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The year was 1978. I was 4. The morning light muffled its way through my pale bedroom curtains and turned an opaque blue. My mother was lying beside me, smiling, the skin of her face so smooth.
I looked up at her and felt at ease, at home with the one who loved me unconditionally, forever. We talked about life and getting older.
"Je-fia, what do you want to be when you ghl-oh up?" she asked, her Taiwanese accent morphing her Rs into drawn-out Ls.
"I wanna be a mommy," I quickly replied.
"Ai-yoh, Je-fia!! Silly dingo. No … no, no, no. You cannot be Ma-mi," she objected.
"But Mom, I like what you do. You take care of us. I wanna do that when I grow up."
"Okay. Okay, Je-fia. That's good you want to take care of people. But you can't be Ma-mi. You become doctor – or scientist – okay?"
"Well … okay, Mom," I dejectedly accepted her explanation.
The memory of that conversation is embedded in me. It's persisted through childhood and adolescence, from young adulthood through to parenthood.
I imagine many reasons for my mom's reaction to my "motherhood" aspirations – cultural, societal, biological. Back in 1978, a grown man staying at home with the kids was, at best, an anomaly. Even today I suspect it is still not something to which most guys openly aspire.
Now I'm 40. It's morning again. I gaze out the kitchen window at snowdrifts in the backyard. Various animal tracks break up the smooth waves of snow that rise and fall like an ocean suspended in time. Snow and ice have melted and refrozen atop the deck posts, resembling inukshuks. I daydream of the far North and imagine its magnificent landscape.
My reverie is abruptly interrupted.
"No! It's mine!"
"Not fair! Give it back!"
My boys yell as they fight over their latest toy, a Chima Speedor. I know the names of almost every character in the series: LaGravis, Laval, Cragger, Worriz, just to mention a few. I still have trouble differentiating between them, though.
I dutifully make my way to referee their latest brotherly battle. Such is the life of a dad. Correction: Such is my life as a stay-at-home dad.
When my wife's parental leave for our first-born ended, I worked part-time and stayed home halftime.
When she returned to work after her leave for our second-born finished, I quit my job indefinitely, trading in my shirt and tie, workstation and watercooler gossip for a life of pots and pans, patch-kneed pants, caveman scruff and dirty diapers.
And I love it.
I love cooking for my family. I love playing with my boys – taking them to the park, playing catch, building snow forts and making paper airplanes. I love teaching them right from wrong, making sure they grow up to be kind, caring and happy souls.
My experience is wonderful
and mundane, enlightening
yet mind-numbing, fulfilling
At times I've wondered, "Did I make the right decision? Did I set my career back? How long am I going to stay at home?"
Then, inevitably, a pot of potatoes boils over or some grilled cheese starts to burn. I make a mental note, "Do not ponder universe when cooking."
It's nighttime. I'm staring out the kitchen window again. The overhead clock ticks away metronomically. Cars go by, some way too fast. I hypnotically gaze at their headlights, some halogen yellow, others bright LED white.
"Why do we always have to be in such a rush?" I wonder. My eyes refocus on the neighbourhood outdoor rink, where volunteers flood the ice in -20 weather.
My reverie is sweetly interrupted.
"Daddy … can I sit on your lap?"
It's our second-born, sick with a 40-degree fever.
"Of course, buddy."
We sit down. I wrap my arms around my boy and give him the biggest hug. He returns the favour, grunting like a little bear. "I give you big bear hug, Daddy."
As he lovingly squeezes me, he whispers, "I love you all 'da way to 'da moon an' back."
"I love you all 'da way to 'da galaxies an' back," I reply, rubbing noses and touching foreheads. I can feel the feverish heat emanating off him.
"Daddy," he begins with a smile, "when I grow up I wanna be a cooker like you and Mom."
"You do?" I ask.
"Uh-huh," he answers. "What are you gonna be when you grow up? A firefighter?"
"I'm grown-up already," I reply.
"But what are you gonna be?" he insists.
"I'm a daddy!" I proclaim.
"No, you're a mommy!" he retorts, steadfast in his logic.
"I'm a mommy?"
"Yeah!" he nods and shouts.
"Well, I guess I'm a mommy then!"
"Yes!" he exclaims triumphantly. Laughter fills the room, echoing through the house, and time seems to freeze.
At this precise moment, I realize I've come full circle. From a four-year-old wishing to be a mommy, to a 40-year-old stay-at-home dad, all my experiences have brought me exactly where I want to be. Taking care of my family.
It took a four-year-old to help me see it.
Jeff Shiau lives in Ottawa.