Stay-at-home dad no more

Taking care of my kids gave me purpose. As they head to school, I'm wondering what I want to be when I grow up

Topics: Real Families, Fatherhood, Great Recession, Parenting,

Stay-at-home dad no moreA photo of the author with his daughter.

The other morning my 3-year-old daughter and I had this exchange:

Me: “Do you want to have a special daddy-daughter morning together?”

Her: “Special daddy-daughter mornings suck.”

“Suck” is a word her 6-year-old brother taught her. My daughter is not ungrateful or spoiled. She is simply honest, and proud of an expanding vocabulary. Daddy and daughter mornings do suck compared with sister and brother mornings. I could never hope to achieve the comic brilliance or physical daring of a 6-year-old boy; I refuse to use the term “soapy farts” for cheap laughs, and I won’t jump from the top of the third-floor stairs while screaming and firing foam disks from a Captain America shield. No, I’m merely the “authority blob” until her brother arrives home around lunch. For her, the equation is simple: 3+6=PARTY, while 3+34=SUCK.

This is such a shift from my son. When he was a little boy, I was pressed into service as his constant companion, caretaker and general superfriend. But my daughter is more self-sufficient. Next year, she goes to preschool while my little boy heads to kindergarten. I’m glad they’re growing up, but I’m staring down big chunks of empty space. After years as a stay-at-home dad, I may be looking for a new line of work.

In the years after the economy’s face melted and I found myself out of the workforce, I took comfort in the fact that staying home gave me full-time responsibilities. It wasn’t a “job,” but it was hard work. It made the sting of not earning easier. I was contributing, and at the very least, my contribution saved us money that would have gone to the increasingly expensive world of daycare. My time with the kid – and, later, kids – meant that we could live in urban Philadelphia on a single salary that qualified us for the “low-income family discount” at the YMCA.

More important, those five years of childcare turned me into something I never thought I’d be: a productive adult. I’ve gone from being a night owl who wakes up at noon to a person who can’t stay up past 10 p.m. and feels guilty on the rare days that I get to sleep until 8 a.m. I’ve worked harder than I ever worked earning a paycheck (which may be part of the reason I stopped earning a paycheck). Like many other families during this recession, my wife, Karel, and I learned not simply how to survive with less but how to thrive. We played our roles to the best of our abilities. Karel never had the luxury of engaging in the “mommy wars” because she was too busy making sure we didn’t lose our house. I didn’t have time to get mad about being emasculated and taken for granted in the workplace because I was too busy helping my kids master the trampoline at “Mommy & Me” gymnastics. And just to be clear, my kids do take me for granted, but it would be useless to send them angry, drunken emails about it, because I won’t let them play with my computer.

While I recognize that my wife and I had it a lot easier than many people out there (we had a supportive extended family and awesome health benefits supplied by Karel’s job), it was still frightening to live on one income, with so little security. But it made my family stronger and better, and it made me stronger and better, too.

But at the end of this summer, my kids head off to school. For the first time since I stopped working, I won’t have the official responsibilities that kept me from feeling weird about being a man who doesn’t have a steady job. I won’t be on the move or constantly managing dependent little chunks of redheaded neediness. My daughter’s independent streak offers a troubling preview of what that time will look like. While these newfound “negative spaces” should be glorious releases, inspiring moments of freedom returned, instead I find the lack of purpose has left me unfocused and fuzzy-headed, bored. I’m questioning my role and importance in the family. It’s like watching your hours at work get cut before an inevitable downsizing.

You Might Also Like

I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. I know I should take the work ethic learned in the trenches of infant and toddler care and get back into the workforce. But I’m concerned, because while carrying heavy, tired children multiple blocks and making “cream cheese roll-ups” has been wonderful for my personal growth, all I have to show on paper is a five-year gap in my employment history. What’s even more disconcerting is that nothing has really changed in terms of the job market. I’m not any more desirable to the six employers who are hiring right now because I learned how to wipe butts and “found myself.”

I am very lucky to have a regular columnist gig with a print magazine. But thinking there is a financial future in writing is like believing not only that the Easter Bunny exists, but also that he will give you a hand job if you catch him. I am exactly like every other dad I know from the park: My first responsibility is my kids, and in my spare time I putter. For me, it’s writing, while other guys earn extra cash as wedding photographers or freelance graphic designers for small businesses, or pull a few overnights at Trader Joe’s, or work a security gig on the weekends, or teach a class here and there. Every stay-at-home dad I know cobbles part-time work together using the skill sets learned in a former life. The problem is, as our full-time parenting work downshifts to part-time, the part-time paying gigs remain firmly in place.

So what comes next? I know many stay-at-home moms of school-age kids who bust their asses being chauffeurs, cooks, advocates for their children’s schools (a difficult and time-consuming job, especially in Philadelphia) and a million other things that keep them on their toes while their children are learning. Is that what the future has in store for me and my kind? Is that even responsible in a post-crash America?

As I’ve noted before, it’s amazing how fast our culture adjusted to fathers staying at home with young kids. But just as TV and movies and everyone in the neighborhood have gotten comfortable with that idea, the world has already turned for men like me. While you never stop being a dad, the heavy lifting of infant and toddler care – of stroller-pushing and diaper changing – is over. People understand the importance of raising a kid, whoever does it. But will we be OK when we’re confronted with a generation of men in between, of PTA and soccer dads? Will we still be cool with the Avon dude? Will I be cool becoming one?

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>