“I don’t like you, Dadda.” (My son, this morning.)
I feel quite lucky that parenting is not subject to a formal review process, involving client feedback. If so, the above statement from my nearly-3-year-old son would imply that my performance has been decidedly subpar and possibly up for investigation.
He started that a month ago. Not too sure why, exactly, although it still hurts every time.
I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for a year now. My wife and I packed up and moved from New Zealand to Germany to indulge in a few years of living and traveling and decided to take our toddler with us. Both high school teachers, we swapped, and I stayed home. It started great, but got hard fast, and my quality of parenting has decreased in inverse proportion to the time period.
I’ve been able to spend quality time with my son. Despite not really having any clue how to do it, I have the firm view that parenting is crucial ― more important than career, riches and status ― and I want to be a good dad so my son will be a good person. I’ve tried to teach him the good stuff ― sharing, saying please and thank you, and not playing with your pee-pee in public. He loves me to bits, most days, and that is truly an awesome feeling.
A further bonus was that I was able to have a second childhood ― playing, wrestling,and tons of trips to the pool and down the waterslide. I also took him to music groups, dance class and the local sport hall. It was a lot of fun, good for him and for me, and I’ll always remember it.
Actually, the dance class wasn’t always so good. One very hot summer’s day I was overdressed. In front of several women and their toddlers, I proceeded to sweat profusely all through the class, in which we parents had to dance too. Picture massive sweat stains dominating my blue T-shirt and rivulets of perspiration soaking my hair and pouring down my face. Full-length wall mirrors around the entire perimeter, and an easily apparent deliberate lack of eye contact from the mums, emphasized my generally creepy appearance.
However, the biggest issue was internal. I’m a pretty sensitive New Age guy. I’ve bought a lot of self-help and spiritual-type books and actually read some of them. Concerns from a few friends about the lack of status, the isolation and possible contempt from other wage-earning men fell on deaf ears.
But all of those things were hard.
Moving to a foreign country certainly didn’t help, nor did not knowing the language. We live in a tiny village in Bavaria. The locals are polite and friendly, if prone to sometimes staring with dead eyes at us like we were lepers. I took my boy to Krabbelgruppe (playgroup). It was me and a handful of other women ― they didn’t speak much English, I didn’t speak much German. It was often quite painful, in a room with several women who could easily have been talking very negatively about me for all I knew, but my son liked it.
I’ve never been a huge car guy. A 1998 Subaru worth five grand was my flashiest wagon. But here, BMWs, Audis and Mercedes are ubiquitous. They are literally everywhere, because I think many Germans proclaim their status through their choice of car and sometimes neglect owning a home to do so. On arrival, we bought a 2001 two-door Peugeot for €1800. I think it’s possibly the smallest car in Germany. Mostly I don’t care. Sometimes though, the status anxiety feels a bit crippling, and I feel a distinct urge to take out a huge loan for a car that will depreciate in value with great haste and will lose its novelty fast.
And of course, the child himself. God love him. I thought we dodged the terrible twos, but not so. He has turned into a devil child. I have literally wondered several times if he is possessed. Lately he bites, hits, scratches, pinches and tells me he doesn’t like me daily. Despite reading that this normal, it hurts.
I was depressed ― a word I hate for its blandness ― for several years. It was, at its worst, a hellish existence I would not wish on anyone, and could not see myself surviving again. With hard work, faith, giving up alcohol for several years and a great support network, I beat it. And I swore I’d never let it come back.
It did, a bit. The isolation of stay-at-home parenting can be horrible. The language barrier was very hard, and while I am learning, it’s a slow process. And without generalizing, many Germans can be... reserved. After a year I can say I have a total of two local friends, plus a New Zealand guy married to my wife’s colleague. Sometimes I feel a bit like Donald Trump when I catch up with these people ― I deliver narcissistic monologues, only because I don’t get to talk much to adult English speakers.
The status thing was hard, too. I worked and fought and overcame many battles to become a pretty good, respected teacher. I was stressed all the time, but I have since realized that it was an important part of my identity and self worth. I was doing a good, important job and being paid for it. Then, suddenly, I was an unpaid stay at home parent, and a male, to boot.
I’ve come to realize it’s all my attitude and choices. Positive or negative, fixed or growth mindset, resentment and envy or gratitude. Most of the problems associated with my year as a house dad have been internal ― worries, stress, frustrations, and full on paranoia ― often either concerned with possible bad stuff happening in the future, or people’s opinions of me. No one has accused me of being a failure as a man, or unambitious, or a predator at the playground ― I have just worried that they have.
Because here’s the thing ― hard as it is, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks of you. It’s how you decide your own worth when you look in the mirror. And it’s what you do for others. Various small acts of kindness done to me in the last year have taken on almost mythic proportions and reminded me of their importance.
My son started kindergarten last week. He doesn’t like that, either, and cries horribly every morning. It feels like my heart is breaking, leaving him at a place he knows no-one and where he can’t even speak the language. I know he’ll like it soon enough, though. Now, I write in the mornings and tutor in the afternoons. To be really honest, I can’t say I miss him yet, these last few mornings ― it’s nice to have a break.
Like so many experiences in my life, I am sure I will only be able to fully appreciate this last year when some time has passed ― possibly with the euphoric recall addicts have when they remember the good bits and conveniently forget the hellish times associated with their pasts. I am mostly proud of myself for being a good dad this past year. And seeing the boy he is becoming ― watching him bend down to pick up a toddler who had fallen, or break into spontaneous dance moves, or ask me “Whatcha doin’, silly daddy?” makes me think it has all been more than worthwhile.
See more from Matt at www.freelancewriters.net.nz