Will I lose my mojo as a stay-at-home dad?

I want to care for my kids, but fear the effect on my career, earning power and friendships

Published October 5, 2011 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                         (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

For the past 10 years or so I've been working in a field that I don't really enjoy but have been tolerating while my wife completed her medical training. This has meant juggling both working at a start-up organization where I have been responsible for raising all of the operating funds and implementing all of the organization's programming while also having a lot of responsibility for raising our son while my wife dealt with those famous doctor-training hours. With a lot of help from family members we came through the other side and are now in a position where my wife's salary is significant enough to support our family and to allow us to start catching up on our retirement savings.

It has always been our plan for me to stop working for a few years once my wife began her career so that I can raise our children (in addition to the older son in kindergarten we have a son just born a few months ago). My wife is very much in favor of the idea, as she would be happy to have our boys raised every day by their father.

My problem is that now that the time is upon us to finally implement the plan, I'm terrified of what not bringing in an income will mean for my sense of self-worth. The actual "raising the kids" part of the plan (changing diapers, fixing lunches and dinners, getting them to and from school, going to the playground, trips to the aquarium, etc.) does not bother me -- I've done a lot of that already over the past five years and have enjoyed it. Nor do I have any fears that switching gender roles will somehow harm our marriage. If my wife and I were going to have issues with her being at work all day while I raised the kids, we would have already had them during the past seven years, when her schedule was much crazier than it will be going forward.

Instead, I fear that I'll feel like a failure if I don't bring in a certain level of income (I've got an arbitrary number in my head, chosen for no particular reason whatsoever), even if that income isn't necessary to support the family. I've read quite a bit about how so many of the recently unemployed find themselves depressed and discouraged after being out of work for a few months, so the idea of putting myself in that situation voluntarily seems like a frightening proposition. I'm also worried that after a few years it will be impossible for me to get back into the job market, so that I'll spend the rest of my working life either unemployed or at a menial, dead-end job, regretting my decision to leave the job market at the start of my peak earning years. I mean, who is going to hire an almost 40-year-old guy who hasn't been working for the past three or four years to do anything meaningful or interesting, at a decent salary no less?

I know that many women go through the exact same situation (see: Mommy Wars), but part of me thinks it's even more intense for men because if I make the choice to stop working there won't be a group of like-minded peers  [link courtesy of CT] who can validate my decision. I'm scared enough about the situation to be seriously considering staying in the job that doesn't interest me and often leaves me frustrated and discouraged while letting other family members take care of the child-raising (for free), just so that I can tell myself I'm still relevant.

Of course I'm not writing to you for career advice, so the root of the question is -- how can I get beyond considering income as a symbol of self-worth? I know that there are ways that I can work part-time as the boys grow older, and that I can use this time to explore other career areas that might interest me, but I really need a way to continually remind myself that there are ways to live a meaningful life of purpose and real impact that are not tied to whether or not I ever make any money again.

P.S. -- I am very, very aware of how lucky I am to be in the position that I'm in, and can see on the horizon the commenters telling me to just get over myself and to stop complaining. Maybe that's part of what I need -- a bunch of folks to show me how my situation looks from the outside and what they'd do in the same situation.

Future Stay-at-Home Dad

Dear Future Stay-at-Home Dad,

You present yourself as someone who is thoughtful and has feelings and wants to do the right thing, and you're self-aware enough to know that it's going to be tough to take a cut in status.

You're talking about the sense of satisfaction a man gets from going out and making money and bringing it home. So how important is that stuff to you, really? Will the high regard of your wife and those around you suffice? How deeply do you need the world to tell you what a swell guy you are?

I'm not belittling that need. Would I be a writer if I didn't need the world to be telling me what swell guy I am? I'd be happier gardening but I need the applause. My ego is a house of cards. I'm always shoring it up and still it leans and teeters and can't hold up in the wind.

So my hat goes off to you.

So where do you go for answers? You go deep.

What does your heart say? Does your heart say this is the right thing? Then that is where your self-worth must come from. And, frankly, there will be times when that's where it has to come from because people aren't going to be walking up to you night and day telling you what a swell guy you are.

So stock up on that inner sense of self-worth, my friend.

Knowing the downside helps. But it doesn't eliminate the downside. We know, going over the cliff, or up the mountainside, that things might happen. What makes us do it anyway? Heart? Courage? Ambition? That crazy excited voice inside that keeps saying, Come on, let's do it!?

You have fears. But your reasons for doing this are bigger than your fears. The reason you're going to do it is because it's a beautiful thing, it's a great adventure, and you're called to do it.

So go for it, and more power to you, and if you find, after a few years, that it's time to found a start-up company, well, you might just have to do that and ask your wife to cut back on her hours.

And here is one more thing for the days ahead: Fight for what you need -- from your wife and anyone else. If you find yourself slipping into a mode of acquiescence, if you find yourself thinking you can't bother your wife about certain things because she is oh, so much more busy than you, fight for what you need. However trivial or silly it may seem, fight for it. That way you'll keep yourself going.

Creative Getaway

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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