We wrapped up a week at the Jenny’s parent’s house, sadly departing our lovely lakeside retreat in Maine. Which is all to say, we’re on the road again, this time to NYC and then Seattle for almost two weeks. But the time in Maine was relaxing, as Gabe’s schedule was split between three adults (a great ratio for childcare), and I reflected a bit on my time being the primary parent.
One of the best parts about being the primary parent is that you get to witness, and sometime be the agent of, the small changes in your child’s behaviors and actions. They might start using a spoon as a tool (like, to eat) instead a toy (like, a yogurt catapult). Or maybe they learn to close a door or can identify their head (shoulders, knees, and/or toes).
And for some reason, I really love these small moments. I find them precious. And I mean “precious” in the literal meaning, “of great value,” not like how some creepy adults say it, He’s just so precious!, with its Gollem-like undertone of I’m-going-to-steal-your-baby-now. In any case, these small moments are the most special to me because they’re all around and constantly happening with young kids, if you keep your eyes open. The problem is that they’re so fleeting and near impossible to grasp and hold on to in any meaningful way.
One moment struck me this past week, which I really wished I could somehow keep forever. Gabe woke up from his mid-day nap, so I went to grab him. But when I picked him up, he lolled in my arms, snuggled into my shoulder and neck, and then did his characteristic flop down into my arms, lying across my chest so his head was in the crook of my arm. He then promptly went back to sleep. He snored lightly, his big cheeks and brow totally relaxed, his face basically that of an angel in repose. I settled into the rocking chair and held him.
As I watched him sleep, I realized how rarely I see him so still, so close these days—he’s usually a bouncing blur. But it’s beyond great the rare times it happens. And I wished it would last as long as possible, but there’s no way to keep those moments forever, unless we start taking about spooky sci-fi story plots, where kids stay kids forever, in suspended animation—and Keanu Reeves is probably the hero.
So how do we even try to hold on to these moments?
One father, who saw me hanging out with him at our local library one day, suggested, with the tone of nostalgia, that I take pictures—as many as I could—to remember it. And I took his suggestion to heart, snapping tons of mediocre pictures. But I almost never capture the small moments that I love so much, as the two are almost mutually exclusive: tender moments with sleeping babies in dim rooms don’t mix with arms-length selfies. We also try to take small videos of Gabe, which again, usually doesn’t capture the small moments, though they are fun. The best way to get these moments, I’ve found, is by writing in a diary-like notebook that’s dedicated to him. But this means we need to remember it and write it down. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we forget; we’re always tired when we do it.
I suppose trying to capture these moments is futile. So it’s been nice to find these quiet moments—and realize when I’m in them—amid our constant travels (and occasional travails) this summer, and know that they are, in a way, part of the reward of being the primary parent.
OK—enough of the sentimental stuff. This week we continue where we left off with the interview of my friend and Stay-at-home-dad (and fellow primary-parent): Ben Bui. I hope you enjoy the final half of the interview!
Part 2: An Interview with Ben Bui, SAHD
What were some surprises—good or bad—with your transition and the new parenting arrangement?
I’m surprised at how easily I get frustrated. I claim to be a pretty laid back guy, although Kyle knows when he shoots 3’s that I can lose my mind (editor’s note: guilty as charged). And I pride myself on being a solid planner and being good at logistics. I’ve captained teams; I managed a team at work; and I was our family’s social planner in Austin. So you would think that getting Berkeley to swim class at 9:30 am wouldn’t be a big deal. But when you have a toddler who doesn’t want to put her shoes on, hits her dogs and throws everything in her vicinity, it makes for a tough experience. I’m constantly reminding myself that she has no concept of urgency or being on time. I have to dial it back and also plan to get her ready way in advance so we have time for our little pre-leaving-the-house routine. I’m working on being more patient and have been reading a book, The Conscious Parent, to help with this struggle.
How rewarding it’s to spend quality time with your child. We’re together constantly and do everything together. This may be the only time in our lives that we have this much time together. I get to see her grow, develop a sense of humor, ride a scooter for the first time, count to almost 20 and just be a silly 2-year-old. It’s something we hoped for, and maybe expected, since we are making the sacrifice, but when it really happens it’s a surprising affirmation of “Hey, look at me! We are doing this thing right!” A funny thing for us is that we experience new things together. We both have no idea where we’re going half the time, don’t know anything about Irish culture, and can get embarrassed when we make mistakes together. It’s amazing how much she has taught me. I guess that is another surprise: How much I’ve learned from being around her and observing her. She’s so confident and so adaptable. If my daughter can do that, then I think I can adjust to this crazy Dublin weather and this different pace of life.
You’ve done an amazing amount of traveling since you’ve been on the other side of the pond. Where have you guys traveled this summer? How has traveling been with an energetic toddler?
Here goes: we have been to London, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris, Lisbon and Lagos (Portugal), and Aarhus (Denmark). It has been an amazing experience. The majority of those trips have been related to Becky’s work-travel. Berkeley has been a great travel companion. She’s actually easier to manage when we travel than when we are in Dublin doing our day-to-day. I think that’s because we are constantly moving and doing things when we are in different countries. Right before we left the US, we had a flurry of travel, so she had some exposure to being on planes. Now, she’s becoming a seasoned pro and the flights are often short. The longest single-leg flight we’ve had since arriving lived in Dublin was four hours, and that was to Istanbul.
She definitely has a lot of energy so we try to let her walk as much as possible and we also find parks wherever we go. Our one cheat is that we let her use my old cell phone when we are in restaurants or when she gets super-bored on planes. With the phone she’s looking at pictures, videos, or playing educational games. We’ve been really lucky because she has done well sleeping in AirBNB apartments and in hotels. For her, all these different situations has made her so adaptable and up for change at a whim. She also gets to have a lot of fun exploring with us.
She loves going on adventures.
Side note: if parents are wondering, we do AirBNB apartments to have a fridge so we can get fruit and other healthy food for her. And they typically have more space for a kid to move around.
What’s the biggest change, culturally, you’ve found between Irish parents (or perhaps international/continental/ex-pat parents) compared to those in the US?
Generally speaking, the Irish parents seem to like to let their kids roam, while the US parents are more helicopter parents. They are less apt to coddle here in Ireland, and want their kids to explore. I definitely see benefits to that approach, since kids are able to be more independent and learn on their own. But I also see the drawback, and that’s when their kids are terrorizing other kids and the parents aren’t around. When we were in Austin, I was a hardcore helicopter Dad and protective of Berkeley. Becky and our nanny would try to encourage me to let Berkeley do her own thing. Since I’ve been in Dublin, I’m approaching a happy medium. I’m not jumping in every time she struggles on the jungle gym, but also not too far away when she is about to take a tumble. I’ve met some US Ex-Pat Moms here and they are a little more protective of their kids than the Irish parents. I see lots of jumping in to avoid any potential hitting of other kids or possible falls.
The ex-pat crowd is interesting.
We tend to gravitate to one another because we see one another at the playground and think, “You aren’t Irish! We should be friends!”
I think it’s because the Irish have their family and friend networks established, whereas us ex-pats are on our own and looking to build a friend network or support structure. It’s a really weird feeling being in your 30’s, with kids, and trying to make friends in a new city. That has been really hard for us, especially since we travel so much. I will say the ex-pats I’ve met have been extremely nice and helpful. But we’ve also made some Irish friends who are really great and hopefully down the road we’ll do more play dates.
One last thing on the move here: Being a SAHD, I get a lot of strange looks and people are reluctant to engage me in conversation. The gym we go to is pretty fancy and there are a lot of stay-at-home Mom’s and nannies—they’re there to work out and not much else. I think the longest conversation I’ve had was with a Canadian mom at the gym, and she only recommended a Mom’s ex-pat group—nothing more. Ireland is pretty conservative, so it must be a little strange to see a guy with his daughter every morning at the gym. And I wonder if they think I’m just creepy or something. I assume people would be more receptive in the US, but I’m not sure since I wasn’t a SAHD in Austin.
Another side note: The pace of life here is much slower. The US is so much more technologically advanced and we are so keyed in to getting what we want faster. Here, not so much. We’ve had a hard time finding basic necessities, people are slow to respond to us, and since we don’t have a car, we don’t just go to the store and buy things whenever we feel like it. There are good and bad things to this way of life, but I will say it has taught us to be less superficial and less materialistic. We downsized our possessions to move here and we aren’t accumulating a whole lot while we are here—we have nowhere to put it! In Europe, people are more about the experience than the stuff and they work to live and don’t live to work. So we appreciate that change in lifestyle as much as possible. I say that because Becky is still working her a** off, but we still get to travel all over Europe together.
If you could give one piece of parenting advice for other couples who may be in for a similar change in parenting roles, what would it be?
Communicate. It’s really important to speak to your spouse about when things are hard for you and to also understand what they are thinking. I know this is centered around what it’s like to be the primary caregiver of your child, but the pressure of being the sole bread-winner is enormous. So there is that reciprocity of knowing where you are in your sanity and how your spouse is. When Becky comes home from work I will have dinner ready (for people who know me, I know you are shocked) and I will clean up. This allows Becky to spend time with Berkeley and/or give her a bath. That gives me some down-time and gives Becky quality time with Berkeley. Becky also will help in the mornings, even though she has to get ready for work, which is great for me so I can sleep in a little or do other stuff.
As I mentioned earlier, there are times where I’ve been stressed and we’ve talked through potential solutions or find a workaround that helps ease things. The majority of time, we find that just talking about the issues we’re facing is enough to make us feel better. It’s a big change and it’s critical to have the conversations early and often with your spouse.
Having any pent-up feelings when you have this shift in roles will only lead to fights and hard feelings.
I would also say: communicate with your child. Berkeley is pretty quick to catch on for her age and has strong language skills. So we talk quite a bit and I ask her a lot of questions about what she would like to do, what is wrong, and try to reason with her. She is still a 2-year-old, and can’t always grasp what I’m saying, but she understands a lot. When we are able to make decisions together, she is that much happier, and if she’s happy so am I. We all have this tendency to get distracted by a TV, our phone or whatever gadget we may have when our kids are acting out. That’s been something I’ve tried to improve on for myself, and I noticed when I’m on my phone less and engaging her in conversation she’s not acting out. Her acting out primarily stems from wanting attention. She’s happiest when we are talking, playing with puzzles, and she loves reading together.
Thank you Kyle for the interview! You’re a great Dad and I love reading this blog. Shameless self-promotion if anyone wants to check out my blog, it’s called Bui Voyage.