I went out to the driveway, got in the car to head off to a local bookstore, turned on the ignition, exited the driveway, drove a bit, and then remembered: “Whoa! What am I doing? There’s a baby in the house! I’m the dad. I can’t just leave!”
It was the late ’80s. My daughter, my firstborn, new to the world, was sleeping in her crib on this winter morning. I was home with her on a day I didn’t teach at the university. Maureen was ensconced in her office in Harrisburg. And for a minute, in my freshly anointed role as a father, I just flat-out forgot that I couldn’t drive off anymore, whenever I felt like it.
I went back in, checked on her in her crib. My little girl was fine — her tiny, chunky self, sleeping on her back with little fists clenched on either side of the dark brown hair resting above her forehead.
Three sons, two of them twins, followed my daughter over the next seven years. The jolt from that first bout of absent-mindedness probably cut me deeply enough to internalize forever the reality that being a dad was not something to forget you do. I’ve made my mistakes over the years, but I never left a kid alone in the house again.
My own dad had followed a more traditional model. He worked full-time as a photo re-toucher at R.R Donnelly’s and Sons, south of the Loop. The company was demanding of his time and talent. Mom was a full-time homemaker. As we — my five siblings and I — got older, he worked a lot of overtime. But when he’d come home at 7 or later, he was always locked into being dad.
He wanted to know what we did at school, who was working on what kind of homework, what TV shows we might be watching after supper, or how basketball or volleyball practice went. I was the oldest, so maybe during my first month, in late 1953, he too had a moment like mine when he had to tell himself, “Hey, guy, remember, you’re the dad now. It’s not a job to forget you have.”
But for me on that January day, perhaps the fact that I was beginning this non-traditional role as, in part, a stay-at-home working dad put me in the position where I didn’t have any working memory of how I was supposed to perform. I had no practice, and at the time, no role models for the kind of fatherhood I was beginning to live out. Thus, the mental slip, which allowed me to walk out the door, however temporarily.
Now, as a caregiving grandfather to my daughter’s children, I draw on the lessons and memories of the 25 years I spent as that dad who worked from home a lot, and who sought flex-time opportunities to be there with the four kids. That storehouse of recollections is alive in my brain, my heart and my muscles. Pushing my grandson on a park swing and holding my granddaughter after she falls and bangs her knee feel familiar, almost second nature. Years of practice make it unlikely that I’d walk out during one of their naps.
Today, when I take my grandkids for walks, I see many dads and grandpas walking with, playing with, and riding with kids. Oak Park is a community full of engaged fathers. Many work, at least part of the time, at home. For some, taking care of kids is their primary work at home. There’s more opportunity for sharing experiences, learning from one another, and even having their children and grandchildren play together at the parks.
A community helps to mold and reinforce the kind of fatherhood that I was only beginning to learn, mostly on my own, as my baby girl slept.