I haven’t been a stay-at-home dad for long. Sure, I had a stint as one when our son was five-and six-months-old, but that was planned paternity leave. There was a scheduled end date when I’d head back to work. My new stretch at home is different: there’s no deadline. When we moved our family to Columbus this past summer, my wife and I expected for her to stay at home and for me to continue teaching high school English. But as we are learning, our expectations and what the world wants to give back to us are different.
So I’ve been at home with our 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter since mid-August. We’ve gone to the zoo, ate hot donuts at Krispy Kreme, strolled the neighborhood, and made ourselves somewhat comfortable in a new routine while my wife returned to life as a teacher. At the beginning of September, we added preschool to the mix for our son, which wasn’t a big deal. Back in Maryland, he had gone to preschool already. A partial-day school routine didn’t seem like much of a milestone to me.
For a while now, especially when I was still working back in Maryland, my son’s milestones hadn’t had as much emotional impact on me. Yes, he was outgrowing his shoes quicker than we’d like. Yes, he could now begin to have decent conversations with us. And yes, he could certainly voice his opinion about why we should watch another episode of Bob the Builder or why the dinner I had made wasn’t something he’d like to eat. But life seemed to march on, and his milestones just weren’t registering like they used to.
And then the new preschool drop-off happened. During the fourth week of preschool, instead of holding his hand as he skipped and told me how he wanted to “go up the hill” of stairs while I went the other way to walk him to his class, I would simply stay in the car, unbuckle his seatbelt, and let a teacher guide him to the door. When I first heard about this, I figured, “Great! Now I don’t have to take both kids out of their car seats and stress-out as we walked through the busy parking lot. Not to mention how great this will be in bad weather!” Drop-off would be efficient, quick, and pain-free. My wife was even a little jealous: at his preschool in Maryland, there was no such drop-off service.
The new drop-off day came. My son wasn’t quite sure why things had to change. He was even a little reluctant as we waited in our car. His eyes widened, a little fear mixed with sudden confusion, and I wondered if a tantrum was coming. I just knew we’d be one of those families not ready for the next step, pulling to the side instead and walking in. Then he saw a teacher, started to “ribbit,” and frog-hopped his way out of the car. The teacher closed the door. I heard her excitedly say, “Your teacher’s waiting for you at class. Go have fun!”
I saw the back of his head, watched his little feet as he stepped to the door, and I cried.
I didn’t expect the rush of that moment. He walked himself to class, and I drove away. I thought, “This is a big boy moment.” As the tears welled and trickled, I realized that this was the first milestone I experienced alone, without my wife. She wasn’t there to share it with me; instead, she was at work. Instead of talking to her, living that moment together, it was just me and my feelings. I felt scared, like I had abandoned him and driven away. I felt a little proud, he could do this on his own now. And I felt, well, I don’t know what else I felt. I just had to drive off and cry.
And then I thought, “I get it now, a little.” I never understood fully why my wife said that she cried all through first period when she first took our son to daycare. Or why she teared up as she boxed up our son’s baby clothes when we moved to Columbus. Or why she now could get sad on a Sunday thinking about why she would have to go to work instead of staying home with her children.
That first day of the new preschool drop-off, I saw how time had passed. I knew he wasn’t a little baby, but I didn’t know how big of a boy he had become. I recognized that little things, like getting out of the car on his own at preschool, are really big things. The walk from the curb to the classroom may have only been thirty-or-so feet, but it looked like ten miles to me, ten miles he could now happily do on his own.
Before he jumped out of the car, I asked him for a kiss. He hopped to the armrest, pursed his sweet little lips, and gave me a smooch. I don’t know if that made it easier or harder. All I know is I love his little kisses, and I’m glad that he’s still little enough to keep giving them to me.