Children’s mystery can set us free

July 3, 2003

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CHARLOTTETOWN – My first big experience as a part-time, stay-at-home dad unfolded here in Canada’s birthplace, in a hotel, just before Canada Day. I don’t think even the Fathers of Confederation could have helped. Birthing a country is one thing.

Stopping a three-week-old from crying is another.

I didn’t have to say much in my SOS phone call to my wife, who was busy in a medical conference here. “Babe, come right away,” I said, while little Elizabeth, wrapped in her blanket like a giant taco, wailed beside me in support.

I don’t know. Was it because I accidentally tore the Velcro off her diapers? Who makes these things anyway?

Really, there’s a lot to learn for new parents. Breast or bottle? Cloth or disposable? Rocking or vibrating chair? And the painkillers during childbirth. How long to wait for them?

Sometimes it seems there’s a conspiracy to make new parents look extra stupid. Seriously, apparently 85 per cent of us use baby car seats incorrectly. Still, the good news is that Elizabeth, middle name Katherine, has arrived into this world, a bright-eyed and, usually, content little girl. And despite new-father challenges, I’m fine.

As a journalist who often works from the home office, including while in the Arab world most of the year, I’ll have a unique role in her life.

I’m not alone. In the minority, yes. But there are more stay-at-home dads than ever. In Canada, there are at least 70,000 of us, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Daddy’s home.” One in four preschoolers of working moms are now cared for by dads.

And this is good because, all things considered, kids don’t want designer clothes or that Disney vacation or even a bigger house. They want, quite simply, their parents. Both of them.

Think of Harry Chapin’s ’70s classic, Cat’s in the Cradle, where the boy grows up to be “just like dad” in all the wrong ways. The pain of absent parents cuts to the soul of baby boomer culture.

Ernest Hemingway describes it well in The Capitol of the World, writing about a father and his runaway teenage son. As a last resort, after a long journey and search, the lovesick father takes out a Madrid newspaper ad: “Dear Paco, Meet me in front of the newspaper office tomorrow at noon. All is forgiven. I love you.” The next day, 800 men named Paco appear at the newspaper wanting to restore a broken relationship.

Living in our instant, hurried culture makes it all the harder to build those healthy connections with our kids. Yemen, my other home, or Uganda, where Jean and I will eventually take our global work, has less pressure in some ways.

But these places have other challenges. If stay-at-home dads feel on the fringe in Canada, imagine living in a part of the world where men won’t pick up a vacuum for another 50 years? And where does one find, say, piano or soccer for Elizabeth, if it’s not available? And good schooling?

Still, as a child growing up in the developing world for at least a few years, Elizabeth will have a tremendous chance to experience humanity in all of its breadth.

And, at the end of the day, it seems to me that parents and children are in all of this together. Kids have a way of keeping us adults honest, wherever we may live.

That’s why it’s been said if we’re ever going to understand a place like heaven, we need to become childlike — that is, without resentment, prejudices or concerns for tomorrow, stripped of our veneer of sophistication that we easily hide behind.

Such is the purifying influence that children have on adults. They’re carriers of that mysterious truth that sets us free. At least that’s the message I get from Elizabeth. It’s something I believe will at least give me a chance.

Now let’s just hope this girl likes flying.

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July 3, 2003 • Posted in ,
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