“What’s he in charge of?” said Alice, pointing at the uniformed security guard standing outside my wife’s office building.
“He makes sure only the right people go in and out of the building.”
“Yes, and the men.”
“Men?! Men don’t go in buildings and works!”
“Yes they do Alice, I used to work in an office.”
“Oh. When you were a lady?”
I have had many humbling exchanges with my three year old daughter Alice. None have put me in my place quite as firmly as that one.
Three years ago when we made the decision to come to Cayman, we decided that we wanted one of us to stay at home with the children. It was my wife’s job as a lawyer that brought us here, so I was happy to agree to spend my daughter’s remaining pre-school years as the childrens’ primary carer and give up outside-the-home working, though I did make a guest appearance once as a voice-over for a Yellow Pages radio advert that may, or may not have been aired.
In changing to my current role I was conscious that men are notorious for assessing each other on the basis of their job. When we first arrived I tried introducing myself to other men as a “Househusband” but didn’t like the sound of it so settled on a description rather than a title: “I stay at home with the kids”. Of course this may sound like a euphemism for “I’m unemployable” (which I don’t think I am), or “I sleep in a lot” (which I don’t). Generally when I introduce myself, guys either completely lose interest or tell me how lucky I am – I can almost see them picturing a life spent lounging around on the beach.
When I introduce myself to women on the other hand, what generally happens is a conversation, though I do occasionally get a conversation-stopping exclamation of “MISTER MOM!” which people usually say grinning, expecting some kind of response. Initially – being from England and not understanding the accent – what they were saying sounded like “Mister Marm”, and beings as I didn’t know what a ‘marm’ was I was at a complete loss to know how to respond to the label. Now that I’ve had it translated for me I still don’t know what to say. It makes me feel much like I did when I spent three months in provincial Japan 18 years ago and children pointed and shouted “GAIJIN!” (meaning, “foreigner”) at me from across the street: I was the tallest, widest, whitest person many of them had ever seen.
Here in Cayman I am of course not unique – I met several other Mr. Marms in my first few months on-island. One was a comedian on cruise ships who split time at home with his wife, one was expecting to start his job quite soon and the other was in the same position as me: career-paused husband to a lawyer wife. Particularly for those of us with two children whose wives were the primary at-home carers with the first child, we quickly realised that our new role could be just as challenging as any paid work.
This came home to me forcefully on my first trip to the South Sound Playgroup, which meets at the Community Centre every Monday morning. Approaching the building it looked small, I figured there would be no more than about a dozen in there and looked forward to getting to know some people.
Walking through the door I stood, still holding onto Alice’s hand but now more for my own comfort than hers. 20 children were crawling/screeching/eating/ running madly around the floor while the mothers/female carers sat around the outside of the room. Some looked happily engaged with their children, others stared into the middle distance while a third group were sat at the table on the far side of the room doing craft. Or their children were – it was difficult to tell.
Craft was, after gymnastics, the worst part of my early school years, as it was to me then what molecular biology is to me now: unappealing, slightly bizarre and completely beyond my comprehension. Come to think of it, craft is still just the same as molecular biology to me. There is no other explanation for the combination of fear and revulsion that came over me as I saw the glue, paint and sparkly things on the newspaper-covered table ahead.
Happily Alice got over her nervousness at the new situation in about a minute and started to make and break new friendships with ease. I soon realised that she was going to have to mentor me through the transition from out-at-work to in-at-work.
The biggest change in the new stay at home regime was the vastly increased amount of time spent with the children. A change that many fathers don’t seem to appreciate the significance of until they are first required to look after their children while the mother ventures out for a well-earned afternoon out of the house to try and regain some sanity.
Those first few days after dropping Jude off at school and Rachael at the office I would get back home with Alice and we’d look at each other. “OK”, I thought to myself, “what now?”
Having an immediate circle of contacts through church helped, as did the fact that Alice gives more entertainment than she requires to be provided. She doesn’t sit around waiting for things to happen but has always investigated, questioned and messing with the entirety of her surroundings. I can just sit there and watch, transfixed by her discoveries of new things and abilities, and the way she reacts to everything.
I will return to “buildings and works” in due course but am privileged beyond measure right now to spend so much time with my children.