Thursday, February 16, 2012

Third World Green Daddy 27: Mr. Mom

A few weeks ago my wife Caro had to go to Medellin for work, so I stayed in our Bogota apartment for a week taking care of Sam. I wasn't exactly on my own--I had our babysitter Clemencia, my stepdaughter, my nephew, the dog, and my mother-in-law and her husband to help me out. Furthermore, normally if I'm in Bogota on a weekday, Caro doesn't get home until the late afternoon, so her being away all day wasn't entirely new for Sam or me.

Nevertheless, my week "alone" with Sam was a challenging new adventure. I spent more time with him on a daily basis than I ever had, or at least than I had since he was a newborn, when I also often stayed home with him much of the day.

I was most surprised at Sam's seeming nonchalance at Caro's absence. Sometimes he would wake up during a nap or even at night (which is atypical now--he normally sleeps the night through) wailing desperately. I don't know if he's at the phase where he really comprehends the continued existence of things that are out of the room, or if he explicitly recalls that Mom should be there when she isn't, but he was clearly a bit unbalanced by Caro's absence. He knew that something was off, and I'm sure that unease manifested itself in nightmares and such. That said, most of the time he was just fine, happy to be doing whatever he was doing. I surmised that he's used to Caro's being gone all day, so her absence for a few more hours every day might not be so jarring. Plus Sam must be quite accustomed by now to people's coming and going. He's got grandparents, relatives, the babysitter, and even his dad regularly disappearing and then appearing again a few days or months later. I don't know if this is good for his emotional development, but it's the reality of his life right now (and perhaps will continue to be so in the future), so I guess it's good he get used to it. Of course it's flattering when your kid is simply disconsolate without you (indeed, for the first time ever I was the main attachment figure, and he'd cry when I left the room, and I felt needed), but ultimately it's good that Sam develop a degree of independence and even indifference to our presence. That's what we're raising him for, right?

Indeed, I think Caro and I suffered much more than Sam did during her business trip. My wife had not slept away from Sam in 22 months, including the time he was in her womb. It was really hard for her to be away from him. And I was despondently lonely without her. Of course I'm used to sleeping without her when I'm in our small town during the week, staying at my in-law's place. But sleeping in the Bogota apartment without Caro felt cold and sad, even with my beloved son a few meters away from me. I was often tempted to grab Sam from his crib at night and bring him to the bed with me, but I resisted that temptation, knowing the importance of his learning to sleep alone.

We read a lot. I'd brought Sam back a Tintin book from Peru, which we got through over the course of a few days. I didn't grow up with Tintin, and when I first learned about the comic book series it seemed like a pretentious European affectation to me (this is an unfortunate kneejerk reaction I and many of my fellow countrymen have to anything vaguely European). But when I was in my 20s, a businessman I was teaching English to in Spain loaned me a Tintin book, and since then I've thought that it would be cool to get into the series with a kid of my own, perhaps buying him a new installment every year. This particular episode we read was set in Peru, and the version I got was in Spanish. I don't normally read or speak to Sammy in Spanish, but I wanted to read the book with him, so I subjected him to my awful, stumbling accent.

We also read the first chapter of Malcolm X's autobiography, and got a good part of the way through a poem anthology called The Llama who had no Pijamas. Lately Sam seems to prefer reading on his own. He loves leafing through books, and even at night in the dark sometimes he examines the books on his bed before lying down to sleep. But when I read to him, he often either walks away and gets involved in something else, or he freaks out trying to grab and manipulate the book himself. Perhaps he'll end up like me--I've always loved reading, ever since I could do it on my own, but I never much cared for being read aloud to.

In my week at the Bogota apartment, I returned to my habit of whirlwind housekeeping, which I hadn't practiced since we had our old apartment in our hometown. I subjected Sam's diapers to an intensive stripping treatment, consisting in soaking them overnight in a hydrogen peroxide-based detergent before rinsing them multiple times with hot water and no soap the next day. The theory is that over time cloth diapers get clogged up with soap residue and the like, so you've got to strip them every now and again to retain their absorbency. When I reported this and other activities to Caro over the phone, she laughed and remarked that it was like living in the same apartment with me again. I always try to whip things into shape where we live, and I think she appreciates that (especially when she doesn't have to be around while I'm doing it).

Sam and I ran a lot of errands together too. We stocked up on a bomb-shelter quantity of groceries, both fresh produce from the massive Paloquemao market, and dry goods from the overpriced Carulla supermarket near us. Of course what used to last us a month now lasts one or two weeks, as there are seven of us staying at the Bogota apartment! I tried to coordinate our errands such that I sat Sam on his potty before and after each major outing so he could do his business. Many days we got into a good routine such that his diaper remained dry, because he always sat on the potty on time.

The week was not without its fecal mishaps, however. Sometimes Sam would refuse to sit on the potty, straightening himself out and screaming if I tried to sit him down. One day he kept doing this, only to squat and shit in his diaper as soon as I put it on (which putting on also involved much screaming and twisting about madly). I could see he had a bit of the runs, but it still pissed me off the way he would refuse to sit down on his potty, then squat down to shit when he wasn't supposed to! After the second or third time of taking him to the sink to wash his shit-caked butt off (with a few times where I splattered shit on the floor and stepped in it for good measure) we exchanged some very harsh words. I told him I loved him very much, but that I didn't understand why he insisted on pissing and shitting everywhere (this after a few similar incidents in which he'd also refused to pee on the potty, then proceeded to urinate all over my bedsheets while his diaper was off). Eventually I figured out he had diaper rash, which somehow kept him from wanting to sit on the potty, and after I put cream on his bottom and dressed him up, we were both calm, exhausted, remorseful. I felt bad for yelling at my baby, while Sam seemed like a man coming out of an epileptic fit or a demon possession, bewildered, sleepy, just wanting to be held.

In general Sam taught me some profound lessons on love and patience. Changing a bedsheet for the second time after it's been pissed on reminds you that as a parent you have to cede a certain degree of hubris, of haughty, impatient independence. Parenthood is a prayer of sorts. It's like in the garden of Gethsemane--you implicitly say to your baby time and again, "Not my will, but thy will be done." The baby does the same. When Sam collapses in my arms, and just wants to lay his head against my chest, he's teaching me about absolute love and surrender.

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