I am a 40 year old male. In December of 2011 I left my job of three years and took over the role of primary caregiver in our family. It has been a wonderfully confusing and satisfying experience thus far and even on the slowest of days it is full of bizarre situations that can only arise within the company of young children.
As we all know every parenting situation is unique regardless of the sex of the parent who stays at home. What makes my position a bit uncommon is that I live in a rural town of approximately 7,000 people and our family homeschools. According to the National At-Home Dad Network (athomedad.org) the number of stay at-home fathers has nearly doubled in the last decade. There are roughly 189,000 fathers at home according to the 2012 census. A much smaller number of dads are the primary homeschooling parent and in our neck of the woods most families that homeschool are part of the religious right, which we are not. So it has become a bit of a running joke in our family that I am a minority within a minority.
Admittedly when one becomes the stay at-home parent there is a sense of freedom that exist. With that said though there are unique stresses and prejudice that seem to tie in with “reversing roles”.
Initially there seems to be a level of suspicion among relatives and friends as though the father is simply on hiatus and will be returning to the “real world” shortly. There is even an underlying current of being a lazy husband as though the female parent in the household now has one more child to take care of. Truth is, I am rather immature for my age but I am not looking to regress to my teenage years! The whole thing is viewed as an experiment of sorts that is eventually doomed for failure because somewhere along the lines in the subconscious of our society gender roles have been clearly defined and a stay at-home father fails to represent the masculine archetype we have all come to fear and love.
On some level it is a bit of an experiment I suppose. I still have not figured out the alchemical formula that my wife had in which laundry, dishes, diapers and supper were all done by 5:30 each evening. My wife has been kind enough to ignore the half folded pile of laundry that looms like a mountain over the thousands of puzzle pieces scattered on the floor when she comes home from a long day of running a local nonprofit. I still see her smirk sometimes when I have a pile of dishes not only in the sink but on the counter as I try to prepare the simplest of meals. I have been pooped on, puked on, peed on and cried on more times than I can count this winter. It was like being in college all over again! I don’t comb hair properly and have to disguise this by saying it was a “jedi haircut”. I don’t color coordinate. I did not realize that was so important when the potential for spaghetti sauce, mud or finger paints loom around every corner. Sometimes I act surprised when I hear my two year old swear and then realize that particular word is a foundation block of my own vocabulary. How long should naps be? For me or for the child? Why don’t birds have human ears? Did Jesus have a vagina? How come hockey players are missing so many teeth? Why don’t you like the Yankees? Why can’t you wear ice skates on your knees? The list goes on. One thing is for sure I now realize how much I do not know.
There are also the encounters outside of the home. Somewhat regularly I find myself confronted by an individual meaning well but falling way short in startup conversation;
“Mom is taking the day off today I see, “
or the more aggressive, “Why aren’t your kids in school today?”
To which I calmly reply, “We homeschool.”
Now maybe I am not helping my own cause by wearing an old jacket with a patch that says, “Cult Leader” on it but I can’t help but find myself amused as I see their eyes shift from my odd patch to the kids who are usually adorned in outfits that proudly defy any logic. One example would be my four year old son wearing his hockey jersey, his older sister’s polka dot rain boots, his fingernails painted multiple colors, topped off with a fireman’s helmet and a light saber.
With all of that said there are moments of positive reinforcement. Most recently while working in the garden with my son a neighbor of ours stopped by the fence near our driveway and told me that she really admired our family and that our children were extremely lucky. As I tried to politely respond she walked away leaving me speaking out loud to my empty garden. I just looked at my son and shrugged. He saw the humor in it. Old dad, coming up a little short again.
There have been other obstacles as well. As we all know it is extremely difficult to get by on a single income in this day and age. I do hold a seat in local politics but the money is nothing to write home about. But this was a sacrifice we have long been willing to make. There are things far more important than money. Believe me when I tell you that. We have been creative in getting around the problem. We grow a huge garden in the summer. We wear extra layers in the winter. Simply put, we stretch a dollar as many people have to.
I’ve always been comfortable with stepping outside of the boundaries. Though staying home and homeschooling were both choices that were not taken lightly looking back on it it was a no brainer. When I see my kids wear wacky outfits with no inclination toward the latest trends or listen to them laugh deep into the night when they should be sleeping I know it is worth it. As I watch them explore the world around them with the confidence that arises from having a parent near it fills my heart with joy. They are happy, healthy curious young children who are truly benefiting from this grand experiment. As I was sitting down to type this up my two year old daughter came up to me and said, “Dad, I’m glad you’re here.” That right there is reason enough to break the mold.
Tobias Whitaker also blogs for Mother Earth News and Grit Magazine. You can also find him on Facebook at Seed To Harvest: Bossy Hen Homestead which is a central location for his homesteading blogs and his homeschooling blog, A Mile In Her Shoes: Tales Of A Stay-At Home Dad .