I'm a flake. I've always been a flake. Whether it's my career or school or creative pursuits, I never seem to follow through, and I have a terrible habit of believing that I am smarter than the people I work for and with. I'm a flake and a schmuck.
The only two areas of my life where I feel truly committed and at ease are with my wife and children. So, two years ago, it was with some enthusiasm that I removed myself from the world of adults and settled in for a yearlong turn as a stay-at-home dad.
The decision to stay home was a fairly easy one. My 1-year-old son displayed early warning signs of being part tornado, and our household was beginning to crack like a trailer home under the strain of 175 mph winds. My wife had the degree, the full-time job, the benefits, and most important, desire and ambition. When you compared that to my mishmash of part-time contract work and my unique inability to function around other humans, it was clear who would be the one on the front lines in the constant battle against diaper rash.
So I began my foray into the mildly unusual world of being a stay-at-home father. I expected to take a little time off, get the kid straightened out and then embark on a new and fabulous stage of my professional life where someone would recognize me for the genius I really was, and lavish me with the wealth and fame I so richly deserved.
And for a while, things went well. My son was not necessarily slowing down, but his energy was now directed, our house was cleaner than it had ever been, we had a meal on the table every night, our monthly expenditures were diminishing rapidly, and I had an adult community of parents I hadn’t totally offended at our local park. My wife and I were calm and relaxed.
I was also discovering a side of myself I had never really known before. Being Mr. Mom was turning me into the man I had always aspired to be; I was becoming dependable. If I was at all concerned about how other people saw me, or if I experienced a vague sense of unease as I watched my male contemporaries cultivate careers, as opposed to the professional false starts I had shared with them in our early 20s, those feelings were quickly stifled by the sense that a) I was learning tools I desperately needed, and b) this was only temporary.
But all that calm came to an end, first by another round of seismic activity in my wife’s uterus, and then by the economic tidal wave that swept over everything. With a new baby swimming ever closer to the light at the end of the birth tunnel, and a completely submerged job market, it became clear that my time at home was not a relaxing vacation or pleasure cruise, it was in fact a lifeboat from which there was no escape. The delicate financial balance we'd set up could sustain another mouth but it could not sustain another mouth, a second car and two daycare payments. I could not capsize my family's budget for the sake of my own masculine vanity. My fate as stay-at-home dude was sealed.
Realizing that I was stuck brought about an ugly change in me. The financial penis envy that I had so assiduously avoided began to creep into my relationship with my wife. I got shitty and sulky when she told people in passing that I was staying home with the kid. I qualified her statements by letting whoever she was speaking to know that this was a temporary thing, and that I had held several very butch jobs up until the last year. For instance, did I mention that I worked in a prison, or that I was a bouncer? Who's a big tough guy? That's right, Aaron's a big tough guy! Yay, Aaron!
My wife was in her third trimester. Every morning I watched her trying to turn herself over to get out of bed in order to go to work to put food on our table. She looked like a turtle on its back trying to right itself. I knew better than to take out my sense of inadequacy on my wife. Giant breadwinning turtle woman had enough to worry about without my being mean to her.
So instead I became sullen and lethargic. Where I had once spent my weekdays taking my son on winter nature hikes or walks to the park, I now allowed him to veg in front of Dora and Boots for hours on end. Where I had been determined to have food ready for a sit-down family dinner, we were forced to order in (which we couldn’t afford) or do it every-man-for-himself style. Everyone suffers when the answer to the question, "What's for dinner?" turns out to be a choice of sauerkraut, peanut butter, Cheerios or ground pork.
My proudest accomplishments of the previous year crumbled. My son’s bedtime routine, his behavior, his activity level and even his language skills were all following my mood straight into the sewer.
As Rome burned, I solidified my role as stay-at-home dick-face by developing a computer habit. Before then, I had only used the computer to check e-mail and read the papers. I suddenly found myself meandering aimlessly around the Internet for hours at a time while sitting in front of the TV. You'd be amazed how often YouPorn and Stuffonmycat are updated during a single day.
Laundry piled up, dust bunnies blew past my feet like so many shameful tumbleweeds. I gained back 10 of the 20 pounds I had lost over the previous year while trying to keep up with our son. I was drinking too much. I sucked, and so did my life, and I made sure everyone knew it.
My amazing daughter was born, and while she brought a great deal of happiness with her, she was unable to banish the crushing sense of emasculated loserdom that had settled over me.
It was about a month after her arrival that the keg of self-pity I had been sucking from was finally drained.
On an icy Philadelphia morning in early February, I woke up to discover that it had snowed almost a foot. I did what I always do when it snows; I went out and shoveled the sidewalks and front steps of some of my neighbors who, for various reasons, can't do it themselves.
My son was trying to help me by dumping the snow I had just removed back onto the freshly cleared sidewalk. He believed he was providing a vital service to me. More to the point, he believed he was helping his neighbors.
This wasn’t the fun stuff. It wasn’t sledding or making snowmen. In fact this work postponed sledding and snowmen, but my son was out there with me, like some Bizarro Yoda, with his bright red face crusted with snow, and saying things like, "Daddy, help you I am." He was delighted by the idea that he was doing something for his neighbors, that he was being a very useful toddler.
It was at that moment that it occurred to me how much I like being a man, and how little it had to do with any of the stuff I had been letting get to me. It's not about the money I'm able to make (or not able to make) and it's not about a job title, or what I can tell people I do when they ask me.
I’m big and I’m strong and I can shovel snow and install air-conditioners for people who can’t shovel snow or install air-conditioners for themselves. I can do this, and my son wants to help. He wants to help without getting anything in return, except some octogenarian neighbor’s promise to say a rosary for him. He doesn’t know what a rosary is.
I may be a flake and a schmuck, but my kids don’t have to be, and oddly, it may just be this schmuck’s guidance that makes the difference.
We keep hearing that women will surpass men in the workforce during this recession. As many of us (for whatever reason) find ourselves in a fiduciary timeout, we should not only think about how to repower the American worker but how to reimagine the American man. The moment our mothers entered the workforce and shattered expectations, the rules about gender roles in this country changed completely, even if our perceptions didn't. Trying to live like our grandfathers is no longer an option.
As we step, or are forced, into the new roles that are presented to us, perhaps we should not lament, or vainly grasp at the responsibilities we feel we should have, but instead sack up and embrace the ones that are right in front of us.
At least that’s what I try to remind myself before I clean the bathroom and change the diaper genie.