Of the many, many books on my son’s bookshelf, he had one definite favorite — the one about babies and kitties. It definitely wasn’t designed to be the most fun to read aloud, but he loved it. Each time, he’d snuggle into my arms, his eyes laser-focused on the cover, and point defiantly at it until I agreed to go on yet another kitten-centered adventure with him. How could I say no?
Over time, I began to add things to my overly dramatic reading of the story to make my son giggle. Before long, I had different voices for each page, plus wild gestures and other fun ways to make the book interactive. I adored the way I could make him shriek and giggle each time.
But that’s who I am to my 2-year-old son: I’m the “clown,” the goof, the one who makes silly voices. It’s my superpower, and I love it. And for a while, I was comfortable with that being my sole identity as a new father.
What I didn’t realize, at least not at first anyway, was that when I adopted the clownish dad role, it seemed to default the entire comforter and caregiver role to my wife — which wasn’t necessarily fair to her. When I was being the clown, I had acquired the “fun” role, and she was left with the stressful, exhausting task of figuring out how to soothe our upset child.
When he was in a good mood, I’d be down on the floor with him, playing with his cars and stacking the cup tower over and over. When he was in a bad mood, he’d run away from me, yell “Mama,” and I was perfectly OK letting him run to my wife for long hugs and reassurance.
I didn’t think much of it at the time because it seemed like we were operating in the roles that suited his needs — the roles that my wife and I were “better at.” And to a certain extent, this was similar to the way my wife and I had always balanced household tasks. If there was a job one of us didn’t like, the other usually enjoyed taking it on.
I was also admittedly falling into a gender stereotype that I had tried to avoid: moms were the “caregivers,” and dads were “fun.”
I’m far from the only dad who’s slipped into this role. “Fathers sometimes fall into the role of being the ‘fun one’ as a means of compensating for a deficiency in another area,” says Nicholas Hardy, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist. “In order to create a new standard, there has to be intentionality and honest recognition of how you are impacted by these traditional gender roles.”
OK, so all we need to do is pivot, right?
So, I launched into “Mission: Break the Mold of Typical Dad,” and didn’t flinch when it came to diaper duty, puke cleanup, and leading the charge on bottle disinfecting. In fact, I was proud of how good I was at pulling ointments and wipes out of the diaper bag one-handed while holding a squirming baby in the other.
Sure, my son would drench my shirt in tears whenever he couldn’t find “Mama” to comfort him, but at least I was his favorite clown.
Then, in September 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I lost my job. Suddenly, the income and health insurance were gone. Making matters worse, I struggled to find a new job. One rejection letter after another came from prospective employers, and mounting frustration with it.
My wife had just started a new job. And knowing how hard it is to work while caring for a baby, we struggled along without childcare for months. In my attempt to step up, I offered to take over all parenting duties, so my wife could focus on her new job.
I had visions of my son and I having a blast, with lots of silly reading and playtime. And of course, I’d have plenty of time and energy to clean the house and get other things done while he napped. Simple, right?
I quickly realized just how uneven our parenting roles had been previously.
Things would start off OK on most days as my son’s new “comforter.” My wife would get up and go upstairs to work before our son woke up. I’d make him breakfast and we’d maybe read a book or two. but if he heard my wife make any noise upstairs — the squeak of her desk chair, her Zoom call being too loud — he’d instantly have a full-blown meltdown. And nothing — and I mean nothing — seemed to calm him down. He couldn’t understand why Mom wouldn’t come downstairs to comfort him like she’d always done before.
I’d try holding him close, singing silly songs, bouncing him on my knee, making funny noises, taking him outside — anything I could think of to calm him or make him laugh. What was once so easy to do, now seemed impossible.
Sometimes, I’d hear my wife abruptly go quiet, undoubtedly losing her train of thought while being distracted by our son’s wailing, and my heart would sink. I felt like a failure — helpless and defeated. Like some bizarre 21st century Pierrot — I was a sad clown who’d lost my red nose, tripped over my oversized shoes, and was getting hit with tomatoes (which wasn’t all that unlikely since my son loved to throw dinner).
It didn’t take me long to wake up to the fact that just being funny clearly wasn’t enough. I had to figure out how to actually be comforting.
I’d be lying if I said I figured it all out overnight. But by shifting my focus from being silly to being empathetic, I was able to come up with ways to help my son process and adjust to this new arrangement.
We created little ceremonies for saying bye to mom at the start of the day, and we threw little celebrations when she’d come back down. We also found new activities — art projects, walks outside, dance parties, and other games to keep him engaged.
The days may not have gotten “easier,” but they sure have gotten easier to manage. And in the process, I found new ways to connect with my son that have transformed our relationship.
I’d gone from having one superpower to make him laugh to knowing how to really give him what he needs. Instead of just reading a book, I learned to read the signs that he’s ready for a nap or getting hungry. I learned why something frustrated or upset him, and created new routines to give him comfort.
Let’s hear it for trial and terror!
There’s been so much talk about “getting back to normal,” but there hasn’t been enough talk about some of the good changes that have come in the last year.
“The pandemic has forced us all to slow down. Prior to the pandemic, we were on the run out of habit and necessity,” explains Hardy. “The pandemic also put a lot in perspective about life and family. This perspective made many families reconsider what was most important.”
I don’t think I could get anything close to what my old job was — and to be honest, I don’t think I’d want to. To me, there’s nothing more important than being fully present in my role as a father and husband. The clown hasn’t gone anywhere — it’s just good to know that he can be both funny and truly comforting.
Steven Rowe is a journalist who writes about mental health, parenting, and relationships. He’s also a new father, a comic book enthusiast, and a part-time hiker.