No Yaya, No Cook, No Relatives: a Year as a Stay-at-Home Dad
It was his wife’s first day at work, and Carlo was terrified.
“Bye Allie!” Krista said, kissing their 10 month-old daughter goodbye.
As soon as the door to their apartment closed, Allie let out a wail.
“It’s okay Allie, let it out,” Carlo said rocking Allie. “I know. Mommy will be home soon.”
After a few minutes of crying, he carried Allie to the bathroom.
“Peekaboo!” he said, darting in front of the bathroom mirror with her, then stepping back. “Peekaboo!”
Allie paused, her eyes still full of tears. As Carlo darted in front of the mirror again, she let out a giggle.
Down the hallway, Krista let out a sigh of relief and went on her way to the hospital where she worked.
They had just moved to Maryland, USA at the start of winter for Krista’s one-year medical fellowship at a very prestigious hospital. When it came to Carlo’s decision to tag along and take care of Allie, his friends and colleagues were split down the middle.
While a lot of them were supportive of his decision to put family first, some of his colleagues thought he should have stayed home and started his practice, instead of delaying it any further.
But for Carlo, helping Krista take care of Allie was a no-brainer and he didn’t care what anyone thought. He’d already missed the first seven months of Allie’s life during his own medical fellowship in Singapore. He would never get those seven months back, and he wasn’t willing to spend any more time away from his wife.
Nevertheless, the prospect of looking after Allie alone, with no help from a nanny or their relatives was certainly daunting. “Allie didn’t even know me that well,” Carlo says. “When we were in Manila from her eighth to tenth month, she wouldn’t let me get her from Krista. I was a stranger to her.”
Seeing as he’d hardly taken care of her by himself when he was in Manila, he was worried he wouldn’t be able to do it properly. As long as she was alive, clean, fed, and able to sleep, that would be enough for him.
The first few weeks weren’t easy: apart from taking care of Allie, Carlo had to do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. And for the first few days, he couldn’t do anything but look after Allie—not even while she was napping. “With a new environment and new caregiver, it was too much to ask of her to let herself be put down,” he says.
After all, it was a big adjustment for Allie too: She’d gone from being surrounded by her mom, her yaya, grandparents, and aunts to being in a completely different country with a dad she barely knew. She only lasted ten minutes in her Pack 'n Play crib before complaining.
"I wouldn’t soothe her right away, since her grievance was legitimate. I’d let her feel sad first."
Sometimes, in the middle of the day, Allie would suddenly remember that Krista wasn’t there and start to cry. “I wouldn’t soothe her right away, since her grievance was legitimate,” Carlo says. “I’d let her feel sad first, because [babies] don’t like it if you distract them immediately and don’t let them express their feelings. I’d just let her cry in the middle of the bed, and then when she was ready to be picked up, she’d ask to be picked up.”
It wasn’t easy to feed her, either. Since Allie was accustomed to being nursed by her mom, she would turn her head away whenever Carlo tried to offer her a bottle. For the first couple of days, she would only drink water from a sippy cup. Eventually, she got used to drinking baby smoothies that came in a pouch, and when she turned one year old, she was allowed to drink cow’s milk.
The only time Carlo could get any chores done was when Krista got back from the hospital. Since he couldn’t cook during the day, he wound up eating microwaveable meals or leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.
After one month, they finally got a routine down: Allie would wake up at six a.m. and play or read her books. From 10 to 11 a.m. she’d take her morning nap, and by the time she woke up she’d be hungry enough for lunch. After that she’d play, nap from two p.m. to four p.m., and play again when she woke up. Krista would get home at around five or six in the evening and take over watching Allie, so that Carlo could do the chores.
At least when it came to laundry, he wasn’t starting from zero. He’d learned to wash his own clothes back when he was in Singapore, and by the time they were in the States, he’d gotten it down to a science. “I actually enjoyed doing the laundry,” he says.
He also had fun making dishes that Krista and Allie enjoyed, like salmon cooked with rice wine vinegar and pickled radishes, and soy beef with cilantro. He hated washing the dishes, but that wasn’t too bad since they had a dishwasher. What he really didn’t like was vacuuming. “I had to vacuum the whole apartment since 70 percent of the apartment was carpet, which was good safety-wise but cleanliness-wise, not so great."
Once he got used to it, being able to cook and clean for himself was actually pretty empowering. “It was like a fellowship in life. There were skills I always had but never really pushed,” he says. “I realized I could cook a decent meal after all, and it was a skill I knew I could take home. It’s empowering on a personal level to be able to live without help. So when you do have help, you appreciate it. I began to appreciate how hard the work of the help is—both the maids and the yayas, and how much we should appreciate them.”
But the thing he loved most about being a stay-at-home-dad, hands down, was spending time with Allie. “After having not been with her for seven months, we really bonded. There were times when Allie would say something, and only I could understand her since I’d been with her the whole day. I knew exactly what she was talking about,” Carlo recalls. “I knew what she wanted to eat or drink, or sometimes she was naming things or telling a story.”
When Krista had medical conferences in New York, he and Allie would tag along. While Krista was at her conference, he and Allie would go sightseeing, just the two of them. They’d join bus tours, go shopping, and visit the park, and eat New York-style pizza. “Just being with her was a great memory because dads don't usually get to spend that much time with their kids,” Carlo says. “Traditionally the pressure on the dad is to be the breadwinner, which is what I’m doing now so I’m glad I had that time with her.”
In fact, he was so engrossed in caring for Allie that when protest riots broke out in the city where they lived, he didn’t realize that anything was going on. He was just preparing dinner while Allie played with her toys, when Krista burst in and said, “Carlo, we have to go! People are rioting already.” Thankfully, they were able to go and stay with a friend who lived in the suburbs.
Then, six months into their stay, they found out that Krista was pregnant with their son, Lucas. He and Krista had to have a long talk about whether they’d cut her fellowship short and go home, or finish her fellowship then wait for her to give birth in the US, sans medical insurance.
“It’s hard to put into words, especially now that I’m working. It’s a different feeling knowing your kids inside and out, knowing you’re with them 24/7."
After all, as a doctor, Carlo was worried that he was getting rusty from not doing any surgeries for a year and a half. “The longer we stayed, the more worried I was that when I see a patient I might miss something or when I do a surgery, I might make mistakes.”
But when the hospital agreed to extend Krista’s fellowship and her insurance with it, staying an extra four-to-five months became a no-brainer. And so after Krista gave birth and her maternity leave ended, Carlo found himself taking care of a two year-old and a newborn.
He’d already started putting Allie in daycare while Krista was pregnant, so now he could focus on watching Lucas during the day. He was back to waiting until Krista came home before he could do chores, and he would feed Lucas at 3:00 a.m. so that his wife could get at least four to five hours of sleep.
“That’s one thing I want to share: Dads, help your wives take care of your newborn,” he says. “It makes a big difference when you take a few feeding shifts at night. The caveat there was I could sleep since I didn’t have work the next day. But now there’s paternity leave, so try to get paternity leave and use it to help because you’re not just taking care of your kid, you’re taking care of your wife by helping her sleep. Anything you can do to help your wife get more sleep is a big deal for her.”
The craziest days were when Carlo found himself taking care of both Allie and Lucas on his own—such as when Allie was sick and couldn’t go to daycare, or when Krista had to do errands. While that was definitely challenging, the lasting bond he developed with his kids made it all worth it.
“It’s a different feeling knowing your kids inside and out, knowing you’re with them 24/7. From the small things like when they blabber and they really mean something. Like with Lucas, I could tell when his cry was sleepy, hungry, or wet. There’s a sense of pride knowing you’re in tune with your kids and you know what they need.”
“Fatherhood is so much more than we think it is. It’s not just providing for the family and playing with your kids every now and then."
Though Allie was too young to really remember that year, Carlo is certain they have a bond rooted in the time they spent together. Every now and then, he and Allie look at their pictures together, and he can tell she’s happy to see that she was included.
“It’s like bonding in reverse. You show them that when they were babies, you took care of them and I can see it in their faces, when they say ‘Daddy, show me the pictures of when we went to the zoo,’” Carlo says. “Even if she doesn’t remember when you did those things, now that they have memories, you retroactively add those memories. And them, knowing that their parents took care of them when they were babies, you can see it has an effect on them.”
“Fatherhood is so much more than we think it is,” he adds. “It’s not just providing for the family and playing with your kids every now and then. There’s so much more you can do for them. I think a lot of fathers are doing that now, and there are more hands-on dads nowadays. We can be more involved in our children’s rearing than the traditional role of a father dictates.”