Five months, one baby, and lots of Advil: Welcome to my ‘paternity leave’

It sounded like a great deal: throttle back on freelance work for a few months after my wife’s maternity leave ended, take care of our new arrival until we were comfortable enough sending him to daycare, and find time to write when he was taking a nap. She gets to go back to work with the little guy still in the house. He gets a few more months of full-time care at home. We save a few thousand bucks. I get to take it easy and play Cool Dad, hanging out at Starbucks with him strapped to my chest in a carrier, just like they show in the commercials.

That was the ideal. The reality? Still plenty of giggles, still tons of quality time, still the right move. But I was never Cool Dad. Instead, I became Advil Dad.

The plan was for me to serve as Mr. Mom for a little over five months, which on the calendar didn’t look like too much of a challenge. Hey, 220, 221, whatever it takes, right? Six weeks in, I realized what we called my “paternity leave” was going to be a much longer and more painful haul than I’d anticipated. I’ve always battled back issues, and had to be very careful picking up and putting down our older daughter. But I rarely cared for her all day, every day, and with one child we had much more flexibility in how we handled things. Now with a second kiddo, and with both of them being under 2 years old, that luxury was gone.

Ultimately, I was completely unprepared for the physical challenge of full-time baby-raising. My low back hurts, my left hip hurts, my right shoulder hurts, my wrists hurt. I’ve had days when my fingers were so numb and clumsy from gripping little ones that I fumbled shirt buttons. There were mornings when my calves ached from hours of bouncing upset babies up and down. My ribcage is always sore. I was probably doing it wrong; indeed, I know I was doing it wrong. My regular workout schedule evaporated, my posture went to pot from all the bending over, I tossed down NSAIDs by the handful. I was reduced to a hunched-over shell of my former self by this giggly and adorable baby boy.

And work? What a ridiculous concept. On my first day of daddy duty, he took a one-hour nap in the morning and a two-hour nap in the afternoon. “Perfect!” I thought as I happily clicked away on my freelance copy, envisioning five months of productive work during his nap times. That fantasy was shattered on day two, when he slept for 10 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon, and by the end of the day was so tired and angry I felt like I was shushing a baby wolverine.

So yeah, the work schedule became highly unpredictable, leading us to enlist a few hours’ help each morning, when a friend’s daughter would sit with him so I wouldn’t fall too terribly behind on assignments. Those television commercials, often by for-profit colleges, that show parents clicking ably away on a keyboard while cuddling a small child at the same time? Don’t believe them.

And that’s all before the almost-two-year-old we call the Blonde Hurricane gets home from daycare, and the baby craziness is cranked up to 11. The day we brought her little brother home from the hospital, she showed off her newest skill — climbing to the top of the sofa. More recently, she’s learned how to tell me “Go away!” and demand the “Baby Shark” song every waking moment. It’s precious, let me tell you. Weekends with a relatively immobile baby and a highly mobile sledgehammer of a toddler put your quick-twitch reflexes to the test, like a Honduran goalkeeper fending off an onslaught of Brazilians in the World Cup.

It’s relentless. Monday, Thursday, Sunday, Thanksgiving, Boxing Day, Talk Like a Pirate Day, the Feast of San Fermin — there’s no difference. Every day is essentially the same, beginning at roughly 6 a.m. with Reveille sounded from the kids’ rooms . (There’s a reason this blog hasn’t been updated in so long.) My wife and I sometimes look at each other and wonder, what on earth did we do with all the free time before we had kids? How was not every home improvement project undertaken and completed, the yard not always perfect, the house not always freshly painted, every free moment not always a bonanza of fun, food, and drink? Why did we sit around and watch so much “Southern Charm”? Damn you, Craig!

And yet — it’s great, it’s wonderful, it’s incredible, and it’s all been completely worth it. The last five months have given me such a newfound respect for stay-at-home moms, of which my own mother was one, who do this all day every day without a finish line like the one I always had in sight. Our little guy will benefit from the socialization and discovery of daycare just as his sister has. I will benefit by going back to work. But goodness, will I miss all that free time with him, much of it spent just lying on the floor laughing at one another, him grasping at my hair and glasses. I’ll remember it every time my low back begins to throb, and I reach for the Advil bottle once again.

In Charleston, preparing for a hurricane that’s hitting far, far away

I’ve spent most of my life in coastal South Carolina, and experienced tropical systems from lightly-regarded Gaston (which nonetheless ripped up a fence and part of my roof) to infamous Hugo. But I’ve never experienced a hurricane quite like Irma, which Charleston is gearing up for in earnest, even though it made landfall Sunday hundreds of miles away.

My Palmetto State isn’t even in the dreaded Cone of Uncertainty, and hasn’t been for days, but even this past weekend it was very easy to find businesses with “Closed for Hurricane” signs taped to the inside of their front doors, of businesses downtown still boarding up windows and doors. Growing up, we never boarded up for a storm. Never. Some masking tape on the windows, maybe, but not plywood. And yet there are some boards up even in my neighborhood (40 feet above sea level) for a storm expected to travel from Florida to Birmingham to somewhere around Nashville over the next few days.

The veteran hurricane watcher, and hurricane rider-outer in me, at times struggles to process all this. Is it a complete overreaction? Are these transplants from up north who have never been through this before, and haven’t learned to separate hype from hard information? Did folks make all these plans Thursday and Friday, when it really looked like Charleston might be ground zero for a Category 4 or 5, and stuck to their plans even when the track changed?

Maybe a combination of all of the above. But we’re in a Tropical Storm Warning for a reason, and I can hear the first sprinkles of rain generated from far-off Irma tapping on my roof. MSNBC’s meteorologist mentioned Sunday night that South Carolina could get a storm surge from this comparable to what it experienced from Matthew, the system that strafed the state’s coast last fall. That seems incredible, given how far away this system physically is.

But I can say the wife, kiddo and I went downtown Saturday, and the water level at the Battery was unbelievably high. Eerily high. The water just undulated, almost in a sinister fashion, like the skin of a moving snake. It was so high, a boat could have pulled up to low Battery, and the passengers could just have hopped off.

We’ve had very high water for days now, evident in the level off the Isle of Palms Connector, which nears the top of the marsh grass even at mean tide. We’ve had a lot of rain the last few weeks, including a full day of it from a near-tropical system off the coast that would have been named Irma if any circulation center had been found. A street on the opposite side if my neighborhood was closed due to flooding after a recent night of thunderstorms. There’s a real concern here about where the 6 inches of rain (or more) we’re supposed to get from Irma will go.

This all makes preparation really tricky. We’re not boarding up; we’re on relatively higher ground, and we’re not going to take a direct hit, and my roof is a far, far bigger concern given all the willow oaks in my front yard and how saturated the ground is. Late last week when it seemed we might get more of a swipe from this thing, I bought a few tarps and flashlights. We have plenty of bottled water and non-perishable food in case power goes out. As for the prospect of flooding — if the water’s coming, it’s coming, and there’s really not much you can do.

We take solace in our elevation, and in the fact that we’re not in a flood zone, and that most of our neighbors (many of whom have been here for decades) are doing the same things we are. We know friends and relatives in Florida are getting this a lot, lot worse than we ever will. And my gut, honed through so many hurricane scares, hits, grazes and near-misses over the the years, just tells me we won’t have a wall of water rolling through our front yard.

I may be wrong; I hope not. Regardless, I’ve never experienced a storm like this, with a track that’s changed so much over four or five days, that’s now forecast to head for the Central Time Zone, but is so damn big it’s led coastal South Carolina to prepare as if the thing will be roaring up Breach Inlet. My greatest source of comfort came, as it often does, from the beach — after seeing so much of downtown boarded up and closed, it was quite a contrast to drive over to Sullivan’s Island and find Poe’s Tavern and Dunleavy’s Pub open for business and packed. Some people know how to ride out a storm.

I had a mistress, and her name was Twitter

For years, I lived two different lives.

One was with my family.

The other was on Twitter.

They intersected whenever my wife caught me scrolling through my news feed on my iPhone, something that happened far too often. Twitter wasn’t just a diversion, it was an essential part of my job as a college sports beat writer. Schools would release news on Twitter. Players would announce transfer plans on Twitter. Recruits would pick schools on Twitter. The competition posted their stories to Twitter. You didn’t so much read it as live with it, scared that that one time you put it down for too long, you’d miss something and the office would call wondering why you were so slow to jump on the story.

At restaurants, at concerts, on Saturdays at the zoo with the kiddo, Twitter was always along with the ride. Hey, if Brandon McIlwain announced transfer plans at 10 p.m. on a Friday or 2 p.m. on a Sunday, you had to be able to react immediately (thankfully, it came at 5:30 p.m. on a weekday). Save for a vacation, there was no way to really separate yourself from it. And even then, there were times when you couldn’t resist — ask my extremely tolerant wife, who once waited as I used the wireless in a London coffee shop to fire up Twitter and check South Carolina’s position in the latest AP basketball poll.

From the time I first signed up in early 2010, Twitter and I were inseparable. At first, the writer in me didn’t understand the allure — what can you do with just 140 characters? Quickly I learned it wasn’t so much the length of the messages, but their magnified reach. You interacted with dozens, or hundreds, of people you didn’t know and had never met. One well-crafted post could prompt an immediate and ego-boosting positive reaction. If you followed the right people and outlets, you had the news of the day completely at your fingertips. Who wouldn’t check it every 10 minutes? Or maybe every five?

Soon, though, it morphed from fun to obligation. During the USC football coaching search that resulted in Will Muschamp’s hiring, it felt like I stared at TweetDeck constantly for a week, all while working my own sources, terrified that I would react too slowly to someone else’s report. Even in less hectic times, I held my breath as I checked it before I went to bed and after I woke up, worried that I had somehow missed an assistant coach’s departure or a player arrest.

No question, it still offered a diversion when waiting in line at the grocery store or on the tarmac on a plane. But it remained intrinsically connected to the job, and the job was ever-present — until the job changed.

The transition from beat reporter to freelance writer has fundamentally altered my relationship with Twitter, which overnight became far less essential than it had been. There is no more need — or desire, to be honest — to check it every few minutes for potential news out of USC. There is no more worrying about what the competition may be posting. There is no more news I have to post (other than the occasional personal item), leading to a far lower rate of engagement with followers. Turns out, I wasn’t on Twitter all the time because I enjoyed it. I was on Twitter all the time because I felt I had to be.

Goodness, how things have changed. In a recent six-day span, I tweeted all of five times. I used to tweet five times in an hour. TweetDeck, once my constant work companion, now goes days at a stretch without being opened on my laptop. The number of notifications from 18-year-old bros from Boston calling me an asshole (they were always from Boston) has dropped to zero. I no longer check my phone every 10 minutes at dinner, or during a night out, or at the aquarium with the kiddo.

And let me tell you, it’s incredibly freeing.

There are times I miss the engagement. There are times I wish I had more to offer, something that in due time should change. But the constant nature of it is gone. It’s all on my terms now. Twitter over time had morphed from a diversion to an obligation to a yoke, and I hardly even realized it until my wife recently remarked that it was nice to not have my attention so divided all the time.

“It was like Twitter was your mistress,” she told me.

I still have my blue check mark (for now), still have the vast majority of my followers (for whom I have long been thankful), still have that occasional idle minute or two when I scroll through my news feed. But I’m not sure where we are right now, Twitter. It’s been a good run, but you’re full of too many screamers and wackos and aggregators these days, and not nearly as essential to me as you once were. We may even have to break up for a bit. Nothing personal — just no need to live two lives any longer.

From Columbia to Charleston

It started with gunshots.

Four of them, coming in quick succession: bang bang bang bang. Clearly not fireworks. My wife and I were sitting on the back deck of our recently-purchased home just north of downtown Columbia, still regaling in the fact that we had finally escaped student-dominated apartment living, when we heard them. We both went wide-eyed, and got quiet. It was the first time, but it would not be the last.

We heard gunshots fairly often in our section of Earlewood, the reports evidently coming from another neighborhood across River Drive. Once we joined the neighborhood Facebook page, we learned that a lot of other people regularly heard gunshots, too. People often called police, something we would discover Columbia PD encouraged us to do. We learned to live with them. They were occasionally loud, and always unnerving, but we convinced ourselves that they were just the price to pay for living so close to downtown.

Then we had our daughter.

Then cars in our neighborhood were broken into.

Then a house in our neighborhood was burglarized.

That was enough. We were hardly prime targets — we both worked from home, we had a sleepless and crying newborn, and we had two dogs that jumped out of their skulls at a UPS truck idling a block over, much less somebody on the porch. We installed a security system, the first time I’d ever done that. Had it been just the two of us, we probably would have been content to ride it out — the neighborhood association quickly leaped into action, the police were amazingly responsive, and the homeowners were simply too wary to allow any crime wave to last for very long.

But it wasn’t just the two of us anymore. Like many other parents before us, we started looking to the suburbs — Lexington, Blythewood. Neither thrilled us. Finally, we came to a conclusion: if we’re going to move, let’s move where we want to be. Let’s move where we can settle. Let’s move where we have family, and somewhere that offers a better quality of life. Let’s move to Charleston.

There was one huge hitch: my job, covering USC athletics for The Post and Courier, was based in Columbia. There was no way to remain employed at the paper and move back to the Lowcountry, at least not immediately. Relocating would mean giving up the best beat job at the best paper in South Carolina, and hanging a freelance shingle. It would mean trading something stable for the hustle.

It was stunning how fast we agreed to do it, and how quickly it happened. My wife’s job is thankfully mobile, which provided us with some security. A robust Columbia real estate market helped us make a little on the house. We found a groovy, 1970s-era contemporary in the Charleston area that needed some work, but that we both instantly fell in love with. We moved into a new neighborhood where we don’t hear gunshots.

Leaving Columbia, where my wife and I had met and where we had our daughter, was bittersweet. We still miss breakfast at the Gourmet Shop in Five Points, coffee at the Wired Goat in the Vista, the wine list at Hampton Street Vineyard, the YMCA, the Riverwalk and the USC Horseshoe. We do not miss being surrounded by students, or kids just out of college who still act like students. We don’t miss the dispiriting homeless problem, or the encroaching crime.

Columbia is really trying to take that next step, evident in our old neighborhood, where a new coffee shop or restaurant opens every week. but the city is hamstrung by politics, and a lack of the kind of industry (like Boeing and BMW) that’s planted flags and raised incomes in other corners of the state. Steve Benjamin, the current mayor, certainty has the vision, but not the power Joe Riley did when he sparked Charleston’s epic turnaround. Emblematic of the city’s struggle is Columbia’s sparkling new minor league baseball park, sitting on the still-mostly-barren former site of the state mental hospital.

So, here we are in the Lowcountry. The move came with one other very large change: me giving up the 24/7 life of a major-college beat writer, and trading the security of a regular paycheck for a schedule that guarantees my evenings and weekends. When it was just the two of us, a player arrest or a coach firing at 9 p.m. was a mere inconvenience. With an infant who needs to be picked up from daycare and then bathed and put to bed at certain times, late breaking news created chaos. Road trips were a strain. With a second child on the way, the more unpredictable variables in our life needed to be cut down to a minimum. Relocating took care of that for us.

Yeah, it’s weird watching the P&C’s new Gamecocks writer live-tweet Will Muschamp’s news conference on media day. It’s humbling reaching out to people you haven’t spoken to in years, and asking if they have any content needs. I don’t know if this new venture will last a year, or forever. But I know I rock my daughter to sleep at 7:30 every night, and it’s the highlight of my day. And then I go run in my new neighborhood, where nothing goes bang in the dark.