I am a stay-at-home dad.
Never did I envision myself typing that sentence, in any context. First of all — I have a kid?! And the — I’m not working? What the hell am I doing with my time?
To catch you up, my wife and I flew to the Dominican Republic for a short vacation 13 months ago. Many caipirinhas and a Zika scare later, we are the exhausted parents of a happy and healthy 4-month-old girl.
Having watched many friends traverse parenthood over the past 20 or so years, I felt fairly well-versed in what was coming. To supplement that delusion, we took delivery classes, CPR classes, basic baby care classes. I might inadvertently stunt my child’s emotional or intellectual development, but she’ll be stunted with a healthy oxygen supply and a clean diaper.
With a due date of January 2, the final trimester was perfectly timed to amplify the chaos of the holiday season. Life settled into an uneasy buzz of anticipation and anxiety. The feeling of imminence was unshakable — no refunds, no time-outs, no mulligans. The baby passed the 6-pound mark in utero, and unveiled her ever-expanding cheeks with each passing sonogram.
And that’s when my employer offered my department a buyout. Volunteer to walk away from the job to trim the company’s staffing budget and be compensated according to the length of your tenure. The timing was surreal, and from an existential point of view, fortuitous. My years of being too lazy to look for another job were about to pay off handsomely, just as my first child was being born. I had to take it. I would essentially be paid to be a stay-at-home dad for the first months of my daughter’s life.
Four months later, however, I can’t imagine now handing her off to someone else. I have the good fortune to have married above my station in life. My wife is smarter than me, and is compensated accordingly in her career. Could I actually transition into being an unpaid stay-at-home dad?
The finances aren’t at the heart of the issue, at least not yet. The issue is perception. I’d like to think I’ve evolved since high school, that the thoughts and opinions of other men are of no concern to me. In fact, I thought I had evolved past that. But the gravitational pull of gender expectations is always looming over life’s proceedings. As a man, that reality wasn’t the daily minefield that women must navigate. Now it’s in my face. Men work. Men provide.
That said, this is 2017, and this gender stigma is largely self-inflicted. My father and my wife’s father — throwbacks and men’s men, to be sure — both seem to be on board. My male friends seem unfazed, while admittedly not passing up chances to question the whereabouts of my manhood or whether they’re paying for my extended vacation with their taxes (they’re not).
I live in Brooklyn, after all. Just this week, I passed three other stay-at-home dads with strollers in one CVS. We acknowledged one another with quiet, mirthless nods, grimly commiserating with our stigmatized and stereotyped male comrades.
So why does it bother me when an old shopkeeper asks me if it’s my day off? Or when somebody apologizes when I tell them I’m not at my job anymore (it was voluntary!)? Or quite simply, when anybody gives me what I perceive to be “the look” when I just say I’m a stay-at-home dad? Getting sheepish or defensive about it might be 1 and 1a in my handbook of insecure living, but what’s the point?
After a day of doting over and taking care of my daughter, after a day of questioning my choices and projecting thoughts into the heads of innocent bystanders, my wife walks through the door after a long day at the office. I finally exhale, welcome her home with a kiss, pop open a beer, and don my apron to make dinner (I like to cook too, okay?). I watch my wife reconnect with my daughter, my dog tagging along happily, and my world makes complete sense.
This is the most important thing I’ve ever done, or will ever do. I suppose I always knew that on some level, but when my daughter wakes up in the morning and gives me her wide-eyed, toothless grin of greeting, there’s no question. I’ve moved beyond P&L statements and budget initiatives. I owe her a path into the world that isn’t obstructed with any of my own baggage. How do I encourage her to be fearless? To be kind? To not give a shit what others think, in the least assholish way possible?
She is 50% of me, although she has the relative misfortune of accruing about 85% of my looks. One day, she’ll be all that’s left of me. I will send the world a compassionate non-serial killer to help move things forward.
And for anyone who would continue to second-guess my choices or wonder what I do with my time, whether those voices be real or imaginary: fuck off. I’m busy.