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October 13, 2002

From Sympathy To Empathy

I am past the age where my contemporaries are evenly mixed between singles and married couples. As it stands the mix is heavily weighed towards the married couples. Even within that group, the married couples with kids are winning out. Even so, with more and more couples both working day jobs, the Stay-At-Home Mom (SAHM) is probably much rarer today than it was a generation ago. For this reason I am probably the only one of my contemporaries that has true insight into being a SAHM. Let me tell you, it's no walk to the park.

Previous to my current state of unemployment, I sympathized with my wife who was staying at home with our daughter. How does one fill a day and keep both an adult and an infant or toddler happy, especially during days or entire seasons that do not readily allow for outdoor activities? Adults are easy to entertain, but with an attention span closer to zero than an adult's span, keeping one child entertained can be a challenge. Throw in additional challenges such as teething pain, a diaper rash, being a fussy eater, a cold, or missing the family member that spends 9 hours at work, and you've got yourself a full-time job and then some.

Now that I've got all the time in the world to spend at home with my family, my wife has taken this opportunity to both earn some needed cash for us and to gain some experience in her chosen field. She has been able to work part-time on a supply basis for two businesses as well as working at our church one morning a week, co-ordinating one of the many ministry programs that happen there during the week. All positions being part-time, and only one of them being a scheduled event, we can hardly say that she's now a Working Mother. Consequently, it's difficult for me to justify taking the title of Stay-At-Home Dad. There have been days (and even one full week) that she has worked a full day, leaving me at home to care for my toddling daughter. As temporary or short-lived as these situations are, it has given me a thorough insight into the world of the Stay-At-Home Parent (SAHP). I no longer sympathize with SAHPs - I empathize with them.

Those of you without kids, or even you parents that work and leave your spouse at home to do the daily childcare may not fully appreciate how difficult it is to care for even one toddler. Infants are somewhat easier, as they sleep more and are either immobile or mobile in a very limited fashion. Preschoolers, I will assume until I find out otherwise, would be better able to communicate their needs and able to amuse themselves for longer periods as well. Toddlers, however, are both highly mobile (my daughter is running and climbing everything, like most kids her age) and somewhat limited in their communication and self-amusement abilities. Filling their day with activities that keep both child and parent happy, or content, or at the very least not miserable, is an ongoing challenge.

The first line of defence is the usual raft of toys that any child has littering just about every room of their parents' home. Our living room has the largest cache of toys, and is where we spend pretty much our entire day. I'll bring out a bucket of toys for my daughter to play with and sort through and dump out and so on and so forth, but that might last only five minutes. On really good days, she may play with some of her Lego-like stacking blocks for up to 15 minutes. Any one toy could keep her happy for a half hour, or be discarded in ten seconds. You never know. Part of the problem is familiarity, and she's simply bored with all her toys. We keep meaning to sort the toys and put half away to pull out later, thereby renewing her interest every week or so, but it hasn't happened yet.

The next step in keeping a toddler happy is really easy, but something I don't like doing too much: television. With Blue's Clues, Sesame Street, Zoboomafoo, and Teletubbies, she could probably watch about four hours of television a day. Add into that mix some of those programs that we've taped and her other Teletubbies or animal videos and the whole day could be covered. Of course, I would be a pretty half-assed parent if I let my toddler become a couch potato before the age of two. Even if I wanted to, eventually she gets tired of sitting still to watch TV and wanders off for a while to do something. I try to reserve TV time to Sesame Street and maybe a couple other shows, and try to find other activities to keep her happy in the meantime.

Such activities can be hard to come by, especially when the weather doesn't co-operate. In the afternoons I try getting outside to go for a walk, working a trip to one of the many small parks in the area into the trip as well. Assuming it's not raining (or hasn't rained recently) we can spend anywhere between 20 and 40 minutes at the park, swinging, sliding, climbing, and playing in the sand or gravel (depending on which one we've visited). If she starts eating dirt or gravel or the climber is unsuitable to play on due to recent precipitation, the visit may last only as long as she's happy swinging. Including the walk to and from the park and any other destination I add (usually the local grocery store) I can usually get out for at least an hour, sometimes as much as 90 minutes. As compared to being alone for 8 hours, that's still a drop in the bucket.

Naptime is the SAHP's favourite time of day, bar none. I know my wife and I look forward to it. For an hour, more if I'm lucky, I don't have to do anything that I don't want to do. Some really dedicated parents use this time to do laundry or dishes. HAH! Screw that noise - naptime is my time to relax! I usually hop right on the computer and check both my e-mail and the job boards. Even with six months of practice, searching two job boards and doing e-mail easily eats up an hour. If I'm really on the ball I'll also fix lunch for myself to eat while I'm online, thereby allowing me to dedicate myself to my daughter's lunch when she wakes up. Sometimes the time between our waking up and my wife's leaving for work is rushed, and there's no time for me to shower. So long as she's having a nice deep nap, I'll quickly hop in the shower and then rush down to go online. Nap time is well-used, and is generally dedicated to preserving my sanity.

Are you getting the picture yet? Your day is no longer your own, as you need to care for the needs of a small human who can do almost nothing for themselves. Their needs are immediate and ever-changing. Their attention span is quite short relative to an adult's, however their memory is quite good and they know when they've become bored with something. Toddlers can't be bargained with either - they don't understand the concept yet. To them, you're either going to give them what they want, or you're not. If you are, they're happy. If you're not, then you get to spend some quality time trying to quell a tantrum.

Even when their needs are satisfied and they are amusing themselves, you can't let your guard down. One time a couple months back my daughter was playing by herself and I was watching TV. I grew suspicious when she got quiet for an extended period of time, so I investigated to see what she was doing. She managed to get our basting brush from our kitchen utensil drawer, and was sitting there very happily with the bristles spread on the floor around her. She had plucked our brush. If your attention and supervision lapses for even a couple minutes, things can happen. Try keeping your attention on something that is constantly on the move for even an hour - it's taxing. Eight hours can be downright exhausting.

With one child being such a handful, one might wonder how anybody can do it with two or more children. The great thing about kids is that they entertain each other when they're together. So, having two toddlers alike in age to care for will be more difficult from a feeding and diapering standpoint, it could possibly be somewhat easier to keep them entertained, as they'll play with each other. Of course, this is assuming that they know and like each other. Any discord between them and suddenly your job becomes a Herculean task.

I could probably double the length of this article and still not successfully convey what being a SAHP is all about. Until someone experiences caring for their child alone for themselves, sympathy is about the best one can hope for. Empathy can only come through experience. Children are wonderful, and can be the highlight of your life, but they certainly aren't maintenance-free. And I haven't even started into the adventures of diaper changes. I don't want to scare would-be parents off.


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