Bringing Up Baby

A stay-at-home dad learns as much as he imparts—and blogs about it.

By David Hoyt, AB'91 | Illustrations by Laura Shaeffer

"On a cool and rainy spring morning about one month ago," David Hoyt, AB'91, wrote in May of 2007, "I saw my wife to the door after three months of maternity leave. I took a picture of her as she lingered by the gate under her umbrella in the drizzle." An ambiguous image, but a significant transition: she was returning to her 50-hour-a-week job as an investment researcher, while he was about to begin his first day as a stay-at-home father.

Soon afterward, Hoyt began writing about his experiences caring for "Spot" (for privacy, he prefers not to identify his son or wife by name) on the group blog Daddy Dialectic. "I've always had to write about something," says Hoyt, who holds a PhD in modern European history from UCLA. "The blog format is perfect for people whose time is fragmented."

In his entries, Hoyt details the mundane, the transcendent, and the truly revolting moments of parenting—such as a story involving a Diaper Genie that made me laugh until I wept, and made Core editor Laura Demanski feel queasy. (She won; it's not included here.)

—Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Be a Man!

Be a Man!The Spot had no idea what was coming when he started rehearsing his routine for the future Olympic sport of synchronized water-disco on the pediatrician's examination table—supine, rhythmical frog-kicks, accompanied by grandiose arm gestures cribbed from ballet (my wife's pre-natal influence, no doubt), topped off with that silent, toothless smile—none of this prepared him for the triple whammy of vaccination shots administered to his thighs. The lag between stimulus and response was shorter now than it had been before; this time, it only took him about three seconds to realize he had been double-crossed, that this wasn't water-disco, and that it really hurt.

Our pediatrician's nurse, a streetwise, 30-something woman from Chicago's South Side, quickly withdrew each syringe from Spot's leg and slammed it into the vinyl-coated cushion of the examination table. While Spot was working to connect the sensation of pain in his leg to his sensation that his leg was a part of his body, I tried to process the needles in the cushion, like arrows stuck in a straw target, or cutting knives on a butcher's block. None of it seemed to match the high-tech vision of a sterile medical utopia that I had brought with me that groggy morning. Before I could sort out my own sensations, the nurse leaned over to Spot, still lost in his wasp-like fury, and advised him, "Be a man!" Tongue in cheek, of course, given that it would be a challenge at this point for Spot to match the intelligence of a dog or the coordination of a chicken, let alone the fortitude of a "man." But I marked the event.

For all my friends who ponder why it is that boys gravitate towards trucks or become aggressive on the playground, I can now point to this: just four months out of his mother's womb, Spot was being told to manage pain in a manner appropriate to his gender. No doubt the larger process of gender acculturation has already started, in a million ways that we are unaware of, interacting with all the hormonal feedback loops that go hand in hand with learning, socialization, and development.

Granted, there is great value to managing one's reflexes, to gaining control of one's body and its processes, and building a high tolerance for discomfort. But this is Spot we're talking about, not an advanced yoga guru or a Stoic philosopher. The pain may as well have come from an out-of-control nail gun that threatened to perforate his entire bottom. Cries of alarm were entirely warranted. Adults had to be notified, dangers removed.

So Spot and I decided to turn the tables on our well-meaning nurse. Rather than adopting the grim ideal of manly impassiveness—admirable in its way, in certain circumstances, by both men and women—we turned on the power of babyhood. I got Spot up on his legs to work out the pain, and helped him do a little jig on the table. Before you know it, he was cooing and clucking, the toothless smile was back, and our nurse was down on her elbows, down in Spot's world. It is an enviable place, where there are no grudges, where the joy is in the moment, and a universe of fascination unfolds from the smallest thing. This is a baby, I thought, not a man, not even really a boy. He will become those things, or something else, or some combination of them all—whatever they mean, whatever they are—later, and hopefully of his own volition.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Words: Learning Them and Losing Them

BooksThere are essentially two piles of books in our household: Spot's pile and my pile. (My wife reads mostly magazines and trade journals, and listens to e-books on the daily commute.)

Spot's is the more motley pile, with books of all shapes, sizes, and textures—rubber books, cardboard books, books that float, books with sandpaper, gauze, and scratch-and-sniff patches. Dad's pile is enough to scare any young mind away from the very prospect of literacy. It is certainly more massive, contains far fewer illustrations, and none of it floats.

Both piles are growing. Disconcertingly, my pile contains an increasing number of 600-page tomes that have yet to be opened, with titles like Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life, and Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. An amateur psychoanalyst friend had no trouble diagnosing me with the bookish version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. There's simply no way, given my current lifestyle, that I could possibly read these books at the rate I am acquiring them.

Meanwhile, Spot is making good use of everything he's got. He's figured out how to turn pages, and the mastery of this simple technology is really the key to the universe. Although none of his frothy diphthongs or happy glottal clicks will find a place in modern English, the link between page, sign, sound (or mysteriously funny joke) is clearly there.

I try to focus on his progress in compensation for my own sense of steadily diminishing IQ. On bad days this can seem like a purely Darwinian transfer of resources: "Son, here is my vocabulary. Enjoy it. I won't be needing it anymore."

On good days, when we achieve something like family bliss, Spot quietly flips back and forth through all 700 pages of The Search for Modern China. I sit back in the armchair, feel my years, and reread the five pages I read the day before.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Field Notes from a Jungle Gym

Bah!I was in the tower of the multiplex jungle gym, surrounded by six little monkeys who had climbed up out of nowhere, and now formed this adventurer's society of largely illiterate creatures.

In one direction was the drawbridge over the Infinite Abyss; in another, the Tunnel to the Edge of the Universe; over there, two adjacent steering wheels that could be used to conduct our ramshackle bus-train-spaceship in two directions simultaneously.

Among the two children who could talk, there was disagreement as to which type of vehicle we were inhabiting. The rest of us were along for the ride.

It occurred to me that other folks in the park might suspect me of being a pervert, a local Michael Jackson in this tower where only kids should be, hunkered down cross-legged so no one could see me. Some nerdish dad in fact came over and poked his head into our pirate's nest, a mid-to-late-twenty-something grad student dad, clutching some journal article he had naively hoped to read.

All rubbish, of course, both his reading and his suspicions, for I had my identity card, my backstage pass, my carte d'entrée. It was a 23.5-pound beanbag, sitting at somewhat of a list, watching the more mobile beanbags circulate through the tunnels and spirals. Spot gaped and uttered, "Bah!"

"Bah" indeed! What an appropriate retort to the universe, at all stages of earthly existence. A word that marks the beginning of language and, perhaps, the end of philosophy. What do you make of the world crisis today, Spot? "Bah!"

It's not that I'm averse to schmoosing with Big People; in fact, I had done that for half an hour before Spot and I scaled the jungle gym. There were the two Jackie Onassis moms in big sunglasses and wool coats deep in conversation while Johnny buried his head in a sandbox; the solo mom on the cell phone who took off as soon as we entered her quadrant; the Korean couple who had carved out a Sphere of Influence for themselves, their son, and various earth-moving devices; the friendly, slobbish dad with two kids that we couldn't keep up with.

That left the jungle gym. Unoccupied. Terra nullius. So up we went. And within minutes, suddenly we were at the center of it all. I made a few introductions, then stood back to guard the precipices. The small crowd of small people ebbed and surged, but always fell back to the center, and recognized itself. And Spot was a part of it.

"Bah!" he said.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Economics of Potty Training

Bah!We did not invent the use of stickers as currency. Like gold or precious stones, stickers have an intrinsic value to the toddler's eye. So the first step in potty training is to establish a standard of value between potty production and stickers. In our study, this standard was 1:1, or, one sticker to one poop or one pee-pee.

Prior to this step, poop had no value. Suddenly, it is worth one sticker, and if Spot pees, maybe two. The basis for exchange has been created, and through the miracle of economics, poop has become a commodity.

Problems only arise when Spot exits this closed system and spends the morning with Grandpa. Grandpa, despite our best efforts to persuade him otherwise, does not adhere to our standard of value. Instead of maintaining a 1:1 ratio of labor to remuneration, he demonstrates an utter lack of discipline and rewards Spot four, five, or six stickers for every session on the potty. The inexorable result is sticker inflation.

Grandpa displays all the characteristics of an inflationary central banker. Stickers flow like water. Instead of issuing them himself, Grandpa lets Spot take as many stickers as he wants. As a result, the rate of exchange for poop fluctuates wildly between households. Spot is not happy with the imbalance.

At first, though Grandpa recognized the problem, he failed to perceive the correct solution, and proposed that we abandon stickers as currency and replace them with something else, such as crayons. We argued this would only result in the same inflationary spiral. The only solution was to resume control of sticker issuance and clamp down hard on the money supply.

Ultimately this is what happened, and stability returned to the inter-household sticker-poop exchange rate.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Trash and the Urban Outdoors

Bah!It's not unusual to find Spot with one of two things in his hands: a twig or enormous leaf, or some unidentifiable but fascinating plastic widget. Spot has become a great collector, amasser, and connoisseur of the world's small wonders, about half of which consist of trash.

He brings them all to us without prejudice. It is we who sort them into arrangements suitable for a 17th-century Dutch still life, on the one hand, or the recycling bins in the garage, on the other.

His growing cabinet of curiosities encompasses acorns, glass beads, a dessicated monarch butterfly, plastic bottles, pinecones, and foil chip bags of all colors and sizes. The one thing they have in common is that Spot brings them in from "outside."

I fully support Spot's clean-up activity, however much it may baffle the local teenagers who diligently undo all our work. When in need of a late afternoon rallying cry, "Let's go pick up trash!" is now one of the most effective.

Cleaning up the neighborhood is just one by-product of Spot's curiosity about the world, which ignores the fine distinctions between "nature" and "culture," or "society" and "environment." Where does one stop, and the other begin? These are the questions that my three-and-a-half-year-old radical philosopher poses.

It is a fantasy to think there is a place where nature exists apart from the impact of the age we live in—the Great Anthropocene—or where the artificiality of society has drowned out the authenticity of the natural world. If you look closely, they are always both there. Like the pop can next to the mushrooms in the grass, sprung up overnight.