Beginnings

I remember the day perfectly. 

I strode into the room, beaming with pride, my infant daughter strapped to my chest. Four months after becoming a dad, I was still full of energy and excitement. 

Underneath it all, however, I was terrified. I didn’t know any at-home dads in my area, and more than a few people in my social circle had expressed concern about the decision to put my career on hold while my wife pursued hers.

So when I read an ad about a New Parents play group in my town, I leaped at the chance.

“Hi, I’m calling about your play group.” 

“Yes, tell your wife we meet Tuesday mornings.” 

“Oh it’s for me.” 

“What?” 

“I’m an at-home Dad.” 

“Oh.” 

“I hope that’s ok. I don’t want to intru—” 

“Not at all. Can you come in two weeks?” 

“Sure; thanks!” 

“Not a problem.”

Looking back, I realized I fell victim to a common occupational hazard for therapists. When you spend your day reading between the lines, you tend to relax after hours. This means sometimes you miss some very important social signals.

When the day arrived, I dressed up my daughter in her very best playwear and headed to the group. I approached the mat where the moms were sprawled out, playing with their infants and toddlers. 

Not a single dad in sight. I took a deep breath, and kneeled down to unleash my daughter from her chest carrier. 

The moms bolted up in unison, like a tribe of meerkats. “Hi,” I said, extending a hand to the nearest one and introducing myself.

The tallest mom took my hand sheepishly, with the tips of her fingers, anxiously looking at her friends for guidance. Suddenly I wondered if I’d remembered to bathe.

“This is my daughter,” I said, trying to break the ice. My daughter — far more socially skilled than me — had already identified a playmate, and was admiring his toy truck.

Another mom spoke up. “I think there are some dolls over there for your daughter.” 

Without a chance to think about the gender stereotypes being offered, I said “oh thanks,” and immediately went over to look at the pile where she was pointing. I didn’t find any. 

When I came back, the moms had scooped their kids and were huddled together at the crafts table. At the opposite corner of the room.

Soon it was time for play dates and birthdays. Most moms were easy to schedule things with at pickup and drop off, but there was always a subset that seemed a bit leery. It was especially tough if they were moms of kids my kid wanted to hang out with. 

I’d introduce myself and ask them to call or email me if they were interested in a play date; but if they were, they’d call or email my wife instead (my wife runs two businesses and gets a ton of messages daily).

“They probably think you’re trying to hit on them.” 

“With a wedding ring on and a kid strapped to my chest?”

Scenes like that would repeat themselves over and over with some moms. With others, thank goodness, I was just a fellow parent. And when one would actually call me, it felt like I’d just been asked to the prom. 

When the time came, we enrolled our daughter in a highly recommended preschool some miles away. There we found some very progressive families, who marveled at we were doing. I can’t tell you what a shot in the arm that was. 

Soon our second daughter was born, effectively doubling my parenting duties as well as pleasures. Though I dreaded the hourly highway commute three days a week, I loved meeting a new kind of parent: one totally at ease with my being an at-home dad.

“I saw you on TV!” A kind journalist dad I met on Twitter had given my name to a local TV producer who was doing a story on at-home dads. She interviewed me and I was on the 5, 6, and 11 o’clock news.

“Oh thanks. Should I have worn Spanx?”

“Ha! You and your youngest looked great!”

Two years ago, we made the decision to move closer to the towns where we had our offices and were quickly making all our friends. A couple of days before moving, I was approached by a neighborhood mom while volunteering at a school function.

“Hey, I heard you’re moving.”

“Yeah.”

“Where to?” I told her. 

“Why?” 

Long story perhaps for another time, but I gave her the edited version. “Well, we never quite fit in here, and are looking to move closer to friends and work.”

“Yeah. Maybe it’s because you’re an at-home dad.”

“Excuse me?” I didn’t know whether to be more appalled at the sexism or the directness.

“I mean, to be honest, I don’t think too many of us are really all that comfortable with the idea of a man staying home and raising kids.” 

“You don’t say.” 

“Yeah, makes you wonder what’s wrong with him.” 

“Like what?” 

“Like I don’t know, can’t he find a job?” 

“You mean work outside the home.” I suspected this wasn’t the time or place to bring up gender or the notion of unwaged labor. “You know I have a private practice.”

“Oh I didn’t know that.” 

“Been seeing patients once a week since the girls were born.” 

“Really. I thought you used to be a professor or something.” 

“I was. I gave that up to become a full-time dad.” 

“Ok. But you know what I mean. It’s just weird.”

Under other circumstances, I’d have asked her to elaborate, but I decided otherwise. “Well thank you for your honesty and take care.” I offered her my hand to shake.

“No problem.” Then she surprised me. 

She didn’t take my hand, but gave me a warm hug instead. “Good luck with your move. We’re going to miss you and your wonderful girls.”

“Thanks.” I let myself cry just a little bit in the car on the way home. Still don’t know if they were happy, sad, or angry tears though.

A year later, I got a call from a colleague looking to refer a patient to me. I thanked her and asked what made her think of me.

“I saw you on TV last year with your daughter talking about being an at-home dad. I thought that kind of took balls.”

I thanked her.

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Coming Home

I went to bed last Saturday night with every intention of making it to church the next morning.

As many of you know, I’ve been looking for a spiritual community for most of my life. Brought up Catholic, but now functionally Buddhist, I always longed to feel comfortable in the place so many friends and loved ones have gone to in times of need or everyday spiritual sustenance.

Recently, I made a couple of major life changes that made the search for a church all the more pressing. I won’t go into them here (except to note them) because a) that’s not what this blog is about and 2) that’s the kind of thing I prefer to etch into a diary instead.

Now the church I was trying out is in downtown Boston and I live in the suburbs, about 20 minutes away by train. That means I had to get up extra early to make it to the 9:30am service. As I’m a morning person, this usually doesn’t present much difficulty other than the usual obsessing over the right bow tie and/or cologne.

But this morning was different. I woke up late, and managed to just miss the train. That’s when things got interesting.

My usual response when things like this happen is exasperation, frustration, and anger with myself. In fact, it should have been doubled as it was a snowy morning, and the train is usually late, so I figured it would be even more late. Yet lo and behold, the train was on time — on a snowy morning, no less.

I should have been pretty upset, but I wasn’t. Instead, I was filled with a cool calm, and just found myself saying to myself, “no biggie, I’ll just double back home and catch the next train. Instead of the 9:30 Mass, I’ll catch the 11:30. It’s bound to be better anyway, as the priest will have a chance to revise his homily.”

Then, as I traveled home, I realized something else. I realized that the church I was heading to — the one I’d been to visit twice, on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, recommended to me by a friend on Twitter — also felt, in a very weird and tentative way, like a home. I didn’t want to make too much of this at the time, but I made note of it.

A home. To appreciate the strangeness of that association you have to understand that Churches have mostly been a courthouse for me: places where judgment takes place.

As soon as I walk into a church, I can hear myself being judged in ways only Catholics can judge one another.

I’ll give you a small sample. I hear these things in my mind now, but many of them were actually said to me. Sometimes they were said far more kindly than I say them to myself. Sometimes a lot less.

“Why are you here? This is a church. We belong here. You don’t.”

“You see, we have some problems with people like you. And yes, when we say ‘we’ we mean the whole Catholic Church.”

“For one thing, you’re liberal. Liberals don’t go to church; liberals don’t even believe in God.”

“Another thing is you don’t vote Republican like we do, and sometimes as the priest tells us to. You think being gay is fine. You think priests should marry and that women should be priests. But worst of all, you don’t oppose abortion. That alone disqualifies you from being a Catholic.”

“Why? Because here we believe what we’re told to believe, not what we think or reason for ourselves. All of us believe the exact same thing in the exact same way, which is what gives our faith strength and power.”

“Your problem is you can’t listen to authority. We can, and yes, we think blind obedience to the right people on the right matters is a good thing. We know how to do that. You don’t.”

“We never, ever question our faith. We accept it. You’re so busy asking questions you don’t even have time to pray, which we do all the time. You should try it sometime, but not here. Go home and pray. This place is for Catholics only, and you are most definitely NOT a Catholic.”

“What are you even doing here in the first place? You don’t believe in God or Jesus. Your parents do, but not you. You’re too liberal and so-called ‘educated.’ We hear you also meditate, do yoga, and read Nietzsche. We know you’re not Catholic, and you may not even be Christian.”

“You don’t belong here. This is our church, not yours. Go away.”

I can’t remember a time in my life when I thought of a church as a home of any kind. As a kid I got dragged to church; the only times I went voluntarily after that were during times of intense personal crisis.

I said to myself in the car that while God may never have given me what I wanted (such as a clear sign on what to do about something very important), God did give me what I needed. That is to say, if it is true that what God calls us most to do is to be who we really are, then it’s clear God, the Tao, or the Universe has been nudging me more or less forcefully in that direction my whole life.

If I’d been paying closer attention, I’d have been creeped out by the fact that I was talking about God as a person rather than an experience and not having a major conniption about it.

About an hour later, I was on my the way to the train again. This time I gave myself extra time.

On that trip, I realized two more things. One is that I was going to church to find myself in some way. I know that sounds odd. Yet in some strange way, some part of me was already inside that building. It was simply calling out to me and I was simply answering.

Needless to say, if it had been calling me by name I’d be getting an MRI rather than the urge to write about it.

That led me to the second thing. For the first time, something was calling me to church, rather than pushing me to go from the outside or inside. Put another way, I was going to church because I wanted to, not because I had to or needed to.

There’s no way to know if this is just a passing thing or something more significant along a larger journey. But it felt important enough to share, so there you go.