Society is changing, in some cases with head-spinning rapidity. Marijuana is legal in some states and making strides towards legalization in others. Same-sex marriage is now legal in a majority of states. Everywhere we look, it seems that groups who have traditionally been forced to live in society’s shadowy margins are enjoying their day in the sun. Which means it’s time for me to publicly embrace my own history in the name of equality of one of society’s most marginalized groups.
I am referring, of course, to the Stay-At-Home Dad.Once upon a time, you understand, I was nothing like the man you know as the sagacious old Dad Zoner, your go-to source of fathering wisdom. Once upon a time I was a young Turk, a corporate go-getter, a career climber, a man in a suit with a cell phone the size of a backpack. My wife, Dena, was just the same, except for prettier, smarter, and better at everything. We were textbook DINKs (Dual Income No Kids). When our first child, Ben, was born, Dena and I were both neck-deep in careers. Despite the presence of well-meaning friends and family who knew something about parenting, no one thought to inform us that new babies and 60-hour workweeks don’t mix so well. (The other explanation – that everyone who was a parent told us this – and we just chose not to heed it, is at odds with our recollections and, therefore, clearly fallacious.)
We had gone from DINKs to DUMPs (Dangerously Unprepared Muddled Parents).
At first we tried to reconcile careers and child-raising. Dena took her maternity leave. Then I became, at least according to the human resources director at my company, the first man in history to take twelve weeks of paternity leave under the then-cutting-edge law known as the Family Medical Leave Act.
Staying home with a twelve-week-old was much more difficult than being at work. Many days, I struggled to find the time to shower or eat or, you know, breathe. And there were more than a few evenings when Dena arrived home from work wearing wide-receiver gloves to better catch the baby I arced her way as soon as the doorknob turned.
But there was one thing I wasn’t: bored. Sure, FMLA turned my 60-hour workweeks into 80-hour workweeks, and yes, in public I was a slovenly, unshowered, madcap with a slobbering front pack. I spoke nonsense and shuffled my gait in time with rock-a-bye-baby (ironically causing the parents of small children to steer well clear), but I found the occasionally cacophonous front pack more fascinating than the cell-phone backpack, and I discovered that I wore the formula-stained flannel shirt better than the pinstriped power suit.
Soon enough, the time came to make decisions about jobs, careers, childcare – in short, decisions that would probably guide our lives for the next several decades. Naturally, this led to deeply philosophical conversations, which in turn led to a decision-making rubric that I will share with you here, in all of its complexity.
We compared W-2 forms.
And Dena won. Or lost, depending on your point of view.
The truth was, Dena loved her job. I tolerated my job. She was a better businessperson than I was, and she looked better in a pinstripe suit than I did. Way better. I’m talking about smokin’ h–sorry, what were we talking about?
Oh, yes. And so I became a Stay-At-Home Dad, not realizing that I was plunging myself into an identity crisis that would last for years. I had never realized just how much my social identity as a man had been tied to my paycheck. For a long time I didn’t cop to my job. I did some odd computer work so if anyone asked, I could say I was an independent consultant. I had dreams of writing and sometimes mumbled that I was writing the Great
American Novel, but far more of my time and energy went in to changing the great American diaper. When we had social functions related to Dena’s job I never knew where to stand: with the moms, talking about the things I actually knew something about; or with the dads, nodding sagely at subjects on which I had scarcely anything to add. I was a man without a country. I was neither fish nor fowl. I wandered the cultural hinterlands reserved for society’s classless outcasts.
Well, far from that, actually, but that is the way it felt sometimes. Mostly, looking back on it, I realize my identity crisis was largely self-imposed. I got over it by realizing the returns produced in our family. How our two boys thrived. How doing what I was doing allowed Dena to be both a better businessperson and a better mother, and how that, in turn, allowed me to be a better father. I overcame my identity crisis from the inside out.
And now that I have stepped boldly out of the shadows, I am making it my mission to counsel others who might feel similarly marginalized.
So, stay-at-home dads, this part is for you. Yes, you might be rumpled and sleep-deprived and smell vaguely of puréed carrots, and yes, you might flinch when someone asks the question, “What do you do?” But claim your place, I tell you. Find your voice. Together we can stick it to the Man!
Unless, of course, the Man is a stay-at-home dad.