Spring 2007




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Adventures along the learning curve
Sam Ridenour

            Not so long ago, I was driving my 3-year-old son to his first day at a new daycare. “Am I going to school, Dad?” he asked me, his patient eyes flashing in the mirror. “Well, Max, it’s like school,” I began.
            I wondered what Max’s idea of going to school was. We’ve read books about school. We’ve set up his little chalkboard and desk and played school. When a school bus rumbles past our house, he usually runs to the window to watch it swallow up neighborhood kids. “When I’m older, I’ll go to school,” he says.
            I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for over three years. It’s a demanding job—full time and then some. My boss is volatile, unreasonable and messy. He’s also adorable and funny, and we have a fantastic time together. We spend our days exploring parks and museums or embarking on Olympian rounds of Tinkertoys and Candyland. But the job is not all adventure and playtime, as any at-home parent will tell you; it’s also a heck of a lot of work.
            My official title is Household Operations Manager—I create and implement programs to maximize efficiency in the nutritional, custodial, sartorial, financial and remedial departments—which is a fancy way of saying I’m a house husband. My wife, Suzy, is the bread winner and I’m the bread baker. Regardless of societal expectations, regardless of the sarcastic comments I sometimes hear—“You make your wife do all the work, huh?”—it’s an arrangement that has suited us just fine.
            When Max was born, we knew we wanted one of us to raise him, at least for the first few years. Suzy had a career she didn’t want to leave. I was just starting back to school in order to land a better job, so it made perfect sense for me to assume the Household Operations Manager position. I had impeccable qualifications: I had been a professional chef, a massage therapist and a self-employed carpenter. I knew how to clean the house, nurture the family and manage a budget.
            I had visions of reading Shakespeare assignments to my newborn son. He’d smile and soak it up, learning to babble in iambic pentameter. He’d play happily beside me as I wrote papers. It was a beautiful vision, but babies don’t work that way.
            Max always needed something: a fresh diaper, a warm bottle, a book with pictures in it and someone to read it to him. I found out in a hurry that parenting a newborn is a full-time job with plenty of overtime. I learned that a full-time job and a full-time education do not go together well. I am still haunted by images of Max reaching out to me from his playpen while I struggled to finish my homework.
            Now I am nearing graduation—time to leverage my education and land that dream job. But I find my attention is again becoming seriously divided during the week. No ordinary playpen could contain my growing boy anymore. The TV does a pretty good job, but that’s not an acceptable solution. Max is bursting to learn. He’s ready to run and climb and play with people who can match his boundless energy. So he’ll be going to school three days a week. It’s just daycare, really, but Max calls it school.
            I wonder again what Max’s idea of school is. He knows I go to school two nights a week. Max and Mom Nights, we call them. He knows that on those nights he usually gets frozen pizza or hot dogs for supper. (My wife may be a high-level manager, but she’s not in charge of the nutritional department.) He knows that when I have a lot of work to do, my job performance starts to slide. He knows that when I was trying to go to school full time, I was not a fun dad.
            “Are you staying with me?” he asked when we pulled up in front of his new daycare. I was surprised at how difficult it was to say no. I told him we all had a job to do; Mom’s job is to earn money so we can have a place to live and food to eat; Max’s job is to play and learn and make friends; I wasn’t sure what to tell him Dad’s job was, not right at that moment.
            When Max and I walked into his new daycare, he gave me a quick hug and ran right to a shelf of puzzles. Within seconds, he was absorbed. He didn’t even turn around when I said goodbye. I looked back before driving off, and there was Max in the window. He was blowing me kisses, the same way we blow kisses to Mom every morning when she leaves for her job. 

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