What Does A Dad Do When He Doesn’t Have To Dad?

I recently spent eight days alone in my house–a house that is usually overrun with the frenetic energy and activity of hosting three kids ages four and under.

I did something I hadn’t done in years: I set a daily alarm. And this alarm went off 15 minutes before my workday began, not an hour and a half (at minimum) like my usual youthful alarms always do.

I dragged myself out of bed, put on some clothes, brushed my teeth and went to work. There were no morning games of superheroes or Daniel Tiger episodes over yogurt. There was no 10-month-old wailing for more sliced bananas.

When I joined work calls in my basement office, there was no familiar pounding of little feet running on the hardwood floors above me or the sound of the ceiling nearly giving way as someone jumped off a couch. There were no random outbursts of whining or screaming (from children or parents).

When the clock struck noon, my door didn’t fly open with a two-year-old and a four-year-old vying to be the first to yell “It’s time for lunch, Daddy!” in my face. There were no tears because one of them wasn’t the first.

I didn’t spend my lunch hour slapping together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches alongside a banana and a tasteful extra swipe of peanut butter for dipping. I didn’t read children’s books aloud between bites of my own lunch.

When the workday was over, I didn’t hear the dull roar of playtime slowly encroaching on my office space until my parental guilt outweighs my get-er-done work mentality, forcing me to call it quits for the day. No one was there to care when I stopped working.

As I took an evening run on the treadmill, there was no baby maniacally dragging himself across the floor to try to touch the moving treads. There was no toddler yelling “Go, Daddy, Go!” and there was no one waiting for me to finish running so we could do a drawing together with a YouTube tutorial.

Upon ascending the basement stairs, there were no pleasant dinner smells wafting toward me. There was no dinner, until I made some food or made a plan. There was no two-year-old at the dining room table militantly ensuring that we recite both Bless Us O Lord and the Our Father before instructing us to “talk about our day” as we ate.

There was no post-dinner playtime or baths or books. There was no bedtime routine and there was no post-bedtime release, when two parents finally sit down on the couch, take a deep breath and engage in their first real conversation of the day at 9 p.m.

For eight solid days–two more than planned because Chicago snow delayed my family’s return from a trip to see my in-laws–I was a bachelor living in a mansion. Sure, the mansion was filled with children’s toys, clothes and diapers, but it sure felt like a mansion when I was the only one here.

And funny as it may seem–I didn’t know what to do with myself. Even during a pandemic, the possibilities were endless compared to a normal day in the life of our party of five.

In this week and a day, I realized anew just how much of my identity is wrapped up in my role as a husband and a father. Sure, there were plenty of things I could do. I am not without interests or ways to entertain myself. I have various blogs, freelance work, a podcast, a newsletter, streaming service queues, books, and sleep to catch up on.

And while I did some of these things, the end of the day always left me feeling a little empty or incomplete. I quickly reverted back to several of my when-I-lived-alone tendencies such as talking to myself, narrating my life, spending more time watching TV, surfing the Web and staying up too darn late.

But I also had this urge to do things for the loves of my life who were currently absent from my life. I spent quite a while drawing some of my kids’ favorite cartoon characters on a welcome home sign. I made sure to complete my wife’s “honey do” list and tried to cross off a few extra things that weren’t on the list. I posed my two-year-old’s beloved Spider-Man stuffed toy on his bed. I laid out my daughter’s blanket on her bed in a way that I knew she would notice.

These are silly little things, but they illuminate for me how much of a mushy father I have really become. While it was obviously wonderful to have a break from a daily grind that is so often exhausting, frustrating, thankless and monotonous, I was surprised by how quickly I found myself missing it, too.

When you’re up to your eyes in mindless fits, spilled drinks and endless rounds of Candyland, it’s easy to take for granted that you are molding these little creations into awesome human beings who–for now–still love you unconditionally and rely on you for everything.

The self-sacrifice of that scenario is rewarded with a loving bond like no other. Now that I’ve experienced such a love, it’s harder to be parted from it. Even for eight days.

And, yes, I’m mostly writing this so I can reread it tomorrow and remember to believe it, even when my kids are waking me up at 6:45 a.m. on a Sunday.

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