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Since we arrived in Asia 3 months ago, there have been 3 strangers who have called attention to the fact that I am a stay-at-home dad. I’ll skip over the first 2, but I’ll tell you what happened with the third one. Because that was the one that put me over the edge.
“Babysitting again today?”
The man who said it was of average height. Brown eyes. A big smile. About the same age as me. He looked familiar, like someone I used to work with but couldn’t quite remember.
I paused in the entryway of the hotel. Holding tight to the handles of my daughter’s stroller, I could feel my heart start to beat faster even before I opened my mouth. I could feel myself bowing up. “No,” I said. “I’m being a dad. It’s my job to take care of her.”
“Oh no!” he said. “Where’s Mommy?”
And at that, the voice in my head went off.
Oh no? Where’s Mommy? Are you f—ing kidding me? Did you not hear what I just said about taking care of my daughter? And then you want to go and insult 1) all the fathers of the world with the antiquated gender-role assumption that they aren’t capable of taking care of their own kids and 2) all the mothers of the world with the antiquated gender-role assumption that they, as women, should be the ones tasked with taking care of their kids?
Oh no? Where’s Mommy? Are you f—ing kidding me?
I had been trying to smile, but now my smile went flat. I tried to breathe through my anger, tried to do all the yoga shit that makes logical sense to me but doesn’t always hold up in moments like this when my entire body seems to be clenching its teeth. “Mommy,” I said, “is working.”
“Oh,” he said, giving me a slow nod.
Between us, EJ kicked her legs as if itching to be done with all this grown-up talk so she could get back to something far more exciting: the swimming pool on the fifth floor. I returned the man’s nod. “What do you mean by ‘oh no’?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. He looked at me like I was speaking in a foreign language, and I suppose I was. We were in Singapore, and though this doorman, like many Singaporeans, spoke English just fine, there was still plenty of room for things to get lost in translation, my question included. So after he bent over to ask EJ if I was taking good care of her and she (I’m pretty sure) threw him some shade, I asked it again. “Why did you say ‘oh no’?”
Finally, after an eternity of the sliding glass door opening and closing off to my left, he made eye contact with me. “I don’t know,” he said.
Good for him, I would later think. It’s not easy to admit that you don’t know why you said something. But right then, I didn’t know what to say to his not knowing. His answer was so honest, it took all the wind out of my self-righteous sails. Well, almost all of it.
“It’s not ‘oh no’ to me,” I said. “Really, man. Being a dad is the best job I’ve ever had.”
The doorman smiled. “That’s cool,” he said, and he seemed to mean it. I walked away without smiling, heading for the elevators, the wheels of EJ’s stroller gliding silently across the shiny white tile of the lobby.
The sad fact of gender inequality still furthers those antiquated stigmas about who should be raising our children and why.
It’s tempting to end the essay right there. With the image of me walking off to the elevators, leaving the hotel doorman in my preachy wake — to ponder, perhaps, something he had never before considered: a husband taking care of his child while his wife goes to work to support the family. But that would omit the most crucial part of this story.
The crucial part of all this, for me at least, is where I admit what I’ve only tiptoed around in earlier essays: I am a stay-at-home dad, and as much as I know I shouldn’t be ashamed of that fact, some days I am ashamed. Some days I overhear the conversations of high-powered-looking men in their perfectly-fitting suits and even though I know, in my heart of hearts, that I would probably claw my eyes out if I had to work where they work, in banking or financial trading or some other field where the primary concern is to help people with a lot of money to generate even more money, I still occasionally get jealous of those men. I could be sitting across from them at a neighboring table in a restaurant, struggling to wipe the food crusties off my daughter’s chin, and I’ll wish I had what those guys seem to have: problems to solve and other adults to solve them with.
I’ve been told by more than one person, my wife included, that they wish they had my life. I get to hang out with our daughter in Hong Kong — and sometimes other cool cities in Asia — all day long. We go to the park, ride the subway, read books, eat snacks; for a stay-at-home dad, I do very little staying at home. It’s a great gig, no doubt, and I don’t want to complain about it. What I want to do is understand why I went all Johnny Macho when that doorman in Singapore said “oh no!” in response to me saying it was my job to take care of my daughter.
“I miss the feeling of being important at my job.” A friend of ours said this after she left a management position to follow her husband’s career path to another state. As someone who has made similar choices in order for our family to have a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in a foreign country, I hear where she’s coming from, big time. My wife would say that I’m extremely important to our daughter, and she’d be right. I know this. I know that what I am doing on a day-to-day basis — as I attempt to share my understanding of the world with EJ — is crucial work. But it’s work. Sometimes I feel like a glorified housekeeper, especially when my days so often consist of wiping my baby’s butt to wiping my baby’s face to wiping food off the floor (with hand-washings in between steps one and 2, of course). And if you think this hasn’t made me question my place in the world, and to wonder darkly about how and “what I’m contributing in this life beyond the scope of my family, you’re about 50 shades of wrong.
So yes, I miss the daily company of other adults. I miss working behind a bar, where I got to move and talk and craft drinks that I hoped my guests would never forget. I miss managing a team of people at a retail store, even though I still can’t believe I worked in a mall for 2 years. I even miss adjunct teaching, even though the pay was crap, because of those unexpected moments when a seemingly mediocre student would suddenly write a sentence that would absolutely stun me to humility with its brilliance.
I am a stay-at-home dad, and as much as I know I shouldn’t be ashamed of that fact, some days I am ashamed.
Part of what I miss about those jobs is that they gave me titles that other people understood. I don’t think a lot of people know what to do with a “stay-at-home dad.” Does this guy want to do this? Can he not get another job? Was this role forced upon him, or did he choose it? It’s important to recognize that most people probably don’t even think to ask these same questions about stay-at-home moms; the sad fact of gender inequality still furthers those antiquated stigmas about who should be raising our children and why.
As for me, as a man in a heterosexual couple where the old-school construct of husband-as-breadwinner and wife as stay-at-home parent has been beautifully inverted, I can only begin to imagine the questions people might have about me but don’t ask, or worse, the judgments they might make. So yeah, it makes sense that I would imagine them right into the head of some well-intentioned doorman in Singapore. Where’s Mommy? That dude never had a chance. In a way, I used the poor guy, filling him up with all my fears about who I am and who I’m not.
Damn. How do I teach my daughter not to do that?
On the other side of that question is where the real work begins.
Jason Basa Nemec’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review Online, Slice, and numerous other magazines. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.