The case for the stay-at-home parent

6.50am, and I was already tired of him. He was crouching in the entrance of the kitchen, howling in loud, short bursts. I can’t remember what he was upset about. Probably, I’d turned my back on him for three seconds in order to pour myself a glass of milk. It made me angry, and instantly sick of the whole day, the whole week. My face was still unwashed, and my left eye crazy itchy – from the haze or just the general unwashedness – and I needed to get away from this little yelling person before I totally lost it. So I did. Specifically, five metres away. Into the living room. Because disappearing from the scene entirely is rarely an option.

Welcome to high maintenance season, Day 22.

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My little slave driver hanging out in his crib in the living room, contentedly throwing random objects out through the bars, until…

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…I start glancing at the newspaper at my feet. Or fiddling with the camera. Or doing anything that does not involve him being entertained, by me.

If you’ve ever had a super needy best friend or boyfriend, take those feelings of desperation/boredom/annoyance, enhance them by a multiple of…ten? And that’s about how I feel in spurts throughout the day, every day. It’s distinctly worse in the mornings, when my energy is low, and I have already gone through every book, sung every song, and it’s only 8.30am. And he wants more.

Michael doesn’t talk yet, so his primary method of communication is to grab my hand and point with it, to get what he wants. Book. Other book. Other other book. Let’s go to my bedroom. To your bedroom, because that’s where the computer is, and I’m going to drag your hand to the mouse because I know that’s what makes the screen light up.

Grab, grab, grab. My hand is not my own. My body wants to go one way, but is pulled another. He is stuck to me like a barnacle.

I’ve been asking myself increasingly of late – what the value of staying home with my son is, because of course the other alternative always gleams brighter. Having a job (any job) other than what I actually do all day seems much more dignified. Much more interesting. And I’ve always been seduced by the idea that the working mother provides the best model to her children – proof that we are as capable, as professional, as invested in our own development and deserving of individual fulfillment as…the fathers might be. That we can do everything if we want to – maybe not perfectly, but reasonably well. And in most cases, admirably well.

I’ve found it a lot harder arguing the case for myself – where my full time job is looking after kid and household. (I don’t even do it all on my own, embarrassingly. I have lots of help, to be clear. Loads.)

I’ve somewhat dismissed the idea that I am here for my kid’s intellectual development. Michael isn’t worryingly slow, but he is by no means a prodigy…at anything. Unless we consider his frighteningly keen ability to locate forbidden food – that, he does very well. But when it comes to more refined skills, I would say that he’s no better than average. He doesn’t walk, he doesn’t talk, he doesn’t sing the ABCs or even a single monotonous note. I don’t know if he remembers that cows say moo and dogs say woof, despite me repeating that 10000000 gabazillion times and I CAN’T DO ANIMAL SOUNDS ANYMORE BECAUSE IT IS SOUL CRUSHING (but I will).

I mean, I do sort of try, at a minimum, to be mildly educational throughout the day, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought I was doing a significantly better job than the average childcare at stimulating and engaging my kid.

So… I’ve decided that the real reason that I’m here, picking up objects off the floor so that he can throw those same objects back down again, has got little to do with him, and much more to do with me. It is largely selfish.

Because this, has proven to be true.

There is something to be gained, from being the wall your toddler throws stuff at. There are benefits, not immediately obvious, accorded to the person who is simply here. You become a collector of moments. It’s not just the milestones witnessed, but the amazing stuff that comes and goes, fizzing and sparking and disappearing in seconds, which I would never have experienced if not for the fact that I was here. Those are the moments that I will never be able to adequately describe to anyone else, nor be able to fully appreciate if they had been described to me. Like panning for gold, you go through a lot of mundane rubbish to get to the good bits, but the magic dust is there, even on the terrible days. It is this dust that I find myself trying to share with my husband when he comes home at night, by lamely spinning stories which make sense, when sometimes there is no story – it was just an expression, a sound, a feeling. Frequently, the gold is mine only to keep.

I am convinced that toddler moments are the best. It is such a fleeting season, much like being in love right at the beginning, when everything is untainted and clear as the large smile that spreads over Michael’s face when he spots me from the other end of the supermarket aisle. There is something so honest and intense and physical and overwhelming about our relationship at the moment that I know it will one day change completely.

The other Saturday, I found myself in the car with my husband and child, unconsciously operating as interpreter for toddler-speak (“He wants you to sing the song!” “He wants you to point at the yellow taxi.”) and it suddenly dawned upon me that I was totally understanding everything Michael wanted and meant, and my husband was totally not understanding most of it. An unwitting best friendship has been birthed out of all that time spent together, and it is a different relationship than the one Michael has with his papa. I am his advocate, his best buddy, his preferred companion for many things, and while I do sympathise with my husband when Michael occasionally ditches him for me, I feel like this makes it worth it. This relationship is rightfully mine – I have earned it. It is my salary, my bonus, my pat on the back.

There are different rewards, for the parent who is not always here. Staying home is not better than working which is not better than staying. There are worthy joys to be had, no matter how you play it. I’ve only just begun to comprehend mine.

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