Some stay-at-home parents choose to stay at home with their children. With others, life chose that role for them. I knew plans could change when you’re a parent, but I didn’t expect to rebuild my life to be a stay-at-home dad.
I was injured on the job, and I spent nine months at home with my bright 2-year-old daughter. I expected I would recover from the injury, and return back to work. That’s not what happened. And it’s no longer the plan.
Even the most involved dad misses things because of work. My wife was with my daughter, Kara, for almost two years, while I worked out of the house. Shortly after turning 1 year old. I came home from work and she was running around the house. The day before she’d been crawling. I hated missing these milestones. I wanted to see them in real-time and in-person.
My daughter and I have had a strong bond since her birth. And she has to do some things with daddy and only daddy. Being home with Kara has not been relaxing to any degree. I had no idea the level of mental and emotional endurance needed to spend 24 hours a day caring for your child. But it’s been the most fulfilling time I’ve spent at home since her birth. When you spend everyday bonding with your child, they grow and so do you. I’ve learned a lot about fatherhood, and the important traits and skills required to be a great stay-at-home dad.
1.) Give up on your male ego.
Men are used to acting a certain way because of our ego. Every man does this to a degree. It’s how we learned to be. But with your child, it has to be put aside.
You may think you would never play with play-doh, blocks, or toys, make silly voices, or play imaginative games with them. Having a daughter, you’ll likely get your hair brushed, nails painted, or dance around to a Disney song. You will, and you should.
Young children are sensitive to emotion. If you get tense and embarrassed, they can feel it. You need to be the example and show them that it’s ok to let your guard down and be who you are. Once you realize no one is watching and your child won’t judge you, you’ll have a blast.
2.) Learn to compromise and negotiate.
There are times for concrete rules, responsibility, and safety and there are times for a firm “no”. But when you can, you should be flexible. I’ve had to negotiate with my daughter so often, she regularly says the phrase “It’s a deal.”
For example, she wants to walk to the grocery store at 8 a.m. We just woke up not even an hour ago, and I’m tired and hungry. The weather is good, and we’ll have plenty of time for other activities afterward. I’ll suggest that we eat and brush our teeth first. Then, we can go. She accepts my conditions. I grant her request. It ensures both of you get what you want. There’ll be millions of other times that you must say no to them. Don’t be too permissive, but say yes when you can.
3.) Find your own way of doing things.
Sometimes with two parents in the household, there are two ways of doing things. You don’t have to do things like your partner does. As long as you get the same result. Doing it differently makes it memorable and brings you closer to your toddler.
My daughter and I have little routines that are unique to us. One is how we brush our teeth together. After brushing, we both take a sip of water to rinse. We spit at the same time, with our arms around each other’s shoulders. It sounds trivial and silly, but it means a lot to her. She knows this is how we always do it, and she knows what’s next. It’s something special, as she knows she only does it that way with me.
4.) Being a stay-at-home dad means long hours and no breaks.
Often, the parent who’s watching the kids feels relieved when their partner gets home. It feels like a shift change at a job. You get a little break, and it’s time to do a few things you couldn’t with your little one under your feet.
But if you have a daddy’s girl and you are daddy, you’ll be lucky if you get a 10-minute break. My wife will come home, Kara greets her at the door, and off they go. Not even fifteen minutes later, I hear my little girl’s loud voice. She screams “DADDY! I NEED YOU!”, and I’m back in the trenches.
Especially after a hectic day with a cranky toddler who didn’t nap long enough, you’ll feel mentally drained. Just remember that if there’s another parent in the house, it doesn’t mean you’re finished. It’s especially true if your child is choosing to be with you. Be grateful that they choose to spend time with you when given other options. It means you are their safe haven, their source of comfort and joy. You should cherish that.
5.) Give them 100% of your attention while interacting with them.
It’s easy to stress adult life and worry about what else you have to do when being a stay-at-home parent. I constantly worried about whether or not I’d return to work, what phone calls for medical treatment I had to make and looking into getting another job.
If you’re stressing yourself over things you can’t do anything about at the moment or at all, they can sense it. When Kara senses it, she tells me “Come play with me!”. And it snaps me out of my unproductive overthinking.
I’m not saying to ignore responsibilities. But when you are doing an activity with them, be with them, not on your phone or in your head. If not, you’re missing amazing moments that would bring you closer together.
I use a to-do list app to assist me. If I’m doing something with my daughter and I remember to do something, I put it down in the app. I handle it when I can, like nap time or she’s doing something solo. There will be times that you can’t push a task off. At least tell them what you have to do, and you’ll be back to have fun with them. They have the potential to be surprisingly understanding.
6.) Prepare to be amazed.
When you’re a parent, you know your child. You know their language, their temperament, and preferences. But when you are home with them all day, you’ll learn even more new things about them. You’ll discover sides of them you didn’t see before. You can watch them grow, develop, and learn every day. It’s an awe-inspiring thing to see the small changes when you think back to a month or even a week before.
If your toddler can talk, it adds to the fun. Talk to them as much as possible. You’ll be amazed at the words and phrases they know, and the concepts they have picked up. Having conversations with your toddler is one of the best things about being home with them. You learn what they like, how they feel about things, and what they think. Even observing the non-verbal communication of an older baby is insightful if you pay attention.
When you are having a particularly hard day, sometimes your little one will say just the right thing to you. Whether it’s a hug or an “I love you” at just the right moment, or something more. After stressing about my career change one day, I was breaking my own rule. I was overthinking life while playing with her. Reacting to the game we were playing, my daughter said “Don’t be afraid. You’ll be alright.” At times they’ll say what you need to hear. It’s not often but it is greatly appreciated when it happens. Is it possible they learn as much about us as we learn about them?
Being a stay at home parent is not for everyone. It’s not what you would expect initially. Sometimes, it’s frustrating and exhausting. It has its ups and downs, sometimes many within the same day. I’ve had my laptop drawn on, gotten lotion in my ear more than once, and have had to fish objects out of the toilet. It can also be the most profound life-changing experience of your life if you let it. It’s brought me even closer to my daughter, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m currently reorganizing my life to stay at home with her until she starts school.
They grow up fast. If you get the chance to be a stay-at-home parent, savor every moment. Their small stature and dependence on you are only temporary. Sooner than you realize, they are independent and do more and more without you. Even though it’s tiring, spend every possible second by their side. They’ll appreciate bonding with you and both of you will be better for it.