I’m no babysitter

First, a little about me for perspective’s sake. Also vanity. 

I’m a stay-at-home dad to two boys, Joshua (3.5) and Jack (2 months). I have a bachelor’s degree in music, a master’s degree in music education, and a job history ranging from retail to non-profit finance to museum administration. I like sneakers, sports, cooking and baking, reading, maps, swimming, architecture, video games and board games, horror movies, serialized television, and the Oxford Comma. One person’s Renaissance Man is another person’s aimless drifter, I suppose. 

I began my journey as a stay-at-home dad when I was laid off in 2009. After collecting all the unemployment benefits I was eligible for, and submitting hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand resumes and job applications, it became clear that the already beleaguered job market was not, surprisingly, in need of another over-educated-yet-still-under-qualified caucasian male. So my wife and I reviewed our finances (and her biological clock) and decided to end the job hunt and start the baby-making. Joshua was born less than a year later; we are fertile people.

In my time as a stay-at-home dad, I have discovered a remarkable thing. Ordinarily, this is where you would read about the joys of parenting, watching kids learn new things, experiencing the world, blah blah blah. I’ll save that for the Hallmark commercials. The remarkable thing I discovered is that every working dad I met was jealous of me, and I can assure you, that was a very new experience. I got no grief from any father for not working or for being unemployed. Any dad I talked to immediately responded with a variation on the theme of, “Man, I wish I could do that.” It crossed generations, too. Older fathers of grown children lamented not having had more time. My own father had his reservations, I know, but he was kind enough not to share them with me. It occurred to me that perhaps defining myself by my career, or the lack thereof, was short-sighted.

Women, moms in particular, were not as supportive. I’m generalizing, of course. Some have been and continue to be good friends and allies. Others, though…

My own mother has been downright unsupportive. Though she’s made some progress, her thinly veiled inquiries into local daycare options and passive-aggressively passed-along articles about working from home are just another flavor of ice cream on a cold day. I attribute some of it to a generational gap, but this explains only older women. The condescension from mothers within just a few years of my own age is the worst. At the toy store last month (note: do not go to a toy store in December), I was reading a book to Joshua while pushing Jack in his stroller to keep him calm and quiet. A well-meaning (I think) lady came by, laid a hand on my shoulder, and told me, “You’re doing a good job.” I took the compliment as I [hope] it was intended, but the patronizing tone with which it was offered was enough to rankle me for hours afterward. Who am I kidding? It’s January and I’m writing it here. I’ve been complimented on my diaper changes, my ability to carry a child and feed him at the same time, and my mere presence alongside my child at the park. If only that were the first time I’d been congratulated or praised for the ordinary actions of being a parent. If only parenting, when done by a man, could be acknowledged as such, and not be referred to as “babysitting.”  I parent; I hire someone to babysit. The music of “good for you” has become the soundtrack of my days.

Perhaps there’s some sort of territorial defensiveness at play. The at-home parent role has been seen as the realm of the woman for quite some time, particularly in popular culture. I challenge you to think of a television show in which the at-home parent was a man, and he wasn’t a bumbling goof. The exceptions are painfully few. Even the otherwise pioneering “Full House” (probably the first time those words have been written together) still showed Uncle Jesse giving Michelle a bath with a kitchen sprayer. In films, the roles are so entrenched that Michael Keaton’s 1983 movie, “Mr. Mom” makes the whole notion of a man at home ludicrous to the point of being the film’s central plot and namesake. Adam Sandler’s “Big Daddy” and, more recently, Eddie Murphy’s “Daddy Day Care” carry on the torch of fatherly ineptitude. But, frankly, save lactation, there is nothing a mom can do that a dad can’t. Give me a bottle and I call the playing field level. I’m fluent in diapers and wipes, stroller brands, breast milk vs. formula, eating and sleeping habits, and immunization schedules. I can do all of this and still enjoy sports, grilling things, drinking scotch, making fires in my fireplace, and being a bit of a sneakerhead. I guess the difference is that when I encounter a woman at work, I don’t call her “Mrs. Dad.” 

I’ve seen glimmers of the paradigm turning. When we moved to Richmond, I found an organized group of stay-at-home dads that has been a wonderful source of advice, support, and particularly good restaurant recommendations. I’m not alone.

My skin’s grown thicker, my tolerance greater, and my patience longer since Joshua was born (as long as we ignore that story from a few paragraphs ago). I’m no crusader. Your conception of stay-at-home dads is your own and I have no intentions of or interest in changing it. I can only hope that you enjoy a different perspective on humanity’s oldest and greatest challenge — raising children to adulthood without strangling them first.


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