My new life started with new pants.
Last Spring, I got a real, honest-to-goodness job. With benefits, a salary, and an office. For the previous decade, my job had been raising my kids. It wasn’t exactly a 10-year nap. I had a part-time job for a while, and then freelance gigs. But I did that work when my kids were asleep or at school, and I did it in my pajamas. Pajamas are great. As far as perks of the job go, they’re right up there with a 20-second commute from the bedroom to the dining room table.
But then I got a real job in a real office, and that meant I had to get real pants. It wasn’t so bad. Let me tell you, they’ve made some wonderful advances in haberdashery over the past decade. My fancy pants ain’t jammies, but they’re pretty comfy.
New clothes weren’t the only thing I acquired with a new job. I also picked up a healthy heaping of insecurities, inadequacies, and anxiety. I’d been a stay-at-home dad for a long time. I wasn’t perfect at it, but I’d gotten pretty good. I cooked, cleaned, folded laundry, and still found time for a game of catch after school. I volunteered in my kids’ classrooms, and I led them on little adventures before dinner. We poked around tide pools and paddled around lakes. I met their friends, and the parents of their friends. I knew what they were excited about and what they were worried about. I spent hours with them after school every day. I was hands-on parent. And, honestly, I was bored as shit a lot of the time.
We needed more income, yes. But I needed to have new conversations with new humans. I needed to say things besides, “Don’t wipe your mouth on your shirt” and, “Don’t pick your nose” and, “Go take a bath, you smell gross.” This might sound crazy to you working stiffs, but I needed coworkers. If Jimmy in accounting picks his nose, it’s not my problem.
So, I traded mastery for incompetence. I arrived at the office with good intentions and a briefcase full of mistakes. My dumb fingers had to learn new procedures. There were daily deadlines and quick turnarounds. I felt slow and old. I was wearing snazzy pants, but fucking up a lot.
I think that’s the way it is with any new job. Each workplace is different. Your past success proves you can do things the right way. But learning the new right way takes time. Fortunately, my office is full of patient people. At least, they’re people who don’t display their impatience. Maybe I was so target-fixated on not fucking up that I missed the exasperated sighs.
Eventually I learned how to do my job, and I feel pretty good about my performance. No one gives me the evil eye, and I’ve built up enough good will to let my freak flag fly. I change out of my bicycling clothes in the bathroom. I put canned fish on my salads and peanut butter in my microwaved oatmeal. (I haven’t worked up the courage to microwave fish though.) My dumb fingers know what to do now, and my briefcase is full of innovative ideas and honed skills.
It’s a different story at home. The incompetence there is breathtaking.
Last night, I thought my wife was picking up dinner on the way home from work. She thought I was going to make pancakes. When she arrived, there were sharp words and a flurry of activity. We ate pancakes at 7 pm. This morning, our daughter asked where the clean clothes were. Turns out, someone had disguised them as dirty clothes and hid them in the hamper. My wife helped her dig through a dresser drawer for an old sweatshirt to wear to school. Later this week, our regular after-school babysitter is unavailable, so a woman we’ve never met will pick our kids up from school (hopefully) and transport them home without incident (hopefully).
What the hell is that shit? My kids nearly went to bed hungry and to school in dirty clothing. They will perhaps experience a few adventures in babysitting later this week. That’s barely scraping by! You call that parenting?
Well, yeah. I do.
The life my family lived before, in which one parent worked and the other kept the house running smoothly, is rare. The latest research shows that about 20 percent of families work like that. A dad staying at home is even more unusual.
For my family, that arrangement was unsustainable. We made just enough money to pay the bills and live comfortably, month to month. College fund? What the hell is that? Retirement account? Just release me into the woods once my brain turns to applesauce. Having me take care of the kids when they were babies saved us a bunch of money in child care, which is too expensive no matter where you live. But the kids aren’t babies anymore, and it was time for us to plan for the future. If part of the cost of affording college is late-night pancakes for dinner, I think my kids will be okay with that.
When I was growing up, both my parents worked. They were also divorced. Neither of them had any idea what the hell was going on with me most of the day. I was a latchkey kid. When I was younger than my daughter is now, I’d get home after school and get started on my homework. I also did chores. No one was around to tell me to do those things — I had to be my own motivation.
But let me knock the rose-colored glasses off your face, in case you were just about to congratulate yourself over the good ol’ days, when kids had grit. Yes, my kids need to learn how to do the laundry and load the dishwasher and sweep the living room floor. Those skills will help them become independent someday, and my absence in house speeds along the process.
But the truth is, I don’t think the way I grew up was better than what my kids experienced up until last Spring. It was just different.
There were plenty of days I was lonely. There were plenty of times I sat at home, holding the sick feeling of helpless dread in my gut, replaying the bullying I’d experienced at school. There were plenty of times I was scared. Thunderstorms had me hyperventilating over tornadoes that never materialized. And there were plenty of times I was angry. Mad that I didn’t come home to an after-school snack and a helping homework hand. I never experienced the childhood my kids have lived until now. But I longed for it.
And I hope that memory of longing allows me to strike a balance. To give my kids the opportunity to spread their wings, and the wisdom to jog along behind them with a big butterfly net to avoid disaster.
Getting used to their new lives, as the kids of working parents, hasn’t been easy. They retain all of the day’s stories, all of their happy, sad, excited feelings, all of their achievements and failures, like puffer fish ballooned to bursting, and when I arrive at the front door, they deflate in a rush of words and shouts and tears and roughhousing. Dad is home, and they are overwhelmed with a great need to share the everything with Dad.
It’s a lot for me to handle, but it’s far better than the few occasions when I can’t get any information out of them. The days when it seems they learned nothing and played with no one are much harder to take. Give me something to connect with, I think to myself, before I’m too far out of the loop to get back in.
Last week, we flew to Philadelphia to see my brother and his wife. They have an infant daughter. It’s been five years since I lived with a baby. I don’t miss those days.
My brother and sister-in-law determine every aspect of their daughter’s life. They choose her clothing, her food, her bedtime. They decide when she goes to the park or to the doctor or to a playdate. They pick her books and her toys. They have to. She can’t do any of those things alone. She can’t even crawl yet.
My kids have much more independence. Which means I have much more independence. I can read a novel or take a walk and trust that my daughter will be safe and sound in her room, without my watchful eye. I can let my son play in the backyard for a couple hours while I tinker with my bicycle or listen to podcasts.
They still need me to drive to the grocery store and attend school performances and talk through math problems. But they don’t need me as much as they once did. And in a few years they’ll need me even less. It’s natural to feel sad about something like that. But sadness can’t halt change, and it shouldn’t alter history. Remember, before I began working in an office, I was bored as shit much of the time.
In Philadelphia, we also saw my dad. It’s been decades since he did my laundry or scrounged a late-night dinner for me. He doesn’t kiss my boo-boos or check on my homework. I don’t need him like I used to. His job as a parent is far from full-time. It’s a remote gig, a role that can be performed in comfortable, pajama-like clothes. Like Obi-Wan.
I don’t love him any less because he doesn’t know the daily successes and failures of my life. In fact, I probably love him more because of that routine absence. It’s a display of trust. That I’m safe in having to be my own motivation.
Watching my brother carry around his infant daughter while I chatted with my dad, catching up, it occurred to me that I was sitting between two extremes. My kids are still little, but they’re no longer babies. In a few short years, they will be adults. But they will still be my children. And I will still be their father. My job as a parent won’t be hands-on anymore, but it’ll still be important. What we need from each other will change over the years, the trend line of “independence” creeping upward as the line of “constant attention” wanes.
For now, I sit in the middle. And that means I wake in the morning and make their breakfasts, still cutting their waffles into pieces (we eat a lot of carbs) and I make their lunches. I stuff their backpacks with jackets and permission slips and line up their rain boots by the front door. I wave goodbye as they scamper down the steps to the sidewalk, where they will face the school day and all that happens after it, without me. Then I put on my fancy new pants and go to work.