I am in the process of interviewing Bay Area families for a series of writing projects on stay-at-home fathers and non-traditional families. For the next year or so, I will periodically post sketches of the families based on the interviews, as a kind of public notebook of the work I am doing. What follows is the story of Ted, a stay-at-home dad in Oakland, CA. All names have been changed.
Johnny lifts rock after rock, small two-year-old face focused, searching.
“Bug!” he says triumphantly, pointing to a salamander. “Bug!”
His dad Ted squats down. “It’s a salamander. That’s a kind of amphibian, Johnny.”
Ted plucks the finger-length salamander off the ground and slides it into Johnny’s hand.
“Gentle,” he says to his son. “Be very gentle.”
Tell me about your dad, I say.
Ted laughs sarcastically and doesn’t say anything. In another person, it would seem like a self-dramatizing gesture. I sense, however, that Ted is only thinking. Ted is 43 years old, but he’s boyish and stocky and he has a scholar’s face, quiet and a little bit sad. Words come slow to him.
I prompt him: What kind of role model is he for you, as a father?
“He saw himself as a breadwinner and not much else. His attitude was, I’m your father and you will respect me, because of all the things I’ve done for you. He didn’t see our relationship as going two ways. It was more of a one-way thing, from him to me.”
Ted’s parents divorced when he was eleven. At first he and his sister lived with his mom, then one day when he was fourteen, Ted was caught smoking marijuana. It was decided that he would go live with his father.
“I have a lot of fond memories from before, but after I went to live with my dad, I don’t know. It was a closed atmosphere. I didn’t have a lot of friends. The attitude about me was, he’s done drugs before, so let’s keep him in a cage so that he’ll never have a chance to do drugs again.”
What was your father like, during this period? I ask.
“My dad was an alcoholic….”
“Look at me, daddy!” cries Johnny. We look: he’s standing up on a pile of wood chips, legs spread, with one foot propped on a nearby fence, smiling as though he just completed a triple somersault.
“Way to go, Johnny, good job!”
About your father… I continue.
“He was a mean drunk. He picked on the family…”
Ted stops talking.
What do you think he did well? I ask.
Ted thinks. “I can’t think of anything right now. I don’t have a good relationship with my dad.”
When Ted went to college, he became a serious bicycle racer. He’d take classes for a semester, then race for a year. This went on for twelve years, until he got his undergraduate science degree.
“I wasn’t getting rich, but I’d make a couple hundred dollars a week, enough to get by with some other work, and I raced with professionals—some pretty famous guys. My dad wasn’t supportive, except when I won a race. I won about fifty races. I think winning was the only thing that made it worthwhile to him.”
One day he met Shelley, the roommate of the girlfriend of another bike racer. They married and two and a half years ago they had Johnny. The family spent Johnny's second year in China, where Ted worked as researcher for the United Nations on a conservation project. While in China, Shelley was offered a job as communications director of an international development organization in Oakland, CA. On their return to the Bay Area, the couple decided that Ted would stay home with Johnny while Shelley worked.
What does your dad think of you staying at home with Johnny? I ask.
"He’s insulting about it. Not so much about me taking care of Johnny. More about the fact that I’m not having a job right now. He’s in his sixties, his health is deteriorating, so he just lashes out at anything.”
Johnny wanders over to concrete steps that lead down from their street to next neighborhood. Ted lets him stand at a railing, looking down at a ten-foot drop.
I say: My wife would never let my son stand there.
“Shelley’s terrified of the stairs. She won’t let him go near stairs like that.”
Are you more careless than Shelley? I ask.
“I wouldn’t say careless…”
We both laugh.
“He is more likely to get hurt with me…well, not, like, hurt. I’m careful with him, but I like to give him a little bit more room to, you know, experiment, see what he can do. He’d never learn to walk down the stairs otherwise.”
What are some things a good father does? I ask.
For once, Ted doesn’t hesitate. “A good dad is close to his kids. He’s there emotionally. He’s supportive and encouraging, whatever the kids want to do, within reason.”
“But I think the most important thing is for a dad to set a good example. You have to be the kind of man you want your son to grow up to be. You can’t impose your ideas on him. You have to be the idea and just hope he gets it. If they see you being kind to other people, they’re more likely to be kind to other people.”
We stop talking, both of us pondering his words, watching Johnny, who squats for a long time, intently watching another salamander traverse the landscape of his tiny hand. Johnny starts to poke and prod at the salamander.
“OK, Johnny,” says Ted. “Let the salamander free.”
He squats down next to his son and helps the salamander back into its home under the rock.
“You don’t want to hurt him,” says Ted, taking his son’s hand.
You know, I say, Johnny really looks like you.
For the first time that afternoon, Ted really smiles: at that moment, he is the man he wants his son to be.