Full Circle

I used to have a battered cardboard box that contained the evidence of my youth. A period that not only seems a lifetime ago but a span of years that as an adult I have tried hard, with limited success, to distance myself from.

bury my heart
Seemed like a good idea at the time.

In this box were dogeared photos of youth wearing unfashionably outdated clothing that were complimented with similarly unforgiving hairdos. There were report cards tattooed with the red ink of numerous teachers swift pens. Awkward drawings of dinosaurs and athletes as well as the scattered seeds of a future poet written on double lined paper. There was video footage of my father in Thailand during the Vietnam war and a much younger version of myself in diapers on the Air Force base back in the States just to name a few of the items.

Just before discarding the artifacts I took one last look through the box. I discovered a graduation card from my father that I had overlooked upon first glance.  By the time the card had been written my parents had been separated for nearly six years.

“You’re the man of the house now,” he told me one sunny afternoon while my siblings and I cried and pleaded. From our perspective it came out of the blue but in hindsight it was a rather obvious destination for my young parents marriage.

I opened the card and read it.

My advice to you is to find a job you enjoy doing because you will be working for the rest of your life.

Sage advice from a man who spent the better part of his life working in factories in Sidney and Harrisburg.

I realized today while folding laundry that I have in fact taken his advice. For the last five years I have been a stay at-home father. It is similar to other occupations in that there are good days and bad days. But it is different from most occupations in regards to a number of aspects.

034To begin with I love the people I work for. I mean that more than words can express. It’s perfectly alright that my 10 year finds it necessary to thread chewing gum around her fingers which are dangerously close to her long curly hair while I write this. That does not diminish my love. Nor does my screaming 1 year old who is hollering simply to see how much volume her little body can produce. I swear I saw a potted plant start to vibrate off a book shelf when she started yelling.

Another thing that may be a bit different is that I spend my sick days and vacation time with the people I work for. They see me early in the morning with sleep still in my eyes and late at night when even a cup of coffee can not prop open my drooping eye lids.

They see me twist like a pretzel and breath while I do my morning yoga routine. They hear me exhale loudly when my favorite team loses, again. They see the twinkle in my eye when I flirt with their mother and I can’t help but chuckle when I see them want to melt from embarrassment.

I chase the people I work for with a vacuum cleaner during chores because I think their reactions are funny. I recoil at the amount of earwax that is harpooned from their ears after a bath. I teach them how to cook and how to stand in the batters box and face a fastball. I tell them jokes that sounded funnier in my head and laugh at their jokes though at times they lack a good punch line. I give them advice they don’t want when they need it least and simply hug them when they need it most. 040

I have begun to realize of late that I have been very fortunate in this journey through existence. I met and married an amazing woman who values having a parent at home while our children grow up. As an individual who has never enjoyed clocking in for an orthodox 8 hours I have been very lucky to have the ability to be on call 24/7 instead.

It has not been an easy path, but then again, what road is not filled with obstacles at some point? The true blessing I suppose is that this is a route of my own design.


The Etiquette of Violence

Solid Left Hook
Solid Left Hook

“In violence, we forget who we are” Mary McCarthy

We had a very busy schedule this morning. First we were stopping by the dump. Then we had to go to the post office to mail letters to pen pals in Australia. Afterwards we had a trip down the local interstate to gather paperwork that had to be handed back in to our local school district to wrap up this homeschooling year. . . .as though homeschooling ever stops.

As we were leaving the dump we had to travel a few miles to the post office. Upon pulling up to the final red light I started telling my kids some of the places we planned on going this summer, the Smokey Mountains, St. Augustine and so on. As I was talking I heard a car horn blast two or three times behind me. Looking in the rearview mirror I found that the fellow behind me along with his teenage daughter were so close to my rear bumper I could see the lines on their faces. I thought maybe I had missed the light while talking and looking up saw that it was still red and the flow of traffic would not allow a right-hand turn anyway so I went back to my conversation. Again the horn, this time when I looked up in the mirror he was angrily signaling for me to turn. I responded with a bit of frustration waving him around the vehicle. His first reaction to my hospitality was to give me the middle finger.

Allow me to provide a little background to this story before I go any further. I grew up in a violent household. My family before me grew up in violence, it was multi-generational. I am neither intimidated by it nor impressed by it. In fact I have very little patience for it and I have worked very hard to channel my energy properly and believe me at times it is work. As a young man I was consumed by my anger due to my upbringing and allowed it devour my youth simply because I had not been provided the tools or opportunity to move down another path. I chose a number of negative influences before I found boxing and believe it or not that eventually led me to yoga.

So with that said back to our story. When the traffic slowed I turned right. As I was driving I glanced in my mirror and saw my tailgater tight on my bumper. I started thinking that he was following me. In an attempt to test my theory I waited until the last second to choose one of a number of left hand turns, he followed. In order to make sure I was not being paranoid I chose to take a random right hand turn that is rarely ever used and he followed. At this point my mind began to race. My uncles were all champion pugilist and trainers. I spent a lot of time around them as a kid and recently as an adult spent countless hours in gyms following in the family business training a local heavyweight. My point is I am in pretty good shape for a 40 year old and know how to throw a serious punch. I also recognize the responsibility that arises with this knowledge and lucky for this fellow nowadays I prefer to do yoga more than hit the heavy bag. I prefer to center on the calm rather than the violent.

My main concern was exposing my children to this sort of behavior but I knew that he would continue to follow until I stopped so I did. I pulled into a parking space at the grocery store that allowed me to drive forward if need be. I did not like the idea of backing over someone I had just flattened with a solid left hook. Before I even had my vehicle in park this fellow was out of his truck. In a split second I digested my surroundings, his body language and type.

Though he got out quickly he did not take more than a step toward my vehicle which told me that he really was not interested in getting physical. He had not shown a weapon and his daughter was staring straight ahead obviously embarrassed. I also noticed his huge beer belly and gathered he probably is not doing the amount of pushups I do in a day thus if it came to blows he would be winded in a moments time. I do not say this to brag or impress simply to let you know what was running through my mind.

As I stepped out of my vehicle he started screaming at me dropping the f-bomb every other word. I calmly walked toward him which he did not expect and stopped about three feet from him. I casually told him I had three young children in the vehicle and for lack of a better phrase told him he needed to gather himself. At this point he tried blaming me for the confrontation claiming I had been aggressive with him which was not the case. I started rolling my arms slowly the way I do when I am warming up to strike a heavy bag without realizing I was doing it. I only realized it when he looked at my arms moving and slowed his speech grabbing his car door to get in quickly. I smiled politely and stopped and told him I was signaling him to go around me and he said I should not have done that and then proceeded to get into his car. He should have gotten a speeding ticket in the process of leaving.

I got back into my vehicle and my kids were wide eyed. I said everything was alright and we went to the post office. They still seemed a little shell shocked afterwards. So I began explaining what road rage was. I also took the opportunity to explain that I could have chosen to escalate the situation by screaming back or I could have done what I did which was allow him to blow off some steam. I tried to relate it to other experiences where one may have to allow their instincts to guide them to a safe resolution rather than resorting to violence.

Some people do not like boxing. Some do not understand the violent ballet. I told my children that though I know how to fight I do not like to do it because people get hurt and I do not like hurting people. But I wanted them to understand the confidence that one has knowing they can defend themselves and those that they love. We talked about the philosophy that surrounds a solid yoga routine which we tend to do as a family. I tried to relate this higher understanding of suffering and empathy and explained to them that I chose to remain peaceful rather than engaging his violence.

It was a strange day, one that parents and children unfortunately have to deal with on occasion. I hope that my children walked away feeling safe and secure and may have gained some on the job training in conflict resolution.  

It Goes Without Saying. . . .


Parenthood offers a scope of the world rarely glimpsed by those without children. Certain day to day rituals become major productions testing the boundaries of nurture verses nature. One does not even have to leave their own home to experience the bliss of raising children.

Let us start with the bathroom. The calming warm showers that prepare us for the day ahead suddenly become ice cold waterfalls. Many a parent has felt the last warm drop of water fade as they peer out of the curtain with a head full of conditioner, one eye shut tight from its stinging blindness as a child presents their case. Problem is their speech is inaudible due to the water hissing upon the clammy shower curtain. A rushed exchange takes place and the child of course runs away leaving the door wide open and all the cold air in the house comes rushing in.

Keeping with the bathroom theme, there are few acts that leaves us as vulnerable as using the bathroom. Sit down with a bare bottom and suddenly your bathroom becomes a scene from “Night Of The Living Dead” as children pound zombie like on the bathroom door. In a frail attempt to reassert your authority you bark orders from your porcelain throne but it is in vain. No one listens to a king with their pants around their ankles. Worse yet is when you realize the roll of toilet paper is soaking wet in the bathtub from some failed experiment and you are forced to summon your child with increased volume and urgency as your cries are met with deafening silence, hoping against all hope that they will awaken from the hypnotic glare of the television on the other side of the house and rescue you with a fresh roll. Time is of the essence in these situations.

Moving along to the kitchen where your shoe will randomly stick to the linoleum due to hours old orange juice on the floor. Scissors will be covered in honey, cakes will be stripped of their icing like iron ore from the earth and delicately put back as though nothing occurred, cereal boxes will be put back in place with a single cheerio in the bottom of the box and plastic eggs from your childrens kitchen set will replace fresh eggs in the fridge (luckily fresh eggs were accidentally found in parents sneakers under the bed). Cookies miraculously disappear from cupboards at alarming rates while dinner plates of healthy food are found in the garbage.

This of course leads into breakfast, lunch or dinner taking place in the dining room, a room where children hang from their chairs like performers from Circus du Soleil. Entire cups of juice are guzzled before the table is set or better yet simply spilled across its entirety. Bargains are struck for dessert or desertion whichever comes first and inappropriate jokes rule the meal.

How about the living room you say? The room where children leap from couch to chair in a single bound, where hockey pucks sail dangerously close to windows and the deep creases of furniture hide the wrappers from Halloween candy and smuggled goodies in the wee hours of the morning. The room where the Lawrence Welk show eerily plays in the background while children wrestle and fight over a toy neither of them really wants.

Then there is of course the bedroom, where tears flow as though youth are being condemned to an eternity of hard labor. Deals are struck to stay up a little later only to be renegotiated when the lights finally go off. Pajamas are the straitjacket of the wild naked child, a Tarzan like character that leaps from dresser to bed declaring independence from all things parental. Like a scene from the Shawshank Redemption the older children stand vigil while the youngest commandos free of their bedroom chamber and sneaks to the bottom of the stairs blending with the shadows only to emerge while the most inappropriate portion of the movie boldly displays itself upon the television. Horrified eyes of parent and child meet.

I know what some of you are thinking. You are making this up. You are embellishing. Others are thinking why not step out of the house and allow that youthful energy to burn off. I will explain why. Your children will color the insides of their nostrils green and black with markers, they will soil themselves, they will argue to wear t-shirts in the winter and jackets in the summer; they will hide your car keys and quickly forget where they were stashed.

Where else in life can one find such lovable characters?  These are by far the most interesting and entertaining years of my life.

Tobias Whitaker also blogs for Mother Earth News and Grit Magazine. You can also find him on Facebook at Seed To Harvest: Bossy Hen Homestead which is a central location for his homesteading blogs and his homeschooling blog A Mile In Her Shoes: Tales Of A Stay-At Home Dad .  

Role Model

I thought yoga was relaxing!
I thought yoga was relaxing!

For well over a decade I worked with high risk youth within a three county radius of my home town. It provided invaluable insight into the lives of others. I witnessed tragedy and success among many of the families that I worked with on a daily basis for close to 12 years.

My small town has one very sad statistic. Nearly 70% of our children are in single parent households and the responsibility overwhelming falls on the shoulders of young single women. I was one of those children and to put it mildly my family was extremely dysfunctional. That was my catalyst. That was the foundation that pushed me into working with high risk youth. Somehow through all the bad decisions I had made I had arrived on the other side in one piece and wanted to reach out to kids who may be going through difficult circumstances themselves.

Ironically I had no idea at the time that this career path would be one of the early influences in my familys decision to homeschool. The role of the parent was evident to both my wife and myself.

I have often wondered how one can be a successful role model when one is constantly evolving as a human being themselves? We may argue that it is the choices we make and promote but as we all know there are a number of roads that lead to enlightenment.

I was around twelve when my parents separated so there was some opportunity for a male influence in my life but for the most part being a father, better yet being a good father, has required a lot of on the job training. I now know that proudly declaring a new tradition such as one night a year we will be eating cake and ice cream for supper is a bad idea. Truth be told I knew it was a bad idea after the third mouthful of sugar made their pupils dilate to the size of quarters and they went into a blood lust sugar frenzy. I have also learned that when you have three children under the age of seven that if things get really quiet chances are something really bad is happening. I have found that when you are changing a diaper whose contents have migrated up the back of your child that your cat and dog will simultaneously vomit on different areas of the carpet. (True story).

My biggest goal as a parent has been to show my children that I love them. Some just take that as par for the course but it is a rare gem these days. Take it from someone who has worked with troubled youth and their parents directly. I have this notion that if I provide them with enough encouragement and hugs that they will have the confidence to accomplish their hearts desire. That is the key, what they desire, not what I desire.

I am far from perfect. I raise my voice when it is unnecessary at times. I debate meaningless subjects with full conviction when I could just walk away. I am talking in particular about the great “M&M for breakfast debate” of 2011. But I am aware of my faults and yearn to be the best parent I can. I have a personal motto that I try to remember while weathering a storm of tears and permanent marker wall art, “I am the example.”

I try to remember that the way I react to a situation is going to leave a lasting impression. Whether that means turning the other cheek while I roll around in pain after stepping on a lego or complimenting the dedication involved in not changing ones underwear for days on end. Maybe this means pretending I don’t notice there seemed to be a mass exodus of jelly beans in the cupboard since the last time I looked, five minutes ago.

I’m careful not to take too much credit for my childrens behavior. I tend to think part of it is that they are just genuinely nice people. Another part of me realizes they have an amazing mother who leads by example in the home and in the community. There is a part of me that feels my own self realization is blooming simply from parenthood. Maybe at the end of the day they are the ones setting the example and I am open enough to listen to their monumental lectures delivered with the unrestrained passion of youth.

Tobias Whitaker also blogs for Mother Earth News and Grit Magazine. You can also find him on Facebook at Seed To Harvest: Bossy Hen Homestead which is a central location for his homesteading blogs and his homeschooling blog, A Mile In Her Shoes: Tales Of A Stay-At Home Dad .  

The Grand Experiment

ImageI am a 40 year old male. In December of 2011 I left my job of three years and took over the role of primary caregiver in our family. It has been a wonderfully confusing and satisfying experience thus far and even on the slowest of days it is full of bizarre situations that can only arise within the company of young children.

As we all know every parenting situation is unique regardless of the sex of the parent who stays at home. What makes my position a bit uncommon is that I live in a rural town of approximately 7,000 people and our family homeschools. According to the National At-Home Dad Network (athomedad.org) the number of stay at-home fathers has nearly doubled in the last decade. There are roughly 189,000 fathers at home according to the 2012 census. A much smaller number of dads are the primary homeschooling parent and in our neck of the woods most families that homeschool are part of the religious right, which we are not. So it has become a bit of a running joke in our family that I am a minority within a minority.

Admittedly when one becomes the stay at-home parent there is a sense of freedom that exist. With that said though there are unique stresses and prejudice that seem to tie in with “reversing roles”.

Initially there seems to be a level of suspicion among relatives and friends as though the father is simply on hiatus and will be returning to the “real world” shortly. There is even an underlying current of being a lazy husband as though the female parent in the household now has one more child to take care of. Truth is, I am rather immature for my age but I am not looking to regress to my teenage years!  The whole thing is viewed as an experiment of sorts that is eventually doomed for failure because somewhere along the lines in the subconscious of our society gender roles have been clearly defined and a stay at-home father fails to represent the masculine archetype we have all come to fear and love.

On some level it is a bit of an experiment I suppose. I still have not figured out the alchemical formula that my wife had in which laundry, dishes, diapers and supper were all done by 5:30 each evening. My wife has been kind enough to ignore the half folded pile of laundry that looms like a mountain over the thousands of puzzle pieces scattered on the floor when she comes home from a long day of running a local nonprofit.  I still see her smirk sometimes when I have a pile of dishes not only in the sink but on the counter as I try to prepare the simplest of meals. I have been pooped on, puked on, peed on and cried on more times than I can count this winter. It was like being in college all over again! I don’t comb hair properly and have to disguise this by saying it was a “jedi haircut”. I don’t color coordinate. I did not realize that was so important when the potential for spaghetti sauce, mud or finger paints loom around every corner. Sometimes I act surprised when I hear my two year old swear and then realize that particular word is a foundation block of my own vocabulary. How long should naps be? For me or for the child? Why don’t birds have human ears? Did Jesus have a vagina? How come hockey players are missing so many teeth? Why don’t you like the Yankees? Why can’t you wear ice skates on your knees? The list goes on. One thing is for sure I now realize how much I do not know.

There are also the encounters outside of the home. Somewhat regularly I find myself confronted by an individual meaning well but falling way short in startup conversation;

“Mom is taking the day off today I see, “
or the more aggressive, “Why aren’t your kids in school today?”
To which I calmly reply, “We homeschool.”
Now maybe I am not helping my own cause by wearing an old jacket with a patch that says, “Cult Leader” on it but I can’t help but find myself amused as I see their eyes shift from my odd patch to the kids who are usually adorned in outfits that proudly defy any logic. One example would be my four year old son wearing his hockey jersey, his older sister’s polka dot rain boots, his fingernails painted multiple colors, topped off with a fireman’s helmet and a light saber.

With all of that said there are moments of positive reinforcement. Most recently while working in the garden with my son a neighbor of ours stopped by the fence near our driveway and told me that she really admired our family and that our children were extremely lucky. As I tried to politely respond she walked away leaving me speaking out loud to my empty garden. I just looked at my son and shrugged. He saw the humor in it. Old dad, coming up a little short again.

There have been other obstacles as well. As we all know it is extremely difficult to get by on a single income in this day and age. I do hold a seat in local politics but the money is nothing to write home about. But this was a sacrifice we have long been willing to make. There are things far more important than money. Believe me when I tell you that. We have been creative in getting around the problem. We grow a huge garden in the summer. We wear extra layers in the winter. Simply put, we stretch a dollar as many people have to.

I’ve always been comfortable with stepping outside of the boundaries. Though staying home and homeschooling were both choices that were not taken lightly looking back on it it was a no brainer. When I see my kids wear wacky outfits with no inclination toward the latest trends or listen to them laugh deep into the night when they should be sleeping I know it is worth it. As I watch them explore the world around them with the confidence that arises from having a parent near it fills my heart with joy. They are happy, healthy curious young children who are truly benefiting from this grand experiment. As I was sitting down to type this up my two year old daughter came up to me and said, “Dad, I’m glad you’re here.” That right there is reason enough to break the mold.

Tobias Whitaker also blogs for Mother Earth News and Grit Magazine. You can also find him on Facebook at Seed To Harvest: Bossy Hen Homestead which is a central location for his homesteading blogs and his homeschooling blog, A Mile In Her Shoes: Tales Of A Stay-At Home Dad .