By Damon Syson
United Airlines Hemisphere Magazine
Is being a stay-at-home dad an enlightened gesture, or a dastardly parent trap I’ll never escape? One man’s journey to paternal maturity.
TWO YEARS AGO, I HAD THE PERFECT life. As a London-based freelance journalist, I was sent on a variety of international assignments. In one year, I traveled around southern Africa with Bono, underwent astronaut training with Richard Branson, and sat wide-eyed in the stern of an America’s Cup boat as yachtsmen were swept overboard and masts snapped around me. Okay, so my salary was irregular and I had zero job security, but my life was exciting, spontaneous and fun.
Then we had a baby. And everything changed. Bethan, my partner, has a full-time job, so together we decided that once her maternity leave was up it made sense for me to curtail my foreign exploits and do the lion’s share of the childcare. Almost overnight, editors crossed me off their “will pack bags at a moment’s notice” list.
These days, the longest trip I ever take is to the local café. My luggage has gathered dust, my passport sits dolefully in a drawer and my world has shrunk to a mile’s radius around our house. Having once been flown to LA to interview Hollywood celebrities, I now go for entire days talking to no adults except the staff at Ava’s daycare and the occasional supermarket check-out worker. The edgiest my life gets is trying out an adventurous pasta recipe from Annabel Karmel’s Baby and Toddler Meal Planner.
I should stress that I haven’t entirely given up work. On the three days of the week when Ava is in preschool, I have the luxury (and it really does feel like a luxury, in a way that it never quite did before) of a 9-5 working day. But because I work from home, the majority of domestic chores—shopping, cooking, cleaning—also fall to me.
I’m not alone. I know at least three other men who have scaled down their careers—temporarily, they are always eager to point out—in favor of bringing up small children. If your wife earns more than you and has greater job security, it makes sense, especially in these turbulent times, to reverse the traditional roles. And with the looming specter of widespread job losses in 2009, I expect I’ll be one of a growing band of disconsolate, unshaven men pushing swings on weekday mornings.
I’m not complaining about my new life. Actually, maybe I am. But I know full well that I can’t expect any sympathy—neither from men, who probably view me as a cautionary tale, nor women, who can be forgiven for enjoying seeing the tables turned. And yet adjusting to my role as a domestic drudge has been a challenge. I’ve always thought of myself as a progressive, modern male—a fellow traveller in the march toward gender equality. And yet as much as I try to convince myself that being a stay-at-home dad is a worthy occupation for a man, I can’t help but feel like my masculinity is under attack. I can’t help feeling… well, like a housewife.
The other day, for example, I sulked for half an hour when Bethan arrived home at 10 p.m. I’d spent hours preparing a complicated vegetarian moussaka and she’d ended up working late and eating at her desk. Recently, during a minor dispute about doing the dishes, I caught myself uttering the words: “You don’t even notice half the things I do around the house!” It’s only a matter of time before I start a knitting circle.
Although Ava, who recently turned two, is a delight, and I recognize that the time we spend together is a privilege, I have to confess that I haven’t always enjoyed parenting (at least, not the way I enjoy, say, traveling around South Africa, staying in luxury hotels). The biggest challenge for me has been adjusting to the long stretches of forced inactivity. Most of us go through life wishing there were more hours in the day. I now know that parents of small children instead spend large chunks of the day wishing time away. Only two hours until dinnertime, you find yourself thinking, then bath time, then bedtime stories, then a well-deserved glass of Shiraz for Daddy.
For someone whose life was goal-orientated, the frustration of ending the day with an untouched to-do list was maddening at first. I would set myself a minor task (“Today I will pay the phone bill!”) and fail to achieve it. In talking to friends, I’ve found that men feel this frustration more keenly. Out at the playground, it’s always fathers you see attempting to read newspapers or squinting at their laptops. Initially a lot of men think they can slot parenthood into their normal life like a rather time-consuming and expensive hobby. We soon learn otherwise.
The worst example was a friend of mine who thought he could simultaneously play a competitive, 90-minute game of Sunday League soccer and baby-sit his infant.
“Are you nuts?” we inquired when he arrived in the locker room pushing his three-month-old daughter in a stroller.
“It’ll be fine,” he shrugged. “She’ll sleep.”
How wrong he was. From the moment the whistle blew, the infant wailed, forcing her hapless dad repeatedly to sprint to the sideline and make goo goo noises—and severely hampering our offensive game. He wound up bailing at half-time to take his squalling cheerleader home for a nap.
Perhaps all this explains why I was more excited about Ava’s first day of preschool than she was. The moment I dropped her off, I was overcome with an incredible sense of freedom, like a sailor on furlough. I even went to the gym! But arriving at 5 p.m. to pick her up, I could hear the familiar sound of her wails a block away from the school. “How long has she been crying?” I asked. “Oh, not long,” replied one of the daycare workers, looking uncomfortable. “Perhaps you should have come a little earlier.”
One might expect for all my efforts that Ava and I would be deeply bonded. No such luck. Apparently absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Last night, for example, I spent 40 minutes rocking her to sleep, 30 of which were spent listening to her bellow, “No! Not you. Go away. I want mommy!”
Friends with older children insist this is just a phase. “In a few weeks she’ll be a total daddy’s girl, you watch,” one father of three said comfortingly. “Your time will come.” He later admitted that in the case of his daughter the phase had lasted six years.
The amateur psychologist in me has run through the possible reasons for this rejection. Since I’m the one who takes her to day care, in her mind I’m the bad cop. And when I pick her up in the evening I’m generally too busy making dinner to play hide-and-seek, whereas when Bethan gets home it’s all fun and games. And since she feels so guilty about being away from Ava, the word “No” never passes her lips. Once again, I’m the bad cop.
Of course, it would be much easier for fathers to embrace a larger share of parenting if childcare didn’t still feel like a female dominated occupation. Even though I live in a bohemian neighborhood where the sight of a man wearing a BabyBjörn is routine, there are still times when I feel like I’ve gatecrashed a bachelorette party.
The other day in the park I was surprised to bump into a group of Ava’s friends and their mothers attending a birthday party. The hostess looked embarrassed. “We wanted to invite Ava,” she mumbled. “But we didn’t have your number.” It suddenly occurred to me that while I’d had my head buried in the sports pages, the moms had all become friends! Their children got together for regular playdates, and they had a network of people to call if a last-minute childcare crisis came up. I felt like I had let Ava down just by being too male.
Sometimes this awkward distance turns into hostility. Last week at the playground, I had the rare pleasure of bumping into another father I know. As our kids played on the slide, we chatted animatedly for a few minutes. By the swings, I noticed a well-dressed woman in her sixties staring at us intently. Finally she strode over and jabbed an accusatory finger in our direction: “The playground is for children!” she hissed. “Not for grown men to shoot the breeze.”
I pointed to my daughter, who at that moment was digging in the sand box. “You know, men can be parents too,” I told her with a forced grin. “Look it up.”
Though the woman was apologetic, her comment stung. I’d given up my career, put aside my masculine pride and bucked social convention—all to take care of a dyspeptic, if adorable, little creature who didn’t especially appreciate my efforts—and here I was being treated like a common criminal. It struck me then that this full-time daddy track wasn’t such a bright idea after all.
The turning point happened a few months ago, when Ava came down with a cold and wound up staying home from daycare. Under normal circumstances, a day of baby-wrangling would be broken up with a walk to the playground or the grocery store, and a much-needed cappuccino. But a howling thunderstorm and Ava’s Vesuvian nose meant I was trapped in a small flat with a crotchety toddler for the forseeable future.
Having already driven both parents to the brink of insanity by waking up hourly from 2 a.m. onward, Ava now proceeded to wail inconsolably all morning long.
She didn’t want to play with her toys, she didn’t want to eat (making the point by knocking her breakfast off the table with an imperious swipe) and she refused to be put to sleep, or play, or do anything but hang onto my neck.
At 10:30 a.m. I looked at the clock and felt crushed by the weight of the hours to go before Bethan would be home. It was one of the longest, hardest days I’ve ever experienced. Then, at around 3:30 in the afternoon, something unexpected happened. I lay down on the sofa and Ava fell asleep on my chest. This Hallmark image was something I’d assumed would be a regular part of fatherhood, but up to that point it had never happened, not once. She wound up sleeping for an hour and a half. We both did.
That night, I told Bethan how frustrating I’d found the day. “I achieved nothing!” I proclaimed.
“Yes you did,” she responded. “You achieved looking after our sick daughter.”
I nodded. “She fell asleep on my chest, you know,” I said, turning off the light. And though I knew we’d probably be woken up in a couple of hours, I went to sleep smiling.
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