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So You Wanna Be a Stay-At-Home Dad, Do Ya?

A survey I noted sometime back suggested that some 49 per cent of working fathers (why don’t they just say “half”?) would like to trade their neckties for apron strings and stay home with their kids. As a father who did that very thing eight years ago now (has it only been eight years? Feels longer than that...) I feel a duty to fully inform ‘The Brotherhood’ about aspects of the decision that may otherwise be overlooked or downplayed, and that may not have been fully disclosed by those conducting the survey.

Think on these things, fellow fathers, then stay or go as you must...

The grass is always greener (except where the Bichon goes)

I’m sure part of that 49 per cent are looking at the prospect of SAHDism as a relief from current job frustrations. It could be that as many as 66.7 per cent of that 49 per cent (you do the math) would have responded in favor of trading their neckties for any ‘romantic’ alternative, such as bingo caller, handyman, farmer, prison guard or chauffeur. SAHDs actually get opportunities to do all of those things in the course of their day; but, on the other hand, it is important for all fathers to recognize that SAHDing is not without its frustrations.

Anyone thinking that it is high time they stopped dealing with all the ‘crap’ in their office should take a deep breath and a long walk before trading that particular crappy job for one that largely entails changing diapers and cleaning up after a new puppy. I distinctly recall a sunny day not long into my SAHD career when I found myself in the backyard cleaning up what my Bichon leaves behind, with my young son at the back door hollering for me to come in and help him in the bathroom, thinking to myself how the responsibilities of my new job were a lot like other jobs I’d had...


Without the guys

Unlike the perception weekends and ballparks may offer, there are no lineups in the men’s room during weekdays with kids. Public schools can be intimidating for fathers... and if you have a ‘trick back’ and aren’t useful for heavy lifting, they struggle to find a use for you. Hanging out mid-day at parks and playgrounds sounds relaxing, until the cops show up checking out neighbor reports of a strange man lingering too close to small children. And it can get your child picked on when they go on a field trip to City Hall and the Mayor asks, “Okay, which one of you kids brought dad today?” So, unless you’re already working in a female-dominated environment, be prepared for a change in demographics. And be prepared to get comfortable with it, because you will – as I discovered not long ago when I attended a business meeting downtown (the SAHD equivalent of a day off) and found myself for the first time in years in a meeting entirely populated by men. I found it hard to take them seriously, or entirely respect the group’s wisdom or judgment.


It’s really not up to you

I expect the other 51 per cent surveyed already get this point, but the reality of embarking on a SAHD career is that it is really not your call to make. Behind almost every stay-at-home dad stands a go-to-work mom, without whom SAHDs seldom exist. My advice to any considering a SAHD career is to first marry well. Choose for your bride and the mother of your children as someone who can earn as much or more in her work outside the home as you can in yours, and who has an appetite for it. My further advice is to lie to her about how long she might have to give up being at home with the kids. There’s no way I’d have got this job if I had suggested at the start that I intended to keep it for eight years (and counting). I have held this SAHD job on an evergreening six-month trial basis.

SAHDism offers little long-term job security. You have to be okay with that (and the regular questions about how the ‘job search’ is going). Lawyers and cabinet ministers, it is said, serve “at the pleasure of Her Majesty”; same for stay-at-home dads. Theoretically, fathers have as much right as mothers to be at home with their children... but who are we trying to kid here? Those so-called ‘rights’ hinge entirely on maintaining at least a minimum standard of performance, and a high tolerance on the part of the mother for unkempt children. School pictures come home more than once showing a child wearing their shirt backwards and you are outta there! (Worse yet, rumor has it that it might not have even been a shirt, but a pajama top. By the third child, you just want them out the door and off to school. You don’t care about what they’re wearing. And who looks at clothes in a school picture, anyway? Isn’t the smile what’s important? But that was a worrisome year spent with that picture on the wall.)

The only job security the SAHD really has emanates from his slothfulness and lack of ambition, generally rendering him seemingly unemployable anywhere else. And don’t think for a minute that image is easy to maintain (but a couple years in, it starts to get convincing).


What are you, really?

After about a year of being a SAHD, I got in the habit of telling people I was a ‘mother of three’ because ‘father of three’ seemed to be perceived by people as more of an honorary position. My wife didn’t appreciate it, but I felt a need to be taken more seriously. Nobody really knows what SAHDs are, and you won’t either. You might sometimes choose to believe that you are really just ‘between careers,’ or maybe if you hit a big slot-machine win or collect up enough empty pop cans you might even fool yourself into thinking you are ‘semi-retired’ – until you are reminded that there is actual work to do every day, and you never have six hours in a row free to go golfing. (If this is retirement, it’s a pretty pathetic one.)

And, as noted above, there is no sense embracing what is, by definition, only a temporary position. SAHDs need a pretty strong sense of self – either too cocky for their own good or by nature oblivious to their SAHD condition. Fortunately, I studied engineering at university, where they teach you that engineers are capable of doing anything. And then I studied law, where they teach you that lawyers are capable of convincing anyone of anything. So I’m fully capable of convincing myself I’m doing something.


Ignore the economics

The job I traded in for my SAHD career now pays many hundreds of thousands of dollars per year (as hard as that may be to believe, it’s even harder to write...). It didn’t pay anything like that when I gave it away. Who knew? But I am comforted by a couple thoughts. First, I’m pretty sure the guy who’s got the job has to earn that money (and I’m even more sure he’s doing a better job of doing that than I would have); and second, it’s a lot easier to manage expectations and overachieve in a job that pays nothing than one that pays that much. My wife will properly tell you that I’m only barely worth more than I’m paid, and I’m not in any position to deny it.

Being a stay-at-home dad is not without its rewards – they’re just hard to model in a spreadsheet. It’s worth something to watch your kids, as products of their environment, grow up to think and act like you in many ways (even if it’s something of a handicap for the kids), and having attendants at the grocery store go out of their way to tell you what good kids you have instills pride of priceless value (which may equal more or less than stock options, depending on fickle market conditions). While there is no salary for SAHDs, there is a ‘bonus plan’ and plenty of ‘benefits,’ intermittent, unquantifiable, ‘illiquid’ and cherished more in retrospect, but rewards nonetheless. However, if you see SAHDs get teary-eyed when they talk about their kids, part of it could certainly be that, against their better judgment, they’re doing the math in their heads. Ouch!


Conclusion

So while that survey may suggest that 1 out of every 2 dads might find themselves thinking in quiet moments that they’d like to stay at home with their kids, there are reasons why only 1 out of every 13 actually do. To me, it just shows that men, overall, should be given more credit for their good judgment.

 


Gordon is a Calgary lawyer and mostly-stay-at-home father dedicated to the service of three delightful middle-school-aged children, under the patient oversight of their hard-working mother. He describes his approach to parenting as ‘conscientious indifference,’ and has trained the family Bichon to do much of the work (it’s remarkable how tidy children can become when anything they leave lying about is promptly chewed to bits). After many years of volunteer involvement in public education, Gordon blogs regularly at parentsnschools.com. It’s helpful therapy, at a reasonable price.

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