Q&A with Natural Playspace Designer and Plant Lady, Katie Kovach

Katie Kovach, of Joyful Acres, has been working on a beautiful redesign of our outdoor playspace at Nido. We are currently running a campaign to collect donations to support the installation of Katie's design. Click here to support our goal of bringing nature into the everyday play at Nido. 

Can you tell us a bit about the work you're doing with Joyful Acres and what led you to start it?

Katie Kovach

Joyful Acres is a forest farm focusing on plants, crafts, and design inspired by nature. The two main areas of work are growing plants for sale and designing natural playscapes. Current plants include edible and medicinal perennials, with plans for more annuals and woodland medicinals. Design projects are primarily natural playscapes, areas intended for play using natural building materials and working with the landscape. I’ve been dreaming of working in a plant nursery for years, and have worked with plants and people in various ways from research to environmental education. I love plants, and I love people, working with them, and bringing them together brings me so much joy. At this moment in my life and with my family, starting a small nursery on my own made more sense than going to work for someone else. When my family moved last year it really burst open a whole new world of possibility and I realized the only thing I was waiting on was myself.

What's your favorite part of the design process for natural outdoor playspaces?

I say joy a lot when talking about the work that I do because at it’s core, that’s what it’s all about. It’s a real joy to make playspaces beautiful, functional and encouraging of communion with nature. It is difficult for me to pick a favorite. For me, one of the most exciting moments in designing a natural playspace is seeing the space and imagining all the possibilities it holds. Getting to experience the people that use a space and imagining with them all the ways that we can bring nature back into the flow of play is nourishing and can heal relationships with a space. And of course, seeing the natural playspace being used and loved is the ultimate joy.

Can you describe an experience that showed you the importance of outdoor nature play for children?

I can tell you that from my own childhood the most vivid happy memories I have are from playing in the woods behind my family’s home. I can remember long afternoons with specific fallen trees, building forts and castles by myself, but I was never alone. The whole woodland neighborhood was out there with me. I can remember the wind and how that made me feel, and still does, refreshed, renewed, connected to the world around me. Part of the bigger picture. That connection to nature, our nature, is always important. As time goes on it’s so very valuable to bring some of that nature into the spaces in which children spend much of their outdoor time.

Can you share a little about what you're hoping to accomplish with the new design at Nido? How will your design enrich the experience of the children at Nido?


With the natural playscape design at Nido the hope is to celebrate the space and welcome nature in more fully. The main objective of the design is to bring the aesthetics back to nature and maximize the use of the space. The strategy to maximize the space available includes reworking some of the ground covering, repositioning some of the current activity areas, replacing shade sources, and using more of the vertical space. The ground covering will be transformed from an open sand play area to a naturalized sensory pathway surrounding a log enclosed sand play area with plantings that are beautiful and will excite the senses. Shade sails will welcome in the sky while protecting from sun and rain. New play opportunities are planned along the fence under the shade tree and over the corner stage. This backyard that has done so much and for so many is going to be enhanced and will better reflect the joy that the children and caregivers experience in this special space.

Where can folks learn more about your work?







This post comes from one of our newest members, Emily. We are lucky to count her and her family among our community. 

My son is one month from his first birthday, and I feel awe at the fact that my husband and I are speeding towards completing our first year as parents.  There has been a lot of reflection these past eleven months on the reality of caring for a new life, as well as all the expectations, hopes, fears, thoughts and feelings we had before he was born.  Like all first-time parents, we had no idea what we were in for, and yet we kept stubbornly thinking all would be rosy and beautiful.  We were sure all our dreams and schemes were not only aligned with one another, but we were hopeful the universe would collaborate with us in our plans as well.  After all, we had survived a difficult pregnancy and soon we would face a long birth that wasn’t even close to the event we had imagined for over nine months.  Then suddenly we had a newborn, and a recovering mother and father, and a dog to keep going.  All of us were weary.


It was confirmation of a lesson I have had to learn many times in my life: the universe doesn’t operate the way we want it to.  We don’t earn happiness by enduring sadness and disappointment.  It’s a popular refrain in our culture (you’ll get a break because things haven’t worked out so far…), but I’ve learned this is not a reliable viewpoint.  Because having a beautiful, healthy baby who has rolled over, made sounds, pulled up, crawled, and is now walking, all in one little year—none of that erases the sadness and pain we endured as a family during pregnancy and the losses we’ve had since his birth.  All these things exist simultaneously.  One miraculous and beautiful event does not erase a painful and sad one.  Often life gives us both of these sensations in a single moment.  My baby was born and it was a miracle I could barely comprehend, and it was also a huge loss: the loss of the birth I had wanted and expected and simply could not have.

This makes me think of what we want for our children going forward.  We want very specific things for them, like education, opportunities, friends, we want them to participate in certain activities we value, we even deliberate extensively on their toys and food.  But we also want things much deeper and more difficult to manage.  We want happiness, fulfillment, love and acceptance from the greater world.  And yet, these things are so very out of our control.  I feel I was often given the message growing up (from family, teachers, television, books, politicians—everyone!) that if I only managed my life correctly I could minimize disappointment and maximize happiness.  Or more troubling, that I could negotiate my way towards specific outcomes, essentially that I could “fix” all that was wrong, or if I couldn’t, then there had to be someone out there who could!  Kissing cuts and bumps, rocking back to sleep after nightmares, these are all a part of the parenting code.  But in the back of my mind is the reality that there are going to be so many more hurts and challenges that I cannot fix at all, even a little bit.

This is not a popular view. It’s radical to admit that life is horrible sometimes, and that’s a harsh lesson for very little ones (probably better saved for a slightly older human), but it’s something I plan to not shy away from completely with my little babe as he grows.  Because the only way through this life is to realize that we can survive the awfulness that it throws at us.  It’s also an opportunity to teach him what I have learned: that we have to speak out loud our gratitude, ask for help, and not be afraid to feel our pain in order to find our resiliency.   

As my baby grows, sometimes I’ll be able and willing to fix things for him, but I want him to know, more than anything else, that when I cannot (and when no one else can fix it either) that he not only has a soft and stable place to land (our family), but that he possesses the strength within him to endure.  Giving him that knowledge seems like the greatest gift I can give him.

Exploring Nature in Winter

Go outside, stay inside, make something, soak in the quiet joy of this season.

Thank you, Katie, for these inspired ways to enjoy the season!


As parents, we are busy. We keep our children dressed, fed, nurtured, protected, and entertained. If we’re really having a good day, then we do all of that for ourselves too. We work, we grocery shop, we drive around. The busyness goes on wether we feel ready for it or not. It is common that we forget where we are, where we really are, right here, right now. Right here, right now I’m sitting next to a warm and sunny window, in the middle of winter, and I’m thinking about this earth that we call home.

Connecting to the earth is something that many people desire in their lives, but that often loses out to other priorities, or perhaps even goes unnoticed. For parents, inviting nature into our lives can be as simple as paying attention to our children. Really watching how they walk, or crawl, in the world. How their faces light up. How every discovery, common or not, can be magic. Their new eyes on the world are joy and wonder in the most natural sense there is.


David Sobel says, ”If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.” May they also teach us to love the earth, and what better time to start than in the quiet joys of winter. Winter can be seen as cold, dreary, and a difficult season to muddle through. What would life be like if we instead treated it as a time to slow down, dig deep, and really soak up the quiet joy surrounding us?

Exploring our Winter World: Inside, Outside, and With our Hands

It’s winter. Wether you want to take your family romping through the sleeping woods, snuggle up and gaze out the window, or do a craft together, there are many ways to enjoy this season.

Get Outside

Getting our children outside, especially if we don’t ordinarily do so, can seem like an overwhelming challenge. The good news is, if you leave your house on a daily basis you’re already getting outside. Good work!


Bundle up and go for a walk. Romping through the cold, or sometimes quite warm, world of winter rest is not on everybody’s short list. However, I bet your children will be happy to lead you out of doors. Here are a couple of rules to take, or leave, with you on a slow winter walk. Rule #1: Make sure you'll be warm enough. Rule #2: Don’t have an agenda. Just go for a walk. Rule #3: Stop and look at every single thing that your child calls your attention to. Every single thing. Open your eyes and heart to what they see. You might not make it out of your yard, which can be pretty spectacular. You'll need to find another time to exercise, because this is probably not it.

If you want to go on a ramble with other families, and you’re here in Durham, consider going out with the Ellerbe Creek Family Explorers Club. They meet once a month for nature activities along the Ellerbe Creek here in the heart of Durham. Each walk has a theme. You can participate to you and your children’s level of interest, and you can walk as far as you care to.

Nature TV

If you’d prefer to stay cozy and snug inside on any given day consider the windows in your home. Find your lowest window, so your children can reach it, snuggle up in front of it and peer out into the world. In my house we call this Nature TV. Outside my front window there are two bird feeders, a tiny pond, and a giant old willow oak. My son and I watch the birds, squirrels, dogs, people, and trucks that pass by every day. We are regularly two feet from woodpeckers, bluebirds, cedar waxwings and many other beautiful bird friends. We follow them with our eyes around the yard, up the tree and out of sight. It’s a joyful addition to our days. If you get really into watching the birds, consider participating in The Great Backyard Bird Count in February.

Winter crafts

The birds are hungry, so get your hands dirty. You’ll need pine cones or oranges, yarn, a bowl, bird seed, and a sticky medium to mix with the seed (sunbutter, lard, peanut butter, other nut butters). Tye a loop of yarn to a pine cone, or a hollowed out orange half, so that you’ll be able to hang it over a branch in your yard. In a bowl mix birdseed with your sticky medium of choice. Use your hands, or a spoon, to mix it up, and make a huge and fun mess. Smear the birdseed mixture onto the pine cones or stuff into the orange halves. Hang them from their yarn loops on branches or tuck them into nooks and crannies around your yard.

Enjoy the quiet joy of the winter season!


Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association: http://www.ellerbecreek.org/

The Great Backyard Bird Count: http://gbbc.birdcount.org/

Bird Feeder Directions: http://www.discoverwildlife.com/british-wildlife/your-garden/how-make-orange-birdfeeder

Our Favorite Digital Communication Tool

One of our members who's been here the longest shares one of the biggest things that sets Nido apart from other options for your family - our built-in and thriving parent community.

When we were only part-time at Nido we also sent our kiddo part-time to a small, traditional, preschool program near our house. Our kid loved the other preschool, loved his friends, loved the toys, loved the teachers, and we liked the curriculum. Going to the other preschool and Nido at the same time gave us a side by side view of not only the two programs for the kids, but the way the two communities of families are run. Nido wins that comparison, hands down.

It’s not really a fair comparison. Firstly, Nido is inherently a two-part service: Montessori preschool for the children, and co-working space for the parents, all under one roof. The physical act of working there with the other parents inherently leads to building a community because of your interactions; even if you are all silently working on your laptops most of the time. But when you get a chance for a cup of coffee in the break room you get a chance for those interactions to build community, too. The water cooler clichés are true.


Though if you set aside the co-working aspect, Nido still wins because it has formed a great on-line community via the Slack App (https://slack.com/is). Slack is a messaging app that mostly targets tech savvy businesses for internal use. Its advertised to help team members communicate, and cutback on needless internal emails. If you are old enough, it’s a bit like chat rooms and IRC, but upgraded. The app works both on your phone, and on your computer, and private ‘teams’ or groups can be set up for your business.

At Nido, all the teachers and all the parents are part of the ‘team’, both literally, and virtually on Slack. Instead of having channels (aka chat rooms), as Slack originally envisioned, on “engineering”, “marketing”, “accounting”, “software”; here at Nido our channels are “classroom”, “events”, “co-op tasks”, “staff”, “random”, and “weekend_meetups”…to name a few. 

On the “classroom” channel the teachers post pictures of our kiddo’s enjoying their work, and us parents let the teachers know when we are going to be running late, or are out sick. And this is where the on-line community discussions strengthen the in-person interactions. Unlike our traditional pre-school, where I would txt the teacher that my kid has a fever, I have now been able to tell our whole small school that my kid is sick, and warn the other parents to watch their kids for symptoms.  Some of the best, most civil, and most caring discussions have been around what germ is circulating and how other kids have been doing. The conversation on slack typically starts with: “Hey everyone, heads up, our kid just got diagnose with croup. So, if you were in class on Wednesday with our kid, watch your kid for symptoms.” These conversations then continue with well-wishes and gratitude for sharing. At our other school, we never knew and there was no built-in way to have parent-to-parent discussions.  

Slack gives us parents all a way to check in with our kids and their classroom, and with each other. The “random” channel has been great at local community building with such conversation topics as you might and might not expect from working parents that share co-working space: What diapers to use?, Goat for sale., Chocolates in the break-room., Computer monitor recommendations?, Donuts in the break-room., Can I borrow a baby carrier?, Does anyone have any children ear protection? We’re taking our kid to a Pixies show., Good restaurants to go to with a baby?, My neighbor is having an yard sale!, Any folks interested in organizing a Nido Doughman team?, Anyone know a good unix cheatsheet?, Touch-a-truck event coming to town!, etc…

There are many ingredients that contribute to Nido’s success at building community. Using an on-line messaging platform, such as Slack, to reinforce in-person community has been part of that. It’s also a great way to ask a friend across the room if your kid could borrow a pair of shorts from their kid (because hey, accidents happen), without disturbing all the other co-working parents.

-By long time member, first time Blogger, K

Navigating social media as a “sharent”

Jourdan shares how she views one of our most modern problems - what to share and how to share it on social media.

child with camera.jpg

One night over dinner during my third trimester, my husband and I had “the talk.” I knew it’d be coming, but I’d been putting it off. We’d read about various childbirth practices, discussed how we thought we might handle sleep training, solid food introduction, and cloth versus disposable diapers. But the topic of social media use as parents had yet to be broached. 

I’m well aware this discussion doesn’t feel necessary for everyone. But when a house is divided on usage, things can get dicey. As the extrovert/connector/media lover of the family, social platforms fulfill something deep within me. I’m not saying that’s always a good thing. Sometimes social media is addictive and confidence-shattering and unhealthy. Over the years I’ve broken up with Facebook, put myself in Instagram rehab, and totally ghosted on Twitter. But I keep coming back and here’s why: I love how connected they make me feel to my people, regardless of where they live. Also, it’s part of my job to stay connected.

But is it fair to thrust my newborn into this world without giving her a choice in the matter? If she could choose, would she share such details of her own life or will she feel like we forced her online existence too soon? Will an entire generation of people resent their parents for this reason?

instagram and children.jpg

If it were up to my husband—a person who prefers and practices a much more private existence—I would give birth and we would raise a child without a trace of her online. He acknowledges this is ridiculous and also unrealistic—especially in the days of image tagging—but I get where he’s coming from. Tired of saccharine photos and flawless personas, it can feel as if little is personal or original anymore. And where’s the line between “sharenting” and “oversharenting”?

It’s natural to display the best versions of ourselves for theworld to see, but we agree that what really resonates is when people are honest—tell funny jokes, share less-than-perfect moments, and generally embrace the good with the bad. And in the age of technological excess, I believe less is truly more.

Four months after we first started trying to have a baby, I had a miscarriage. It was every bit as earthshattering as I’d feared, and I felt alone in a space that only I seemed to occupy. In an effort to cope with my feelings and reach other women like myself, I wrote my story and shared it on social media. The response I received blew me away. Women reached out with their own stories of loss, and I immediately felt like part of a community that saw me, understood me, and supported me.

That same virtual community rallied behind me when I shared my excitement and fear of being pregnant again, as well as the impending birth of my daughter. And so I continue to occasionally post the ups and downs of life as a new mother, a working woman, and a human living through these turbulent political times. I still take too many outtakes before landing on a photo and spend too much time writing a caption, but I’m working on it. And the moments I truly cherish happen when my phone’s out of sight and out of mind.

To LLC or Not to LLC..?

Another post from Heather! Heather practices law in North Carolina, with specialities in estate planning and business law. You can read more about her at www.ampersand-law.com

If you work for yourself - or are considering starting a small business - you may be wondering whether it's necessary to formally "organize" the business under the laws of your home state. ("Organize" being the legal term used when you form a Limited Liability Company (LLC) or Corporation or other business structure under the relevant state laws.)

Okay, filing for an LLC might not be quite this pretty. But you should still do it.

Okay, filing for an LLC might not be quite this pretty. But you should still do it.

In North Carolina, generally speaking - you are not required to form an LLC or a Corporation or any other legally recognized business organization to "open" your business. (Exceptions, of course, apply. It is the law after all - exceptions always apply.) This means you can run your business as a sole proprietor or as a partnership or in a number of other ways without filing any business organization documents with the state. (Of course, there may be /likely are/ other non-organization documents you must file with the state and federal government to open & run your business.) 

So if you don't *need* to do it, why should you make your business an LLC? 

  • It's quick and inexpensive. The paperwork required by the state isn't lengthy and the filing fees aren't outrageous. 

  • Ongoing paperwork filing requirements for the state tend to be minimal. 

  • You can still file taxes as an individual. (It's called "flow-through taxation" and if you (1) read this post and (2) ask me about "flow-through taxation" in person, you'll be rewarded. And don't worry, the reward won't be a lecture on the wonders of the Federal Tax system.) 

  • How you distribute profits is up to you (unlike a corporation). 
  • And - your personal liability is limited (hence, the name "limited liability company!). This means if the business takes on debts or gets sued - your personal assets can be protected. (But yes, exceptions to this do apply.) 

Are there reasons not to form an LLC and/or to chose a different business structure, like a corporation? Certainly, and an attorney who practices business law (like me) can advise you on the pros and cons of each. 

But, if the question is, "To LLC or to do nothing?" the answer is most likely LLC.

Have Toddler, Will Travel

Kate shares how she's kept an important part of her identity alive while juggling the responsibilities of work and parenthood. 

Travel has always been an important part of my identity. When I got pregnant with my son, I worried about how I’d be able to maintain that part of me while also being a good parent. I found a blog post about how to travel with a young child, and realized, oh yeah, they have babies everywhere. That did a great deal towards reminding me that if babies could live everywhere, they could certainly travel anywhere (maybe with a bit of extra planning).

I also found inspiration in my parents. My mother and father both traveled frequently for work, and would bring me along. I still admire how my mother braved airports armed with peanut butter, crackers, and a deck of cards, and she always found kid-appropriate activities wherever we were to hold my interest.

traveling with a child.jpg

I remember using my crayons to circle places I wanted to go on my three foot cardboard atlas – there were far more circles on its pages than unmarked space. I got a similar book of maps for my son, so we could look through it together and dream about all the places we could go. Although we did travel some, for the first two years, we didn’t really scratch the itch I had for travel. I missed it acutely.

This year, when we moved to North Carolina, we were excited to realize how much closer we’d be to Europe. We started to plan a vague trip to somewhere European as a getaway, and I was adamant that our son come too. We decided we’d also bring my mom with us to help us figure out how to best explore with our toddler, while also giving us all an opportunity for adult-only time.  

We chose to go to Copenhagen, because of the city’s reputation for being wonderfully family friendly. We started talking about how Legos come from Copenhagen, and we read the Little Mermaid and talked about how we’d take a plane to Copenhagen. (Hearing a two year old say Copenhagen and then repeat to you the sanitized Little Mermaid plot is pretty cute.) We talked about how we’d take a really fast train to the town in Sweden where his Brio trains are made. We talked about ebelskivers, or the delicious Danish pancakes that he’d only ever had from Trader Joe’s. And at night, I researched my heart out, circling attractions that he’d find accessible as well as ones we’d like to see, while planning days around nap time.

All of that build up was more worth it than I could have possibly imagined. He played in a viking ship, rode a Ferris Wheel at Tivoli Gardens, took the high speed train to Malmö, watched a polar bear swim at the Copenhagen Zoo, took a boat through the canals to see the Little Mermaid statue, and jumped on trampolines built into the sidewalks. Today, if you ask him where any plane flying overhead is going, he says excitedly, “Copenhagen!”

To help him remember this trip years from now, I kept a travel journal. Each night I’d ask him what he’d done that day, and I’d transcribe his thoughts. After he’d fall asleep, I’d write down my version of the day’s events. When we got home, I printed out our pictures and pasted them to the backs of our journal entries. And no, I don’t expect that he’ll remember this trip himself, but we’ll remember it. We’ll remember what it was like to explore as a family, and to watch his face in wonderment as he experienced something new – like his first hot chocolate. And we have the opportunity to instill in him the same love of travel and curiosity about the world that we have ourselves.  I can’t wait to take him somewhere new, all over again.

Top 6 Reasons I <3 Nido

Thank you, Marissa, for sharing these warm thoughts about your experience at Nido!

I joined Nido in January and my son (Theo) will have to transition to full-time daycare in June, so, sadly, my stint at Nido will be a short one. I have been reflecting on what Nido has meant to me over the past few months as I’m finishing up my PhD program, and decided to write a list of my favorite things because who can resist a good list, right?? (I started with a list of 10, but realized that this blog post was way too long already, so I cut myself off at 6). Here they are, in Letterman order, but not as funny:  

6. Community. When I enrolled at Nido, I underestimated the advantages of being around other parents twice a week. Theo started at Nido when he was only four months old, so I have the added benefit of meeting parents who have already traversed the parenting waters that I’m currently navigating. Nido members have helped me figure out answers to questions including: How do I find a good babysitter? Where can I donate extra diapers? How can I get work done when I can hear my son crying down the hall? (He is a wonderful child, but is a bit on the fussy side.) How can I cope with sleep deprivation? (newsflash: there’s no good answer to this one, but sometimes you just need to vent).

5. Amenities. Having an arsenal of snacks at my disposal is a dream come true (for real… snacking is one of my favorite hobbies as anyone who knows me will tell you). I also am a huge fan of the big windows in the coworking space. At school, I share a small, windowless office so I treasure the natural light “situation” at Nido. But my all-time favorite amenity is the nap room. Theo has lucked out because he’s usually the only kid who naps in the mornings on the days he’s at Nido. This means that he has his own personal sleeping oasis with not one but TWO white noise machines (his teachers tell me that “ocean” is his favorite sound), a cozy crib, and curtains that let in the perfect amount of light. Unfortunately, he won’t have his own personal napping room at his next daycare so I suppose he will just have to adjust!

Baby  Bunch.jpg

4. Productivity. Doing work around other people makes me work harder. I have been able to work from home ~2 days/week for the past couple of years. Although I love the flexibility of working from home, my motivation tends to ebb and flow depending on the amount of laundry staring me down, the types of food calling my name from the kitchen, and the attractiveness of the bed or couch (this was mostly a problem in my first and third trimesters of pregnancy). In contrast, hearing the clickety-clack (can you tell I’ve been reading a lot of kid’s books lately?) of everyone’s keyboards at Nido makes me want to keep clickety-clacking away myself.

3. Half-Days. Building on the above, working in four-hour blocks makes me more productive. Most of my work involves writing, but sitting down for a full eight-hour day with nothing scheduled except writing can be daunting. I swear that some days, I get more done in the four precious hours that I’ve blocked off for writing than when I have a 9-5.

2. Relaxation, too! Even when I’m not super productive at Nido, it’s nice to have a break. Before Theo was born, I was so caught up in the excitement of pregnancy and the anticipation of childbirth that I didn’t spend much time thinking about what life with a baby would be like. This, coupled with the fact that I had never really been around babies, meant that I was grossly underprepared for how challenging babies can be, especially during the “fourth trimester.” As much as I love having a flexible schedule that permits me to spend lots of time with my son, I will admit that it’s a huge relief to be able to pass him off to his caring teachers for awhile.  


1. Teachers. That brings me to my final point: The teachers are amazing. Caitlyn and Talia have welcomed my little ball of energy to the classroom with loving, open arms. They greet us with warmth and enthusiasm every day, and they never make me feel bad about the fact that some days I’m pretty sure one of them has to hold Theo for four hours straight because he’s being cranky. Speaking of which, he has become a lot less fussy since he started, in part because being at Nido has gotten him used to noise, stimulation, and being around other people besides his family. He’s also learned to blend into his surroundings; here’s a picture of him pretending to be a doll in the Chickadee Room – this cracks me up every time I look at it.

I am sad that my time to Nido is already coming to a close, but being a part of the community has made my transition into motherhood so much easier.

Men, too: a reflection on being a father to a son in 2017

My grandmother is 95 years old. Living almost her entire life in rural Iowa, she and my grandfather raised seven children. She now has eighteen grandchildren and thirty-one great-grandchildren. In short, in the realm of childrearing, she has seen it all. The waxing and waning of various parenting techniques, all manner of revolutions in clothing, toys, and gear. Diapering:she has forgotten far more than I will ever learn when it comes to diapering. Every time I think I know a thing or two about being a parent, after thirteen whole months of experience, I think about my grandmother. She tells me, my mom, my aunts, and anyone else listening, that I am the most involved father she has ever seen. Every time she says it I feel more than a little shocked. 

I know I spend a lot of time "dad-ing," more so than most fathers. A big reason for this is my work schedule – as a graduate student, I'm fortunate to have a very flexible schedule. This means I can be around to play with my son, go grocery shopping, preparing food, feeding our son, cleaning up after his meals, putting him down for naps, and of course, taking care of all those diapers. But there's another reason that I can spend so much time with my kid – I prioritze being with him over other things, in particular my work. I don't pretend to be able to "do it all," and I accept the consequences of my choices. Just this afternoon, I got home in time to go on a walk with my wife, son, and dog. Afterwards, I watched our son toddle all over the yard, blissfully unaware of the rain falling, chewing on sticks just like the dog. He walked out almost to the end of our yard all by himself, totally calm and independent. I can remember not that long ago when he could barely pull himself up to standing from the floor. I know there will be lots of moments like this in his life, where I look at him and am shocked to realize how much he has grown. But I'm glad I was there for this one. Lots of parents – especially fathers – don't get that chance.

Our nation's failure to provide paid parental leave is well-documented, but that's not the only problem. Even when paid leave is available through employers, there are lots of parents – fathers especially – who don't take it, or don't take as much as they can. Beyond falling behind at the office, many men fear losing esteem with their peers for choosing their family over their work. There are serious problems with the way we as men define ourselves. I learned growing up what was important about becoming a man: domination, intimidation, and strength. Talking about your feelings? Not so much. Snuggling your baby who will smear your clothes with all kinds of icky-sticky goo? Even less so. The idea that a father would choose to spend so much time and energy being with kids – especially really little ones – it just doesn't scan for a lot of people, even in 2017. 

dad playing with son.jpg

When I tell people I'm at home taking care of my son, they sometimes respond, "oh, you're babysitting." Would you ever tell a mother at home with her kids that she is babysitting? No, because babysitting is when you take care of someone else's kids. That well-meaning folks who know me can use that phrase to describe me when I've been up since 5:30 a.m. working my butt off being a parent says a lot about the ways that our conceptions of parent diverge when we specify mother or father. I know from watching my wife go through it that there's a lot about being pregnant that isn't any fun at all, but it killed me watching her go through it knowing that I would never be able to share her experiences. I kept telling myself that once our little one was born, I would do everything I could with our son. This is something both my wife and I wanted, because my involvement doesn't just create kodak moments of fatherhood, it illustrates how men being present supports the women in our lives as well as our children. Every time I show up, I want my wife to know her time and energy and contributions are as important as mine, and I don't want to pay that lip service, I want to show it in my actions. The action of being present. Every day, even when I feel that pull from my professors, my colleagues, and myself to put more time into my work, I try to balance that with my deep desire to be with my son.

I always feel sad when I think about what my grandmother thinks about me as a father. Don't get me wrong, it boosts my ego, but I'm not out to become father of the year. What I would rather is for my choices to feel less extreme. I want my son to grow up with lots of memories of me being around and involved. It's possible there will be times when I can't be there as much as I am right now, and we will have to deal with that when it happens. In the mean time, it matters to me that he experiences a different model of masculinity than the one that I grew up with. I want him to learn to talk things out and share his feelings, to learn to find solutions to conflicts through cultivating a sense of empathy and compassion for others, and to learn how to interact with other people -especially women – without resorting to the type of domineering and bullying behavior so frequently found in popular movies and even elected officials of late.

I don't think that everyone needs to make the same choices that I have made, but I also think that there could be a lot more room in terms of legal protections and cultural expectations that would support more fathers (myself included) to engage fully with their children from their first breath. Things have changed a lot since my grandmother was raising her children in the 1950's and -60's, but there's a long way to go.