At times, the duality of being a writer and a parent feels like walking a tightrope stretched a hair's breadth from a bed of smoldering coals. The heat is on, and you’re one small move from failure. Perhaps because when you’re focused on your muse, you’re shutting out your family, and vice versa. The two roles seem somewhat at odds, the one selfish and solitary, the other selfless and social.
Both writing and parenting attracted me as a young man, but I shied away from them, largely out of fear -- of failure, of emotion and sensitivity, of being solid and dependable enough to have a child look up to me as his role model. So when I mustered the wherewithal to do one, I decided to do the other too, and my writing career began while I was at home with my infant son. In essays and, later, as editor of the anthology "When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood," my bio read “stay-at-home dad and writer.” This sparked Stephanie Feldman, author of the Crawford Fantasy Award winning novel "The Angel of Losses," and a mother, to ask me about these roles, in particular the stay-at-home dad label.
Stephanie and I met, appropriately enough, through the Pen Parentis Literary Salon, which features writers with kids talking about both aspects of their life. I curated the salon for a year or so, and had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie at an event in Philadelphia. Over email, she turned the tables, and what follows is a conversation about writing, parenting and the varying amounts of freight that come with being a stay-at-home mom versus a stay-at-home dad.
– Brian Gresko
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Stephanie: We both have similar work lives, dividing our time between writing and caring for young children. In your essays on parenting, you describe yourself as a stay-at-home dad. I’m careful, however, not to identify as a stay-at-home mom, and this has gotten me thinking about the very different connotations and cultural baggage these titles carry. How did you come to adopt the label stay-at-home dad? And how have your feelings about it changed over time?
Brian: Like you, I used to bristle at the term “stay-at-home,” because it sounds so passive and restrictive, like you're a shut-in or hermit. The comedian Carolyn Castigula penned a great piece riffing on how it comes across like a patriarchal command, something Rush Limbaugh might say to his wife. “Stay at home, mom.” Since the opposite term tends to be “working parent,” it implies that you're living a life of leisure, which devalues the effort that goes into being a child's full-time caregiver. Besides, I have never known many stay-at-home parents who don't also work part-time, either on the night or weekends, or just by keeping up with colleagues and staying hip to what's going on within their profession. The economic reality, at least here in New York City, is that not many parents can afford to stop thinking about their careers for a few years, and many wouldn't want to even if they had that luxury, but culturally the term “stay-at-home” doesn't come with that wiggle-room.
I used to get some flak for being a stay-at-home dad, in particular from men who worked full-time. One former co-worker told me that it sounded like “a nice vacation,” and said he wished he could afford to take time off with his daughter. Of course, I wasn't on holiday, and as an out-of-work writer I couldn't afford childcare. Another jerk asked me if I did chores around the house, and then couldn't suppress a smirk while I told him about cooking and cleaning with baby. He then snarked that he once folded laundry for his wife but, you know, he's just so busy actually working to do things like that. So I quickly learned to describe myself as my son's primary caregiver, and then, if that wasn't clear enough, I'd add that I was “at home” with him.
Even when people weren't dismissive, though, I found that saying you're a stay-at-home parent could be kind of a conversation stopper. I'm comfortable asking people about their work, but found other professionals rarely asked me about my time at home with my son. And if they did, the tone would vacillate between extremes of “That must be so amazing!” and “How do you do it without going crazy?” The reality of spending the majority of your day alone with a baby is a bit of both, sometimes all at once.
It was actually the insecurity around the term “stay-at-home” that finally led me to adopt it. My son Felix was born a week after I graduated from the New School with my MFA in creative writing. At the time, I hadn't published anything, even though I was writing every day while Felix napped, or early in the morning before my family awoke, or late at night when everyone was in bed. I tried saying that I was a writer and a stay-at-home dad, but then would get questions like, “Where have you written for?” Brooklyn is chock-full of writers—three published authors live on my block alone—so if you say you're a writer you have to be prepared for other creatives to quiz you on your credentials. I'd also get questions about my long-term goals, and I really didn't have those worked out for myself yet. So in that first year at home with my son, I battled a twin set of anxieties, worried that no one respected me because I was a stay-at-home dad, and because I was an unpublished writer.
I finally decided to use the one anxiety to help me with the other, to make my being a stay-at-home dad work for my writing career. I had a friend who was writing for the Huffington Post, and she helped me get in touch with an editor there. I sent them a couple of pieces about being a stay-at-home dad, including one that addressed my ambivalence with the moniker. They wanted more, and readers responded well to the pieces, so I kept going. No one was more surprised about this than me. As a young man, I didn't think I'd ever even be a parent, let alone make a career writing about parenthood!
My gender played a big part in this. From the outset, editors were interested in my work because I'm a man writing very openly about what has traditionally been a woman's role. My friend John Donohue edited a fantastic essay collection called "Man With a Pan," about men who cook for their families. At an event we did together, he said his book probably wouldn't exist if it was about women cooking for their families, because that doesn't play against convention. The same is true for my work. The Huffington Post parenting section was full of women's voices, while men were (and remain) in the minority, so I had an edge there.
In that regard, the term "stay-at-home dad" carries less freight than stay-at-home mom. There's no “daddy wars,” for example, the way moms battle it out, at least rhetorically, online, about whether being a working mom is somehow a disservice to your children. As a dad, you still get points for just showing up, which is a remnant of sexism. That's changing, slowly. Too slowly, I think.
Do you feel the same kind of anxieties around describing yourself as a writer? Or is this me being neurotic! And if so, has that changed since you published your first novel?
Also, do you think gender expectations play into the terms “stay-at-home mom” vs. “stay-at-home dad”? Is it kind of cooler to be a SAHD than a SAHM, simply because that’s bucking convention instead of conforming to it? What was your experience like when you identified as a SAHM, and what led you to not using that term?
Stephanie: To answer the easiest question first: yes, so much anxiety about identifying as a writer before publishing! So, Brian, if you’re neurotic, I’ll be neurotic with you. I told very few people about my writing before I found a publisher for my novel (my first publication), and for the very same reason: It’s hard to answer questions about work when you feel it isn’t going so well. Of course, writing and publishing are very different endeavors, and the latter doesn’t validate the former, but easier said than internalized.
I have never identified as a stay-at-home mom. I still worked a day job after my daughter was born, and only quit after my publishing contract. Not right after. My decision to leave my job wasn’t because I had hit a big payday--quite the opposite. My employer had allowed me to work part-time from home for the first year after my daughter was born, and when they said I needed to return to the office full-time, I had to leave. I couldn’t afford full-time childcare on my salary.
So it’s interesting to hear you point out that most parents who aren’t salaried, full-time employees are still working, even if it’s uncompensated work that allows them to remain employable. Our culture portrays staying at home as the luxury of the privileged. Often it’s temporary, and with an eye toward rejoining the workforce. For many people, like me, the cost of childcare means we can’t afford to work. (Admittedly, everyone’s situation is different. Sometimes you take the net-loss because remaining on the job enhances your future earnings. That wouldn’t have been the case for me.)
Where else do people use the word “leisure” these days except in passive-aggressively addressing stay-at-home parents? When I left my job, it was for the economics I just discussed, but also so I could focus on finishing and promoting my book, and that’s how I explained my decision. One of the first comments I received, from a family friend, was a congratulatory, “How does it feel to be a woman of leisure?” It was so disappointing. I finally felt confident enough to call myself a writer, and now my role as a mother overshadowed that work. These responses to me leaving my job were always congratulatory. Not because (I don’t think) people knew how soul-crushing my job was, but because it’s somehow better for a mother to be at home with her child.
That’s why, though I write at home and am my child’s primary caregiver, I never identify as a stay-at-home mom. I find that people are very quick to identify me as such, in a way that completely dismisses my writing. And I don’t mean my art; I mean my work. I spend a lot of hours writing! No blood, but definitely sweat and tears. And I even receive money for it, occasionally, so it counts.
This is what it comes down to, I think: what “counts” in our society. Do you think that people respond differently to you as a stay-at-home dad now that you publish on the subject? Now that it’s validated--by publishing, by compensation--as work? As you mentioned, childcare is very labor-intensive, but people value it differently, especially when gender comes into play.
Brian: Talk about gender stereotypes! That the responses to you leaving your job were congratulatory, whereas I felt more put on the spot and challenged about my career plans, if not outright criticized. By the time our kids are adults I hope the idea that mom is the parent better suited for childcare while dad works has become a distant object in America's rearview mirror. However, I fear that, with the way some sectors of our society are working hard to reinstate these inequalities and bring us back to some idealized version of life in the 1950s, they might be with us for longer than we'd like, sadly.
As for whether people respond to me differently now that I've published: Yes, I would say so. I think I respond differently to myself, even. A few years back, on a panel about writing at the Slice Literary Conference, the wonderful novelist and essayist Lynne Tillman said that getting work published changes the way a writer looks at him- or herself. That was true for me. Because while the act of writing is private and personal, the role of being “a writer” is social, communicative—it implies a readership. Having one, not just an ideal reader in your head, but an actual audience, is a powerful experience. I began to take myself more seriously, because I knew that people were paying attention. That feels like a great responsibility to me. As Jay Z puts it on "The Black Album," you could be spending your time doing any number of things, but you've chosen to give some to me, and I appreciate that.
Up until getting pieces on the Huffington Post, I had been very much in my head about writing. The process of penning those early essays gave me the opportunity to grapple with my feelings about fatherhood, which has always been a hot topic for me, ever since I was a child and found out I didn't know my biological father. I had a lot of thoughts and feelings on the subject, and writing them out clarified them for me. I didn't necessarily come to conclusions—being at home with an infant is a tough experience, and a constantly changing one, because babies are ever-evolving little creatures—but I came to feel a bit less muddled about it. Seeing how readers responded, though, was another thing entirely. The positive comments I received from friends on Facebook and anonymous readers to the Huffington Post made me realize I had something to say that people wanted to hear, or that they weren't hearing other places. That very much changed how I saw myself, and is a large part of why I continued to write on the subject.
And yes, socially, people treated me differently as well, though perhaps that's because I presented myself in a more confident way. However, I often played, and still play, against my audience. If I'm talking with other parents, I emphasize that I'm a writer. If I'm with writers, I make clear that I write when I'm not with my son, and that I remain his primary caregiver. I like being contrary. I fight against the stay-at-home parent conventions, where all you talk about are your kids, their development and the domestic sphere. That world feels very small and limiting. I like hearing about what parents are doing outside of their parenting lives, what they're reading, watching, thinking about and hoping for. With writers, at least here in New York, the world can feel small too, but in a cliquey, publishing insider-y kind of way. In those cases, I want to bring up my experiences at home, and try to ask personal questions, because it adds a sense of ballast to what can otherwise feel like gossip and speculation.
Bouncing between the two roles, the parent and writer, is also who I am: I'm doing two jobs, and I value both. Sometimes I achieve a blissful balance. I'm able to put in a good day of writing, and then am happy spending time with my son after school, and give him my full attention. More often it's harder. I need to answer emails or tweak an essay in the cracks of parenting, so after homework is done I'll let him watch TV so I can check in with my work. Or once the dinner dishes are washed I'm back on my computer, editing or revising. How do you juggle it all? You said you put in a lot of time writing. When does this happen, and are you able to separate it easily from your family life? The worst for me is on the weekends, when my wife wants to spend time as a family, and I'm trying to get work done. I'll say I need an hour, but that can easily stretch to two or three. Does that happen to you? Do you write every day or take days off? My son's spring break begins on Friday, and that will push my writing to the second shift, if I even take the time to write at all.
Stephanie: I make a lot of schedules and lists, and inevitably put them aside and juggle it all minute by minute. I write while my daughter’s in school, but when you work from home, in any capacity, life tends to creep into working time. (And there’s always a teacher in-service day, or a doctor’s appointment, or a class trip.) I finally have a home office, but I find that I usually need to leave the house to really focus on work.
By now, I’m resigned to the writing-parenting balance being a constant juggling act, and I find myself thinking more about balance in the larger sense—like your example of how conversations among parents can veer entirely into kid talk. I try to find balance in how I spend my mental energy, and how I present myself.
I will also occasionally put on a movie so I can send email or attend to other work that only needs half my attention. But I don’t feel too guilty; it’s good for my daughter to see me working. This may sound a little off at first, but stay with me: I want her to know she’s not the only person or thing in my life.
I want her to be well-rounded, so I try to model that. (Well, let’s be honest, I’m more ovoid or triangular at this point, but I’m aiming for well-rounded.) I also think it’s important for us as individuals, and for our relationship. I’m enjoying these early codependent years, but in the not too distant future, she will be leading a pretty independent life. If I am “only” a parent—not just in my labor, but in my interests and relationships and all the rest—how will I let her go when it’s time? It can be a great burden on a child to be the sole target of energy, a sole source of satisfaction in a parent’s life.
It’s an odd thing to figure out, though—what it means to present oneself as a writer. I expect it’s different for you, in New York, where writing and publishing professionals are a critical mass. Here in the not-New York, I think most people don’t really understand what I do. But maybe that’s just office or white-collar-ish life these days. In our house we joke that, on one hand, no one really knows what anyone else does; on the other hand, most of us are doing the exact same thing, sending email all day.
How do you expect all of this to change as your son grows older? Do you have any concrete goals, or vague hopes for your future as a parent and writer? (Aside from, of course, success in each.)
Brian: I have a clearer vision for myself as a writer: to finish and sell a novel, to get to the point where I can stop writing so much about my life as a parent, because it feels like I’m invading my family’s privacy, or exploiting him. This didn’t bother me when he was a baby, but now that he’s his own person, I don’t like making him a character in my articles and essays.
Though writing is hard as hell, it’s easier to envision progress, whether at the micro level (sentence by sentence, page by page) or the macro (novel, teaching opportunities, etc.), because ultimately I’m driving that. With parenting, I just want to keep being the best dad I can for my son, and that will evolve as he evolves, in ways I can’t predict. It’s amazing to see how he’s becoming this little independent person. His honesty and warm heart inspire me. His humor and insights astound. I just want to keep noticing these things, and provide whatever guidance I’m able to help him cultivate his talents as he enters adulthood. I guess if I have one goal, it would be this: that we continue to be close, to hug, and talk openly with one another; that we enjoy spending time together the way we do now, which at it’s best is purely joyful.