What I learned about fatherhood from travelling with my baby alone for one week
Husbands, would you travel with your under-two-year-old to a foreign country for a whole week without your wife? How long would you last? About a month ago, I travelled to the United States for my sister’s graduation in California. It was intended to be a family trip to celebrate her completion of a Masters in Peace and Conflict from the University of San Diego (USD). However as the situation would have it, my wife couldn’t travel. We agreed that I would travel alone. However, as we began the travel plans, my mother suggested that our daughter, Thandiwe tags along. Thandi is turning two in July this year. As we were planning she qualified as an infant travelling on the parent’s seat. Initially, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Five months before this, my wife and I had travelled with Thandi to Spain. She did pretty well en route to Spain. The air hostesses were very impressed. But I remembered that trip very well; it still needed both parents attending to her in order to have her in impress mode. How would I manage alone? Besides, the Spain trip had two stop overs (Doha and Barcelona); that meant that the long trip was segmented into shorter hours; that meant a more bearable journey for Thandi. The layovers in the airports were also neither too long nor too short. Now on the other hand, California is farther than Spain. You’d think there would be more stopovers (no thanks to The Atlantic). There was only one stopover- Heathrow, London. From Nairobi to London, I was looking at 8 hours. From London to San-Diego (direct flight!), I was looking at 11 hours. How would Thandi deal with a total of 19 hours and one layover? And since we were travelling back in time, the mini jet lag experienced in Spain five months ago would be cute. A 10-hour time difference could turn my sweet little girl into a rabid rabbit, I feared. And then there would be the diapers, the feeding, the playing, the rocking to sleep and the constant cries of “Mama!” She would want her mama badly! It was a death trap for a dad…but I was up for it!
Always be prepared
I was a boy scout for nine years (ages 10-18). Our scouts motto was always be prepared. It was preparation that got me to be commander when I served in the high school ranks. I was ready to serve and ready to lead. Fathers ought to adopt the scouts’ motto if they want to succeed with their families. I didn’t accept the challenge to travel with Thandiwe out of sheer bravado; I was prepared for it. In my Quiet Times with the LORD, I was always convicted to be available for my children. When you mention availability of a father in some places in my country, many default to only paying school fees and paying the rent. I think that’s a very base form of availability. Those are responsibilities that have changed over the years; education is more available and wives are bringing in money as well, some more than the husband. And even if both factors were non-existent, I believe that the responsibilities of fatherhood transcend mere seasonal duties. A father ought to be available for his family; wife first and children second. I had been learning this. In the course of Thandiwe’s less than two years on this planet, and as of the time before the trip, I had changed her diapers countless times. I had bathed her enough times. I had dressed her. I had fed her. I had taken her for walks in the parking lot in the evening. I had rocked her to sleep severally. I had disciplined her when she misbehaved. I had played with her. I had babysat her a whole day without the house-help and without Turi. I was there when she said her first word, “bye.” I was the one that held her when she was about to fall after she took her first steps. Thandi said the word, “baba” before she said the word “mama!” In short, Beloved, I was prepared for the trip. To affirm my confidence, I asked my wife to allow me to take these baby activities a notch higher before we travelled so that I would be ready for the US. Are you ready as a father? Or do you see the raising of your child to be a mother’s job? Granted, Turi had done (and does) these baby chores more than me. But I have been keen to not be a stranger to my child’s life. If I’m not keen now, what makes me imagine I will be keen when she is a teenager? Fathers ought to be prepared.
Be a sexy dad
I once shared in one of my bible study groups how I was helping my wife with the baby at home and how I was learning so much as far as childcare is concerned. One woman in the bible study interrupted my sharing when she blurted under her breath, “That is so sexy!” I was taken aback by her brazen comment. When I asked her what she meant, she explained that as a woman, she is enamoured by a man who takes initiative and offers support. This wasn’t this woman’s unique fancy. I asked a few other married women this and one of them said, “A man who leads and takes initiative is attractive.” Women get enamoured by men who take initiative and are involved. As I planned for our visa interviews, I gave Turi full discretion to spoil herself that week while we were away. She needn’t have to struggle to prepare meals. She needn’t have to worry about attending to her family. She could take a week off and go to the salon, do her nails and get a nice night out with her girlfriends. And speaking of sexy, husbands would be surprised at how dramatically rested and ready their wives would be to engage in sex more often, when we offer support. From a simple biological view, men have more muscle structure than women. We generally tire less quickly when involved in strenuous activity. Spare some energy for the house, husbands. Reduce the gym by 20 minutes so that you can use that time to carry your children and play with them after work. Leave the office on time and avoid draining your emotions in traffic so that you can have a conversation with your wife in the evening. Don’t unwind by watching television; unwind by taking a walk in the neighbourhood with your family. Work against your predisposed thoughts of comfort. Get better comfort by being with your loved ones. Be a sexy dad. See the results and marvel!
The rubber meets the road
On our way to San Diego, Waturi dropped us at the airport. Thandi and I queued to check in our bags. After being in six international airports in the past one year, I am thoroughly convinced that our own, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) needs some improving. Before we boarded the plane, Thandi soiled her diaper. I went to the gents’ washroom in JKIA and there was no changing bay for the baby. Heathrow had an entire room dedicated to babies. They also had a playing pen to entertain children for those with long layovers. Philadelphia Airport had a changing bay in the men’s washroom. So did San Diego Airport and Doha and Barcelona and Malaga in Andalucia. JKIA had none. One of the JKIA airport staff had to ask all the ladies in one particular washroom to leave and use another so that I could change the baby. It then hit me that our culture does not imagine that fathers should attend to babies; if they did, they would facilitate it at our primary airport. Even the staff at JKIA proved this. They kept asking why I would travel alone with the baby. Thandi slept for seven hours out of the eight hours it took to get to London. I ensured she was well fed and entertained prior to her slumber. Flights allow you to carry snacks and drinks for children. Seated next to me was a Muslim lady who was returning home to London. She was overwhelmed by her new-born baby. We talked a little and even realised that we attended the same university. I tried to assist her as much as I could as Thandi slept. Her baby cried a lot through that flight and it really frustrated her. Thandi sleeping was a miracle.
When we got to London, she needed a diaper change; I changed it. Less than an hour later, she soiled it. Fathers, bonus tip when traveling with your baby; have at least six diapers within easy reach. As we waited for the final 11-hour flight, I took Thandi to the Heathrow airport play pen. She played with her cousin, Jude, who was travelling with my sister. She also got to play with other children. I thought this would be time for me to get a breather. I was wrong. I noticed the keeper of the pen instruct parents to remove their shoes and join their children in the pen. To avoid accidents in the pen, you have to watch over your child.
We got into the final 11-hour flight. I fed her again, changed her diaper twice, rocked her to sleep, placed her in the plane bassinet and strapped her in. I got to sit for about seven hours as she slept. It was the best seven hours of my life. Pure relief! I even watched The Matrix and fell asleep in the middle of it. Then Thandi woke up. I checked the travel map on the screen. It said four more hours to San Diego. Thandi began to cry. I unstrapped her from the bassinet and gave her some milk. She didn’t want milk. I checked her diaper; she was dry. She was still crying. I tried to feed her; she wasn’t hungry. She then looked at me and said, “Baba!”
“Yes, Thandi!” I responded.
“Out!” she said.
“What?” I asked.
She pointed at the plane door and said even louder, “out!”
She wanted to go out. She was tired of being in this plane.
“You can’t go out, Thandi. We are more than 27000 feet in the air. Do you have a parachute?”
She looked at me strangely. She didn’t understand my vocabulary but she understood my message. My answer was no. I saw her face begin to tremble. I questioned my use of big words for a baby like 27000 and parachute. What would Turi do in such a situation? Her face turned red. Her lips quivered. Then she let out a piercing cry. I could have sworn feeling all the eyes in that section of the plane turn to me. I was embarrassed. I tried to calm her down. I remembered how the flight from Nairobi to Heathrow was difficult for the woman seated next to me. Now it was my turn. I too was feeling overwhelmed but I took charge and managed to calm her down.
Respect for moms
We arrived in the US and spent a week with my sister. We attended her graduation. We visited local stores. I met up with friends who live in San Diego, whom I met on Facebook. We had lunch with a Kenyan family that lived in the neighbourhood. We enjoyed the weather. We visited a few local tourist sites. We drove down to Hollywood, LA and spent the day and night in the cinema city. We went down the walk of fame and saw a celebrity show (Jimmy Kimmel) about to go live on air. All these activities sound rosy, but I must add that they were freckled with the following: an average of five diaper changes a day, packing baby’s bags each morning like I was relocating to another country, bathing her each evening (bath toys must be included), oiling baby, dressing baby appropriately for ever-changing weather, feeding baby whilst messing my clean clothes, rocking baby to sleep, waking up when baby
wakes up, sleeping when baby sleeps and repeat all the above for seven days. It was a full-time job. To imagine that moms do that every day of their lives for a few years and at times with several babies, made me respect them. It made me respect my wife, Waturi. Some dads may have no idea what it means to take care of a child unless they get involved. When I returned from the US, I saw the need to ask if my wife needs support in the house. If I was close to being overwhelmed, why should I think my wife should just wing it? Because she’s a woman? Because she’s the one that gave birth? I believe where both father and mother are present, parenting must be team effort. And when we men get involved we will respect moms.
Rocking the roles
But Ernest, someone may ask. Doesn’t attending to the baby emasculate you as a man? When my wife and I got married, we each had our own ideas of what our marriage should be like. We mostly got this from our different upbringing and homes of origin. Unbeknown to us, our two different families with different ways of doing things would have a huge impact on our marriage. Naturally, there was conflict. We realised the best way out is not to choose one family’s way of doing things over the other; rather, we had to create our own new family culture, provided it did not violate God’s word. And in doing so, I have to learn and unlearn for the sake of my marriage. And it does not emasculate me; in fact it makes me more manly. It makes me a better husband and it makes me a good father.
Traditional roles are often confused to take the same authority as biblical mandates. They don’t. If it were emasculating for a man to help in the house, it would be a violation of biblical womanhood for a woman to earn more money than the man. It would mean single fathers are in sin. It would mean single mothers who did not choose to be in their position would be in iniquity. But it is absurd to think that. In male-dominated cultures, an involved husband is seen as sign of a lack of masculinity. But wisdom is proved by her children. How well is that worldview doing for the man who feels like diapers will kill his manliness? Is his wife happy? How does the relationship with his children look like a few years down the line? Does his wife truly respect him or does she fear him? A man ought to find out from his own wife whether his support would be valued. Don’t be surprised if her answer is yes. Men should only be pleasantly surprised that a supportive husband spurs the wife be a wonderful helper.
And when I listen to the LORD in prayer and read his word, his fatherhood embraces me for being considerate to my wife (his daughter). He reminds me to always choose humility and not stick to my pride. If this pride is unchecked it could potentially mutate into insensitivity and have my prayers hindered (1 Peter 3:7). I don’t want to have a pseudo-masculinity that is cut off from fellowship with God and intimacy with my wife because my culture tells me “men don’t do that.” I want the favour of God. I want my marriage to thrive. I want to please God. I challenge young fathers to be involved in their children’s lives from an early age. Let fatherhood spell availability for them. And let your marriage have your wife smile genuinely when she thinks about you.