I used to dread when people asked what I did for a living.
"Oh, I'm a writer, and also, ahem... a stay-at-home dad."
"What do you write?"
"Well ... I guess I'm mostly a stay-at-home dad."
Usually, after an awkward moment of silence, I would change the subject to get the conversation rolling off in some other direction. But there were times when I was dismissively told that staying at home with a baby sounded like fun, for a year or so anyway, as if I was on an extended vacation or just taking a break from my "real" job. Once, a guy asked if I also did the laundry and cooked. I yakked for a bit about the challenge of balancing chores and baby before registering my interrogator's mocking smirk. For some assholes, there is still such a thing as woman's work.
Rarely have I ever been asked anything of consequence about staying at home with my son, Mr. F. What's rewarding? What's challenging? Am I sick of changing dirty diapers? Is it boring? Am I happy? Nothing. Not even after I politely make all the usual chit-chat about the other person's line of work. My experience has been that most people, men and women, don't quite know how to talk to a stay-at-home dad, at least around here.
I live in a largely gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn where the majority of parents I encounter balance professional careers with family responsibilities, and outsource childcare during the work week to a nanny or daycare. The full-time, stay-at-home mother has been a rare thing to find. And other fathers? I'm sure they're out there ... somewhere.
In this environment, it didn't take long for insecurity to get the best of me. I'd think, "Being a dad isn't a job--I'm unemployed!" And from there my worries spiraled. "What happens when Mr. F goes to school? What's my long-term plan? I'm directionless!" But covering these up by telling people I was primarily a writer left me feeling like a man living a lie. On top of that, I was dissing my real job, of which I had no reason to be ashamed. I have always loved being Mr. F's primary caregiver and have been doing it for almost a year now, ever since my wife returned to work.
Partly my staying at home was a question of timing. My graduate school program finished a week before Mr. F's birth, and since my wife wanted to go back to her job, and I loved my self-directed lifestyle at home, me being the one to take over childcare duties made sense. But this very rational, simple explanation also painted me as the guy who refused to take a traditional nine-to-five job for temperamental reasons. In other words, the lazy man.
Which wasn't true. The real, important reason for me to stay at home was much deeper and less cut and dry. For years I insisted I never wanted kids. When I was 10, my parents told me that the man I called Dad was in fact my adoptive father. I never knew my biological father. After the big reveal, we didn't talk about the subject again until I was 21, a recent college grad. The story brought up old anxieties for my parents, rough ground they'd rather not revisit. They thought I had completely forgotten about our little conversation from over a decade before.
I hadn't. Instead, during my teenage years, I hardened against the thought of having kids. My parents' lie to me was egregious, but what parents don't lie to their children in some way? Every parent, I argued, lets their children down. All heroes have feet made of clay. Not me, I said, vowing never to breed.
Fast forward many years, through difficult family conversations, therapy sessions and a brief low in which I ran off to Shanghai to "find myself," and the appeal of children became clearer. I came to admire my adoptive father's commitment to raise me as his own son. I recognized my wife, who stuck with me through these challenging years, as a nurturing, strong woman, an ideal mother. I realized I was losing more by locking myself off to the experience of fatherhood than I was gaining.
So--to the shock of anyone who's known me for very long--I dove in whole hog, wanting to be at home with Mr. F for every small moment, whether wonderful or frustrating. Yes, there have been lonely, hard times. Sure, we could be pulling in more money if I went back to gainful employment (what we call in our household a "jobbie job"), but the challenges of living frugally on my wife's modest salary have not been adverse. I've fallen so in love with this little guy, and in the process smoothed over some of the emotional scars from my childhood, coming to associate a multitude of positive emotions around the word father.
And yet I've hardly talked about it. I've felt so embarrassed about seeming lazy that I've downplayed my role. I'm trying to be more forthcoming these days for myself and for my son, telling people with pride when they ask what I do: "I'm a stay-at-home dad."
If I hear a dismissive note in their reaction, I don't feel shame or discomfort. I would have felt the same way once upon a time, unable to recognize the value of raising a child. As my ever-supportive wife tells people, "It's the most important job there is." I couldn't agree more.