In case you haven’t been following my blog (and based on my pathetically low number of followers, you probably haven’t), I quit my job about eight months ago to become a stay-at-home dad. This was a very tough decision, but it has been one of the best choices I could have made for both me and my family. While I’ve had a ton of support and encouragement from family and friends, I frequently encounter people who — for various reasons — seem to think that I’m not living up to my responsibilities as a red-blooded American man.

This most recently occurred during a field trip I attended at the zoo with my eleven year old son. Parents were not allowed to ride on the school buses, which were characteristically running late. As a result, a large group of parents were milling around the zoo entrance impatiently waiting for their children to arrive. I passed some time making small talk with a few moms, who made up the majority of the crowd, then saw an older man walking my way. He wore an expression that clearly said he was very relieved to see another dad. 

This gentleman, let’s pretend I don’t recall his name, introduced himself with a firm handshake. He quickly informed me that he was a retired truck driver. “I could drive any kind of truck, anywhere you needed me to go,” he boasted. “I spent a lot of time away from my family, and now I get to do this type of stuff,” he continued. I couldn’t tell if he was happy or annoyed to be there — maybe he was somewhat indifferent — but he made it sound like “this type of stuff” was his sentence for all the family time he missed before retirement.

“What about you?” he inquired. “Did you have to take off work to be here?”

“No I’m a stay-at-home dad,” I said. I could tell where this was headed.

The older man let out an uncomfortable snort of laughter, “Well, hey, that’s nothing to be ashamed of (as if I must obviously be very ashamed and embarrassed about my unfortunate situation). Whatcha makin’ for dinner (more laughing).”

My first impulse was to give this mother-trucker a flying roundhouse kick to the trachea. However, I quickly reminded myself that I no longer worry or care about what others think of me. I decided to take the high road.

“I know, I’m not ashamed, and am actually very proud of it,” I calmly replied. “And roasted chicken.”

I followed this with my quick spiel about how I left the construction industry after nearly twenty years so that I could spend much more time with my son and daughter. His eyes lit up. I had a glimmer of hope that I was getting through to him.

“Oh yeah? What kind of construction were you in?”

Ugh. Some people just don’t get it — and many never will. I’ve learned to accept the fact. If I was a woman, he probably would have been very happy for me. Keep in mind though that if anyone thinks a man shouldn’t be a stay-at-home parent, but a woman should, it’s not only an insult to the man, but is a bigger slap in the face to women.

There is a growing number of dads who are making the choice to stay home with their kids. I don’t understand why our society doesn’t embrace this. It means that men are putting their families first. It also means that women are perfectly capable of being the primary bread-winner. Most importantly, it means kids are spending more time with their dads.

Being a stay-at-home dad isn’t for everyone, and I’m certainly not saying there is anything wrong with being a working parent. I was one for years, and I know many people who do a fantastic job of it (starting with my wife). Fortunately, I had an opportunity and I jumped on it. I can rebuild my career and make more money when my kids are older, but I will never have another chance to relive this time in my kids’ lives. We make some sacrifices, but we are happier than ever.

If you are a stay-at-home dad, good for you. Be proud of yourself. Your kids probably don’t realize it today, but you are making a significant difference in their lives now, and are also affecting how they will function as adults. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel ashamed or embarrassed — or like any less of a man than they are.

On the other hand, if you think what I’m doing is crazy, that’s okay too. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we are trying to make a positive impact on our families, and are not worried about impressing you. I simply ask that we are shown the same respect that you would want anyone to show you. Please remember that the world needs all kinds of people, including truck drivers and stay-at-home dads.

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There was a time when I didn’t think I’d have a second child.  My wife and I had our first child, Jack, less than two years after we were married.  We of course were thrilled, and because we wanted at least two kids who were close in age, we started trying again just a few months after Jack was born.  But, as is often the case in life, things didn’t go as we planned.  Six and a half years and a couple (at least) of miscarriages later, I had resigned myself to the fact that Jack would be an only child.  We were fortunate to have him, and to be honest, I didn’t know if I wanted another child any longer.  I was in the latter half of my 30’s and my wife was on the doorstep of 40.  I didn’t want to put her at risk of a dangerous pregnancy or another devastating letdown.  When we were told about a specialist who might be able to help, we agreed that we would give it one last try.  I’m so glad we did.  In 2010 my wife gave birth to a healthy baby girl we named Ainsley.  She completed our family, and made us who we are today.  I can’t imagine our family — or life in general — without her.  She is beautiful, smart, funny and kind.  She has made me a better person.  What more could a dad ask for?

Six months ago I had a midlife opportunity (it may possibly have seemed to others to be a crisis) and quit my job of almost 20 years to become a stay at home dad.  Taking on major change and/or major risk is not part of my M.O., but, with great support and encouragement from my wife, I took a leap.  The first three months of my “retirement,” for lack of a better word, were spent with Ainsley.  Each morning my wife went to work and Jack went to school, and the two of us were left to have amazing adventures.  We did something every day — hikes, parks, libraries, tennis, picnics, movies, and more.  We read books, told stories, sang songs, and laughed.  A lot.  More than anything, we had great talks.  If there are any parents who think you can’t have good conversations with your five year old, I would challenge you to try harder.  We truly became best buds.  I’m not sure who enjoyed our time more.

Before we knew it school let out for the summer, and Jack joined us.  The three of us continued to have great fun, but he’s much older and isn’t always interested in doing some of the things we enjoyed in the beginning.  He’s at the age where he would rather hang out with his friends.  I get it and certainly don’t blame him.  What I was too naive to appreciate or understand while we were trying to have Ainsley is that it gave me a long period of time to spend solely with Jack.  I’m very thankful for that now.

When I left my career, I was on a quest to find happiness.  I feel truly fortunate to say that I’m finding it.  Happiness doesn’t mean every day is wonderful, instead it’s about learning to enjoy the moments that matter; to relish and remember them.  After all, it’s individual moments that make up our forevers.  If we slow down and pay attention, we will find that these moments are not few and far between, but are actually all around us, just waiting to be experienced.  Those more enlightened than me refer to this as being mindful.  I have found that being mindful is quite easy, as long as I remember to remind myself…

When Ainsley was a baby and would cry in the night, I would usually offer to take her so my wife could sleep.  I would go downstairs to our couch and lay her on my chest, where she would almost always settle down very quickly.  I would listen to and feel her deep, calming breaths as we both fell asleep.  I offered to help not only for my wife, but also for me.  It felt so good to hold her.  At that moment nothing else mattered.  This is how I have felt the last few months — nothing else mattered.  Nothing else could compare.

Tomorrow Ainsley starts kindergarten.  She’s so excited and so ready but, selfishly, I’m not totally prepared to let her go.  Everybody talks about time moving so fast, and man, it really does.  I would love to be woken up tonight — just tonight — to find a crying baby needing to be nestled on my chest.  Instead, she will excitedly wake me in the morning.  My wife and I will walk her to school for the first time, new backpack and lunchbox in tow.  I will remember to pay close attention to her expressions and actions until the first bell rings, and we have to leave her so she can start her own new adventure.  I don’t mean to be overly sappy, as I realize she is only starting kindergarten, but it is another step in what is a long staircase of simultaneously exciting and depressing (at least to me) events in our children’s lives.  I admit there is a part of me that doesn’t want my kids to grow up.

I am eternally grateful for the experience I’ve had over the past six months, and look forward to so many more great times to come with both of my children.  The future will never be quite like the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be equally good — or maybe even better.  Although she’s very young, I think Ainsley will retain at least a few faint, fond memories of our recent time together.  I know I will never forget.

  

Imagine That

May 7, 2015

  
“The world is but a canvas to the imagination.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Land ahoy, me hearties,” cried my daughter, Ainsley, from the helm.  “Let’s go get the treasure!”  The helm was actually a steering wheel attached to the jungle gym at our neighborhood playground, but to Ainsley it was real.  More “real” than anything she could watch on TV.  “Sit down behind me,” she instructed, then she took us on a voyage.

It had been a slow morning, and I was trying to think of something fun to do.  As a stay-at-home dad,  I like to get out of the house everyday, but we were both feeling a little lazy.  I threw out a couple of ideas, “We could go for a hike or play tennis?  How about the library?”

“Let’s just walk down to the park,” Ainsley suggested.

I have to admit that going to the park, while very easy (and free), isn’t my favorite activity.  Ainsley loves it, but I worry that it isn’t enough.  By “enough” I mean, what is she getting out of it, other than some outdoor time and exercise?  These are obviously important, but I also want her to be doing something productive.  When we hike, we talk about nature.  When we play tennis, she is getting better at a sport.  The library obviously has a lot of productive possibilities.

“Okay, the park it is,” I conceded.  “Tomorrow we are going back to the library, though.”

Our neighborhood park is about a half mile walk.  Once we arrive, I usually play with Ainsley for a bit, then let her run around on her own while I sit and watch.  This gives me a little time to make a grocery list, catch up on emails, or just relax and try not to remember the laundry waiting for me at home.  Sometimes there are other kids there, which is great.  It was just the two of us on this day, however, and I decided I would actively play with her the entire time.  This is when we had our voyage.  It was a short trip (it wasn’t long before the allure of the monkey bars became overwhelming), but it was long enough that it made me think about what it means to be “productive.”  It occurred to me that using her imagination like that, even for ten minutes, is equally as important as reading books, exercising, or a number of other so-called productive activities.

Do our kids today use their imagination as much as children of past generations?  I don’t have the answer, but you have to wonder.  Many kids now grow up with 1000 TV channels, the internet, and video games.  Electronic tablets are as common as books.  School districts (including my family’s, which is considered to be one of the more financially sound districts in our city) are cutting art and music budgets.  I have read about some districts in the U.S. that are completely eliminating art and music programs.

It sure seems like less and less is left to the imagination?  This is a shame, and the trend needs to be reversed. 

Hey all you grown-ups out there; using your imagination is fun.  Can you remember?  Sharing your imagination with your children is even better.  Pablo Picasso said, “It takes a very long time to become young.”  Think about that for a second.  Today Ainsley and I are going back to the park.  I’m going to fly a rocket ship.

  
When I sat down to write this blog, I had a mental list of ten things that stay-at-home dads could/should consider doing to make the most of their lives.  Once I started actually writing, however, ten things became a little daunting (especially considering all the laundry that I need to do), and I decided to cut the number to seven (seven will obviously never be as good as ten, but I have always found it to be considerably better than five).  So, here are seven ideas that stay-at-home dads might want to consider (not necessarily in any particular order).

1.  Become an advocate for stay-at-home dads:  I’m well aware that some of my friends and family members don’t understand what I’m doing.  When I tell someone I quit my job and have become a stay-at-home dad, they often smile nervously and avert their eyes, as if I have some unsightly skin condition.  I swear I can hear the voice inside their head saying, “Oh boy, this just got awkward,” or “this poor guy…”  My wife has been asked if I’m depressed.  People will sometimes inquire, “So, how’s the job search going,” as if I must surely be looking for something else to do.  Occasionally someone will channel Dr. Phil, look me in the eyes, and sincerely ask, “Are you doin’ okay?”  I have discovered that, although still greatly outnumbered by moms, the number of dads at home is on the rise.  There are many of us out there who are doing this by choice, and love what we are doing.  This isn’t just fill-in work until we get a “real” job.  It is a real job – a very important and very challenging one.  Let’s help make people aware that there is “everything right” (much better than “nothing wrong”) with it.

2.  Grow a beard:  Beards are in style.  More importantly, they can make a statement about you, which will possibly help clue some people in.  (“Oh no, he’s never going to find a job with that thing on his face.  Maybe he really isn’t looking for one?  Maybe he isn’t lying when he says he’s happy?”)  Once again, I’m not currently looking for work, and I am very happy.  My life is very full.  My beard, however, could be fuller.

3.  Take up a hobby:  Finding a hobby that you and your child both enjoy is a great way to learn something new and bond at the same time.  Plus, kids are hopefully going to be more encouraged if they see their dad struggling with the same things they are.  My daughter and I are taking piano lessons and playing tennis.  She enjoys laughing at my inadequacies in both.

4.  Promote a healthy lifestyle:  Being a stay-at-home dad, two of your job duties can be providing healthy food and exercising with your kids.  Eating healthy is not always convenient.  Sometimes hitting the drive-through seems like the way to go, but planning your meals for the week ahead of time (for example, on Sundays write down what you will have for dinner each day that week) is a great way to save money, be better organized, and eat smarter.  When shopping for the week, buy fruits and vegetables instead of junk to snack on.  Your kids will complain, but if healthy options are their only choice, they will eventually accept them.  Exercising with your kids is not only important for their health, but is obviously good for you, too.  Not to mention any time spent exercising (which can be simply actively “playing”) is time your kids are not spending in front of a television.  It is proven that healthy, active kids are more likely to excel in school, and also grow up to be healthier adults.  (FYI – I’m not nearly as “with it” as this paragraph might make me seem.  My kids are eating Oreos as I write this.  But I’m trying…)

5.  Thank your wife:  If you are a stay-at-home dad, there’s a good chance that your wife is the primary breadwinner in the family.  This is nothing to be ashamed of, guys.  On the contrary, I think it’s something to be proud of.  Your wife’s career is allowing you to stay home with the kids, which is great.  Thank her for all she does to make this possible.  Also, consider that, like you, she has been working all day, so when she comes home it isn’t necessarily her turn to take care of the kids.  Welcome her with a nice craft beer or glass of wine.  Let her relax for a bit.  Ask her about her day.  Then hope like hell that she offers to entertain the kids for a while.

6.  Be a good parent first:  Over the last month, my kid and I have become great buddies.  I’m very happy about this, but I have to remember that I am a parent first and a friend second.  Proper discipline is part of being a good parent.  We are responsible for instilling our values and expectations in our children.  Remember that when your young kids say they hate you, you are probably doing something right.

7.  Love your children and cherish this time with them:  Everyone says that your kids will be grown and gone before you know it.  Maybe you have older kids, and have already experienced how quickly the years go by?  If you are a stay-at-home dad, be thankful for the opportunity and make the most of the time you have been given.  If you are a working dad, take advantage of any extra time you have.  Barbara Johnson wrote, “To be in your children’s memories tomorrow, you have to be in their lives today.”  And that, dads, is nothing to joke about.

  
Dear Parents,

Our young kids have a favor to ask us.  They want us to read books to them.  They may not have actually asked you, but they want you to do it, whether they realize it or not.  Those of you who already do this on a regular basis may quit reading now.  The rest of you, please take a moment and continue.

I’m not writing this to rant or preach.  I understand how hard it can be to read to your child(ren).  When my eleven year old son (and only child at the time) was young, I was great about reading him stories every single night.  He loved it, although I may have actually enjoyed it more than he did.  I was proud of myself.  “I’m pretty damn good at this,” I recall thinking.  Sucker.  Yep, with only one young child, life is pretty easy.  Finding the time to read to them is no problem.

However, when you have multiple kids, and the older ones start school and begin to have after school or evening activities, the game totally changes.  Many nights you will find that you had to go straight from work to the little league game, and you didn’t eat dinner (which was fast food, by the way, and now you feel like crap) until after 8:00, and you have more than one bath to give, and the clothes in the washer didn’t get put in the dryer, and lunches still need to be made for school tomorrow, and you need to pay some bills, and you have an early meeting the next morning, and your oldest kid just remembered he needs help with homework (this probably includes needing to go buy materials for some science project due the next day), and dammit you are tired and just want to chill out for a minute…!  I know, it’s so much easier to just put the kids to bed (oh, and let them watch something on their iPad as they fall asleep), but it’s not the best thing to do.  I also know we can’t always be our best, but we can always aim to be better, right?  Can we be better for ten more minutes each day?

My daughter just started kindergarten, yet has already been cheated out of literally hundreds of bedtime stories because my wife and I are busier (and admittedly lazier) than we were when her brother was her age.  As a result, whenever I have tried to read to her over the past year or so, my daughter’s typical response is, “Hmm, let’s just watch a show on TV.”  I hate this!  My son couldn’t wait for me to read him stories, but my daughter would much rather watch a Wizards of Waverly Place rerun (actually, she would prefer to watch Parks and Rec or The Office — a result of more poor parenting…).  Unfortunately, I usually give in to her request for television, despite knowing that it is a disservice to both of us.

There are numerous studies that show the many benefits associated with reading to your kids. Here are just a few:

  • Language development, including pronunciation, speech patterns and intonation
  • Increased visual and auditory sensation
  • Better memorization skills
  • Letter and word recognition
  • Increased future desire and capacity for learning
  • Better grades and higher rates of college graduation
  • Development of a lifelong love of reading

These benefits speak for themselves, but they are not my purpose for writing.  When you read to your child, you are giving your full attention to them.  Ask yourself how often you honestly do that?  This is real bonding.  You can cuddle up, laugh and be silly, and even cry.  A good book can take you and your kid on adventures that aren’t possible through television.

Since having become a stay-at-home dad, one of my priorities has been to read to my daughter daily.  It is something I insist on doing, and I’m so glad I am.  She no longer asks to watch TV instead of reading — she is now more likely to ask for two books instead of one.  Sometimes the books are great, sometimes they frankly aren’t very good.  Regardless, the time spent together is enjoyable to both of us.  This is quality time that won’t be available for long, so I’m going to take advantage of it while I can.

If you are not reading to your child, I challenge you to give up ten minutes a day, six days a week.  I’m not suggesting you tackle a novel every night, just read for ten minutes, and take a day off each week (if you think you need it).  Give it a shot.  I think you’ll be glad you did.  I know your child will thank you — if not now, someday.

Sincerely,

A Parent Like You

I recently saw an alarming article, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the headline: “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Epidemic.”  Below this headline there were a ton of words, many numbers, and also some graphs.  It looked far too mind-numbing to actually read (plus I was very tired), but I got the gist from the straight-forward headline – we need to sleep more.  I’m going to assume that the CDC went on to demand that everyone start taking naps (after washing your hands, of course), and that failing to do so is basically akin to treason.  So, I resolve to start doing my part for my country.  I will take more naps, with no remorse or guilt.

In a past blog, I wrote about how I am learning to relax – something that is a work in progress.  I have never been good at napping.  The voice in my head has always insisted on reminding me about all the other things I should be doing rather than resting, convincing me that I was being lazy and wasting time.  Since changing jobs and becoming a stay at home dad (yes it’s a job, and I’m proud to have the good fortune to do it), one of my duties is to try to get my daughter to take a short nap each afternoon.  She’s four, and can go without, but I find that evenings are a little easier if naps occur.  It also allows me time to do some housework (usually the never-ending task of laundry) without interruption.  My daughter and I typically snuggle up and read some books first, then I will lie with her until she falls asleep.

To my amazement, I’ve found that I am starting to doze off, myself.  It’s spring in the Midwest, and some days are almost hot, but there is usually a strong, refreshing breeze that comes in the open window next to the bed.  The blinds gently rattle.  Outside the window you can hear dogs barking, birds chirping, a distant lawn mower, an airplane passing overhead – a suburban symphony.  The blinds rattle again…and I’m out.

My naps are usually very short, but they are very refreshing.  I genuinely believe that being able to sleep like this is a sign of my mind slowing down, and me being more content with life.  I’m not lazy, I’m working my butt off.  But I’m also learning to relax – and loving it.  I highly recommend that you do the same.  Peanuts creator, Charles M. Schulz, wrote that we should “learn from yesterday, live for today, look to tomorrow, (and) rest this afternoon.”  What are you waiting for, take a nap today!  Remember the plea from the CDC, and take pride in the fact that with each nap, you’re fighting a national epidemic.  

Your country needs you.  Sweet dreams.

“I hope the fathers and mothers of little girls will look at them and say, ‘Yes, women can.'” – Dilma Rousseff

Hillary Clinton is running for president, and I couldn’t be happier.  Wait, don’t stop reading!  This isn’t a political endorsement, per se.  I’m glad she’s running because I have a wife, sister, mother, step-mother, mother and sister-in-laws, aunts, female cousins, nieces, and many female friends; all of whom I respect and want the best for.  More importantly, I have a five year old daughter, and I believe a female presidential candidate can help her, and all women, have a better future.  I’m hopeful that the more our society is exposed to women doing things traditionally seen as “men’s work,” the more likely we are to embrace gender equality.

Although it is still not frequent enough, I am noticing more and more discussion about gender inequality in the workplace.  This is much-needed conversation.  Depending on the source, women earn about $0.77 for every $1.00 earned by men.  Last year, the United States (a country that we Americans like to think of as the best at everything) was ranked 20th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.  If you’re wondering, no, this ranking is not good.  We are lagging behind some real powerhouse countries, including Rwanda, Nicaragua, Latvia, and yes, even Canada…  This is a national disgrace, and I personally don’t understand why it continues.  Is it male insecurity, ignorance, fear?  I’m not trying to belittle men at all (I’m usually on your side), I just sincerely want to know what a man can do better than a woman, other than fertilizing eggs and peeing standing up (not necessarily in that order)?  Sure, some guys will make an argument about men being physically stronger, but this is rarely relevant, and not even always true.  I’m not ashamed to admit that my wife can occasionally open jars that I can’t (although I do suffer from some minor arthritis…).

Pardon me, this really isn’t something to joke about.  I spent 19 years working with men and women in the construction industry — both in the field and in management positions — and see no reason why a capable man should make more money or have more opportunities than a capable woman working in the same role.  Heck, maybe women should earn more?  I’ve experienced firsthand some of the positive traits that women bring to the workplace, which men typically don’t — or won’t.  For example, a can-do attitude, a more competitive drive (perhaps both of these can be attributed to a chip being on many women’s shoulders, and who can blame them?), and, thankfully, more compassion — something many guys seem to have been taught to hide for some reason (but all secretly want).  Plus, it is proven that women have a higher pain threshold than men, which could result in fewer sick days.  What is a debilitating hemorrhoid to us fellas, may just be little more than an annoying pain in the ass to our female counterparts. 

We have many societal problems in the U.S. that need to be addressed.  However, I am a stay at home dad with a young daughter, so gender equality is very high on my list.  My wife’s earning potential is very important to our family now, and my daughter’s right to unlimited future potential — both monetarily and opportunity-wise — will never cease to be important to me.  I look at this girl and see all the promise in the world; just as much as I see in her older brother.  I want them both to be equally successful (however “success” ends ups up being defined by them), and expect that any other dad with both a son and daughter would agree.

Win or lose, I hope that Clinton’s presidential bid is at least a catalyst for narrowing the gender gap.  Unfortunately, we may be years away from ending inequality, but putting women in powerful positions under the media spotlight could go a long way towards helping make equality the norm.  In the meantime, I implore all parents, but particularly fathers, to let your daughters know they can do anything they set their minds to; certainly anything their male counterparts are capable of.  Let’s empower our young girls as early as possible so they learn to believe in themselves.  Let’s help give them the confidence to stand up to inequality — for their sake, and for the sake of our nation.

Say it with me men:  “Yes, women can.”

My daughter can do anything she sets her mind to.