Friday, February 1, 2008


I have been looking through some old files in preparation for putting together a book proposal. I stumbled across an old essay from 2004 and thought I would post it.

While visiting family in Montana this July, we took Isabel down to the Yellowstone River near Billings to get some relief from the summer sun. Even though Montana is in the midst of a six-year drought, the river was running high and fast due to snowmelt from the Beartooth Mountains and runoff from recent, rare rains.

Isabel, Erica, and I kept our play confined to the shoreline and a small area near a boat launch ramp where there was a gentle eddy swirling lazily out of the main flow of the river. It was one of those parenting moments when not much is expected of you other than vigilance. Isabel had a nice game of pretend fishing going on and all I had to do was keep her from straying too close to deep water.

I found the water hypnotizing. It was a coffee-and-cream brown and it was exuding power and strength the way a panther pacing in the zoo can. My eyes were drawn to the water and I found myself staring as it rushed by on its way to the far-away Atlantic. I must have watched for fifteen minutes, eyes focusing on a wave here and a branch there, but generally unfocused, just watching the majestic flow of the river go by.

When I finally turned away from the water to start back to the car, I found that I was dizzy and the world appeared to be melting. I had experienced the same optical trick at Taughannock Falls by staring at the cascading water for many minutes and then looking away at the trees and rocks along the trail. After focusing for so long on one area of the moving water, your eyes continue to jerk spasmodically, even after you turn away, and it can be unsettling and make you feel a little queasy.

This disorienting trick of the eyes strikes me as the perfect metaphor for what is going on in my life now. By the time school starts in September I will have been home with Isabel for fourteen months as her stay-at-home dad. In the meantime my wife Erica has finished her doctoral thesis and completed a year as a professor. My focus has been entirely on Isabel, sometimes much to the detriment of my relationship with Erica and my own sense of self. And now that I am lifting my eyes and focusing on other things I am feeling strangely disoriented.

I am a teacher by profession and I didn’t realize how much of my self-opinion came from my daily interactions with students and co-workers until I lost all of that contact and my daily world shrunk to two—me and Isabel. In retrospect, I tried to replace all of the satisfaction I got from the daily give-and-take with my ninth-graders with my daily give-and give with Isabel. This is a lot of pressure to place on one relationship.

We have had a great year together, both of us growing by leaps and bounds (and in fits and starts). Now that our exclusive time together is coming to an end, I have a dizzy feeling and everywhere I look things seem out of focus and hard to pin down in one place. It is almost like a hangover.

I can’t say for certain what Isabel got out of our time together. I know some of what I got. I learned that I like being needed. It really fed my ego to know that someone relied on me to be the expert, the fixer of broken things, the answerer of questions, and the healer of small pains. Isabel needed me in a much more naked way than my students, or even my wife, and I liked that need.

I also got to feel the smug superiority of the stay-at-home dad. Even with all the changes of the past forty years, our culture still doesn’t truly expect dads to be equal partners in the care and feeding of their children. A little paternal effort gets rewarded by all sorts of smiles and admiration from other mothers and head-shaking, “I couldn’t do it,” from other fathers.

But now September is almost here and Isabel will be starting all-day school in a multi-age Montessori classroom, and I will be starting work in a small independent school near our home. The transition is already hard on both of us. I got used to our insulated world, and so did Isabel. I interviewed for the job back in May, and when I got it I was thrilled. I shared the good news with Isabel and Erica and we split a carton of Ben and Jerry’s to celebrate.

Almost the next day Isabel began having trouble being alone, even for just a second. If she was sitting in her car seat in the driveway and Erica had to run to get something out of the other car, Isabel would flip out, yelling and screaming about being left alone. She wailed and sobbed when we took her to preschool for a morning of fun with her friends—a preschool she loved and had never had a problem with before.

I think Isabel had gotten just as used to our exclusive little arrangement as I had. She was reacting against the impending end of our time together without even knowing it. Erica and I quickly realized that any talk of the fall and our new situations made Isabel a clingy, weepy mess. So we regrouped and stopped talking about her school and my job and focused instead on the summer and all the fun things we would be doing.

Isabel was having the same stare-at-the-water-long-enough-and–the-whole-world-gets-all-melty-on-you problem that I had on the banks of the Yellowstone. Only with her, the problem was much bigger. Her life has been a lot shorter, and transitions are still huge. Our time together this year was one thirty-eighth of my life, but one-quarter of her short life. I know what to expect. I know things will be tumultuous and then turn out to be great. She doesn’t know this yet.

So, like I said, we regrouped and changed our focus. And now that school is almost here we will start by rereading some of the wonderful Junie B. Jones books in which the main character starts Kindergarten and ends up loving it. I will also take Isabel to my new school a few times in August as I prepare my classroom, so she can see where I will be while she is at her school. We will plan some fun family adventures for those first couple of weekends, make sure to get lunches made the night before so mornings aren’t so stressful, and then just do our thing while making sure Isabel doesn’t stray too close to the deep water.

The world is still a little dizzying to us after such an extended time together, but things are starting to come into focus a little more each day.

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