father holding hands with child
When feminism was born in the 1960’s, it shook the status quo, bringing the promise of a new flexibility for men as well as women. The number of working moms grew exponentially, and it isn’t surprising that a new breed, the “stay at home dads” followed. After all, somebody needs to take care of the children, and when you add up all the expenses associated with working outside the home, including the skyrocketing cost of quality childcare, it often makes financial sense to have one parent at home. Even if the dollars don’t exactly come out ahead, it’s a quality of life issue as well. So many two-income families today feel enormous pressure as they rush to meet all the demands of both work and family.
Meet Mark and Robert, two dads in their late thirties who felt the downside of the fast track, long hours and the need to recuperate when they weren’t working. Both made a conscious choice to take time off to be home with their children. Mark commented, “I watched my wife trying to work and raise a daughter while I was never around. I knew that if I kept my job I would never know my kids. I didn’t think it was fair to ask my wife to quit her job if I was not willing to quit mine. I left the choice up to her. She made the right choice. Me. Though my wife travels some, she has more flexibility with her work and this allow us both to have time with our kids. So I knew I was doing the right thing when I turned in my pager and quit my 100-hour a week corporate job to be a full-time-parent to my daughter,”
Robert relates “I was traveling three days per week and maintaining a cell phone relationship with my wife and kids. Now I am far more connected with my family.”
His wife had taken time off from her profession and didn’t want to lose her hard-earned skills. “I found it was much more work than guessed. Most dads have stayed home with their kids for a day or two on weekends. When it went well for me, I thought, hey, I can do this. No problem. The real challenge is maintaining a routine and a consistent pattern of discipline day in and day out for weeks and months on end while keeping the house in some semblance of order. “
Google “stay at home dads” and you get six pages of resources and related information, including bulletin boards and blogs. It’s amazing to see what’s out there. SAHD’s, or stay at home dads, have lots of support from each other. Dadstayshome.com has advice from Dads for Dads. One posted article asked for advice on handling a lost tooth. At this site, dads can share funny stories, recipes, home improvement topics, controversial matters, sun exposure, heating bottles, and get ideas for summertime trips. There are even coupons and “deals for dads.”
At fatherhood.about.com the link to stay at home dads includes articles and advice on many subjects. There’s even a review for a Stay at Home Dad’s Handbook, written for the “professional father” by Peter Baylies, founder of the At-Home Dad Network. The handbook covers the basics – advice on establishing routines, preparing meals, discipline, home management, and avoiding burnout. Another article reminds dads that full time fatherhood is physically and emotionally demanding, an round the clock job. (Stay at home moms will undoubtedly agree!). It also discusses some of the social challenges, confirmed by Mark and Robert, such as feeling the need to explain his role to others.
Mark told about an experience he had when he first became a SAHD. “My daughter and I were attending one of our first play groups, comprised mostly of stay-at-home mothers and their kids. From the beginning I felt like I was entering a foreign world. The mothers were welcoming enough, so I tried to make the best of it. I accepted a cup of coffee and sat down to “adult” conversation while I kept an eye on my daughter. The mothers discussed everything from politics to religion, while I sat half listening, half trying to make myself invisible. Finally, in a noble attempt to include me, a well-meaning mother asked me “So, Chris, what do you do?” Somehow, telling them “I hunt endangered species for a living” seemed better than admitting I was a stay-at-home dad. I was desperately searching for a response when one of the other mothers, who knew I was a stay-at-home dad, tried to bail me out. “He chases a two-year-old around all day,” she said, “What do you think he does?” Looking back this was probably the perfect answer, but at the time it wasn’t good enough, not good enough for me, and, I assumed, not good enough for the others. “I write,” I said quickly. “I’m a writer.” There. Whew. I got out of that one, and I wasn’t exactly lying. I did write, and worked very hard at it at night when everyone else was in bed. I hadn’t published anything, nor was I even on the verge of publishing anything, but I did type words on a computer screen
Robert felt his change in status differently. “I don’t have anyone to hang out with anymore. Although I’m much more connected to my family, I feel quite disconnected from other adults. It is hard to find a perfect balance in life. One just has to keep trying.” He’s found that joining a tennis team and keeping lunch dates with his corporate friends whenever possible helps. He also took classes to earn another master’s degree.
Robert commented, “When the dad is the bread-winner, he gets to be the hero when he comes home. He gets to hug and play with the kids and read bedtime stories. Once he is staying home, he has to do all the monotonous tasks. His relationship changes with the kids. He becomes taken for granted, just as mom probably was,“ observes Robert. You don’t get recognition, an evaluation, or a bonus for a job well done as you would get in the workplace.
Some challenges faced by dad aren’t so different otherwise from challenges facing moms, eg. making and keeping your own agenda, being your own person in the midst of being a caretaker, carving out time for yourself. Robert gained a new appreciation for what it takes to run a household. There’s a reason why most stay at home moms are worn out at the end of the day. Men may think having more strength will help them through, but it is more important to have emotional and physical stamina. Even the best kids in the world will have a couple of hours in the day when they just do not do what they are told, fight with their siblings over nonsense, and cry over invisible offenses. The first dozen times, you patiently work your way through it. After that, you begin to question your sanity. Unlike employees at the office, kids do not feel a need to follow directions. Once you give in to a demand or offer a bribe to get a child to do something for you, it is extremely hard to get them to follow your requests without that incentive the next time.
Robert continued, “despite hearing a hundred times from my wife that it is nearly impossible to get through a “to do” list while watching two active little kids, I still constructed a list each morning in the hope of giving my day some structure. After several months of not managing to check off more that a few items out of a list of ten, I gave up. Someone suggested I create the list at the end of the day as in a “what did I do” list. Others said to make a list such as “1. keep kids fed, 2. keep them safe, 3. keep kids from climbing on bookcase and counters, etc.” Regardless, it was hard to have the sense of accomplishment that I had from a successful office career.
Robert said one benefit was that “I lost over fifteen pounds in my first three months at home without dieting. It was primarily from chasing the kids around the house and carrying them (a 45 pounder and a 35 pounder) up and down the stairs. That was a good start. However, after fifteen months I now have lots of aches and pains in my shoulders, elbows, wrists and hips.”
People sometimes assume that a SAHD was fired or laid off, or that he’s lazy. How glamorous–you get to hang out all day and do nothing, you have it made, not really work but a vacation. Mark addressed this. When my buddies or men I meet jokingly call me a “slacker” or comment on how I have “the life” or “I wish I had a wife like yours,” it bugs me, because I work very hard at what I do, as hard as I ever worked in the corporate world. One day when I was minding the kids, cleaning the house and thinking about how I was going to finish and rebuild the stairs in our house while keeping them useable, a friend called to say he and some buddies had a slow day and were going to leave work to go fishing and invited me. I couldn’t go, I said, I have the kids and had too much to do. It suddenly hit me, it wasn’t working hard that mattered for some men, it was the paycheck. That’s what we are. A paycheck. We’re earners. It doesn’t matter what we “do.” We can justify anything so long as it makes money.”
Mark reflects, “I’ve since learned that I’m more than a paycheck to the only people that really matter: my family. And the currency I earn is priceless. I think about all of the moments with my kids I would have missed if I had continued working at the pace I was working, or if I had simply put them in daycare. I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything. Now, when I walk into a children’s clothing store and am asked if I need help finding the right size, I can smile, and say, “No, I got it.” I can smile when somebody comments on my daughter’s “beautiful” pigtail braids that “mommy made,” because my daughter always corrects them and tells them with pride, “No, my daddy did it.” I often see other fathers with their children, and see how awkward and uncomfortable the fathers often are around the wonderful, lively chaos children bring into the world. I was once there, but I smile, because I’m not there anymore. And now when someone asks me the dreaded question, “So, what do you do?” I can respond, not always comfortably, but honestly and proudly, “I’m a Dad. What do YOU do?”