The Switch to Stay-at-Home Dad

stay-at-home dadThough it’s easy for me to say, being privileged enough to be born a white straight male, I like to think of myself as a progressive man. It’s important to me that people be free to be themselves rather than having to let society define them. That being said, for years, my professional and parental life closely followed what you might consider traditional gender roles. I was the dad who woke up early, went to his corporate job and brought home the paycheck while my wife stayed at home, maintained our house and raised our daughter. I came home at night and spent a couple of hours with my daughter before she went to bed, and then got to play and eat cereal with her on the weekends.

All that changed in February when I was laid off from my job as a technical writer for an aerospace company. I’m now a stay-at-home dad, and making the switch has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced. Suddenly, I was the one waking up with her and spending the whole day with her.

Immediately, I made some mistakes, including:

Mistake 1

I lost track of time.

When I worked, I woke up at 5 a.m. and always knew what day it was. My work defined my week and I fit the rest of my life in around it. I went to bed on time and, thus, so did my daughter. After my layoff, that went out the window pretty quickly. I lost track of the days within a couple of weeks.  I was having fun with my daughter and my hobbies, and her bedtime started to slip later and later into the evening. Now, I’m at the point where I realise I need to get her and myself back on a realistic schedule, which is much harder than getting ourselves off schedule, as you’d might imagine.

Parents are a judgemental lot, but I’ll admit without much shame that my daughter loves her tablet, and because she loves learning shows so much, I let her spend a couple of hours a day with it. Also, my wife and I had always let our daughter watch one or two cartoons on her pad before she went to bed. However, as I’d thrown off her routine, she’d wanted to try to stay on her pad longer at night. She is mostly toilet trained, with the odd accident occurring every once in a blue moon, but as she started coming to rely on her pad before she went to sleep, she started having more accidents because she didn’t want to put it down to go to the bathroom. Now because I’d let her get away with staying up later and watching her pad longer and longer, I had to take the pad away completely until I got her back to a normal bed time, even though it wasn’t her fault we’d gotten to this point.

Mistake 2

The house became an utter mess.

I went through some mild depression after I was laid off. I would try to help with cleanup duties while I was working, picking off the few things when I got home that my wife couldn’t manage while she had been looking after our daughter all day, and I cooked dinner most nights because cooking is something I very much enjoy.

After my layoff, my wife was working and I was feeling sorry for myself. We live on the edge of the Southern Arizona desert, with two dogs, so it didn’t take long for the toys, dog hair and dust to overwhelm me. I’d estimate the house went to pot in about three days. Luckily, my mum came to visit for my daughter’s birthday, and we made a game of cleaning up with my daughter. I could have done without the Barney “Cleanup” song the whole time, but I decided to just grit my teeth. We managed to get back to a state of reasonable cleanliness, but it blindsided me. I’ve never been a great housekeeper, but this was on another level. At least I still managed to cook dinner, and my daughter (for now) still likes playing the cleanup game.

Mistake 3

I started losing patience with my daughter.

My wife and I often marvel, in hushed voices and in darkened corners where the fates can’t see us, that our daughter has been incredibly easy on us. She is a happy, friendly, polite little girl who likes fruit and vegetables as much as she likes sweets. However, right around the time I lost my job, my daughter started pushing behavioral boundaries. To this day, I’m not sure if I noticed the boundary pushing more because I was spending more time with her or if the changes in my daughter’s routine caused her to push boundaries more. It hardly matters.

I always knew I would never raise my hand to my daughter. I have little interest in getting into debates with people when it comes to corporal punishment, but when people say, “I was raised with spanking and hitting, and I turned out OK,” my instant response is, “I was raised without spanking and hitting, and I turned out OK, too. Surely that should be the first way we try.” Also, the thought of me physically hurting my daughter gives me nightmares.

Having said that, I’m a very big man. When I deepen my voice, people notice (even though I’m trying not to shout). My wife had a different upbringing from me, and we always assumed she would be the disciplinarian and I would be the softy wrapped around my daughter’s finger. The reality was different. Being that she was the one home all the time, my wife was the one who was wrapped around my daughter’s finger for the sake of a long-term peace, and I was the one who had to lay down the law when I got home if my daughter decided she didn’t want to listen.

This took on a new dynamic when I became the stay-at-home parent. My daughter got to the point where she wouldn’t do anything I asked until I raised my voice. She had also been very happy to hold my hand when we were near streets and in parking lots, but now she had started trying to pull her hand away or just going dead weight when I held her hand. Irrationally, I started to resent this. Where was my polite little girl who did what she was asked? In those instances, it was near impossible for me to remember that she’s at the right age where she wants to test her boundaries as part of her development, and that I had been the one who took over as the final booming voice of authority when my daughter wasn’t listening to her mother. That’s how she’d come to see me.

It’s taking a lot of conscious effort, but I now have to concentrate on that balancing act that all parents face between not overdoing the discipline without letting her walk all over me. I have to try to be soft and ask nicely, or at least quietly, more times before I deepen my voice. Slowly but surely, I notice my daughter doing as I ask without me rumbling at her (though I’m not fool enough to think this challenge is over).

This Was a Blessing

When I first asked to take on this subject, I was conscious of the risk of falling into the Mr. Mom movie cliches (said he, showing his age), but cliches become cliches because of their intrinsic truth. Our society has advanced somewhat since Michael Keaton tickled audiences with the inept dad act, but it’s still so easy to lose sight of what happens in a household when you’re at work all day. It’s so easy to forget what it takes to make a house a home and raise a child (and I only have one!) when you’re somewhere else nine hours a day, five days a week. In an ideal America, both parents would be able to spend enough time with their young children to get this important perspective, or they would at least be able to take it in turns to do the stay-at-home thing to the same end. Although this layoff has been difficult and an emotional and financial drain, the experience of being a stay-at-home dad and the time I got to spend with my daughter more than makes up for it.

Ben Kessler lives and writes in Tucson, Arizona.  

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