Monthly Archives: March 2010

From Charm City To Chi-Town

CHICAGO–Our children are finally old enough to make travel no longer a completely excruciating experience requiring 45-minute stops every hour and a half for diapers and feedings, finding sippy cups and lost toys or juggling naptimes with breaks to rip and run at every McDonald’s play place that crosses our path.

We can actually travel, on purpose, for pleasure!

My Lovely Bride has some business appointments in Chicago this week, so work is paying for a few hotel nights. Plus, she has an uncle and cousins we haven’t seen since she was pregnant with our first child, who turns 7 next month. And I have a cousin who’s a primate researcher at the Lincoln Park Zoo, plus another cousin who’s a local trumpet player.

So this week, the B-More Dad goes from Charm City to Chi-Town!

Both sides of our family think we’re crazy for driving, but we can’t stomach plane tickets for four. And then there’s the aggravation of air travel with children of any age. Plus, it’s spring break in Baltimore, so we’ve got the time to spare for a road trip.

I credit my father for showing me America as I grew up. You wouldn’t expect a world traveler from a man who grew up on a Virginia farm. But an aunt living in Mexico invited my dad to stay for a month in the 1950s, and the travel bug bit.

By the time I graduated high school in 1991, Dad had taken me to most of the 50 states – often visiting the homes of his navy and college friends in places such as Hawaii, California and Indiana. Then he took my sister and me skiing in Colorado, West Virginia and New England. And as a boy scout, I went with my father for snorkeling in Florida and white water rafting on the Snake River in Wyoming. And then there was the annual family trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

I started thinking about traveling with our children when some friends in Baltimore took their kids, at age 2 and 4, to Amsterdam. I’m sure Amsterdam is a lovely city, but seeing it with someone in diapers sounds miserable. Yet I started thinking there was something wrong with me for letting my children interrupt my travel schedule. Then I asked my world-traveler and former college-president uncle (the primate researcher’s dad) when he first took his kids to Europe, and it wasn’t until they were teenagers. I figured that if his kids didn’t get that kind of travel until they were much older, neither should mine.

Now that our youngest child is 4, a new world is opening up to us. We survived driving to Atlanta for Thanksgiving, and then I drove them solo to Kentucky for a funeral last month. Driving 700 miles from Baltimore to Chicago doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea. (My wife drove the 700 miles back home from the funeral with me. Doing it in a single day was crazy.)

So we drove 380 miles Saturday to Cleveland in seven nearly pain-free hours. We doled out pieces of gum every hour or so, and packed lots of snacks and books. We made the kids wait until after lunch until we hooked up the borrowed DVD player, with dual screens that hang on the back of the front-seat headrests. Then Sunday’s 340 miles the rest of the way was five and a half hours as expected.

We made such good time that we were able to crash at the shiny new Palomar Hotel for an hour before zipping out to Skokie for dinner with my cousin. The rest of the week, we plan to visit a planetarium, an aquarium, the Lincoln Park Zoo and maybe even the Art Institute of Chicago, the museum immortalized in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Even a year ago, with the children a year younger, this would not have been possible.

Looks like we made it.

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Grounded

After reports of bad behavior at school – and a phone call home from his teacher – our first-grade son is grounded for the first time. For three days, there’s no playing outside, no TV or computer, no leaving his room after school, no dessert and no getting paid for jobs that normally earn him 25 cents.

Mrs. S. called one night this week to report the lunch ladies had to isolate him from the class after he was throwing grapes. “I dropped them,” he apparently told them. Uh-huh. And then he stomped on them. (Mrs. S. made him go back and clean them up.) In class that day, his desk mates complained he was making obnoxious noises and wouldn’t stop when they asked him to. (His teacher last year mentioned his animal noises, but we thought it went away.) His desk mates also ratted him out for throwing his pencil. I can just hear him saying, “No I wasn’t. I was dropping it.” Uh-huh.

And then the accelerated reading teacher, Mrs. C, told Mrs. S. that she must have her hands full with Eddie. Who? Mrs. S. said. Apparently he had been running around wild that day. (Mrs. S. told him that he wouldn’t get to have special reading time if he kept it up.)

Then there are lesser organizational problems. He doesn’t put his chair up on his desk at the end of the day unless Mrs. S. makes him do it. When it’s time to leave for the day, he avoids it by trying to sneak out the second door when she’s not looking. And his desk is a mess, with pencils and papers all over it and on the floor. The teacher asked if there were any problems at home.

Whose kid is this???

I know who to blame for the organizational part: me. I’m a pile maker, but I rationalize that I’m not as bad as my father. The mail, books, stuff from school, magazines to read, newspapers. It stacks up because I don’t want to deal with it – if I have six items that each need three to five minutes apiece, that’s half an hour, and I’d rather do other things. Like pay bills or scrub the toilet. So Tuesday night, my Lovely Bride and I swirled like a cyclone around the house and vanquished all the piles.

Wednesday morning as soon as he woke up, we came down on Eddie like a ton of bricks. Grounded for the rest of the week, with all privileges suspended including movie night, our Friday night TV time. (Otherwise, he earns TV or computer time by doing house jobs.) We told him sternly of our deep disappointment, and that poor behavior has consequences. Eddie seemed pretty upset.

A friend asked how we knew what to do for grounding him, and I said the cancellation of three days of afternoon outside play seemed like the natural first step. The rest we made up as we went along, like realizing that house arrest means nothing if you can play with all the toys in the basement – hence being confined to his room.

We’ve asked him each day if his behavior at school has improved, and if we’re going to get another phone call from his teacher. The first day, he said we might get a call saying how good he had been. Today he just said no. Of course this is the kid who had snowed us for who knows how long, so we’ll see what Friday’s weekly report home from the teacher says.

Thank You, Mr. Roberson

I thank my childhood piano teacher, Mr. Roberson, for letting me know I'd never make it as a concert pianist.

One of the best things about being an at-home dad is that I can juggle things around to make it possible to celebrate the man who taught me so much about music. Yesterday I parked my son with neighbors and daughter at preschool while I returned to my hometown in Virginia to help celebrate the life of James C. Roberson.

If I had to go to the office each day, this wouldn’t have been possible.

I took piano lessons throughout most of the 1980s with Mr. Roberson, who by then had retired from teaching in schools. In the 70s and early 80s, he was the band director at King George High School. Then he moved a quarter mile away to teach band at the middle school, where my older sister was in his class. For years, any kid who did music in King George County was in Mr. Roberson’s class.

He died last week at age 86.

I wouldn’t exactly say I aspired to be a concert pianist. But when you’re a kid, you think you could be anything when you grow up. Mr. Roberson broke it to me gently that I probably could play jazz standards in a bar with a brandy snifter on the piano for tips. What I had was not pure talent, I learned, but acquired skill after years of practice. What he gave me was a lifelong knowledge of and appreciation for music – I can play a C minor 7th chord, but make it diminished or move it quickly up to D, and it gets messy. He gave me an understanding of people who are truly musically talented.

Thank you, Mr. Roberson.

He gave me the courage to face my stage fright and play piano (and sing) in the high school talent show. When I volunteered to play accompaniment during the county’s Fall Festival beauty pageant, however, I wish he would have stopped me. As teen girls sashayed about in fancy dresses, I played “Brian’s Song,” an anemic-sounding tune about a football player who died of cancer. Not exactly uplifting. Then I think I played some ragtime by Scott Joplin. Why didn’t he say something?!?!

Driving back to my hometown for the funeral yesterday took me back 25 years to a place where everybody knows everybody. The undertaker, whose daughter was in my high school class, seated me between my 9th grade English teacher (and 1st grade Sunday school teacher) and the high school singing star who knew my big sister. The singing star told me Mr. Roberson let him know that he was a terrible drummer, and he should consider the choir. (He was right: in 2003, Anthony Campbell won the Today Show’s Superstar contest.)

My preschool teacher and my middle school band teacher were there, too, and the eulogy came from the former high school gym teacher, now a fast-talking auctioneer. Band directors and basketball coaches are natural enemies, he said, but he and Mr. Roberson somehow became lifelong friends.

Me, too.

Thank you, Mr. Roberson.

Freelancer-Father / J-School Reunion

newspaperBoy, is it a challenge to juggle being a freelance writer and an at-home dad. And do both jobs consistently and well. This month in Urbanite magazine, I have my first freelance article since 2008, when I wrote in Baltimore magazine about Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, now the city’s mayor. This, a month before my journalism school 10th reunion. Boy, has it been a long, slow climb back into the business.

When I’m working on an article, the family and the household suffer. The dishes stack up, laundry grows, library books earn late fees and little house jobs wait. I cobble together babysitter time and extra hours at preschool, tiptoeing around naps and school pickup time. I try not to reveal to story sources that I can’t plan for an interview at 5:30, because that’s when I’m fixing supper.

Since moving from New York to Baltimore in 2004, I’ve approached freelancing in fits and starts. I spent the first year getting my sea legs as an at-home dad (after working through the denial) and finding my way around town. Then I worked a journalism school connection at The Baltimore Sun to score an informational interview, which led to occasional freelance work for the real estate section. At lunch one day, my editor asked me what my long-term plans were. I told her I had spent my 20s making career plans. (Plan A: start at a small paper, move to a larger one, become ace reporter at top-tier newspaper. Plan B: edit wire copy, transition to wire service reporter, land job at flagship newspaper.) None of it worked out. I want to write what interests me. And what pays.

It was freeing to tell her I don’t know.

Our second child’s birth in 2006 quashed freelancing for another year as I learned to juggle an infant and a preschooler. Then I gave myself a year off to turn our basement from grody grotto into beachy getaway. (Or supervise it, at least.)

I know I’m good at making excuses and procrastinating. Need to put up crown molding in the living room. Need to weed the flower border. Rearrange the guest room. Fix that stool. Make that birthday cake. Clean the bathroom. But I know that being an at-home dad gives my children that unscheduled outdoor playtime that lets them learn to deal with other kids. To explore and get dirty. And have a hot supper every night and get to bed on time. It fuels my wife’s success at work by eliminating the worry about who gets the kids when we’re stuck at the office, who takes a sick day to care for a barfing child, or how we’ll manage simultaneous business trips.

I also know, as my Lovely Bride gently pointed out, that if I do intend to return to full-time work, I need to have a steady string of clips. Not lots of big holes in my resume. Once my 4-year-old starts kindergarten, I’ll have nearly six hours of unobstructed time to make phone calls and write. Writing six articles a month instead of six a year could actually make a modest salary, though we’ll still depend on my wife as breadwinner.

This all weighs on me as I prepare to face my 10-year reunion at Columbia Journalism School next month. In 2000, I wanted to be an international correspondent and see the world. Early 90s college study in France and train travel around Europe had slaked my thirst. As one of few married students, I felt like I was the only one asking how to juggle journalism and family. I realized I didn’t want to go to some remote corner of the world and get shot at. I wasn’t willing to ask the smart and successful woman I love to quash her career success in favor of mine. And we decided together that having a family and having roots was important, especially after my wife grew up moving every three years (her dad worked for the Federal Reserve Bank).

Ten years later, I have former classmates who reported from Africa for The New York Times and authored multiple books. These people are Pulitzer material. But I’ll bet a lot of them haven’t got what I have: a family. I get to walk my children to school every day. I eat lunch with my daughter every afternoon. I do not suffer from Working Parent Guilt. And my children usually have good manners, use their imaginations and play well with others (more often than not).

But how do I convey to my former classmates that I measure success by a different yardstick?

How will I answer when they ask what kind of work I do? Will I say I write a blog? I’m a freelancer? Really, my job is raising my children and being a good husband to my wife.

Oh, and I do some writing on the side.

Objective Correlative

Objective Correlative” is the wickedly funny blog of my wife’s former college classmate, and it is can’t-miss reading. It’s written by an American-born, Southern-reared woman, educated at a private New England women’s college and married to a Frenchman and now living in Spain, where she raises her four children, including twin 7-year-old boys.

Nathalie Mason-Fleury describes her blog as “confessions of a wayward academic, one-time propagandist, retired entrepreneur and writing mother.” I keep wishing for a book from her, and I know she has some sort of play in the works. In her free time. Until then, I have to be satisfied with her occasional blog posts.

Her latest entry, “Some thoughts on European vs. American attitudes towards childrearing,” is especially good. Check it out here.

The Black Trash Bag

If the toys aren't picked up before the timer goes off, in the trashbag they go.

Some of my best parenting tactics come from my brother-in-law. His kids are a few years older than ours, and he’s really creative and quick-thinking. When he and my wife were kids, he would lock her in the pantry and switch the light on-and-off-and-on-and-off for several minutes. Then he would just leave her in the dark. This worked until my wife realized she had plenty of food and water and could just ride it out. So today I bring you: the black trash bag.

To solve the challenge of getting the kids to pick up their messes in the bedroom, the playroom, the living room, and so on, my brother-in-law would call home when he was leaving for work. The kids then had until he got home to pick it all up. When he arrived, he would pull out a black trash bag and scoop up everything that was left.

I tried this a few years ago, and Eddie as a 3- or 4-year-old would fall to pieces. The challenge was too great, and it didn’t help that his baby sister was undoing whatever he managed to do. And I had to boss the job from start to finish. Miserable for everyone. (Our trash bags are white, but it sounds more menacing to say “black trash bag.”)

Then about six months ago, it started to work. Now he’s almost 7, and Carla is 4, so they can actually get the basement picked up. Almost to my dismay. I don’t know why I have such a punitive sense of justice. It ought to be a major discouragement to think your toys will be taken away if you don’t put them away. Really, I want them to put their crap away before they get out the next pieces of crap. Is that so hard?

Apparently so, because in the past two days, I’ve amassed one small bag and one large one (pictured) of their toys. Things you’d think they’d care about, like the shoebox of crayons, a really great dressup hat and a set of magnetic dressup dollies. But into the bag they went.

The problem is how to ransom the crap back. Eddie earns 25 cents for selected household jobs, such as unloading the dishwasher, dusting or doing windows. I finally decided it was reasonably steep to charge 50 cents to get a bag of toys back. But then what to do when we get multiple bags? And really, then they forget about the toys that were taken away. Which tells me they have too many toys, anyway.

Book Review: “Daddy, Where’s Your Vagina?”

Schatz book coverJealousy runs in my family, so as soon as I heard about the new book “Daddy, Where’s Your Vagina?” by Joe Schatz, I turned green with envy. I went to journalism school! I could write a book! And I’ve lived what he wrote for almost six years! But he wrote a book, not me. So I shoved the green-eyed monster aside and found myself on a humorous journey through familiar territory as an at-home dad making his way amid a sea of at-home moms.

Self-published in late 2009, Schatz’s book joins a small field of at-home dad titles. They run the gamut from last year’s “The Daddy Shift” by Jeremy Adam Smith (Beacon Press), a journalistic look at at-home fatherhood’s effects on American society, to “The Stay-At-Home Dad Handbook” (Chicago Review Press), Peter Baylies’ 2004 book that offers practical advice about living on one income, cleaning the house without feeling overwhelmed and networking in a woman’s world. Another how-to guide from 2001 offers  a woman’s take in “Stay-At-Home Dads: The Essential Guide To Creating The New Family” (Plume) by Libby Gill – offers a woman’s take, including advice on timing workforce reentry.

What sets this slim, 169-page paperback apart from the rest is that parts of it are laugh-out-loud funny.

My wife and I were in stitches from his story about the exploding-up-the-back diaper that beat any we ever had. Minutes before a checkup, his nine-month-old daughter had a blowout. Funneled by her car seat, poop reached from hairline to ankles. Armed with too few wipes and a too-small onesie, he rose to the challenge like Superman over a tall building, making it to the appointment only 20 minutes late.

Other parts of the book are obvious: no at-home dad I’ve ever met set out intending to be one. Most of us made the choice because our wives earn more (or these days, we got laid off) and we don’t want someone else raising our children. Schatz, a former construction supervisor living in Havre de Grace, Md., began the at-home dad odyssey when he and his wife realized her job offered better benefits. In addition to his book, he shares his wisdom with the world through his Web site, www.joeprah.com. He’s also one of the operators of www.dad-blogs.com, which bills itself as a resource, network and community for dads and their blogs. He even appeared on The Tyra Banks Show earlier this year.

Sometimes his book tries too hard for a laugh, writing “My college prep high school taught me everything I needed to know about the Magna Carta, but nothing about changing diapers.” Uhhh, right. I know I do the same thing on this blog, too, but I’m not asking people to shell out 12 bucks to hear me.

Schatz really opens his family and himself up to his readers, letting us feel like we really know his three daughters. Bella is the snuggly chatterbox. Mady is the quiet, scheming obstructionist who hoards shoes behind her bureau and feigns ignorance when it’s time to leave the house. Third-born Sophia is a tornado who can cover herself in illicit permanent marker in an instant.

His candor is touching when he goes into painfully honest and graphic detail about a miscarriage, only days after announcing his wife’s fourth pregnancy at his surprise 31st birthday party. The strength any parent finds within is nothing compared to the strength he tapped to carry the two of them through the event and its aftermath.

Sometimes the chapters stop abruptly, like Schatz was interrupted by squabbling kids or a ringing phone. But most of the time, he nails the at-home dad experience.

Like how irritating it is to fill out a form and feel like less than a man when writing “stay-at-home dad” in the occupation line. Or how daughters really are conditioned through play to want to become mommies. After getting nothing but dolls and toy kitchen sets for presents, of course they are!

I’ve been an at-home dad for nearly six years, and he’s been at it for nine, so it’s hard for me to understand the isolation he finds as the token male among at-home moms. He’s right that the ratio of moms to dads at home must be better than 60 to 1. But I take issue with his notion that the dads-only playgroup rarely happens. You’ve got to make it happen. There’s been a weekly at-home dads group in Baltimore for three years.

The book is a good starting point for any new or prospective at-home dad.

And the people who love him.