It had been a while since someone dissed me for being a full-time stay-at-home dad.
The sling came from a newcomer to our weekly playgroup, a friend of a friend, a part-time stay-at-home dad and so I assumed, a comrade-in-arms.
From the start, our parenting approaches didn’t mesh. Whereas I crouched at the kitchen play set with the tots, the interloper sat alone on the couch fiddling with his iPhone. He was obsessed with the thing, so much so that he snapped at his boy for interrupting his texting.
When he finally unplugged long enough to make chit-chat, he asked how many days I mind my son. “Everyday?” he said when I told him. “How do you stand it?”
Well, it’s not for everyone.
A recent study found that happy stay at home dads, aka SAHDs, have strong egos. Strong enough to be comfortable bucking society’s traditional gender roles. I’ve largely faced this kind of sexism outside of New York City and though irksome, rarely does it get to me.
Since childhood I’ve danced to my own beat. Not the typical meat, potatoes, beer and football kind of guy, I dabbled in cross-dressing while in college, garnering the nickname “Barrette Boy.” This, in addition to being tidy and organized, led many (most importantly my college crush and now wife) to assume I was gay. So my sense of masculinity has been tried and tested. Being asked derisively if I do the laundry – as I once was by an in-law – won’t get a rise. I’m proud of my domestic prowess as well as my contrarianism.
Here in Prospect Heights the stigma of staying-at-home has less to do with sex – on any given day there are plenty of dads pushing strollers down Vanderbilt or escorting their tots to Underhill Playground – than it does with money and status. This is New York, after all. Taking yourself out of the workplace means reducing your income, restricting your lifestyle, and unyoking your sense of self-worth from your salary and position. In this money conscious city, that’s hard. Many parents, male and female, don’t want or can’t afford such a sacrifice to their career and budget.
In my case, I didn’t have a career I wanted to return to. I had left a job in teaching for an MFA in creative writing. I graduated with no job prospects and an unfinished rough draft of a novel. A week later, my son was born. My wife had a position she loved and wanted to keep, so for me to take on the care-giver role made sense.
For the past year and a half I’ve been with him full-time, five days a week. My writing work happens when he naps, and in the evenings, and on weekends when my wife takes him out for one-on-one adventures. And though there are numerous sacrifices (personal time, sleep, sanity, money, I could go on …) we consider the time I’m spending with our son more important. It’s not, as my buddy from the playgroup implied, a hardship.
Which isn’t to say that the job is not hard. My son tries my patience, I often feel isolated and not intellectually stimulated, and sometimes I’m flat-out bored. (Try reading "Jamberry" a few times in a row, day after day, for weeks on end without wanting to skin that bear.) But I relish every minute.
Not only because I witness and contribute to the many small milestones of his development, or because I know that he’s getting the best possible care under my watch – though these are important and satisfying. But there’s a pleasure that comes from a place deeper inside of me.
For many years and a variety of reasons – never knowing my biological father, whose presence wasn’t revealed to me until I turned 10 and the not atypical teenage male dreams of cool-guy independence that I held on to – I resisted fatherhood. I curled inward, tightening like a fist to protect myself emotionally from the risks and vulnerabilities of parenthood. I wasn’t ready to love another person so fully, or be loved and depended upon so strongly in return. I didn’t even enjoy imagining having a child. The thought gave me a shiver.
Opening myself up to the experiences that I denied myself for so long is worth far more to me than any financial payoff. And this, perhaps, is the most important trait a stay-at-home parent of either sex needs: the belief that the emotional gains outweigh the financial, professional, and intellectual ones, that the love and selflessness of good parenting makes one feel more rich than any amount of worldly treasures.
When my role provokes a mixture of incredulous disbelief and pity, as it did from that self-hating stay-at-home dad from the playgroup, I say I love it and leave it at that. If he doesn’t know why by now, he’ll probably never know.