End of paternity leave and a lesson on negative support

After six months of being the primary caretaker of my 8-month-old daughter, I am returning to the workforce. Tomorrow I hand off most daily childcare responsibilities to my wife, who had her last day of work today. I learned many things over the past half-year; as much about myself and my relationship with my wife as about my child. One of the most important only really sunk in after I became a full-time papa. I would like to share this lesson with other new fathers out there, whether you are taking paternity leave or not. It is primarily about the management of expectations, but is deeply connected to teamwork, communication, planning, endurance and support.

Marathon, not a sprint

In the couple of months following the birth, my wife stayed home to watch the baby and recover. I worked full time but made an effort to be home as much as possible to free up my wife’s time so she could have a break. I wanted to give my wife as much support as possible, so she could simply hand off the baby the moment I walked in the door. On weekends I stayed home with the baby and encouraged my wife to go out: shopping, coffee, foot massage, whatever she needed to do to recharge. I had an image that caring for an infant was taxing, and knew my duty to provide as much support as possible. At least, that is what all the new daddy books said.

Once I took over, when the baby was only a couple months old, I learned the opposite side of the equation. Truthfully, taking care of a baby over short periods of time is not that difficult. It is caring for a baby over an extended period that is fatiguing. It is a marathon, not a sprint. This requires an immense amount of mental endurance. For comparison’s sake, paid labour, on the other hand, tends to concentrate work in an 8 hour blocks of time, 5 days a week. Childcare is 24/7, my son! Furthermore, for paid labour your workplace is separate from your home. In childcare, you live at your desk. This adds to the general stress level geometrically (freelancing from home sort of approaches this, but not quite).

Watching a marathon on tellie, most men are confident they can run faster than the marathoner at any one point of the race. But you cannot match the mental toughness that is required to continue running for 42km. Moreover, stay-at-home parents also have a million other things to balance: childcare is a like a marathon being run on a tightrope. This makes spousal support all the more important.

Pulling the rug out

When novice tightrope walkers train on a medium height rope, helpers on the floor hold long poles vertically, moving in to give the walker something to hold onto if he looks like he is going to fall. Every time you offer to take the baby, vacuum, wash the dishes, bath or feed the baby is like providing a handhold for your spouse to grasp and catch her breath. The easiest lesson can be found here: in this race, there is no such thing as too much support. However, I learned an even more valuable lesson once I became the tightrope walker myself:

“Negative support” costs much more than “positive support.”

Let me unpack that statement. Consider the following: every time you provide a single piece of support, you are awarded +10 points of positive support. Additionally, every time you back out of a single piece of promised support you are docked -100 points (negative support). Note the difference in scale. A marathoner has to plan his milestones carefully to properly attribute the scarce resources of his endurance. He has to take account of up hills, downhills, hairpin turns where runners tend to crowd, etc. Any support is always a bonus, no matter how small, but retraction of expected support is a terrible tax on mental endurance. The worst thing for a struggling tightrope walker is to find a handhold suddenly no longer there. If that handhold was critical to the walker’s plans, the results could be disastrous.

(Note: Negative support is different than a simple lack of support, which is worth zero points, but increases in negative value incrementally over time.)

My advice to spouses of stay-at-home parents: Never back out of something at the last minute. Keep your spouse constantly informed as to your plans so they can plan their daily milestones accordingly, adjusting their allocation of endurance if need be. Say what you are going to do, and do what you say. Good communication should already be one of the foundations of your marriage. This should go doubly if a baby is involved.

Other lessons learned

Paternity leave has been an amazing experience, and I recommend it highly. Traditionally, fathers are expected to support their child by financial means: going to work and bringing home cash. The truth is, newborns are not expensive. Taking care of your baby is an experience worthy of a short-term cut in salary. For me it was inspiring, lonely, invigorating, frustrating, wonderful and stressful all at the same time. I hope to share more lessons learned from my experience over the next few months. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to ask.

The Baby Staring Problem — Or, am I supposed to punch this old lady in the mouth?

When you are a child, and you are staring at some person for being drunk or dressed funny: your mom hits you. If you are down in the pub and some bloke starts giving you the eyeball: you hit him. That’s the rules, refined over generations. However, another rule (well, more like a derivative corollary) that you learn elsewhere when you are a kid is: Don’t hit old ladies. This is the root of my cross-cultural conundrum. Let me explain.

When I am taking my baby out in the baby carriage for a brisk walk, maybe to purchase some fine meats or visit the local confectioners or even to simply enjoy the kôyô, the baby carriage is invariably invaded by gawking grandmas. Often, without asking, old women will stick their entire head into the carriage to get a far-too-close view of my child. They do not wait in strategic areas like a hunter near a stream where deer congregate. They do this while I am full-out walking, oblivious to my hurried gait and my over-attentive keitai fiddling. Ignorant of my attempts to ignore.

Is this some sort of age-right? Like the right to elbow while boarding trains, or to wear leopard print capes? It is like they are feeding off the energy of the young, like some sort of parasitic photosynthesis.

Younger women do not do this. According to the observational data I have collected over the past four months the baby-staring phenomenon is limited to women over the age of fifty Earth years. Elderly men try to sneak a peek, but do so at a safe distance from a not-so-subtle angle, easily obscured by a strategic placement of the body. Frustratingly, there seems no similar simple technique for baby-staring obachans.

Is baby-staring even done outside of Japan? I have never raised kids in my home country. I have no internalized rules about how to react to baby-staring. It is obviously a blatant violation of personal space, similar to the inexplicable impulse to touch the belly of a pregnant woman. Can’t they see that I have places to go and meats to purchase? Must I set up a barbed wire enclosure around the baby carriage to ward off the elderly? Or should I just be done with it and punch them in the mouth?

This middle name will be the death of me

Me: Do you think we should give her a middle name?
Her: I thought you didn’t want to do that.
Me: I know, but if we go overseas she will be the only one without a middle name.
Her: Okay, we should give her a really Japanese name though.
Me: Like “Sakura”?
Her pulls face: No!
Me: How about “Karōshi”?

On discouraging our future daughter’s fashion trends

Wife: What if she is into boy bands?
Me: I will practice b-boy dancing in the living room with my balding head and a T-Shirt that says “Johnny’s” on it. I will also fawn over her idol trading cards that she bought in Harajuku.
Wife: What if she is goth?
Me: Then I will greet her in the morning at the kitchen table with my newspaper wearing a spiked dog collar.
Wife: What is she is a gyaru?
Me: I will have to get a MASSIVE fluffy keitai strap, put some bronzing on my skin and dye one strip of my hair platinum blonde. I may hang some beads from that strip of hair.