Saturday, June 17, 2006

Being a dad

Becoming a dad changed my life. Cliché, perhaps, but nevertheless true.

For the first two years of my daughter's life I stayed home and took care of her full time while my wife worked 10 hour days.

Given my wife's salary and career at the time, and my not-so-wonderful job prospects, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Turns out it was the best career move I've ever made. I've never had a job that was so demanding, yet so rewarding. By the time my wife decided she wanted out from her corporate life, I had become not just a different person -- I think that happens to anyone who has kids. I became a different man.

Being a stay at home dad (SAHD) back then (early 1990s) was unusual. When I started I thought nothing of it. But I quickly learned that it was outside the norms.

For the most part people, including friends and family, were very supportive. But I'd get the occasional strange look, the occasional woman who could not believe a guy could actually care for a little baby, the occasional comment about my daughter growing up confused, the occasional cold shoulder from stay-at-home moms at the playground. I have to admit, though, that I often went out of my way to let people know I was a SAHD. I was proud of what I was doing.

And I loved it. Yeah, it could be boring and isolating and sleep-depriving. But after a few months, I couldn't even imagine having to work 40 or more hours a week, having to be away from my little baby for so long. I appreciated the sacrifice my wife was making -- and I still am eternally thankful to her for giving me that time with our daughter.

One of the saddest days of my life came when I had to start working full time. My wife had taken a long-term leave from her job so she could spend a year at home with our daughter -- a year that ended up stretching to ten.

It was a tough change for me. I loved the job, and it was great getting paid to do something I enjoyed doing.

But the sadness in my heart outweighed the joy. And on the first day of full-time work, when I came home at the end of the day, our little daughter, two years old, was mad at me for having been gone the whole day. I nearly cried.

My sadness increased when our son was born three years after his sister. I was able to take a few weeks off from work after his birth, and my job provided me with very flexible work schedule, so I spent as much time with him as I could. And I loved that time. But I knew what I was missing. Being a stay at home dad had changed me forever.

These experiences made me totally reevaluate what was important in life. I'd been conditioned to see making money, achieving status, advancing in a career, "succeeding" in traditional terms, as the most important goal.

But my stint as a SAHD made me realize that all of that was much less important and meaningful than spending time with my kids.

After an internal struggle, I took a deep breath and downsized my career expectations. I put aside the ambitions I'd had, ambitions that would have meant 70-80 hour work weeks, coming home in time to tuck my kids into bed, missing the best years of their childhood.

As a result, while I wasn't able to stay at home full time, I have managed to spend more time with my kids than most dads. I walked them to elementary school every morning and picked them up in the afternoon. I worked several hours a week in their classrooms. Before he started kindergarten I spent at least one weekday morning every week just hanging out with my son. I've made it a point to spend as much time as possible with them.

The past fifteen years have been an adventure. They've also led me to see the world in a different way.

My dadding experiences have shown me the destructiveness of gender expectations and social norms that pigeon-hole moms as "caregivers" and dads as "breadwinners." They've highlighted the dialectics of dad-ness, the fact that for men to be free, we have to fight masculinist gender stereotypes and expectations. We have to be not just fathers, but daddies who strive to make the world a better place for our kids, but also for all kids. And we have to show our kids the way forward.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting how you still seem to tag yourself as a SAHD, which is consistent with what many moms will do: they may go back to work when the kid goes to school, but after one to four years at home, they're forever moms -- which, you know, might have consequences for career as well as self-image. It's like the mafia or CIA: you never really leave.

Chip said...

Yeah, it really did change my life forever. And while I've been a go-to-work-dad for a lot longer, those two SAHD dad years really set up the way for the rest of my dadding years. And as for career consequences, as I wrote, yes, but I actively chose those consequences because you can't have it both ways, especially if you're a guy.