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Project Dad: Diving Into Diaper Duty

Although I have no memory of it, I’ve been assured by people who knew my father that he never changed a diaper in his life. It was a point of pride with him. By all accounts, he imagined parenting as a series of stage-managed weekends and thoughtful dinners. A happy, noninvasive wonderland of responsibility without responsibility. Real responsibility lay with mothers, and fathers were useful for particularly male problems, like fish-cleaning and face-shaving.

When it was my turn to be a parent, I planned to do the opposite. I would be involved, friendly and drowning in dirty diapers! I would be the father who carried his children everywhere, protected them from everything, and never missed a big moment.

Time was important. My father died when I was in the 6th grade, leaving a trail of unanswered questions. Who was this stranger streaking across my life, and what was he like? What was the most important lesson he never got to teach? What can I take from his life to make sure my children know me?

There’s a tendency for men to think of stay-at-home mothers as having a less-strenuous job than working fathers, but there’s no question that in almost all cases the opposite is true.

Of course, when my daughter was born in 2006, I realized how much easier it was to idealize your hopeful parenting than to actually live it. Only my wife could take time off from work, and she shouldered the early days. I usually came home in time to kiss my daughter's sweet little forehead and put her to bed. It was nice, but I worried she would start to see me as a friendly passerby, the way I saw my father.

When my son was born last October, I managed to secure three months of paternity leave and started out on the right foot. No more coming home and spending only five minutes with my child; I was in for the full weight of parenthood—all of its feeding, cleaning and exhausting glory.

I really can’t emphasize the exhausting part enough. There’s a tendency for men to think of stay-at-home mothers as having a less-strenuous job than working fathers, but there’s no question that in almost all cases the opposite is true. The sheer neediness of an infant is staggering. You’re up all night, feeding, cooing and cajoling a little creature whose piercing shriek triggers waves of anxiety within you. Soon I was fondly remembering the comparative serenity of a 12-hour workday.

Paternity leave thrust another uncomfortable fact in my face. My child clearly preferred the job his mother did. For the first few weeks, he gazed at me as if I were some stranger who had washed up on the beach. Interesting maybe, but not essential. His mother offered life-giving milk. His father could efficiently work the TV remote. It was no contest. At best, I was a lumbering, foodless servant, primarily useful for handing him to his mom.

Over the course of paternity leave, I slowly won him over. First by producing bottles at all hours of the night, then by learning just how he liked to be carried, and when a stroller would calm him more than his rocking chair. Soon, he started to grin when he saw me the way he did when his mother appeared. I could see the appreciation in his eyes. “You’re coming along,” he seemed to say. “After you get the knack of these feedings, I might let you bathe me by yourself.”

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We lived on my son's schedule, which means we lived like apes, gorging on food and sleep. His lean frame disappeared under rolls of baby fat. On the flip side, the body I'd honed through endless hours on the treadmill slowly faded into a bread-like softness. Side-by-side, we look like two competitors in a Michelin Man lookalike contest. He thinks this is funny and laughs at us.

Paternity leave is now over. My 5-month-old son is at day care, and the house is curiously empty. His little human alarm no longer rings at all hours, and when I go and pick him up at day care, I have to ask someone else how his day went. Carrying him to the car, I get a jolt as his drool-covered face looks at me with recognition and excitement. I can see that he knows his dad, and that makes me smile.

Living at home with a child was a strange vacation, alternatively boring, thrilling and fulfilling in ways I had never expected. It was nice to have my son look to his father for support, and to give him that support as soon as Game of Thrones was over. Kidding. Only kidding.

Did we form some bond we otherwise never would have? I’m not sure. All I know is that when he’s older, I can remind him of the long hours I once spent trying to coax him into smiling, or jiggling some heavy part of him for the camera. It might not shame him into putting me in the really good nursing home, but wherever I am, I’ll carry the memories and be richer for it.

MORE: Project Dad: A Working Dad Leans Out

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