when he wanted, he pooped a lot and he would cry for no reason. Actually, I'm sure he had a reason, but damned if I could ever figure out what it was. I tried feeding him, changing him, tickling him, but I just never quite had the right answer. It was a psychological chess match and he was kicking my butt. The physical burdens of minding a baby are real -- the sleep deprivation, the non-stop care, the exhaustion -- but it's the psychological toll that really got me. The worst part was that I wasn't expecting it. I knew it was going to be tough, but I thought I could take care of him all day and whenever he took his little naps, I would use that time to sit and write or chase auditions just like I used to do. But the reality was that while the hours he was awake during the day seemed to slog on forever, the time that he actually napped went by in a flash. Once he was finally asleep, I would clean up bottles and toys, choke down a sandwich and barely get a few sentences typed into my computer before he was up wailing again and demanding my attention. My plan of being a work-from-home, stay-at-home dad was failing miserably.
Those first few months were tough. There were some days when I just couldn't deal any more. My wife would walk in the door at six and I would just hand her the baby while choking back tears. I was fighting a battle of wills with a baby and losing. Badly.
Then something cool happened. My son transformed from this demanding little ball of flesh into my cheerful little buddy. He was sleeping more, which meant I was sleeping more, and the dread slowly slipped out of my day. Spring had arrived, so the days were longer and warmer. We were finally able to venture out into the world together. We started having fun! As odd as it may sound, some of the best times we had in those days was shopping at Walmart. A new one had just opened near us. It was clean and never crowded. We always needed diapers, baby food, wipes, etc, and I quickly noticed that my son loved walking around that store. He loved the bright lights, the multi-colored signs and just the overall experience of being out in the world. So two or three times a week, I'd head out with my firstborn in his carry-on and we'd stroll through the store like we were at a museum.
The learning curve was steep in the beginning, but I did get the hang of it eventually. In time, I found a nice little rhythm and was able to care for my son and get back to my creative endeavors. Months later, I even used those innocent shopping experiences to write a disaster screenplay set entirely in a Walmart. After a few years, we decided to take the plunge again and baby boy number two was born. I knew what to expect this time and although it was a little tougher because I now had two of them to take care of, the mental strain wasn't nearly as bad. I was able to push through those difficult early months because I knew what greatness lie ahead. Now I've got two little buddies by my side and I still find time for my creative pursuits. I booked some more acting roles, wrote my first book and ground out a few more scripts (that Walmart one is still available if anyone's interested!)
Where I once prayed for time to speed up and days to go quicker, I now wish I could hit the pause button. I want to enjoy this special time with my boys and with my wife for as long as I can.