Last Friday, my wife went out to dinner in Osaka with a couple friends. This meant that I was home alone with our daughter for the first time. Well, not the first, first time. But I was faced with the challenge of feeding her, giving her a bath, and putting her to bed by myself for the first time.
I made the mistake of using the word “babysitting” with reference to this episode in a Twitter post this past weekend. That one little word generated a good dozen and a half comments on my Facebook page. Yes, it was not babysitting; it was parenting. So, why did I use it?
Force of habit, maybe. Trying to be funny and make a joke, maybe. Or possibly unconsciously reflecting the modern societal view in industrialized cultures that fathers are not supposed to raise their children without the mother’s help.
One of the reasons I decided to take child care leave was because we couldn’t successfully get our daughter into day care for the upcoming year. However, a better reason was for me to experience a year in the life of my child during one of her most formative years, and an even better reason was for me to demonstrate that my marriage vows to love, support, and honor my life partner as an equal weren’t just empty, trite phrases.
That said, Friday night was my initial chance to put my money where my mouth is (so to speak).
Feeding dinner to the baby: not a problem.
Changing diapers, both the number ones and number twos: not a problem.
(In case you’re wondering, I’m the oldest of nine kids. I had plenty of opportunities to experience baby-feeding and diaper-changing when I actually was babysitting as a teenager.)
Bathing the baby: This was a bit of a challenge. I couldn’t believe that my wife had done this successfully essentially once a week since June (the once a week on average when I came back late from my martial arts practice in Kyoto). My wife explained it to me:
- Prepare baby bedtime clothes and a diaper on the floor on the bedroom (Japanese mat room).
- Prepare your own towel in the changing room, right next to the shower/bathroom door.
- Place the baby chair in front of the shower/bath stall door and drape the baby’s towel over it.
- Take your clothes off (remembering to shut the curtains first)
- Unfasten the baby’s clothes, but keep them around her body
- Bring the baby over to the bathroom, drop her clothes and diaper on the floor, and get into the tub with the baby (to warm her up).
- Get out of the tub and wash the baby.
- After washing, get back into the tub again for a minute, then get out and put the baby in the baby chair and wrap the towel around her.
- Quickly dry yourself (keeping a careful eye on the baby), then take the baby back to the bedroom.
Keeping the diaper on until the last minute before entering the bath was a key point, as was preparing the towel in the baby chair. There is no central heating in Japanese apartments or homes, so the corridor from the bedroom to the bathroom is freezing cold. In addition, if babies get cold quickly, they often urinate immediately. So, I was able to benefit from my wife’s previous experience(s).
Actually getting into the bath tub with my daughter is something I’ve done since she was about a month old. I was terrified at the time, because she was just so tiny. I’m not sure my own parents had dared do such a thing; I clearly remember my mother giving sponge baths to kids in our family, but until what age, I don’t recall (obviously this detail was not important to the adolescent me, who was more interested in keeping up to date on the most recent episodes of Transformers and Voltron).
Thing is, my wife and I have been giving a bath to our daughter together now for so long that when one of us is not present, our ten-month-old daughter actually calls out for the missing person (not by name of course) and becomes a bit upset when the person doesn’t appear. This happened Friday night, and while my daughter seems to have gotten used to occasionally only having one parent present during bath time, she was not used to not having her mother present during bottle-before-bed time. I had given her the evening bottle before, but only when my wife was somewhere else in the apartment (usually either in the kitchen doing dishes or in the dining room typing on her laptop).
After the bottle feeding was done, she just didn’t want to sleep. My mother-in-law’s technique of lying down next to the baby and lightly tapping with her open palm on the baby’s stomach didn’t work. Holding her and softly singing a lullaby didn’t work. Walking slowly back and forth in a dimly-lit room didn’t work. Just sitting there and holding her while saying “shhhhh” didn’t work…at first, but eventually it was all I could do. She eventually fell asleep, about half an hour after the bottle was finished.
I’ve come to believe that my daughter associated me, as her father, with fun time activities, because usually when I get home from work, she gets very excited and bounces up and down and/or shrieks. She seems to associate her mother with food and going to sleep. Since I’ll be the main care provider in a couple of weeks when my leave starts, this is a little disconcerting.
Are these traditional roles between parents and children? Are we about to break some sort of societal or familial taboo? When we were forced to ask my wife’s inlaws to take care of our daughter for four days in early February, it seemed that my father-in-law played with her and gave her toys, while my mother-in-law fed her, changed her diaper and clothes, put her into the bath, and put her to bed. While I naturally don’t mind entertaining my daughter, I certainly hope my main role as father isn’t relegated to clown-status.
But then again, why should I be so proud of doing things now that my wife has been doing every day so far?