About Captain Dad

Pat Byrnes is a cartoonist for The New Yorker whose cartoons in recent years frequently reflect the reality of a stay-at-home mom. He'd put stay-at-home dads in the cartoons, but then no one would believe them. Until his youngest starts pre-school, he will continue to work only when the kids are asleep. That should explain any incoherence in his writing.

Do You Have Any Dreaded Events? Go Fish!

What parent doesn’t look forward to a school event that practically guarantees each kid a live animal as a prize? Hooray for the Winter Carnival!

This cherished occasion is held each year on a bleak Friday evening, where, instead of getting the kids ready for bed, you can be mucking about in the frozen slush, hoping the fish clutched in a Ziploc® bag doesn’t die of frost before you get to the car. Gosh, what fun.

You can just imagine how abuzz with anticipation the parents were at Friday afternoon pick-up.

“Luckily they’re just feeder fish and they usually don’t make it through the night.”

“I don’t say anything to the kids about the festival. So if they forget, then we don’t have to go.”

My kids, unfortunately, remember everything. Except, of course, important things, like homework or whatever they came into the room to ask me. But for stuff like this? Their minds are like lint traps. There was no out for us.

The moment the doors opened, parents were already checking their watches. Us included. And laying down the law to the kids: “No fish. We’re not going home with fish again this year.” Us included. We could not possibly stress the importance of this enough.

Which is why, within minutes, we had two bagged fish at our table. Prizes for dropping a clothes pin in a bucket or from some other such makeshift game gleaned from a rosier parenting blog than mine. My eye twitched. I looked around for an inattentive parent, to see if I could slide our fish bags in among theirs. That’s when I noticed our children’s names written on the bags. In permanent marker. Some formerly inattentive parent must have complained about getting dumped with someone else’s anonymous fish in years prior. On the bright side, we did not have to adopt the fish labeled “Marty” that had miraculously appeared next to ours.

fish_vibes“Last year, we had one that died overnight and one that lasted a week,” was the refrain we’d hear from parent after parent, each of them wearing the same look of grim resignation. Many shared dark fantasies, which I cannot print without fear of the fine folks at PETA going all Charlie Hebdo on me.

One, however, didn’t look like she was fantasizing. “A couple drops of bleach,” she whispered conspiratorily under furtive eyes.

“Don’t let your kids name them for at least two days,” another mom noted. “They don’t cry as much if they haven’t named them yet.” Sound advice.

But I could take the crying for a night or two. What I couldn’t take was another year of fish. We brought home three a couple years ago. One died overnight, another after a week, per the standard refrain. But another lived for a full year. We had to get a tank, little pebbles, a filter. And ear plugs for the filter’s ceaseless buzzing. I don’t want to have to live through that again.

It’s been four days now. Our fish were not among the many, many that “accidentally” got dropped or spilled on the way out of the Winter Carnival. Ours survived the icy walk to the car and adapted just fine to their new glass-serving-bowl home on the kitchen table.

Names have been given. Annabeth and Imy-or-Amy are still going strong.

So, what the heck. What’s another year of my life? This is the year I planned to get out of the house more, isn’t it? Maybe the buzzing of that blasted filter is just the kick in the butt I need.

Merry Christmas


From my family to yours (and I know you’ve got one!), may you all have a joyful and blessed Christmas season.

And may we all learn from the redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge, who “knew how to keep Christmas well” by living it the year round. That was so wise of him, because then he could spread all those Christmas concerts and parties and recitals and driving and wrapping and shopping and driving and baking and eating and visiting—and everything else—over twelve months instead of one very, very hectic one.

Alive Again… sort of

Easing back into my former role as a professional adult, I will be performing at a charity “Story Slam” next week. And not as Captain Dad, but in my old New Yorker cartoonist identity.

If you happen to find yourself in the neighborhood of Chicago on Oct. 16, I invite you to check it out. There are lots of great storytellers on the bill, so it should be good fun.


Another thing that happened this summer was that the training wheels came off my younger daughter’s bike. Unlike her older sister, who cannot hide her slightest emotion, Lucy tried to harden her face like she was all business. But the triumph was too great. The smile broke through her attempts to hide it.

This was just a week or two before school started. Before, as I have mentioned, both girls were in school all day for the first time ever.

The training wheels had come off for me too, then. So to speak. I’m freewheeling in my days again. For six and a half hours, at least. And I’m certainly manic enough to make a productive workday out of that.

In other words, I’m a (mostly) working dad now. My wife drops the kids off at school, and I pick them up. A common occurrence in many families. Or some variation of that.

My days of full-time Captain Dadding are behind me. Nearly a decade, over in a blink.

That leaves me three choices for what to do with this blog.

One, I can exploit my experience and become a pundit. I can tell everyone else how to raise their children, which is all that parenting pundits do. Even when they start out trying to do something nobler, the punditry system only accommodates advisor-consultant-heckler-know-it-alls.

No. Sorry. I can’t do that. As long as people are raising their kids—actively raising them—then I choose to trust them to figure out what works best for their family.

Two, I can wring my memories for a few more funny stories and hope to draw a few more readers and sell a few more books. Well, a few more copies of the book that’s already out, at least.

But, fun as that may be, it eats up a lot of my work week. And the effective hourly rate doesn’t come close to minimum wage.

Which leaves me with Three: Move on. Be a responsible dad and try to provide more for my kids’ future. Heck, their present. Tuition hasn’t stopped, after all.

freewheelingWhen we took the training wheels off Lucy’s bike, we put them back on again for long family rides, simply for safety and convenience. But that was temporary. We know that they will only be a distant memory by the time the next bicycling season begins.

One can’t help notice the comparison to how I have tried to reboot the blog this past month.

The wheels have to come off.

There are other books to write, projects to conceive, and there are always cartoons to be drawn. And sell. And if all that fails, there’s always a real job.

I’ll still probably post here from time to time. Since I began, not quite three years ago, I’ve published more than 350 posts. It’s probably hard to quit something like that cold turkey.

Before I ride off, though, I want to thank you for your support. Your hand on the seat, if you will. Staying home with kids can be a lonely, isolating pursuit, no matter how vital and ultimately rewarding it may be. Your simply being here—letting me share some of what rolls around in my head during the day, stuff I couldn’t share with my only companions because they wouldn’t understand—has helped me stay upright. Thank you. Deeply, sincerely, thank you.

Now, as Lucy so earnestly instructed me, “Don’t let go until I tell you… Okay, let go!”

The Girls and a Country Song

Confession time. I’m a country music fan. (If you still say “and Western,” please give my regards to 1980.) The music, at its best, actually says something. And in recent years it had gotten pretty good. For a while.

I also liked that it had a tradition of being family friendly, which is important when driving with two impressionable minds in the back seat.

But it seems that the high riding of country in an otherwise tanking music economy went to the heads of a few people, and the same frat boy mentality you saw take over Wall Street infected a once more gentlemanly world.

So, in the last year or so, I have had to have my finger hovering over the button to change stations in a blink. Otherwise I’d have to answer questions about “Daisy Dukes,” “painted on jeans,” “shaking your moneymaker” and other, much more objectifying portrayals of women.

Meanwhile, two other young girls, barely ten years older than mine, seem to have noticed the same thing. And they had the talent to express themselves. Maddie and Tae, a couple of 18-year-old singers, now have a hit called “Girl in a Country Song,” which deliciously skewers what has come to be called Bro Country. I cheered when I heard their song.

The Girl in a Country Song

But what is flabbergasting to me is that one bro country band actually had the stupidity to criticize them. One band member charged, “I don’t know one girl who doesn’t want to be a girl in a country song.” Of course, if you saw the man, you’d understand. He doesn’t look the sort who would be allowed to call on the likes of my own daughters. Or any self-respecting man’s daughter.

No, they’d face the dad Rodney Atkins so well described in a song when my girls were just a little bit younger. And country was awesome.

Danged If You Don’t, Danged If You Do

Here are some things I did not do at lunch yesterday:

• I did not place a complicated order that required food preparers to vary from what was on the prescribed menu.

• I did not take more than two napkins—even for a burrito.

• I did not have to make multiple trips back to the counter for more straws, spoons, drinks, etc.

• I did not have to caution anyone on proper behavior.

For the last week now, I have had the freedom to choose when and where I eat my lunch and the leisure to eat it in the company of my own thoughts. For the first time in nearly ten years. Even the manager noticed yesterday. “The kids in school?” he asked. Yes, we were regulars there.

I told him of my newfound liberty. Like everyone else I’ve told, he asked me what I was going to do with all my free time. “Work!” I answered like the long-time dry workaholic embarking on a medically sanctioned bender.

did_at_lunchIt wasn’t long, though, before I noticed some other things I didn’t do at lunch yesterday:

• I did not play table hockey with the wadded up burrito foil and straws.

• I did not have anyone to hold my hand in the parking lot.

• I did not have anyone tell me my how beautiful my daughters are.

I thought, Danged if you don’t, danged if you do. Yes, danged. Because, even though I’m alone now, I’m still in the habit of watching my language.

And that way, I guess, a part of my girls is always with me.