Surfaces: wood chips, rubber.
Tomorrow I’m going back to work after 432 days as a stay-at-home parent.
I’ve been living the past couple of weeks with the mild panic that envelops a person when they have many boxes left to check, but limited time to do so. Did I get in touch with all the people I swore I would get in touch with? Did I clean out that corner of the house that has always bugged me? Did I savour this time with my kids as much as I should have?
And of course, did we visit the playgrounds we really wanted to visit?
As the Final Weekend approached, an opportunity for some good box-checking fell in my lap when a fellow stay-at-home parent (and overall wonderful person) got in touch and asked if we could meet up at a playground with her kids. I had been meaning to check out the pirate-themed playground down at the Cherry Beach Sports Field, so I jumped at the chance.
Sunscreen. Water. Diapers. Snacks.
I announced to the kids that we were going to take the bike trailer (logging kilometres on my bike, especially with the extra weight of a trailer and two children, was another box I’d been itching to check) and we were off to the Port Lands.
Glancing at the Google map, the Cherry Beach Sports field looked to be just south of the Lake Shore. But the Port Lands are a huge, huge area – 715 acres, almost twice the size of High Park – and on a bike, you get the distinct feeling that you are in the wrong place.
Toronto’s Port Lands are, shall we say, an unlikely location for a playground.
Most of the area is taken up by things that smell funny, and/or require a large plot of land: sewage treatment, organic waste dumps, the occasional Cirque du Soleil show. As we biked past the FedEx warehouse, my son informed me from the bike trailer, with a somewhat less-than-thrilled tone of voice, that the road was bumpy, and would we get there soon, dear father?
But just when I thought that we might have taken a wrong turn and were destined to spend the night camping out in The Hearn, there it was. An oasis of artificial turf and pleasant greenery known as the Cherry Beach Sports Field.
And you know what? It was worth the ride.
The pirate ship climber, a wooden work of art by Henderson, is in great shape, despite being more than a decade old. I guess that’s the advantage of being so far from where any families actually live: the playground is so lightly used that it might last for decades more. There were swings, spinners, bathrooms, and a rope climber, from which my kids excitedly watched propeller planes pass overhead, on their way to Billy Bishop Airport.
Before long, our playmates arrived; a mother who was a friend of my wife’s when they did some kind of baby yoga thing together, and who now has four kids, all under the age of 6. The way she spoke about their routines and their challenges filled me with absolute awe. If ever I start to think I’ve mastered the stay-at-home thing, all I have to do is think of the serene confidence of this mom, and I’m immediately humbled.
Our kids, who don’t really know each other that well, played easily together, the way kids always seem to do. They hunted for interesting leaves, bugs, and the occasional bit of trash that we calmly suggested they might want to put down. We were so distracted by the kids that it was a while before we noticed a brave squirrel chewing through my friend’s backpack in search of food.
Which reminded me: dinner. Time to pack up the kids and get going.
Pack the bag. Bathroom? Helmets. Shoes. Into the trailer.
The ride home up the Don Valley trail gave me time to think about how slowly and how quickly my time as a stay-at-home parent had gone by. 432 days. 14 months. I’m not even five years into parenting, and I can already attest to the truism that parenting really is the longest shortest time.
My nostalgia was interrupted by the sudden reality of Pottery Road. The ride up the Don Valley is gradually uphill, but at Pottery Road it becomes dramatically uphill. I wondered if a year of biking around with two kids trailing behind had made me any stronger. I clicked down to the lowest gear and started up.
Within a minute, I was sure I wasn't going to make it up. The pain in my legs was accompanied by negative thoughts: how am I not in better shape? How is this year already over? I didn't enjoy it enough. I should have been paying closer attention.
I pushed away those thoughts and distracted myself by trying to pull out a conclusion or two from the past 14 months. What had I learned by staying at home? About fatherhood? About parenthood? Are those things even worth distinguishing between?
The first feeling that rose to the surface, other than the growing pain in my legs and burning in my lungs, was one of overwhelming gratitude: I am so very lucky to have been able to do this. Lucky that my workplace makes a leave like this possible. That my spouse encouraged it. That I could afford it. I wish more people, and perhaps especially dads, would/could do this.
As I arrived at the top of Pottery Road, and the pavement beneath the bike began to mercifully level out, I felt a brief moment of smug pride at my achievement. I looked around at passersby, half expecting them to burst into applause, awed by my accomplishment as a cyclist. As a parent.
Of course, nobody applauded. To a real cyclist, Pottery Road isn’t much of a challenge. More to the point: to a real, full-time stay-at-home parent, 432 days at home (with only two kids, one of which was at school most of the year) isn’t much of a challenge.
I’m not trying to diminish what I’ve done this year. Watching my kids grow and visiting 125 playgrounds in the process has been amazing.
I’m just trying to see it in its proper context. It was a beautiful and challenging and rewarding experience, but it’s something that people (especially women) have been doing for as long as you might care to imagine. My own mother did it for twenty years. Nobody was waiting at the top of the hill to applaud her when her youngest son moved out.
So, other than gratitude, the other feeling I’m left with at the end of my stay-at-home stint is one of enormous respect for anyone who has ever done this for their children from birth through to age eighteen. Our culture undervalues the work of parenting to a ludicrous degree.
Every time I have a glass to raise, I will happily raise it to all the stay-at-homies out there. You should too. They deserve a high-five, a bottle of wine, and a couple of good Instant Pot recipes. But mostly they deserve our admiration and respect.