Recently I had the somewhat awkward experience of attending my first parent conference. Even though as a teacher, I have participated in seemingly hundreds of these, it was my first time being on the other side of the table. So, as I went with my husband to sit with my 3-year-old’s pre-school teachers, I admit being rather nervous. My son has been lucky enough to stay at home with his dad for the past 3 years, and other than his grandparents, has never even had a babysitter, so I was a bit unnerved to see what an “outsider” would have to say about him. After the usual litany of his strengths (“very active and coordinated”) and areas for improvement (“needs to share” and to “not be so rough”) I got the clincher. “Your son,” his teacher said, “is very caring towards the other children.” It made my heart melt, and honestly, I think I owe most of my son’s caring nature to the fact that since he was 3 months old he has lived with a man taking care of him most of the time.
Part of the difficulty in writing about stay-at-home dads from a Mom point of view is that I fear I will deal too much in stereotypes. Still, while I can only speak about my own family objectively, I can speak from that experience and how it has affected my son’s life and the life of our family.
I grew up raised by a hard-working single working mother who loved her job, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t work. While in this economy, more and more fathers are staying home with their young children not out of desire but out of necessity, for our family, this decision was made while I was still pregnant. Not only did I have a stable job as a teacher, but I also had excellent health benefits. And truth be told, my husband is definitely more of the nurturer. Even before our son was born he did the lion’s share of the cooking, he tended the garden, and he made sure my work shirts were ironed. So after three brief months being at home with my infant, my husband took over.
Returning to work after three months home with my newborn was a transition in many ways, but many of them were surprising. There is no latest pink-patterned edition of What to Expect when you Return to Work and Your Husband is Home with Your Newborn waiting to be bought at the Barnes & Noble. I have always, in my self-deprecating way, admitted to being a control freak, but handing over the parental reins was more painful than childbirth. It comes out of every mother’s deep-dark secret: we are mothers, and so we know everything.
Once my husband began spending more time with my constantly changing and developing son, I came face-to-face with the brutal reality I was no longer the expert on my son’s development, preferences and daily routine, but that I was a bona fide novice. Relinquishing that control, the sense that mother always knows best, was quite upsetting, and frustrating, and ultimately, humbling. Actually, truth be told, I was pissed off! Hey, I remember thinking when once my husband corrected me about some food-related issue, I am his mother, I do know a thing or two about what’s best for him, I did give birth to him after all! With time, however, I realized that I wasn’t being fair; I was trying to do it all, be the breadwinner and be the expert on my kid. When I accepted that I didn’t have to be that expert, it was truly humbling and freeing, because of course my husband really did know more about my son than me, and even though my kisses are preferred for bruised knees, and no one reads a bedtime story like Mommy, I am still a rung below my husband in knowledge of my son’s day – what he prefers to eat, what his favorite toy-du-jour is, or even what new milestone he has achieved.
While I was dealing with this maternal paradigm shift, I also had to contend with the reactions of others to my situation. One of the most amusing things to me about being an “at-work” mom married to a “stay-at-home” dad was the reactions of other people, particularly women, of all ages and perspectives. “Oh boy,” they would typically say, “how is he dealing with that?” My response was always the same: “He is dealing with it the same as I did the past three months.” We were both new parents, and neither my husband nor I were experts in parenting. We were learning through instinct, trial and error, well-thumbed parenting books, and lots of Internet browsing. Another odd reaction from well-meaning types was: “You must be so upset that it is not you at home!” That remark was probably the most insidious, as it implied that if indeed I wasn’t upset, I would give Joan Crawford a run for “Worst Mother of the Year.” As my husband so aptly stated, he never would have received that reaction after telling someone his wife stayed home. The friends, family and strangers who made those comments never seemed to understand that my husband had made the decision on purpose and was actually feeling pretty good about it.
Ultimately, our lives are pretty normal. In my house, like in most, Daddy and Mommy do different things: with my son, I read books, bake cookies, make crafts, soothe boo-boos, and snuggle at night. Daddy does, well, everything else with him: they cook together, do laundry, tend the garden, hike through the park, build forts, play hockey, and juggle a soccer ball. Whether my husband stayed home with him or not, I think my son would still have a naturally boisterous and physical personality. The difference manifests itself most, I think, in his extraordinarily well-developed nurturing side, which, for lack of a better word, I might call ‘maternal’. He gives food and water to our cats. He takes care of the plants and kisses them when the flowers wilt. He makes sure his favorite stuffed animal, a raggedy rabbit, gets enough rest and is never hurt.
My son’s relationship with the rabbit, a once-white gift from a family friend, is a perfect manifestation of this compassionate side. The rabbit, “Anna,” is his baby, and he makes sure we all know he is Anna’s Daddy. Anna has been fed, diapered, bathed, put in time out, given medicine to, been to preschool, had her temperature taken, and experienced (or suffered through) virtually every experience that my son has. He takes care of her just as he is taken care of by his father.
Each time I see my son as the confident, crazy, clumsy and caring 3 year old he is, I am even more certain that my husband and I made the right choice for our family. And I treasure the look in my son’s eyes when I come in the door from work every night. My husband and I have given him a strong sense of what a family is: a bunch of people working together to somehow, well, make it all work. Most importantly, my husband is demonstrating everyday a definition of what it means to be a man in the world, a concept that seems to becoming more and more misunderstood. My son is learning that Daddies cook and clean, and build and fix things, and get dirty and plant vegetables, and that, most importantly, that they care.
I come from the “Free to Be You and Me” generation borne out of the 1970s when gender roles were being turned inside out, and the story of “William’s Doll” from that film still resonates with me. After being teased about and discouraged from wanting a doll to take care of, William’s grandma says to her son, William’s father: “William wants a doll so when he has a baby someday he'll know how to dress it…and care for his baby as every good father should learn to do [because] someday he is gonna be a father, too.”
I am confident that if my son is blessed to be a father someday, no matter what his family looks like, he has more than his share of tools to do it right. But if not, I am sure “Grandpa” will definitely have a few pointers.
-- Michelle Fossum