Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pariah of the New Millennium: the stay at home dad

I overheard two guys in suits talking about a stay at home dad acquaintance of theirs the other day. I didn't catch most of the conversation, but I got the gestalt.

Guy A: Did you hear? Joe's a stay at home dad now.
Guy B: No way. Lucky bastard.
Guy A: I'd kill to hang out at home and do nothing all day.
Guy B: Must be nice. My wife would divorce me if I turned into a mooch.

Before tackling the social stigma of stay at home fathering, let me just say that we have a massive social problem if the career types in our society truly feel that the contribution made by the child minders is so worthless.

If you are a parent of a young child, and you have a career that takes you away from home for long and/or unpredictable hours, or one that features regular emergencies, or one that requires a super human level of devotion in order to secure advancement, you could not have that same career without the time and dedication of some other adult.

Whether that adult is a paid employee or your life partner doesn't change this fundamental truth.

It's another fundamental truth that the grass always seems greener in the adjacent pasture. So, if you've ever said, or thought, it would be so nice to be home with Junior and do nothing all day, I have a challenge for you.

Take as many consecutive personal days as your employer permits. Send your sitter, spouse or regular child minder away. Really away. And no calling to ask for help unless the house is on fire or the child is bleeding from his eyeballs.

Run your household. Alone. This is not a weekend drill.

Face the bully at the park, the interminable line at the post office, the spluttering, wheezing clerk at the grocery store. Make sandwiches. Prep dinner, shower and pay bills if your kid will consent to nap. Wait for plumbers who arrive two hours late when your child is crazy with cabin fever and demands to go outdoors. Take forty-five minutes to get out the door. (If you live in Boston, the gem of a line in The Christmas Story, about getting ready to go outdoors being like preparation for extended deep sea exploration rings awfully true).

If you need to buy holiday gifts, navigate the packed mall with a stroller and an over bundled toddler scattering Goldfish crackers in her wake. The department stores love that. Look for bathrooms in the least convenient places you can imagine. Wait in interminable lines with a screaming, over tired kid.

Bandage scrapes. Clean up spills. Cut up fruits and vegetables to bite size bits. Change diapers. Administer baths. Brush teeth. Sing songs and do art projects. If applicable, get everyone bundled to take the dog out, at least four times a day.

Teach him to catch a ball or ride a bike. Sign her up for skating lessons and then get to the ice on time. Sing the alphabet song eighty-seven times. Enforce bedtimes.

Don't let the kiddies watch TV. Not one show. Not if the primary care giver doesn't allow it.

Report back to me if you think, at the end of the experiment, that you - the full time career person - still have the easier job. Because I'd like you to author a guest post.

You'll of course notice that the primary child minder gets perks the office goer doesn't. He or she witnesses all the milestones and spontaneous moments of pure joy that happen in the course of keeping the kid alive and entertained. He or she gets to decide the order in which tasks get tackled. He or she can decide to blow off cleaning the bathroom in favor of baking cookies.

Remember though, that the restaurant meals and adult social interaction in which many office goers routinely indulge look like perks from the stay at home person's view point. I know many moms who fantasize about spending three minutes in the bathroom without anyone hammering on the door. The greener pastures adage works both ways.

I don't know any stay at home dads personally, though I see them once in a while at music class or at the playground. Theirs seems a lonely lot. Stay at home moms, and nannies for that matter, tend to develop social support networks among their contemporaries. Sometimes it's really nice to grab a coffee or a sandwich and have an adult conversation while watching the kiddies enjoy a play date. I'm not saying that stay at home dads never get invited anywhere; just that I've never seen it happen.

I have however, overheard more than one father admit to stay at home dad status with an uncomfortable chuckle and mumbled apology. It's always a "temporary situation," often "just until" his partner gets past whatever career milestone.

And who can blame these dads for apologizing, if, like the guys on the sidewalk, their friends and colleagues see them as less worthy?

The sidewalk small talkers might not recognize their remarks as sexist, but that's exactly what they were. I suspect their fundamental issue with "Joe" was that he was doing what our society generally regards as women's work. Which rendered him more feminine and his contribution less valuable.

I don't expect such attitudes will change, at least not for another couple of generations. I'd love it though, if the sidewalk dudes could walk for just one full day in Joe's shoes. At least then they might stop thinking of the care givers in their lives as freeloading leeches.

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