The Manly Job of the Stay-at-Home Dad
A carefree musician learns to care for two small children -- and maintain his masculinity in the process.
It's not for the faint of heart, and like most epic adventures, sometimes it takes all you've got just to hang on. Such is the life of a modern man delving into the wilderness of stay-at-home fatherhood.
A few years ago when my wife, Melissa, and I discussed the possibility of my staying home with the child we were expecting, I accepted the challenge with a resounding "yes." Melissa works in marketing for a software company and I am a musician and artist; needless to say, her steady paychecks and benefits provided the security our growing family needed.
Behind all of the dangling diaper bags, children's songs, and dried-up drool is a very capable man.
Early on, I realized this was going to be a "solo hike." There were very few men I could turn to for advice. No one in my family and only one dear friend had been in my shoes. Subsequently, there weren't many road maps or blueprints for me to follow -- even very few books. Most men seemed to think I was crazy. Some assumed that I was taking the easy way out of being a traditional male breadwinner. Most guys were simply confused, expressing concerns that I would find it emasculating to stay home taking care of the children.
I did struggle with feelings of isolation at first, especially before our daughter, Everly, could speak. There were days when I would answer a phone call in the waning hours of the afternoon and be startled by the volume of my regular speaking voice -- I'd realized it hadn't been used all day for anything but silly, nonsensical sounds that would make my daughter giggle.
Meanwhile, spontaneity, a dear old friend of mine, was led out of the door by two tiny hands. In the past, my working hours had been at night, when I took the stage at clubs and coffee houses. During the daytime, I was free to explore, paint, or play music. To fuel my creativity, I took the occasional motorcycle ride through Golden Gate Park or down the Pacific Coast Highway. In the evening, I'd ride in a cab through the lights of the city, and the only thing on my mind would be whether or not to open with the new song I'd written that afternoon. Suddenly, these unstructured days gave way to carefully planned schedules, built around nap-times, feedings, doctor's visits, and fragile toddler moods that could easily dip into tantrums.
I took pride in learning my daughter's routines, the tricks that would get her to eat and sleep, her individual quirks and needs. Yet there were times in the beginning when I felt invisible. Whenever people had questions about her care and well being, they almost always were directed towards my wife. This was hard to take. Not only was I not "winning the bread," so to speak, I wasn't even being acknowledged for all of the hard work I was putting into raising my child. People were justifiably amazed that my wife could excel at her job while being a truly amazing mother. But I felt displaced, or lost in the mix, as questions about my daughter's day-to-day life were directed over my head.
My new role also provoked some peculiar reactions from strangers. At one doctor's appointment, a nurse was astonished when I told her I was a stay-at-home dad "Really? I've never met one before!" she said, staring at me as if I were an exotic animal. In some cases, I couldn't tell whether the inquisitive looks I received from check-out clerks were attributable to my tattoos and occasional thick beard or to the forgotten pink and blue plastic animal and bow-shaped clips Everly had placed in my hair earlier in the day.
Since the birth of our son, Arlo, I've been drawing even more stares -- but I've come to realize that not all of them are dubious. Some onlookers seem delighted by the sight of a man fully engaged in caring for his children. Oftentimes, an older woman will ask if I need help doing something as simple and everyday as getting the stroller out of the back of the van and loading the kids into it. One lady even asked if I needed her help holding Arlo while I was at the self check-out line in the grocery store. I couldn't help but think that if I had been a mother with a child, the invitation may not have been extended.
It might not look it to the casual outside observer, but stay-at-home dads are a tough breed. Behind all of the dangling diaper-bags, strollers, children's songs, and dried-up drool is a very capable man. A man who can transfer two snoozing children, one on each arm, from the mini-van through the heat of the day -- unlocking the door to the house and slipping them into their respective beds without waking them up. A man who, on little to no sleep, must plan for any and every situation, magnificent or mundane. A man who must learn not to panic through bouts of uncontrollable backseat tears and screams while driving in bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic. A man who truly knows the value of taking a long, deep breath.
Stay-at-home mothers feel these same stresses. But the ways men deal with them are another matter entirely. As proud and contented as I feel with my children, and as comfortable as I am with the choices my wife and I have made, there are definitely times when I find myself desperately needing to do something specific to assert my manhood. I daydream about spending weekends with a few buddies in the mountains, throwing a hatchet into a tree, or finding the time to grab a paddle and spend hours of solitude on a river in a canoe.
The non-stop nature of the job is daunting and can feel overwhelming at times. Everly and Arlo remind me time and again that toddlers do not wake up slow. As soon as their eyes open, I am on duty and I had better be ready. There is no drive to and from work during which I can prepare or clear my mind. There are no peer reviews, no thumbs up from the boss, no lunch breaks, and sometimes hardly any bathroom breaks. And there is little time to dedicate to my passions and hobbies -- I've learned to set myself to the side for a while.
Still, I find pockets of time. When I was out playing gigs late into the night, I certainly never considered the possibility that I would one day be hiding away in the farthest corner of our house, playing my guitar through headphones and singing just above a whisper so as not to wake my children at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night. I once wrote and recorded albums in a matter of months; now I'm a year and a half into recording my current album.
But I no longer have to seek out inspiration, as the kids bless me with it constantly. We spend time almost every day together in the music room, singing into microphones and beating on banjos and tambourines. Music is one of my most useful parenting tools: It can overpower my children's tears and make them wiggle and shake with wild abandon. It's also brought forth the most intimate musical moments I've ever experienced, like witnessing Everly's sleepy-faced joy as I burst through her door first thing in the morning with a guitar -- or softly humming "Amazing Grace" into Arlo's ear as he lay on the recovery table after his heart surgery.
Being a stay-at-home dad uses every skill I've ever acquired in some form or another. It has made me more capable, more centered, and more balanced. It has toughened me up and, at the same time, sweetened my spirit. It has made me less selfish and more patient. It has made me a better man.
Sometimes, it simply wears me out. The grey hairs are appearing in greater number and frequency these days, reminding me of an old proverb I stumbled across during our first pregnancy and recently worked into a song. Becoming a father, it says, "will put silver in your hair, and gold in your heart." Being a stay-at-home dad has revealed this to be an absolute truth.