Chicago dad: Six things I learned while single parenting

Last week, my wife flew to Puerto Rico with some friends from college. She was gone for five days. Our marital and familial arrangement is considered “traditional.” I go to work and my wife stays home with our three boys. Thirty years ago, this trip would have been the inspiration for some terrible comedy with a trailer voiced over by the “In a world where…” movie trailer guy saying something like, “When Mom’s away, the boys will play!”

Cue montage of me not knowing how to change a diaper. Of the four of us, sitting shirtless and pantless on the couch, watching television and eating cereal out of the box. The group of us baking a cake — even though I’d never consider baking a cake under most normal circumstances — and a bag of flour exploding all over the kitchen. Because that is what bags of flour do whenever men touch them. Explode.

Stereotypes aside, this was the longest I’d ever been alone with the kids.

Here are six things I learned:

1 People appreciate the challenges of the stay-at-home thing much more than I do. The most common question I got when people heard my wife was leaving was, “Do you have any help?” This invariably irritated me. I know how to change a diaper. I know how to feed my children. I know, more or less, their routines. What I didn’t realize that it wasn’t a comment on my parenting abilities or my kids’ behavior, but a recognition of the challenges that come when you are the primary caregiver. Caring for kids — especially three young kids 5 years old and younger — demands energy and patience and a pretty fair amount of improv ability.

2 Kids are resilient, but love their routines. With kids who are 5, 2 1/2 and 6 months, my oldest is the only one really able to articulate his feelings. Even so, none of them came out and said, “I miss Mom. That’s why I’m being difficult.” But her absence definitely affected them. Everyone’s sleep schedule was off. Tempers were short. Meltdowns more frequent. After my wife came home, suddenly the kids were sleeping until 7 in the morning again instead of waking up at 4:45 and seemed much more themselves.

3 Smartphones totally make sense. If the clueless Dad is one parenting stereotype that refuses to die, then the smartphone-always-in-hand Mom is another. But now I get it. It’s the connection to a world where there are other topics of conversation besides poops, butts and heated demands for juice.

4 Play takes work. It’s a lot, getting kids dressed and fed and to school and fed and entertained while keeping the house in some kind of order. The easiest thing in the world to drop off the list is anything nearing quality time with your kids. That’s the opposite of my typical day, where I have no choice but to focus on quality moments — talks, bedtime stories, drawing and playtime of some sort or another — because I’m gone but for an hour total of their day. I had to work, to make sure that time didn’t drop off a cliff our five days together.

5 I don’t want to be a single parent. My appreciation for people who do this on their own has grown immeasurably. And in some ways, it’s not even about the notion of doing the caring and time-spending with the kids alone. It’s the time when the kids are asleep. It’s lonely and quiet. For someone who gets a lot of energy from reading and spending time in his own head, it surprised me how much I missed my person while she was gone. Not to loosen the load. But to be there at the end of the day.

6 Never turn your back. Ever. Because, and this is just a hypothetical, your middle child might drag a step stool out of the bathroom, push it into the kitchen and climb up to the sugar bowl next to the coffee maker and start eating raw sugar like it was yogurt.

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