'I was a stay-at-home dad, and it was awful. It was also the best thing I ever did'
For five years, I was a stay-at-home dad. There were many lessons I learned from the experience, and many are truths that are hard to accept.
The stay-at-home dad is a rare creature, rarely spotted in the wild. He is an icon to be emulated, and a dirty secret to be ashamed of. He's a bit of a mystery. For starters, there are precious few of us stay-at-home dads (SAHDs let’s call them). And unlike our counterpart SAHMs and WAHMs, we don’t talk about the experience much. We don’t do brunch with other SAHDs, publish daddy blogs or hold seminars. And yet, over the years as a stay-at-home dad, I learned many things that need to be shared. You may disagree or not believe me. But you need to hear it.
I learned that male privilege at home exists, and it’s going strong even in this age of women empowerment and #metoo. As a SAHD, my eyes were opened to the fact that women are being kept down, excluded from the work force, and treated unfairly. I also learned how to put an infant to sleep, kiss boo-boos, and toilet train toddlers. And after five years of SAHD-ness, I’ve come to the conclusion that many dads are missing out on the very best part of life.
Lesson #1: Get ready to be judged
There is no faster way to end a conversation than by answering the question “What do you do?” with “I’m a stay-at-home dad.” You will be met with a chorus of crickets. “Oh...” they will say and pretend to be interested in their phone. A man who doesn’t bring home the bacon is not a man at all. He is someone to be ashamed of, a leprous dog.
Of course, everyone pretends to be happy about it. “You’re so good with the kids,” they might say, but behind their eyes, the question will be there. It’s always the 800-pound gorilla in the room. How do you pay for the bills? Unfairly, they will assume there is some sort of trust fund from my father. For the record, there is no trust fund.
The real answer is, “It’s my wife, dummy!”
When I quit my job in 2012, my wife had two jobs and two nice little side businesses. Anyone who knows her knows she is a strong and capable woman. Bringing home the bacon was in good hands.
You lazy bum, they will think next. You worthless freeloader.
I believe in work, and I quit my job for a different kind of work. No, not taking care of the kids, though that is work too. I quit my job to write a book. My wife and I made this decision together. It may never make us wealthy, but I wanted my kids to know me as who I am: a writer, not some advertising schmuck who makes oh-so-clever campaigns for social media. And I wanted to see my kids more than just on weekends.
Did that answer your question? Good. Now judge away. It’s something we do regularly to mums. All. The. Time.
Is she a stay-at-home mum? Poor thing.
Does she work? She must be a horrible mum.
Lesson #2: Male privilege at home
If you’re an alpha male sort of dude who thinks bringing home the bacon gives him license to demand a warm meal served by his sex minx of a wife when he arrives at his clean, spotless home, you’ve got another thing coming, buddy. Your “rough” day at work is nothing compared to what stay-at-home moms go through, and I experienced this first-hand.
A typical day may contain:
- The little bastards waking up at the crack of dawn
- Breakfast, which you prepare while uncaffeinnated
- The little one willfully pouring his milk onto the table (you know, just because)
- Homework cramming for the middle child (because everyone forgot about him last night)
- Tantrum #2, 3, and 4 from the toddler while the big kids are at school
- Guilt because tantrum #4 escalated and you shouted
- Danger and excitement as the middle child ran across the street when you picked him up
- Actual fisticuffs, and biting
- Homework, meal planning, budgeting
How was your day, honey?
So don't even start on how you need undisturbed rest, or how you have a big day tomorrow.
Many men believe that provider status exempts them from diaper duties or household chores. (And some wives enable this behaviour because their husbands "work so hard.") This kind of male privilege at home is commonplace, rampant even.
But believe me, men, you've got it easy. I've been on both sides, and, sure, having a successful career isn't easy, but there is no contest.
Consider the fact that to cope with motherhood, women's brains actually undergo significant changes. It has been found that their brains shrink (for the better) when they get pregnant. And later on, hormonal changes help them to cope with the massive changes that motherhood brings.
Lesson #3: There is no such thing as woman’s work
When I was a kid, the girls were taught to cook and bake and sew. Meanwhile the boys built things out of wood and metal. So in my early days as a stay-at-home dad I was at a distinct disadvantage. Once again, it was male privilege at work — men handing off the chores they didn't want to do to women — and it was just stupid.
Eventually, I learned there are only two things I cannot do as a man: give birth to a child and breastfeed. For everything else, I took the same attitude I do with fixing my gaming PC: everything is knowable. With the right tools and the right knowledge, I can do anything.
Martha Stewart has got nothing on me. I’ve learned how to cut up a whole chicken, and cook a few dishes. I masterminded our home decor. I’ve learned the full lyrics to Princess Sofia, and some Trolls songs. My kids and I have engineered pillow forts, and constructed cardboard Iron Man armor.
Other men will say that they have no “maternal instincts,” that they can’t do the things their wife does. Men don’t have it in them, they say. I call BS. Last time I checked, I still had my dangly bits, and I figured it out. It never felt unnatural. Have they ever tried?
Lesson #4: The parenting trap
When I finished writing the book, it came time for me to go back to work. Inadvertently, I found myself in the same position that many mums find themselves in.
After five years of being a SAHD, I had basically torpedoed my career. My professional network was gone; we had all moved on to other things. Many of my skills were outdated. A headhunter, after some initial enthusiasm, saw a five-year gap in my work experience and ran for the hills.
Meanwhile, I had grown incompatible with corporate culture. I needed to be home early to have dinner with the kids. I needed flexibility for parent-teacher meetings. And I didn’t want to give up my SAHD life.
I used to think our society was equal and forward-thinking. I turned a blind eye to my female co-workers disappearing after they got married or gave birth. And I didn’t realise that they didn’t come back — if they wanted to — because they couldn’t. We wouldn’t let them.
A simple example: Maternity leave in Singapore is 12 or 16 weeks. That means you have just three or four months to return to work and basically pretend your three- to four-month old baby doesn’t exist while you’re there. Or you can give up your career and become a SAHM. It’s a tough decision to make. And it's not fair. We can do better, humans.
Lesson #5: Dads belong at home too
A stay-at-home dad is seen as a sad thing in worn out shorts and a wifebeater. But nothing is farther from the truth.
First off, kids need their dad. Recently, research has begun to show that children benefit from a father who plays an active role in raising them. "Engaged fathers" have a positive impact on the development of — surprise! —infants and toddlers. And they play a uniquely significant role with their teenage daughters, preventing "early and unrestricted sexual behaviour."
It's not just about the kids either. When you’re a SAHD, your wife is free to be a more fully-realized person. My wife likes to work. There was never a question of whether I would “let her” work. She was always going to. That’s the woman I married. She's a mother, yes, but she is also so much more. I like to think I contributed to some of that by being a SAHD.
Macho men like to be in charge. What, I ask you, is more macho than being in charge of your children's well-being? Or being the champion of your wife's aspirations? It's okay, I'll wait for your answer.
When you’re a SAHD, you will be a more fully-realized person too. It’s not easy, or glamorous, not even remotely cool. But I live for it. I didn’t have children just to have them raised by nannies. I wanted the whole experience. And you know what? Yes, work and human endeavour are important. But fatherhood is the best part of life. Let's not pretend otherwise.
The times are changing
These days, more fathers are taking an active role in raising their kids, and it warms my heart.This generation's fathers are far more hands-on and engaged than previous generations. And who knows? Maybe male privilege at home is coming to an end.
Of course, bills have to be paid, and bacon has to be brought home. The house has to be cleaned and the kids have to be watered and fed. But why do we delineate these roles according to sex? Thankfully, in these modern times, couples have many ways to find solutions to answering all of their family's needs — for starters, try telecommuting, having multiple revenue streams, or entrepreneurship.
At the end of the day, if you find yourself with the option of being a stay-at-home dad or a work-from-home dad, you should consider yourself lucky.
I trace the beginning of my life as a SAHD to when my first son was a day old. He was struggling to maintain his temperature and needed kangaroo care (skin-to-skin contact). My wife was out of it at the time and couldn’t. (Years later, we figured out she was going through postpartum depression.) So instead of forcing her to do it, or asking someone else to do it, I tore off my shirt and held my son to my ripped chest and chiseled abs.
We sat there for I don’t know how long, just touching. He slept, as newborns do. I listened to his breathing as my own chest rose and fell.
“Papa's here,” I told him. And I’ve been here ever since.
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