The Home-Dad, Part 1
Why Stay Home?
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the notion of "quality time" came into being. The theory was that children who didn't get "quantity time" with their parents would do just fine with much shorter bursts of "quality time." But any at-home parent will tell you that is not true. There is bond between parent and child which can only be forged over time. The quality of the relationship between even the most committed care-giver and child can never match the intensity of the relationship between parent and child. A parent is far more invested in the complete well-being of their child, and will continue to make that investment every day.
Children learn best by what they see around them, and they will learn the most from the people they see the most. They pick up the habits and mannerisms of their companions, and also get their first concepts of morals and values from those people who are with them the most. Most parents would prefer that their children learn these things from them. Parents can only come to know their children through extended contact; just as the children learn who their parents are, so too do the parents learn who their children are. They learn to communicate with each other and understand each other only by spending large amounts of time together. Meeting each others needs cannot be scheduled into convenient blocks of time.
BUT WHY DAD?
Men get a lot of mixed messages concerning fatherhood. On one hand, the Marketplace wants them to be committed first and foremost to their career. Co-workers and even bosses might think it's great that a man has kids and a loving family; it might even be seen as a source of strength and stability. But he is not expected to put the kids and wife above his job. The job comes first, and whatever is left over he is free to do with as he wishes.
Most of what we read in the newspapers or see in TV miniseries having to do with fatherhood is about "dead-beats," fathers who abuse their kids or mothers and children who courageously survive abandonment. Popular culture doesn't paint a very pretty picture of fatherhood. The vast majority of parenting resources - magazines, books, etc. - are very clearly written for women. Fathers are not so much excluded as never invited in to begin with. The advertising images surrounding babies and children are overwhelmingly female-oriented. Men do not receive a great deal of encouragement to delve deeply into fatherhood.
On the other hand, there is the tacit expectation that we have to be better fathers than our fathers were, whatever that means. A lot of the literature coming out of the men's movement is about "healing the father wound." Men are supposed to accept that their fathers left some open wound that we must now heal, and so be better fathers to our children. They are angry with their fathers for not having been more fully present and available, even though most fathers of that generation were as available as they could be, considering the times they were fathering in. There are messages coming out of the feminist movement that men are expected to be better fathers, and they are berated when they behave the way popular culture and the media portray them.
To top it all off, those fathers who are moved to try to be "better," are finding few if any role models. What does "better" mean, and how do I do it? Most men find themselves as new fathers with nowhere to turn for instruction. Contemporary culture sends negative, at best, messages about fatherhood. Some fathers simply accept the role handed to them: disconnected and distant, handing over all the care-giving duties to their partners. Others, in growing numbers, strive to balance successful and satisfying careers with involved fatherhood. These are the fathers who refuse to work overtime, who leave their briefcases at the office over the weekend, who make an effort never to miss a school play or Little League game.
A few fathers go whole hog into fatherhood. These men, for a variety of reasons, leave behind the traditional roles for men and become the primary care-givers for their children. They are finding fulfillment and success in ways that society doesn't quite understand yet - these are fathers who do not monetarily support their families, who remain at home while the mother of their children goes off to work, who put their children ahead of themselves - not typical male behavior.
The reasons for taking on this pioneering role are many. Some new fathers step off the career track to care for their children, at least for a few years. When the kids arrived, Mom was making more than Dad, and it didn't make sense for Dad to work just to pay for daycare. For these families, Dad was the most economically feasible choice. Sometimes Dad keeps working by setting up a home business, usually a variation of what he was doing before, or arranging to stay with his former employer as a contract-worker, telecommuting part-time, working around the kids schedules.
Other home-dads come to their role by way of a lay-off. Of all the jobs lost through corporate "down-sizing" in the 80's, more were gained back by women than men. As the Marketplace slowly shifts from manufacturing to service-oriented jobs, more men, who make up the majority of factory and assembly-line workers, find themselves out of work, either permanently or temporarily. These men are home, caring for their children, though not by their own choice. These are the men who have the most difficult transition to make, and will have the hardest time keeping their sense of self-worth intact.
Some Dads simply work different shifts from their partners, and care for the children when they are home and Mom is at work. Some couples are busy running a home-business, giving Dad ample opportunity to be a care-giver. There are many reasons for Dad to be the primary-caregiver, but the one common principle at work is an interest in the well-being of his children. For some men, the deep connection may only come after rolling up his sleeves and digging in, for others it comes with the first news of the pregnancy. But for all these men who buck the trend, their children clearly come first.
Moving from working-man to home-dad is a big change. You used to get up every morning and get dressed for work. Now you get up and pull on the sweats and make breakfast for everyone else. You used to dash off to your office and your important job; now you send Mom out the door, and clean up the kitchen. You had important things to do, people to deal with, places to go. Now it's just you and Junior, with a long day stretching out before you, all on your own. You had clients or customers, a boss, co-workers and a paycheck. Now you spend all day with a baby. It sure is different.
One of the hardest things about this change is how you feel about yourself. Like so many other things, until you actually do full-time childcare, you can't know how difficult and exhausting it can be. To the outside world, it looks like you've got it pretty good. No more neckties, no more 9-to-5, no more deadlines or demands. Just hanging out all day, playing peek-a-boo and reading the sports section. To the uninitiated, you're not even really working.
You might feel that way yourself. The loss of a paycheck impacts more than just your family's bottom line. Getting paid was a weekly ritual that reinforced your sense of self. It was an affirmation that you had produced something, satisfied a customer, completed a project or contributed to a team effort. How much you were paid was the yardstick by which you measured yourself and others measured you.
You've also lost the chance to satisfy a customer, client or boss. That quarterly performance review, while you might have dreaded it before, now is much missed. There's no one to slap you on the back and say, "A job well done." There's no memo on your desk after lunch telling you the Henderson Account looks great. There's no celebratory dinner out with the whole department after a particularly rough project. There's not even any project or job or task to complete. There's just you and Junior, going around and around.
You've also lost the chance to leave the office every evening. You've lost weekends off from work, you've lost vacations away from work, and you've lost the ability to turn away from your work every now and then for a breather - going to lunch, going out for a walk, even to the bathroom all by yourself. Parenting is a job that you can never leave, and that becomes more apparent as you leave the Marketplace and find yourself at home. The end of the traditional work-day ends, and you're still at work. The same is true for weekends and even most vacations. Even when you do manage to get out and away without the kids, you can never stop thinking about them.
It sounds pretty dreary, doesn't it. It seems new parents spend a great deal of time talking about all the bad parts of having kids. Well, it is a hard job. In fact, it is the hardest job you'll ever have. It is at times boring and tedious, and exhausting and frustrating. But there are incomparable emotional rewards that cannot be described to the uninitiated. We spend so little time talking about the good stuff because words fail. It is a tired expression, but it is true - when you have kids of your own, you'll understand.
The benefits to your children are clear. For one thing, they are not in day-care, but at home, being raised by one of the two people on the planet who love them the most. You'd never find the same level of commitment or devotion in a day-care worker. The sense of security you are providing for your child, and for Mom, is second to none. They are not only getting more individual attention from you than they would in day-care, they have access to a parent whenever they want or need, a rare enough thing these days. Your kids have an even more rare thing: easy and ready access to their father.
The most important gain for you is the chance to establish and maintain a close relationship and a powerful bond with your children. Many full-time fathers marvel at how their children relate on a very different level with mom, even though dad provides the bulk of the day-to-day care. Mother and child begin their relationship before birth, and the child is born with an innate, perhaps chemical knowledge of who his mother is. Until the moment of birth, they are essentially one person, connected by physical means to each other. But that same child has to learn who his father is, starting after birth, and theirs is a relationship that must be built through conscious effort over time.
Most men never get the chance to develop a close relationship with their children, simply because the time required is not available to them. Fathers usually are out of the house every day, only able to spend large amounts of time with their children on weekends and holidays, usually times when there is a lot going on to distract them from each other. It almost seems more sensible for fathers to be the primary caregivers, at least in the first few years, simply because of the fact that the child and father need more time together to establish a close, intuitive bond. It has been found that, in traditional working-dad families, when dad gets home he is less likely to immerse himself in his children than his working-mom counterpart. Fathers, it seems, have to work harder at the relationship. And there is no better way to really understand your children than to spend a lot of time with them. That is the major benefit to being a home-dad. Relationships can be established, bonds created and deepened, and you get a complete understanding of the life of your children. None of that can happen without spending a great deal of time together.
By spending such large amounts of time with your children, you'll not only be able to establish a close relationship with them, but you'll get to watch them explore and define their world. There are big milestones - the first word, the first step, etc. - that we all want to witness. But kids reinvent the universe every day. There are tiny steps between the milestones that are so easy to miss if you're not paying attention. Those are the gradual changes in ability, in cognitive development and in awareness of the world that at-home parents get to be a part of. It is through our children's experience of the world that we grown-ups can come to a deeper appreciation of our own world.
A study done in Canada found that household chores are worth about $235 billion dollars a year. The study found that Canadians did more work for no pay, most of it around the house, than they did at the office or factory. The study concluded with the finding that the financial worth of all that unpaid work was equal to more than 40% of Canada's Gross Domestic Product.
The real worth of a homemaker's work cannot be measured in dollars, however. He not only does all the cleaning and cooking and shopping and childcare, he provides a sense of security and continuity for his children and his partner, a constant support that is always available. Just as no one will care for your children like you do, no one will care for your home the way you can. And nothing beats home-cooked meals, either.
Finally, no other occupation gives a man the chance to be gentle, nurturing and, let's face it, silly like being a home-dad will. The over-all work of raising children is serious work, but the daily routine offers plenty of opportunity to play, to explore the commonplace, and to be creative. Contemporary culture has done a very good job of socializing men and women to fit very specific roles, roles that support modern industrial consumer society. These roles are somewhat restrictive and repressive, but they were required by the builders of our present economy. Women have made great strides towards breaking out of those restrictions and creating new roles for themselves; men are just beginning that work.
The very types of behaviors that are required for men to be good parents - patience, cooperation, gentleness, spontaneous creativity, generosity, awareness of process and less fixation on product - are some of the very traits that have been socialized away. These are all behaviors that most men get very little chance to indulge in, and which home-dads can easily rediscover and revel in. They are facets of being human - and traits that defined masculinity in the past - that become rusty and tarnished and unavailable with disuse.
It would be well for new fathers to at least make a cursory excursion into the literature of the men's movement. For a father cannot be fully available to his children until he is fully available to himself. There is a school of parenting that says that parents tend to follow patterns that were established during their own childhood, and that only by resolving unsettled issues from their past can they be effective parents in the present. By making yourself aware of what the issues are, both the issues that face you personally and as a man, you will understand what is required of you as a parent. Your parenting can be a revolutionary force, a catalyst for personal growth and change. Children require honesty and immediacy, and can see through most facades erected by their parents.
A LITTLE ADVICE ON THE LIGHTER SIDE
So the decision has been made: you're going to be a home-dad. All well and good. You've read your Dr. Spock; you're all set. There are a few things, though, that the books don't tell you:
1) Patience is a skill you will forever more hold in the highest regard. You will be amazed by how much of the stuff is required to care for an infant. It's one of those things that aunts and mother-in-law have told you, but there's no way you could know. It does neither you nor Junior any good to demand that he quiet down or go to sleep now. You will constantly have to call up further reserves of patience, which help you to cool out, which cools Junior out, which comes back around to you again. A little goes a long way, and there's a long way for it to go.
2) Upper body strength is crucial. Childbirth classes should stress this, and perhaps offer weight training. The forearms, lower back, and knees are particularly important. You won't be able to count the miles you'll log, walking around and around the house carrying Junior. He knows when you sit down, and he much prefers when you walk.
3) You will come to understand why all those daytime TV shows do so well. Junior takes up almost all of your brain cells, and the few you have left available can just about make sense of "The Price Is Right." The soaps provide a concentrated dose of artificial outside-world, for those who see so little of the real thing. The writers cram more adventure and intrigue, both behind closed doors and in front of them, into one episode than most of us see in a lifetime. What else is there to do while you spend the day pacing the floor with a cranky child?
4) You may have one or two obviously childless friends who actually enjoy holding Junior. But should a little drop of milky drool run out of the corner of her mouth, she is quickly and unceremoniously handed back to you. It is surprising to find that bodily secretions and excretions, which you once found disgusting, you can now deal with calmly and without gagging. Spit up, drool, poop, pee, and whatever that stuff is that leaks out of her eyes, none of it bothers you. Certainly every expectant parent is, secretly, a little worried about poopy diapers. Once you get into them, so to speak, you wonder what all the fuss was about. It's one of those magical transformations that occur at the moment of birth.
5) Roseanne Barre commented that if her husband came home to find the kids still alive, she had done her job. That is not all that far from the truth. You will have to accept that creating a warm, reasonably clean place for Junior to live is about all you can do. You can love him and talk to him, and walk him around and around the house, but you don't really "do" anything. "Maintain" will become your motto.
6) Perhaps the most important thing with a kid in the house is a sense of humor. Those days when Junior is just a stinker, nothing satisfies her, she doesn't want to sleep or eat or fly around the living room or do any of the other tricks you know, those are the days when you need a sense of humor. It helps you unclench your teeth. To be able to tell mom when she comes home in the evening that her daughter has been an insect all day, and get her away from me - all with a laugh - releases the tension and makes you all feel better. If you can relax and see the humor in a given situation, then you've taken one step back from the abyss of insanity.
7) You never really understand the meaning of the word "worry" until you have children. There are so many ways for young children to hurt themselves, and seriously at that, that you will be amazed at the end of the day when they are still in one piece not held together with suture. Those stories about mothers picking up cars that have rolled over their kids will all seem perfectly reasonable to you. You'd do that, no sweat. You'd have to; how could you not? There is a fierceness and a depth to this kind of love that is almost frightening sometimes, threatening to overpower you. It will follow you and sustain you the rest of your life.
Probably the most common concern that all new parents face is isolation. Caring for a new baby is very time-consuming, and it can be difficult at first to get out. One result with leaving the workplace to stay home with your kids is losing contact with your former co-workers. Other friends may fall out of touch as well, now that you are so wrapped up with your new kids.
Isolation can be even more of an issue for home-dads. When new mothers leave the work force to be home with their children, they leave one set of peers for another, business associates for fellow full-time mothers. That same trade is not there for fathers. It is fairly easy for an at-home mom to walk down the street, or go to the playground or the supermarket, or almost anywhere, and find other moms doing the same thing they are. For dads, it can be a challenge to find other dads engaged in full-time childcare. It certainly is rare to see other dads at the playground or the supermarket, with kids, on a weekday morning. Play groups are a wonderful thing, and every new parent is encouraged to either join or start one, but in most cases they are composed of mothers and children, and even in the most welcoming situation, a father may feel uncomfortable or left out. Women have successfully gotten admission to the Old Boy's Network, and now at-home dads are trying to get into the Old Girl's Club. It is a common experience for home-dads to be recipients of, at best, condescending smiles and "helpful" advice from well-meaning people, as if they couldn't possibly know how to handle a certain situation. It is subtle, and rarely belligerent, but it begins to wear after a while. Many dads report feeling ostracized at the playground, the moms gently shooing their kids away and keeping their own distance. These are things that mothers never face, and the attitude behind them is what hurts, that men are not acceptable as parents.
It can be very difficult at best for men to seek each other out. Isolation is a common problem for men of all professions. The ability to form close personal relationships, friendships that have nothing to do with work, is difficult to access for many men. Men are far more likely to suffer, emotionally and physically, on their own than they are to seek out other men to get help from. The old saw about men never asking for directions is somewhat true, though on a grander scale. Men, almost exclusively, gather around events - a ball-game, a business conference, a trade show, even a game of pool at the local pub. Men almost never get together just to be together. Support groups for men are growing in number, but are still the exception. The social taboo against men needing each other is very powerful. But for those men who have been able to break through that taboo, their experiences with other men can be enriching and empowering. Building a support-network of other fathers will prove to be a great help in your daily life.
The point is that adult company, with or without children, is a necessity that all too often gets overlooked. The chance to have a two-sided conversation, speak in words of more than one syllable, and talk about something other than basic bodily functions and Sesame Street characters (although if you get together with other new parents, there is a very good chance this is exactly what you will talk about), should never be passed up and needs to be sought out. Parents need each other. The somewhat tired phrase about it taking a village to raise a child refers more to the needs of the parents - fathers and mothers. Having other people to talk to, people who are engaged in the same work as yourself, helps to maintain your sense of purpose, self-esteem and balance. Having a peer-group to share experiences with, to learn from and teach, is of great importance. Breaking out of your isolation is only a matter of making the effort. We'll talk about how to do that in the Tip Sheet Section of this chapter.
Read Part 2
© 2005 - 2012 Hal Levy and the above captioned author.