An insider's view of the unique challenges and joys of caring for the kids while Mom goes to work.
Recently my 11-year-old son declared, "I want to grow up, get married, and have my wife work while I stay at home with the children!"
My wife was momentarily stunned by this and quickly pointed out that he would have to find a wife willing to go in on the deal. Nevertheless, he was drawing from personal experience. I am a stay-at-home father. And I'm not alone. On any weekday morning in our Brooklyn playground, there are plenty of dads tracking toddlers -- and across the country, more and more fathers are the primary caregivers.
So before you assume that the guy pushing that stroller is just killing time until the babysitter arrives, put aside your stereotypes and consider that he might be part of a new generation of fathers who hang out by the swing set, quote Goodnight Moon, and prefer giving the kids piggyback rides to punching the clock. With that in mind, here are nine little-known facts about today's stay-at-home dads.
- We're a small but proud group. The latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics show there are 105,000 dads who stay home primarily to take care of their children. Fathers who work part-time or at night add to the ranks, because they’re more likely to care for the kids while their wives work. Dads who are the primary caregiver for their preschoolers are twice as likely to be in an occupation like the police force, fire department, or security. (If you worry about playground accidents, this might be reassuring.)
- Dinner doesn't mean pizza every night. Plenty of men know how to whip up a fine meal. The catch is doing it with a baby balanced in one arm, the phone ringing, and homework questions whizzing at you from the older kids.
- Men's bathrooms really need changing tables. Go ahead, you try changing a wriggling baby's diaper on a toilet seat in a cramped bathroom stall. It cannot be done! Drop hints to your local library, recreation center, and train station. Start the revolution.
- A tie might not be the best gift on Father's Day. I've suggested that my wife deserves the tie on Mother's Day, and as the family cook, I should get dinner at a fancy French restaurant. But this is a delicate subject; she maintains (and who am I to argue?) that for going through childbirth, every mother deserves a decadent dinner out and a professional massage every year for the rest of her life.
- We can handle a breastfeeding baby. How? The answer lies in lots of little bags in the freezer. My wife took a breast pump to work, hung a "Do Not Disturb" sign on her door, and expressed at lunchtime. Our baby, Lola, lived solely on breast milk for six months.
- Some dads are better with dolls than with trucks. I once saw a big guy in a playground sandbox having an animated chat with his daughter about Barbie, discussing makeovers, best friends, and going to the mall as if it were his heart's desire. He was a fireman, I think (those guys know how to do everything).
- Teachers love to have fathers on school trips. It's simple, really; there are never enough dads. And if a father demonstrates interest in a science exhibit, a musical performance, or a dance concert, it might inspire a few kids who would normally dismiss such things. Curiosity is infectious. On a personal note, I believe that every man should have the experience of being in charge of 12 boys let loose in a museum bathroom.
- We've got things under control. Really. I would like the catalog lady who very reluctantly took my phone order for fleece-lined slippers last October to know that the screaming infant she heard in the background calmed down the exact moment that I hung up, and has shown no signs of permanent damage. And she only cries when I pick up the phone. I swear.
- At-home dads are cool. There was a time, not long ago, when a guy with a toddler in tow would get the hairy eyeball or a pitying glance -- "What's wrong with that guy? Hasn't he got a job?" -- as if somehow, potency, pride, and manliness all came down to putting in long hours at the office. Not anymore. I know five dads who are the primary caregivers in their families: a professor, a cop, a writer, a day-trader, and one guy who just plain likes spending days with his infant son. In short, the at-home dad is everywhere.
This point struck home recently when my wife was minding the children and I was walking alone down my block, hands free at my sides. A neighbor squinted at me for a moment and then tapped me on the arm with an anxious stare. "Where are the kids?" he asked, wide-eyed, as if the man before him were incomplete without an infant squirming in his arms and another child dragging his shoes along the sidewalk. The revolution is here.
Copyright © 2004 George Hagen. Reprinted with permission of Parents magazine February 2004 issue.