Eight years ago I made a monumental blunder. Or that’s how most people around me saw it. I quit a well-paying corporate job and stayed home with the dual aim of writing a book and bringing up a baby.
My wife and I were about to be first-time parents. Our romanticism clouded our approximation of the rather practical challenges in store for us. Our bank balances weren’t exactly in the pink of health. We had not really done the math about the hidden expenses. And, by swapping traditional career roles, we had raised our stakes.
In our estimation, we believed that we had timed the delivery perfectly. Three months after our little girl was born, my wife exhausted hermaternity leave and went back to work. And I, barely a few pages into writing my book, stayed back to keep my end of the bargain.
Although we were fortunate to have help from my wife’s parents who had moved close to us, I tried to rise to the challenge. I became proficient at whisking up baby food and changing diapers at a moment’s notice, and I kept the medication we needed at arm’s length. We hired a nanny. The stage was set, it seemed, to write the purported magnum opus and become the world’s most perfect father.
How much can happen, I thought in my naïveté, when a man stays home to bring up a baby? As in, how much besides nappy rash and colic?
I found the answers as I confronted reality. It was nothing like the protagonist’s life in The World According To Garp, the John Irving novel about the extraordinary life of a struggling writer who is also a stay-at-home dad. Neither was it as heroic as John Lennon’s much-publicized stint as a “house husband.”
It was a full-time job. With overtime and no extra pay. And ample social stigma to contend with. Everyone from the gardener to the housemaid made unspoken assumptions about this odd arrangement where the husband would see off the wife to the door, cradling the baby. I was deluged by uninvited suggestions on how to soothe a crying child, how to swaddle her so that she would sleep undisturbed, and so on. I should have been moved by their concern but, in fact, I was not. I just wished they would leave us alone. One amiable relative wondered aloud about who wore the pants in this house. My wife, jumping to my rescue, retorted that both of us did.
It was harder for my wife. The baby kept her up at night. Then, her heart breaking as she fought her instinct to stay at home with the baby, she would leave for work in the morning. Her office was an hour’s drive from home but the city’s infamous traffic frequently delayed her return. To complicate matters, my daughter refused to touch expressed breast milk or baby formula. Which meant that her mother had to fill her up to bursting before she left for work and then rush back, driving like a maniac, in time for the next feed.
Dealing with the nanny — or more accurately, the string of nannies that followed — turned out to be an adventure in its own right. They were absent without notice. Some brought along their own children with the seemingly good-hearted intent of “keeping baby company” but when the noise levels became too high to write in peace, I issued eviction notices.
I had started freelancing to keep the money coming in, and the deadlines were demanding. When nanny played truant, I steeled myself to take on the superhuman task of working and taking care of the child. I’d bathe my daughter, powder her, dress her, change her into a new nappy, feed her, rock her to sleep and then place her gingerly in her crib. Then, making myself a cup of tea, I’d sit down to write. And she would wake up, bawling. The cycle would repeat ad nauseam.
The book remained unwritten. The anxiety of it tormented me. Worse was the feeling that fatherhood had become a chore, a secondary priority to bringing up baby. I resented what I saw as helicopter-parenting on the part of my child’s grandparents and felt that everybody including my wife was disappointed with my report card. Trying to defend my choice when I had begun to regret it, along with juggling marriage, fatherhood and writing, became too much. I had a breakdown.
I rued the fact that my daughter had seen the worst of me. Three years into my disastrous stay-at-home dad project, I went back to the corporate life. The book remained unwritten.
The story should have ended there, in dejection and defeat, but life is too full of opportunities for redemption. Last year, I lost my job. Rather than panic and plunge into despair, I resolved to take another shot at being a stay-at-home dad. My daughter, now seven, was delighted to have me at home. I made meals for her, read to her and played with her, travelled with her, and enrolled her in a music workshop. I dropped her to her school bus in the morning and was there to pick her up in the evening.
Six months later when I found a new job, my daughter’s dismay was both amusing and heartbreaking. And the book? After I made peace with the fact that being a father is a full-time job, it has started to write itself.