I know what it's like to be the only Y chromosome in the room, swimming in a sea of estrogen.
I didn't start out in life to be a stay-at-home dad. I mean I didn't fantasize as a child that I'd go to college, spend years laboring over my PhD, and get licensed as a psychologist to stay home kissing my wife out the door on her way to the car, saying, "Have a nice day dear."
It just kind of happened.
Long story short. After I got married, I moved to another state, and was working more as a writer than a shrink while I waited for the red tape of transferring my psychology license. Our first kid came along, and my wife had Cadillac benefits at her job; so after her maternity leave, it seemed natural for me to stay at home, continue with what I was doing with the small addition of being a father to a new-born child.
I became a master diaperer, and I continue to this day to admonish my now teenage children--there are three of them--"Don't get smart with me. Remember I changed your diaper, and maybe you need a new one right now."
My wife could have been a poster-girl for La Leche league, the queen of nursing, and I was the royal consort of expressed milk--how to freeze it, how long it lasts, how to prepare it for daily use. I had an early childhood memory--a memory of the early days of my first child, that is--of trying to find a store open on Memorial Day to buy a breast pump--a memorial to my departed, misspent youth. I'd be in the park with my kid and when the woman on the bench next to me popped out a breast to nurse, I'd reach into my bag of tricks--diapers and bottles and wipes and War and Peace--to nurse my boy right alongside.
(On the benefit side, if I were so inclined, I discovered that babes are great babe magnets, even better than puppies.)
The park was only one of the domains in which I'd be the only adult male--the unemployed and grandpas, aside. (I assumed they thought I was unemployed too.) When my boy turned two, and entered nursery school, I'd be the only man at parent meetings or putting in the required volunteer hours.
And there are the intangible benefits. I found that weekdays are a great time to do my food shopping in under populated supermarkets when respectable males are at work. And it's never a problem when the cable company says they'll show up some time between 9 and 5.
I'll confess to many shortcomings with me as the household spouse. I have the typical Y-chromosome blind spot when it comes to dirt and cleaning. My cooking is limited and unimaginative. But we all muddled through, and none of my kids is an incipient serial killer following a childhood of torturing cats or pulling the wings off flies--even though they're all terrifying (to me) adolescents. They have their quirks, who doesn't?, and they're not perfect people. Who is, except for my wife?
Behind it all, though, in this post-feminist world we live in--maybe it's my paranoia kicking in (pass me my Zyprexa)--I'd feel those XX gals looking at me slantwise. It's not as if they said something (to my face) or were less than supportive. But was that a perceptible pause in the conversation when I entered the--until then--female-only room?
Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" comes to mind: "Something's happening but you don't know what it is do you, Mrs. Jones?"
I naively thought that the feminist revolution of the 60s and 70s would allow men to be more like women, when as far as I can tell it has mostly allowed women to join the boys club, on the boys' terms.
I thought I'd be able to wear brilliant floral designs (oh wait! that did happen in the 70s) rather than seeing women abandon their own brilliant floral designs for standard issue gray pants suits.
Rather than transforming the workplace, it was women that were transformed.
On a more structural level, I ask, "Where are the child car centers in the factory plants or the home office?" Mostly, I imagine, in cold places like Finland. Not here.
There are no parks in the corporate or industrial parks.
Recently, the New York Times published an op-ed by a totally co-opted female doctor who argued that any woman who spent all that time and money on a medical education and then worked a reduced schedule was a waste of that investment.
I guess, by implication, that makes me a waste too. I'm long back at work as a psychologist, but on a reduced schedule. And my wife, with her law degree, has mostly worked on a reduced schedule herself. Is she a waste too?
I'd rather think of my self as a revolutionary, or, at least, as a holdout counterculturist.
Are we setting a bad example? Will we fail to produce type-A personalities? Do we want children who will work 50-60 hours each week before they drop dead from a heart attack months after retirement? Do I want them to spend little time with their own children, my grandchildren?
Is that the way you want to live? I'd rather live with memories of not Sundays, but Mondays in the park.
Many ambitious women struggle with the idea that the "mommy track" will lower the glass ceiling even further for them. The daddy track never enters into the conversation except in science fiction or Father's Day posts at Psychology Today.
Perhaps my early flirtation with Marxism convinced me that the way to live corresponds to this observation from 1845 about an imagined society "where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes," a community that "makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." (Marx as the ultimate dilettante. Who knew?)
Maybe my kids--now that they are teenagers--wouldn't like me around so much. If I wasn't there, they could do their teenage things in greater privacy. But without getting into the full-blown argument about whether it's better for parents, i.e., mothers, to be at home, the least I can say is they didn't suffer for my presence. Having dad around was never a problem. Whether it's good or bad, what children experience is normal to them.
I'll confess that as reasonably non-poor family of parents with two advanced degrees, my wife and I have choices not afforded to all, that for many families the father may be at home because he is unemployed and doesn't want to be. And even where there are choices--due to the fact that women make only three-quarters of male salaries--it makes more economic sense for the man to go to work.
But if you are willing to drive to Quebec for your vacation rather than fly to Paris to hear French on every street corner, or if you remember that libraries are free, or if you can find a decent public school, you can lead a shabbily genteel, culturally rich life for yourself and your children.
If you can get past the stares of stay-at-home moms at the playground, or the condescension at the nursery school, "How wonderful you are committed to being at home!" you can find that it is in fact wonderful to spend all those hours with your children. If we live for our children, what's better than living with them twenty-four hours a day?
And, after all, how many kids get to have homework help at three in the afternoon with a PhD?
My book, Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures In Eldercare (Avery/Penguin, 2009), was a Finalist for the 2010 Connecticut Book Award. Click here to read the first chapter It provides a unique, insider's perspective on aging in America. It is an account of my work as a psychologist in nursing homes, the story of caregiving to my frail, elderly parents--all to the accompaniment of ruminations on my own mortality. Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking, calls it "A book for policy makers, caregivers, the halt and lame, the upright and unemcumbered: anyone who ever intends to get old."