Sunday, December 13, 2009

Stay-at-Home Dads: What They're Really Thinking....

There are a few stay-at-home dads in my area and I go out of my way—really, I take extraordinary lengths- to ignore them. It’s not easy to be this consistently rude, but with practice it’s become second-nature. For, example, we could be the only two adults near the sandbox, and I still will find a way to converse instead with a Tonka truck.

I respect these dads. It’s just that I am quite sure I will make a fool of myself if I try to talk to them. I saw a mom do this once, and I have never forgotten it. What I’m about to tell you really happened so if it is also the plot of a Desperate Housewives episode, forgive me. They say art imitates life, but I don’t know what they say when life imitates network TV.

It was at the park, around 5pm, on a summer night. There had been a meet-up of some six year old boys and their moms and they were all heading home. The mom I observed had struck up a conversation with the new stay-at-home dad who’d moved in across the street from the park. She stood talking to him as her friends left, lingering a bit too long, sweat dripping near her bangs, her face flushed. Then she ran to her minivan to get a notepad and wrote down her phone number for him. He smiled, politely, and went back to pushing his kids in the swings. I’m not sure if it was the sound of children laughing or of boys thrashing one another’s knees with stainless steel water bottles, but she finally remembered her kids were in the car. Note to self, I said as I watched her leave: remember you’re not in seventh grade.

But, you know when you tell yourself not to mess up, all you think about are ways in which you might. So, with the intent not saying something stupid, here is what I envision if I ever tried talking to a SAHD about setting up a playdate.

Me: Hey, do you want to get together sometime?
SAHD: Excuse me?
Me: I mean, can I get your phone number?

Long pause


Me: Email’s fine, too.


Long pause


Me: Oh, did you think?......No. I mean……I just wanted to see about a playdate.
SAHD: Date?
ME: What?
SAHD: What what?
ME: You said what.
SAHD: You said date.
ME: Did not.
SAHD: Did, too.
ME: What-ever.


TAKE TWO:
Me: Do you come here often?


TAKE 132:
Me: So, what do you think about the end of Oprah?

You get the idea.

I have an alternative universe scenario in which all I do is ask them about Monday Night Football, fly fishing and their favorite microbrew and it doesn’t go any better.

If a man said he felt tongue-tied around women at the office, his predicament would not be met with much patience. He’d be called foolish or more likely sexist.

So, what is different about the scenario at the park? I’d like to say nothing. But, I think if we look at reality, there are two differences. One: unlike the workplace, there is no protocol for behavior in the at-home world, no HR manager, and no superseding business objective that dictates interaction. Second: the network in the at-home world is as defined as much by friendship among the adults as it is among the children. And, I am mostly friends with women. Along the way, I become friends with their husbands, but only insomuch as it reinforces my friendship with the woman. The gist of my premise is long established and dates back to at  least When Harry Met Sally.

So, where does that leave us? I think there’s room for progress.

So, I decided to ask a few Stay-at-Home Dads what life is like for them. And, now that I've learned a bit more, I think the next time I am at the sandbox, I’ll put down the Tonka Truck.



JONATHAN 
Name:Jonathan (Pictured right with son)
What you did before you became a SAHD: teacher
Do you work part time, now, if so as what: yes, sculptor and home remodeler
Your kids’ ages: 3 years, 7 months
Your wife’s profession: college professor
Age range: 30-35

1. Tell me about the conversation(s) you had with your wife as you decided that you would stay home with your kids:
Because I try to work from home in addition to caring for our children, part of my decision to stay at home was career-based. Before becoming a SAHD, I was an art teacher. I decided that I didn’t want to “define” myself solely as a teacher and wanted to try to be a successful practicing artist. Career aside, I also thought it was more important to be part of our children’s development than that of the high schoolers that I was teaching at the time (not that their development isn’t important, but it isn’t the same as my own children’s development. Plus, my kids are a lot younger). I also felt like I gave all of my patience and energy to my students and didn’t have enough left over for my children when I got home, and that needed to change.

2. Before you stayed at home, what share of the “second-shift” did you do? How has that changed?
I’d say my wife and I have always tried to be equal in our contributions. I would (and still do) play with the kids while she cooked dinner. I used to give our son his bath and then my wife would read his books and tuck him in. Now that we have a young baby too, we split these duties and are each responsible for one child at bedtime (at least until our daughter can enjoy the same books as our son).

2. How do you find time for yourself?
I do get a shower every second or third day, and if I shave I get an extra 5 minutes. Seriously though, our kids are in child care or preschool part-time, so I have a few hours every other day to myself. I think the “break” allows me to be a better dad when we are together.

3. Do you experience any logistical problems due to society not keeping up with the changing roles of women and men—for example, are there fewer changing tables in men’s rooms, or are their legal or financial forms, etc, that make incorrect assumptions?
Well I don’t ever get asked if I need help out with the groceries, even when I’m juggling a 3 year old and a 7 month old. But my wife reports getting offered help every time she’s at the store, even with just one child, and I do see moms around me getting offered help. The changing table is an issue in men’s restrooms, so don’t give me a dirty look if you see me changing a diaper on the leather club chairs in Barnes and Nobel. I also wasn’t asked to sign up for the “mom’s helper” in my son’s preschool class – the teachers asked if my wife wanted to volunteer even though I had done drop-off and pick-up every day for 2 months and they knew I was the primary parent at home. I will say that my wife probably confronts some issues when it comes to filling out forms since she doesn’t share the same last name as our kids (another phenomenon that society is slow to adapt to).

4. Tell me about the group of people you interact with during the day: (Stay at home moms often go to playgroups, do SAHD’s do the same thing?)
I don’t really feel the urge to seek out play groups - I guess my interactions are limited to the cash register ladies at Lowes and the baggers at the grocery store. But I do feel a little left out of mom discussions at my son’s gymnastics class. For example, I was giving my daughter a bottle in the waiting room when several moms had a discussion about the swine flu while our kids bounced around and tried to do donkey kicks. Maybe they thought that my chiseled jaw made me Superman, and that because my son is almost twice the size of any other kid his age we were a league of Super Heroes…and thus we must be immune to the swine flu.

5. Do parents (moms or dads) strike up conversations with you in the park—do they invite you for playdates—or do you ever feel more isolated?
No, and no. I guess I’m okay with being a loner. But, I do get lots of grandmother-types who compliment me on my fathering (like it isn’t expected to see fathers being good dads with their kids – my wife has a similar parenting style and she doesn’t get the same comments).

6. How has your relationship with your kids changed since you became a Stay-at-Home Dad?
I don’t think it has changed in quality – I still struggle with the balance between being a playmate and a teacher, being the disciplinarian and a friend, and what I “should” be doing as a father. It’s just that there are now more hours devoted to this balance.

7. Do you and your wife touch base about how things are going? Do you see yourself moving into a different role when the kids are older and if so, how will that work?
Yes, we touch base every day. She leaves me instructions every morning. As our kids age, I don’t see my role changing too much – I just might have more time for myself (my work) when the kids are in school every day. I think I’ll always struggle with the balance described in #7, and new challenges will come with each age.

8. Politically Incorrect Question #1: What is one thing that your wife does better than you in terms of being at home with the kids:
I don’t know how she stays so calm when one of our children vomits. And, she seems to manage her frustration much better than I do.

9. Politically incorrect Question #2: What is one thing you do better than her in terms of being at home with the kids?
Well it’s a pretty long list, but most importantly, I build awesome things out of Legos.

10. Is there anything you struggle with as a SAHD—either emotionally, intellectually, or physically?
I haven’t had too many struggles thus far with our son, but I imagine I’ll have to adapt to the emotional and physical changes that our daughter will go through as she gets older.

11. Do people ever call you Mr. Mom? What would you like to tell them?
I haven’t been called Mr. Mom and I’ll have to give a politically correct response some thought.


PHIL 

Name: Phil (pictured right, with wife, kids, and new dog)

Your kids' ages: Two boys, 12 and 14 years old
What you did before you became a SAHD:I was a postdoctoral fellow in developmental biology before I became a stay at home father.
Your wife's profession: Physician specializing in Family Medicine
Your age range: 45-50 years old

Tell me about the conversation(s) you had with your wife as you decided that you would stay home with your kids:
The short answer is that we had one big conversation that is on going to this day.
When my wife and I married, we knew we wanted to have children and that we would probably have two. When our first child was born, my wife had just completed her first year of medical school. We actually timed it that way and, well, I guess we were lucky. At the time, I was a postdoctoral fellow in a developmental biology lab. Anne-Marie had about eight weeks before she had to start her second year, so she was completely in charge of raising our new son. I pitched in here and there, because it is a lot of fun, but I was working really hard in the lab expecting that the coming academic year was going to be tough.

We had found a day care provider for our eight week old and we thought, "OK. This won't be too bad." Then we found out that our cute baby boy was being propped up with a bottle and watching TV at just over eleven weeks old. I suppose in the grand scheme of things, this isn't terribly egregious, but we quickly hunted down a new sitter who took care of just several children each day. She turned out to be great and taught us a lot about how to parent our son. However, the shock we had experienced jolted us out of our reverie and the daily routine of our lives: Why were we having children ... was it simply to complete some sort of biological circle? ……We were enjoying the new member of our family, but it was abundantly clear to us, that eventually one of us was going to have to take a major stake in handling the details of raising our son.

So, Anne-Marie and I decided that her graduation from medical school and into a medical residency would be a natural point in our lives when I could potentially transition into the role of primary caregiver in the family.


So, why is it that I stay at home and not Anne-Marie? She probably has the potential to earn more than me, she is very happy with her work and I could basically care less about a career. So, how exactly do I feel fulfilled? How about a joke: I live through my children. I view what I do as more of a calling than a job.


2. Before you stayed at home, what share of the "second-shift" did you do? How has that changed?
Raising our children has always been a team effort for Anne-Marie and me. Aside from the nightly breast feeding when the children were young, we made equivalent efforts caring for the children and managing the household.

3. How do you find time for yourself?
It's a lot easier now that the boys are capable of being home alone for a few hours. When the children were younger, particularly during Anne-Marie's years as a medical resident, she would often tell me to go off and do something. That's when I typically went for a bicycle ride. One of the best things about our relationship is that Anne-Marie doesn't need much sleep.

4. Do you experience any logistical problems due to society not keeping up with the changing roles of women and men?
I have never experienced any logistical issues.

5. You home school your children-are you a part of a network of home schoolers and if so, are there other dads involved?
Early on, in 1998, it was kind of lonely being a stay at home dad. At the playgrounds there were never any dads, just moms. Some of the moms were pretty accepting, while others were simply curious. It's not that I needed to see other fathers, it's just that I had to get used to being in the minority and not feeling odd about it. I am over that. As the children got older, I started to meet more stay at home moms and on occasion a stay at home father. My boys have a number of teachers/tutors for various arts and academic subjects, even though they are home schooled. In all cases, these people are inspiring and terrific teachers. It is a great joy for me to be able to observe many of these lessons. In general I have not looked for stay at home fathers. Now I know a few stay at home mothers and my relationship with them extends to both of our families. It helps to be able to talk about parenting issues, even though a solution never really evolves to "solve" the problem. Mostly I think, discussion just helps bring perspective: "Wow, your kid did that? Oh, that's how you handled it. Well, get a load of what my kid just did, etc…"

6. How has your relationship with your kids changed since you became a Stay-at-Home Dad?
Except for the very earliest years of their lives, and really only six months, of the youngest son, the boys have never known anything other than a stay at home father. They do get very excited when their mother comes home from work or when she's been at a conference for a while!

7. Do you and your wife touch base about how things are going? Do you see yourself moving into a different role when the kids are older and if so, how will that work?
I will always manage the household. I am having a hard time imagining that anything else could matter more than what am doing now. However, the reality is that I will have time to do something else. I may volunteer my time rather than take a paying job. I already do a fair amount of volunteering. We will both take a wait and see approach as the boys near the age of 18.

8. Politically Incorrect Question #1: What is one thing that your wife does better than you in terms of being at home with the kids:
Anne-Marie is incredibly good about making sure the children are always fed with a well timed snack. I have always tended to forget that food is really important for the boys, especially since without it they get really cranky, even now. I would imagine that I would be a little more with it, but …

9. Politically incorrect Question #2: What is one thing you do better than her in terms of being at home with the kids?
I tend to pick my battles more carefully with the boys, otherwise the boys and I would be at each other all the time. I think that Anne-Marie sometimes forgets that she doesn't have to address every misbehavior. I think this is because I am constantly tested by the boys and just have more practice managing their behavior.

10. Is there anything you struggle with as a SAHD-either emotionally, intellectually, or physically?
I sometimes worry whether I am preparing the boys sufficiently for the future.

11. Do people ever call you Mr. Mom? What would you like to tell them?
I don't believe I have ever been called Mr. Mom. I understand why I might be addressed this way, perhaps as a kind of joke. In fact, I would have expected this more ten years ago than now. There are many more father's who stay at home these days. However, I do not view myself as a mother. I am a father who stays at home.

When I first asked Phil about this blog topic he shared this story:

By the way, reflecting on your article, I have this recent tiny experience.
An Edward Jones financial representative stopped by the other day attempting to interest me in investments etc. and during the course of his visit he learned that I am a stay at home dad. He wanted to know how to get my job. This is not the first time I have had an exchange like this and I am never sure what to make of it except that the questioner doesn't like their job much and imagines that mine is somehow better. I would bet that few women ever get that question. Or that they get the question phrased quite that way.



JASON
Name: Jason (pictured right, with kids camping)


What you did before you became a SAHD: I worked for the National Museum of the American Indian –Smithsonian Institution as a Research Specialist. I also worked as a research specialist for a non-Profit in NYC commuting 3-4 days a week (that was brutal…up at 5:30AM and back around 8PM).
Do you work part time, now, if so as what: I am actually working full-time now as a history teacher and technical production manager of a small, private school in central NJ.
Your kids’ ages: 5 and 8
Your wife’s profession: Director of Drama at same school
Age range: 37-38

1. Tell me about the conversation(s) you had with your wife as you decided that you would stay home with your kids:
The conversations that I had with my wife at that time were about the convenience of me staying at home. At that point in my life, I was working from out of our apartment and contracting work with the government. I did not have a health plan or benefits with this contract work and so clearly, in terms of salary and benefits, my wife was the one who had to stay fully employed. For me to find a job with similar salary, benefits and free housing (we were living at a boarding school) seemed unrealistic in the summer of 2001. So in the end, it came down to the “bottom line”. There really was no discussion about abilities, wants or desires about staying at home. She made more than I did and had a health plan.

2. Before you stayed at home, what share of the “second-shift” did you do? How has that changed? I always did all of the cooking and clean up from most if not all prepared meals. My wife was always pretty much in charge of laundry – collection, sorting, washing, sorting, folding and putting it away. It was a pretty easy 50/50 balance because all of the other cleaning we did (vacuuming, bathroom etc)- we did it together. Writing this down now… it makes me realize how f-ing easy people with no kids have it. I am just astounded to remember that all we had to do was basically pick up after ourselves and wash two sets of plates and some cooking utensils. Sheesh! How has it changed? Not much. I still do cook all of our meals and the frequency of dishwashing is about the same – you know men - they RULE that dishwasher (right?). I also do grocery shopping for the family just about all of the time. I do not do any of the clothes or related type shopping my wife does that. In addition, nine out of ten nights, I am making lunches for the kids. Every day, I wake up before my wife, urge the kids to get themselves dressed, make breakfast for our daughter and get them packed up and ready to go to school. I take our daughter to school nine out of ten days and have done so for both kids…up until our son could take himself to school – he’s 8.

3. How do you find time for yourself? There was/is no time for myself. I honestly feel that way although, I know that how I “feel” and the “reality” of that situation is not the same. If I do try to get time for myself, I have to plan it in advance with my wife and get babysitting etc. It can never be a spontaneous thing. For example, once every summer, I get together with high school friends for a hiking/camping outing for about three days. Just the guys. This past year, we went to Colorado and so the trip lasted about five days. This resulted in a total breakdown of my wife because the family became unglued when I was gone. On the phone, she just kept saying “It's too long…it's too long!” meaning that the length of my absence was too long. For me, it wasn’t long enough.

4. Do you experience any logistical problems due to society not keeping up with the changing roles of women and men—for example, are there fewer changing tables in men’s rooms, or are their legal or financial forms, etc, that make incorrect assumptions? All the time! However, most places are good about the changing tables etc. but the whole form thing is a hassle. We just had to deal with a banking issue for our daughter because they used my wife’s last name instead of mine. People call me Mr. (insert wife’s last name here) because they assume that she took my name. In addition, every single magazine for young parents and every single commercial about caring for children is women-centric. “Choosey Moms Choose Jif!” When was the last time my wife bought Peanut Butter? Every single commercial about childcare has women and no men taking care of the kids. This is not to say that my wife doesn’t do any of that. She does and she is great at caring for our sick and infirmed. But I do that too. Even if it isn’t acknowledged by society or TV.

5. Tell me about the group of people you interact with during the day: (Stay at home moms often go to playgroups, do SAHD’s do the same thing?) To be honest…I CANNOT STAND PLAYGROUPS AND PLAYDATES! When I was at home with the kids, I had to just suck it up and go to playdates and arrange them so our children would be basically normal, but to be honest, I just can’t stand the whole playdate thing. The people I interacted with during the day when I was staying at home were the kids’ teachers and my upstairs (stay at home mom) neighbor mostly. To be honest, I probably self-segregated too much and felt like a “shut-in” for most of the time. It looks like it was my fault for that though. I had a hard time striking up any kind of conversations with other young parents. I am sure there is a lot of psycho-babble to explain all of this but that is what happened. I just stayed with my kids, on my little island and made sure that I paid attention to them ALL the time. Massive pet peeve of mine…Mom, mom, mom, mom, mommy look, mommy look, mommy look at me, mommy, mom, mom – the parents that cannot break away from their inane small-talk at the park to pay attention to their kids. Drives me nuts. I can honestly say that I was never one of those parents that ignored their kids – or “didn’t hear them” when they were talking to me. Of course, I would turn to my son or daughter and tell them to wait for me to end my conversation – but at least I was acknowledging their existence.

6. Do parents (moms or dads) strike up conversations with you in the park—do they invite you for playdates—or do you ever feel more isolated? See above.

7. How has your relationship with your kids changed since you became a Stay-at-Home Dad? Basically, my relationship is still a typical father relationship. I am still the enforcer and I am still the one who is going to dole out punishment. At the same time, I am also the primary care provider so it must have them a little confused. Obviously, my kids have said things to my wife like, “You’re not the real parent, Papa is the real parent” and “Mommies are for ruining kid’s ideas”. Nice one. I can function completely with them when I am the lone parent. I feel very strongly that when you are the lone parent, the kids are the top priority. There’s no excuse to be ignoring them - sure, put on a movie or the TV while you do something but it would be wrong not to check on them or get them something. In terms of my relationships with each of my children - there is a very strong bond there. I can almost say that for my son and daughter at times, there is almost a telepathic bond. They know exactly what I am thinking just by looking at me and I know what they’re thinking by looking at them.

8. Do you and your wife touch base about how things are going? Do you see yourself moving into a different role when the kids are older and if so, how will that work? I have moved into a different role in my life at this point but the overall assumption is that I am still the “default” primary care provider. For the most part (not always) I am the one who has to take time out of work to take them to appointments. Do we touch base? Not enough – there are way too many assumptions still flying around and not enough communication. The irony is that we work in the same room basically. My role, as they get older is to not be the “default” person. Again, to be honest, I feel like I have “paid my dues” by giving up my career and now it is time for someone else to make a similar kind of effort during the “next phase” so-to-speak.

9. Politically Incorrect Question #1: What is one thing that your wife does better than you in terms of being at home with the kids: Nothing. Sorry – but that is being brutally honest. The one thing that she is better at is taking them OUT somewhere. Does that count? She is much more willing to take them to the movies or to birthday parties etc. But being at home with the kids, I honestly don’t see her doing a single thing better than me. Sorry, it sounds mean, but it is true.

10. Politically incorrect Question #2: What is one thing you do better than her in terms of being at home with the kids? I think that I pay attention to them more. I don’t even think that this question is all that politically incorrect either. I put in thousands of hours of my life into raising these kids so I think that the overall assumption would be that I have that foundation of experience that my wife just doesn’t have. It might be sad, but it is true. It is a fact; she has not had the number of hours of exposure in one-on-one situations with our kids like I have had over the past eight years. It adds up and it makes a difference.

11. Is there anything you struggle with as a SAHD—either emotionally, intellectually, or physically? All of the above? I haven’t read more than maybe three or four books since we have had kids. Obviously, there is still some resentment about giving up my career for about four years with no real acknowledgement of my overall contribution to society at large. It has made me more passive aggressive in general. The physical toll could be that I am now experiencing early signs of arthritis, and at one point in time, when I was purely staying at home all of the time, I got heavy enough and out of shape enough to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides as well as a double hernia. Nice. Once I got back into a part-time work situation, I was able to lose some weight and those problems subsided but it was all thanks to being able to work again.


12. Do people ever call you Mr. Mom? What would you like to tell them? I have actually told people to their faces to “Go f- themselves” when they have said that (awkward situation in the grocery store). I know – I can be the life of the party. I am not usually that grouchy. Usually. This is just a tricky area of our culture. Women are still expected to be the primary childcare provider. Men are expected to be the breadwinners. I don’t care what people say about the statistics, I am talking about culture here. My wife says that she feels like a bad wife and mother all of the time. I really think that she believes it when she says this bulls-t. But she is judging herself based upon those old cultural assumptions. This is coming from a self-proclaimed feminist as well… I would like to point that out.

Jason noted that the fallout of his response to my survey was a very long conversation with his wife. Then Jason turned the tables and posed a question to me: Do I ever have to boost my husband's confidence about his choice to be the breadwinner?


I did not hear from dads in different relationship scenerios: unmarried, divorced or same-sex. It would be a valuable addition to the conversation.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another compelling topic, Sarah, with essays that made me see things in new ways. thanks

Tim Morrissey said...

Thank you for this excellent piece.

Alyson said...

Thanks to the Dads for their honesty! And what a wonderful springboard for discussion for Moms and Dads everywhere. Thanks Sarah!

Anonymous said...

Great interviews, Sarah. As someone without kids yet, it was very interesting to read about how different couples have approached the stay-at-home issue.

Paul Zuniga said...

Did you ever think, really stop and think,
what a job it was
doing all the things
that a housewife does?

Sarah Vander Schaaff said...

I want to thank the people who left comments--the regulars who are great at keeping the issues in play and the new folks. So happy to have you here!

momchick said...

Sarah, Michael Chabon has a book out about being a father. My DIL is reading it and she said Chabon talked about how low the expectations are out in "society" and "our culture" about what constitutes a "good dad." He related a story about a woman who complimented his fathering skills when he was actually just standing next to one of his children in a store! Maybe she was a Michael Chabon fan. I won't do the book justice, and I haven't even read it yet, but it sounds interesting (as his books usually are.)
I enjoyed the interviews and appreciated the honesty of their answers.