Braving Odd Looks, Isolation, and of course, Poopy Diapers
By Kevin M. Mitchell
The two burly guys shifted the large bags of cement mix on their shoulders and gazed at me. Hard to blame them really, as I had just called out to them in a loud, boisterous tone:
“Who’s my cutie patootie? You’re my cutie patootie!”
When I realized I had accidentally acquired their attention, I awkwardly gestured to my one-year-old son, Owen, whom I was wearing in a baby bjorn on our mid-day walk. Gaping grins broke out when they realized that the aforementioned cutie patootie reference was in fact aimed at the little guy and not them, thus deferring possible action from spanning from, say, being asked out to being beat up.
While both of those actions have advantages and disadvantages, I didn’t have time for either: See, I’m a Stay At Home Dad (SAHD). They continued their work, likely discussing how much mix they would need to do the job while I wondered to myself whether Owen will get strained peas or strained carrots for lunch.
Meanwhile, Jim is on all fours making monster sounds. Craig, after walking one of his daughters to school, is baking bread. Patrick is at the playground with his Lulu. Sam has just put Maura down for her afternoon nap and is thinking about what to make for dinner. Rick is being asked by his Alex to have a cookie. “Would you like a granola bar instead?” he playfully tries. Alex shakes his head. “Okay. Just checking.”
We’re also part of a growing number of men who take the non-traditional male role of primary caregiver. Unheard of a generation ago, today we boast two websites, a national convention held every year since 1997, and a growing presence.
We never planned on doing it. Financial sacrifices were made (as with any couple who choose to have one parent stay at home). We all have partners who love their jobs. The other common denominator is a shared feeling of isolation, more than with women who stay at home with kids. And most have plenty of awkward moments to share….
“With other moms at the park, it’s all ‘Awww—a mother with her baby!’” Craig Hawksley tells. “But if a man shows up, it’s ‘Bum! Can’t hold a job,’ or it’s ‘He must divorced because he’s a bad husband.’ [Guys] get no credit for this.”
I completely agreed with Craig—and confessed that when I do see another guy at the park with his kid, I assume he can’t hold a job or must be divorced because he’s a bad husband.
“I do too!” Craig says with a laugh, smacking the table. “But it’s because I know my story, but wonder what his is.”
“I Just Have to Work Harder at This”
Alex, 8, and Eric, 3, have always had their dad, Rick Mitchell [no relation], around all day. Their mom, Sue, works for Anheuser-Busch as an Information Technologist. Their Dad has a self-serve carwash, which he tends to at night after they’ve gone to bed.
“We’re lucky she has such a good job, and I’m lucky to have my business,” Rick says. He says for a long time Sue was very happy that he wanted to stay at home, but after a while, she wanted to do it, too. Recently, she was able to go to half time, allowing both of them to spend even more time with their boys. Sacrifices include no cable TV, and very little going out for dinner or movies.
“We get all our clothes at garage sales,” he brags. “We’re very frugal.”
When he first started being a SAHD, he would cart around a huge duffle bag filled with more diapers and clothes than a baby would use in a week–even a heater to warm up the frozen breast milk.
“I felt I couldn’t make a mistake [because I was a man].”
Rick says he never had any qualms about being the only guy at mom’s groups, and he felt accepted there as he does when he trades tips regarding diaper rash with moms at the park. “It’s funny at the grocery store, though,” he sighs. “Other women are like, ‘Oh, you need help?’ and ‘Oh, you have a young baby, dad must be babysitting today!’ It’s not babysitting if it’s your own child.”
Are men better, equal, or worse as care providers than women?
“Oh, no, I think it’s up to the individual,” he says shaking his head firmly as Eric crawls up on his lap. “I’m a better care provider than a lot of women. I also don’t think men make better businesspeople than women, either.
“I just have to work harder at this.”
“I Just Rely on Instincts”
Patrick Hawley grew up in a household where his mother quit her job when she had a baby. He expected to be part of a similar equation. He just didn’t expect to be the one who did the quitting.
His wife, Marcy, is art director of Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion Magazine and loves her job. Patrick was a network administrator for a small computer company. When they had Tallulah (whom they call Lulu) in September of 2002, Patrick ended up quitting to be home with his daughter.
“Going to full-time parenting is a shock to your system,” he says. Now he rises as early as 4 a.m., feeds Lulu and plays with her, hits the playground, and usually meets Mom at her work for lunch. “It’s tough on the mom to have to be at work and away from the baby. But it would be equally tough on dads [who go off to work] if they let themselves realize it.”
Does he miss work?
“I saw something on TV the other night,” he offers. “It was a simple scene: there was a guy at work, and another guy walks up bringing him coffee. My God! That looked nice. That’s what I miss—camaraderie.” Like many of us, caring for his child, plus finding quality time with his wife, keeps him away from having much male companionship.
“And there’s been the obvious comedic moments,” he says, smiling. “I’m sitting around playgroup when the topic of breastfeeding comes up and how great it is to not get your period. I don’t have much to add to those topics….”
“These Mothering Instincts—I Have Them”
Hawksley, an SAHD before the term was even in circulation, was influenced by his work at St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, where he worked after receiving his degree in social work. “That affected me–working with kids that were neglected, kids that were just dumped off. We agreed before we got married that we’d never do that.”
After a short stint at St. Joseph’s, Craig became a comedian. In the 1980s he hit the comedy circuit, but then in 1987, when he had the first of three girls, he gave up the road.
“I knew my wife didn’t want to be an old-fashioned woman who never worked when we got married. And we worked it out.” His wife, Terri Williams, went on to be mayor of Webster Groves and currently serves as Citizen’s Advocate for the county. Their three girls, Ally, 16, Caity, 14, and Emma, 12, are shuffled about by Craig during the day.
His wife’s work occasionally takes her out of town, sometimes for a week at a time. “I’d give the three girls baths, everything,” he says. “I don’t think you know your kids until you spend time with them like that.”
He cooks all the meals, does all the grocery shopping, but he says it’s not a total role reversal. “I’m just the day guy.” And while many guys brag about, say, the big account they’ve landed….
“I changed diapers every day of my life for nine years, and I was an ace!”
As the girls grew up, he’d put their hair up to go to a party, which on that account he does admit his talents were wanting.
So doesn’t all this… make him feel funny?
“No, never,” he says. “These mothering instincts—I have them.”
“It Affects You in a Profound Way”
When Dr. Kristine Doyle accepted a position at Barnes-Jewish, she and her husband, Sam Fletcher, were in the Washington D.C. area. He was a financial analyst with an MBA and a good job when they moved here. So in a new city with no family and one acquaintance, well, Sam found SAHDness thrust upon him, as they had just given birth to Maura.
He explains that in the beginning he was hell-bent on finding at least part-time work, but Kristine knew very well that Maura was a full-time gig, especially since as an intern she’s at work at 6 a.m. and doesn’t get home until 7 p.m., plus has to do class work.
“It’s a switch,” he understates. But it’s a switch he likes.
“Maura just started smiling, and rolling around, and I’m excited about her sitting up soon,” he says. “It affects you in a profound way.”
Now the downside: as a professional who was just a while ago on the fast track, he notices that society treats guys like him differently. “You’re defined by what you do for a living,” he says. “It’s like, ‘So what do you do for a living? Oh, nothing?’ I do this. I just don’t get paid for it. People assume that you’re too stupid or can’t find a job.”
Living in the Holly Hills area of the city, Sam says he’s experienced no odd looks. (It’s interesting–it seems that the closer you get to the eastern part of the suburbs, like Webster, and into the city, the men are less likely to feel ostracized; but several interviewed not included in this story said that the farther they went to parks or stores in west and the south county, the more uncomfortable they felt. “You’re at the park and try to say something to a mom, and they look at you like you’re a creep,” one told me.)
Sam has always done the cooking, takes care of the late-night feedings, and is by far the primary caregiver. “There are days I don’t even get a shower.”
“Mike Brady Always Went to Work”
Jim is in potty-training mode right now, and here’s his take on it:
“The idea of changing underpants that are wet is just not fun.”
Hard to argue with that.
In the span of 35 months, Jim and Terisa Remelius had four children: Twins Andrew and Sarah, Kate, and Ben. Terisa finished up her Ph.D. and is now a professor at St. Louis University, working in the Judicial Affairs office and teaching graduate classes. So since February of 2001, when Jim lost his job at a financial institution, he has taken charge of the kids.
Today, with two six-year-olds, a five year-old, and a three-year-old, he’s the SAHD’s SAHD.
Their schedule is daunting. Terisa gets the twins on the bus to school before she goes to work (and on some days, it’ll be 9 p.m. until she gets home). Two days a week Jim gets Kate and Ben off to preschool, and then shops and does other chores, although “not as much as I should.”
He then feeds the two younger ones lunch and they play until the twins come home, then more play. “I like doing the silly stuff, chasing them down the hall, pretending to be a monster,” he laughs. “And now the twins are learning to read, so we play a lot of hangman.”
Jim and Terisa share cooking duties, although his cuisine repertoire, like mine, suspiciously resembles the unimaginative but kid-friendly bachelor fare: hot dogs, chicken patties, frozen pizza.…
He says a lot of times when other couples learn that he stays at home, the dads exclaim, “Gosh, you’re lucky.” I ask Jim if he thinks they actually mean it, and he shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says.
He also gets from other guys, “I can’t imagine staying home all day with kids.” But unlike his wife, who is passionate about her work, he’s yet to find a job he loves.
Did he ever imagine being an SAHD?
“Definitely not,” he says. “Growing up, there were no men that stayed home. Mike Brady always went to work.”
The Data (or Lack Thereof)
Jennifer Bannister, who has been with Parents As Teachers Program (PAT), an international, early childhood–parent education program founded in Missouri 20 years ago, was assigned to me and Owen. She visits us four times a year, educates me on what Owen should be doing development-wise, and answers any questions I might have.
Bannister is one of 14 Parent Educators in the Webster School District. The district covers a total of nearly 1,000 families. When she started four years ago, there was one SAHD in the program. Today there are at least six. That’s anecdotal at best, so let’s look at those national numbers….
“For actual SAHD numbers, there are no numbers, and the U.S. Census is no help, and there’s no good way to figure it out,” says a frustrated Brian Reed, a Washington D.C.–area freelance writer, SAHD, and creator of the website rebeldad.com. When he’s not watching his two-year-old daughter or, like me, squeezing in freelance assignments, he’s running his website, keeping track of articles and progress on the movement, and lamenting the lack of hard data.
“The census says there are 100,000 of us, and that’s ridiculously low,” Reed says. He explains that the census definition is extremely restrictive: if you’re a dad at home and you’ve made so much as a dollar in the last year, then you’re not counted. In a survey, 2 million working women said their husbands were caring for their children, and that’s the number most feel is an accurate gauge.
Reed points out other statistics: For example, 30% of women make more money than their husbands, with 10% out-earning them significantly. In another survey, four out of 10 men said that if they could stay home with their kids, they would. (I’m a little suspicious of that high number—ask your typical Dilbert in a cube if he’d rather be not “working” as opposed to seriously considering the tedium, isolation, and the loss of identity that happens to men who make this choice, and they’d be like “sure, get me outta here!”)
But the numbers are increasing. Even with the strict definition of the census numbers, from 1990 to 2000 there was an increase of 18%.
Mike Paranzino, also of the Washington D.C. area, prefers the term “Full Time Father,” and the former political consultant to Elizabeth Dole dropped out of his fast-track career to stay at home with his son. He runs the website fulltimefather.com.
“I want to focus on a couple of areas,” he says of his second career, that of Full Time Father activist. “[People] assume that if women go into the workforce, then the kids have to be in daycare—it’s not even considered that men can do that. That gets my goat. And I also don’t like the notion that the lower income parent has to leave the workforce—that’s code for “woman” usually. That’s too narrow a way to look at it.
“At some point your TV is big enough and your car is enough—I don’t have a plasma TV, I admit. I don’t even know what that is!”
Paranzino, who was used to walking the halls of Congress and whose former boss was Ari Fleisher, admits he certainly had trouble watching Fleisher on “worldwide TV while I was in a world of changing diapers and reading Dr. Seuss.” But he feels, as I do now, that this society pays a lot of lip service to the importance of spending time with children, but preconceived notions of gender makes families look at only the “Mom stays at home or kids go to daycare” choices.
Something to Lie About
Paranzino also shared an anecdote that hit a little too close to home for me—he admits that on occasion when he is trying to squeeze in work on the phone, and his daughter squawks in the background, he’s lied to whomever he’s on the phone with: “Yeah, I’m watching the kid today.” Intellectually, I know I should be proud, but there’s that sense of… well, “shame” is too strong, but it’s not like other guys immediately slap you on the back and give you a hearty “good for you!” when you’re asked what do you do for a living.
We’re at playgroup now, and there are two other dads there—but only because our playgroup happens to start late, 5:15 on Thursday afternoons, so sometimes dads come home a little early from work to join in.
One sits in a chair, fiddling with his tie, discussing in great detail the challenges he had drywalling the basement with the other one. I’m on the floor in a sweatshirt with a puréed green beans stain on it. I could talk to those guys. I probably should. But instead, I scoot over to some of the mothers who are conversing about the eating habits of their toddlers.
“Your Rebecca eats raw carrot sticks?” I marvel. “How did you pull that off?”