Finding out I was to become a father for the first time was the best news of my life. Yes, I had my share of nervousness, but I was sure becoming a stay-at-home dad would be a breeze. After all, I had done my homework.
Read parenting handbook. Check.
Learn to change diaper. Check.
Baby-proof cabinets. Check.
Find baby play group. Check.
I knew from the obligatory parenting literature it was not only important to socialize my baby, but it was just as important for me as a first-time dad to have adult interaction and support from a group of other parents.
I entered my first baby circle at the community center, where I was greeted by a dozen smiling faces when I unbuckled my 4-month-old baby girl from her stroller and joined everyone in a big circle on the floor. The mother next to me leaned closer to me. “I love your baby’s onesie,” she said. “It’s so cute.” Oh, right, onesie.
I’d heard of innies and outies. But what was a onesie? I kept my mouth shut. The more I listened, the more confused I became. I didn’t understand the language, and not just that cutesy baby babble with little ones. These were actual conversations between adults, but the words coming out of these mothers’ mouths were completely foreign to me. Binkies, onesies and diaper genies?
It was obvious: I had entered a whole new world.
After years in a corporate environment, I was skilled in time management and conflict resolution. I had done my share of hand holding and tantrum taming. A layoff took me down a new career path. I figured once I had learned to change a diaper, I would be fully prepared for my new role as a stay-at-home dad.
So I thought.
However, I was not just entering a new chapter in my life in a world of babies. I had entered the strange and incomprehensible world of the stay-at-home parent. That meant I not only had to learn the ins and outs of diaper changing, bottle feeding and how to function only on caffeine after sleepless nights. This was culture shock. As the only guy in this society dominated by moms, I wondered to myself: Would I ever be adopted into this tribe, one that spoke a completely different language, practiced customs foreign to any I’d seen and shared a history I did not comprehend?
I discovered there is a hierarchy to this culture. Those battle-scarred warriors most highly regarded form the inner-circle, the tribal elders, and impart their knowledge on the new initiates.
One of the first lessons I learned was that a Boppy is a must-have. A little Google research led me to discover this device was just a big doughnut-y neck brace. When I saw one being used first hand, though, I found that a Boppy was not a neck brace and not a must have, at least not for me. I was glad I hadn’t ordered one, and even happier I hadn’t shown up at our play dates with one.
Deciphering the basics was tough enough. My vocabulary was further challenged with products such as bébéPODs® and Bumbos. Where did these words even come from? Were actual babies surveyed in a marketing panel to name these products? I continued to sit with my mouth shut for fear of being looked at as just another clueless dad and afraid to stumble into another potential Boppy fiasco.
I did feel confident when spring rolled around, however. I showed up at baby circle time with my new find, a kangaroo-pouch thingy. This was my first step toward gaining acceptance among the natives. Sadly, a kangaroo-pouch thingy was not the proper term. And my discovery was not new to any of them. In fact, it led to debate of the pros and cons of various child-carrying devices. Forces quickly mobilized around three camps, a battle among BabyBjörn, Bundleboo and Balboa backers.
One mother vehemently stood by her BabyBjörn choice. “I only buy if a product is compliant with Oeko-Tex® Standard 100.”
I wasn’t smart enough to hold my tongue. “What’s that?” I asked.
Accompanied by her you-seriously should-know-these-things-if-you-plan-to-adequately raise-a-child look, she answered, “It’s an international testing and certification system limiting harmful chemicals in textile production.”
So now I needed an advanced degree in chemistry to raise my child? (Or at minimum some serious research skills.) I envisioned this as a point to add to my résumé as I planned my imminent retreat back the corporate world. In the meantime, one fact was clear. I’d better buy organic, or there’d be hell to pay come the next baby circle.
Still, there was much more to gaining acceptance in this world than simply understanding the language. The tribe has a collective history of experience I simply could not share. This was a particularly difficult obstacle for me to overcome. I did not have any morning sickness or bed rest experiences. Nor could I recount any epidural or episiotomy stories. Thank goodness for the day my then two-year-old daughter hid in a clothing rack, so I finally had a near-tragic, heart-stopping incident to share.
Nor was I fully adapted to the precision required for all things baby. For example, the borderline obsession with numbers. A baby is not four months old. She is 15 and a half weeks. Your toddler is not a year and a half. He’s 17 months. There is a countdown to due dates, then a count up to every milestone: a baby’s first indecipherable sound that just might be mama, the first haircut, first tooth and first step.
This language obsession is no more evident than when listening to a parent speak to her child on behavioral issues. It comes out as a dissertation on the value of sharing or not bullying another child. But, in hearing these parental monologues, something dawned on me. These speeches were not really just for the benefit of their children. They were to demonstrate to other moms (and me) their competency as parents. They were overcompensating. These moms were just as lost and just as much in need of reassurance as I was.
With that realization, I could loudly and proudly sing that annoying Wiggles’ song stuck in my head. I had passed the initiation and was now a full-fledged member of the tribe. I was just like them. I was one of the moms.