Last week, I cut through the park in our neighborhood while I was walking home from some errand or another and saw a group of about 10 or 12 women enjoying a picnic with their kids. The kids had all finished eating and were playing while the moms chatted and laughed. (Don’t judge, working folks, you do the same thing around the water cooler, but you rarely have to interrupt your discussion about the Breaking Bad series finale in order to clean up poop.)
I have to admit that I felt a pang of jealousy when I saw them – for the socialization, not the poop cleaning. The kind of camaraderie I saw at the park or that I had with my colleagues in the professional world is rarely available for dads who serve as their family’s primary caregiver.
A few years ago, when I was in the midst of my first stint as a stay-at-home-dad, we moved to Concord, New Hampshire for my wife’s work. I looked around for a dad’s group. There wasn’t one, but there was a group called the Mom’s Club of Concord. Close enough, right?. It organized group outings for stay-at-home-moms and their toddlers (both of my kids were toddlers at the time). I called them up and was surprised when they said they’d have to put it to a vote before they could let me bring my kids to any of the events. I thought it was weird (what the hell was going on at the playground with their kids that they needed to vote people in? Survivor: Playground?), but I figured it was just one of those things. Even weirder, though, was the response I got after they voted. They decided that my kids and I could come along but there were TWO VERY SERIOUS STIPULATIONS.
#1: We couldn’t attend any events at a member’s home.
#2: I could be asked to leave any event at any time by any of the attendees who preferred that a man not be there and would have to oblige.
Apparently, the primary rationale for the rules had something to do with some of the moms’ awkwardness around breast feeding. Because it makes perfect sense that I’d create an elaborate plot involving fathering two children just to have an excuse to see breasts at the park, right? (Step 1: Have kids, Step 2: Join a playgroup, Step 3: See boobies!) So, I told them nevermind because screw that.
All that to say being a stay-at-home-dad can be an isolating experience sometimes. We don’t quite fit in with the stay-at-home-moms and we don’t quite fit in with the breadwinning dads who tend to imagine that we don’t do “real” work. For me, isolation is the worst of homemaking’s perils. I know many moms feel isolated, too, but my guess is that the dads among us experience it more often.
When our youngest was 3 I went back to school and when he started kindergarten, I returned to the workforce. Unfortunately, our daughter began having health problems about a year ago. I started missing a fair amount of work in order to get her to and from appointments with her rheumatologist 70 miles away in Boston. We’d wanted to move to the city for a while, but the frequent drives to Children’s Hospital, along with other factors, prompted us to go ahead and make the leap.
After much discussion, my wife, Wendy, and I decided it made more sense for me to re-exit the professional world upon moving. Of course, we knew the move itself would be a big adjustment for the whole family, but we also looked forward to someone (um…me) being available to handle appointments, etc. without the dreaded 6:30 a.m. sick day/meeting count. These counts vary by household, but they go something like this:
Working Parent 1: “How could she have a fever? She was fine last night! I’ve only got 4 sick days left until January!”
Working Parent 2: “I know, but I have a meeting today that I’ve really got to be at.”
WP 1: “Right, but they’d understand. You can get someone to fill you in.”
WP 2: “I’m presenting at it.”
WP 1: “Could you do it next time?”
WP 2: “This is next time. Remember? He was throwing up everywhere…”
WP 1: “But just one more week wouldn’t be that bad.”
WP 2: “It’s a quarterly meeting with my boss’s boss.”
WP 1: “Damn.”
WP 2: “Checkmate.”
Fast forward to yesterday. My daughter’s neck was sore and stiff on Sunday night. It was still hurting on Monday morning. It was even worse after school. Here’s a short, shameful confession: It’s easy for me to rationalize away a lot of symptoms when I have a limited number of sick days and the symptoms don’t involve missing limbs. Stiff neck? She’s probably just stressed about the move. Headache and sore throat? Maybe it’s just a cold. The glory of being a stay-at-home-dad is that I was able to decide to bring her to the doctor without weighing it (intentionally or otherwise) against professional deadlines.
She’s going to be fine. Her medication suppresses her immune system and makes her more vulnerable to passing viruses. She’s not at school today and she’s sleeping soundly in bed now. I’m ready to set her up with some comfortable pillows, a book, a heating pad, and a bit of breakfast when she wakes up. Being a stay-at-home-dad means I’ll be able to do that, and attend to the family’s other needs, without being anxious about falling behind at work or my remaining sick days.
While I miss the fulfillment of grown-up work, a paycheck, water cooler chats, and not having to deal with people’s awkward comments when they ask what I do (“So what do you do?” “I’m a homemaker.” “Oh. Ah…well that’s, um. Hey, I bet you love that show, Dads, right?” or even worse “Well, good for you! That’s precious!”), I’m reminded, as I peek in at my daughter and see her sleeping soundly, that being a homemaker is exactly what I’m needed for now.
Note: My thanks to Offbeat Home & Life for publishing this post and to those who commented on it and shared it after seeing it there!