We are a vast, disconnected, sleep-deprived sleeper cell. We are everywhere you look, hiding in plain sight, picking out the just-ripe mangoes at the grocery store or pushing our swinging kids at the playground. We kiss boo-boos, braid hair, and fix the kitchen faucet. Call us Mr. Moms, stay-at-home dads, or house husbands. Just don’t call us clueless or bumbling. Fact is, we got this domestic shit handled.
Every year, there are more men who don’t work outside the home. Some want to, but can’t find a job that pays enough to cover the cost of childcare. Others used to, but felt our hearts grow three sizes the day our first child was born, and we lost all desire to climb the corporate ladder. But even as we spread throughout the nation like spilled milk across the kitchen table, house husbands remain far from the norm. So if you’re new to the field, let me drop a little knowledge on you. This job is more demanding than you think. You’re on call 24/7, and you spend every day treading water through transitions and logistics. The banalities will dull your edge, and the crises can make your heart jump out of your chest.
Here are the basics to get you started.
Change Your Worldview
Growing up, I just assumed I’d slot into the hyper-competitive, patriarchal breadwinner role. That’s what I saw everywhere I looked. My life now would have been unthinkable back then, but at this point it’s just normal. The point is, there’s nothing inherent in your gender that prevents you from locking into the mothering instinct. It’s nurture, not nature. You just have to unlearn years of putting ego ahead of empathy. As a house husband, your chief concern, your guiding principle, is to facilitate the lives of your family members. The fridge is empty, but you don’t feel like getting out in the rain to go grocery shopping? Too bad, chief. You’re about to get wet. Crosstown traffic makes you want to go all Michael Douglas in Falling Down? Doesn’t matter, buddy. Start up the car and get your daughter to ballet. The living room needs painting, the grass needs cutting, and the pork tenderloin needs brining? Better get your ass in gear, soldier. You got a long day ahead of you. Double-time!
Before we had kids, my wife and I both worked full time outside the home, and we each had household chores. When I became Mr. Mom, I had to do every single chore around the house, and I was pretty pissed off about it. But eventually, I realized that since my wife spends all day at the office, putting in the very long hours that pad the paycheck that puts food on the table, my contribution has to be cooking that food, and cooking it well. By now, my wife doesn’t even remember how to run the washing machine, and it doesn’t bother me at all. Well, not usually.
If this arrangement sounds like the creeping edge of Communism, well, it kind of is. But Family Communism isn’t just about chores or reading Das Kapital to the little ones at bedtime. You have to take all kinds of shit and give nothing but graciousness in return. Here’s a small example: I used to like the song “All You Need is Love.” Then my toddler son decided he likes it, too. Now I’ve heard it 4,753 times in the car. Every damn time we drive anywhere, we listen to that song on heavy rotation. Maybe he really likes it, or maybe he’s a prodigy for Gitmo-style enhanced interrogations. Either way, I’d rather listen to that wonderful, horrible song again than listen to his full-body wailing because I said no. Besides, what sort of monster would I be to deny a cute little baby voice saying, “I want love!”
Get Comfortable With Feeling Awkward
Nothing clears out a playground like the arrival of a dad with his kids. That’s my experience, anyway. I don’t look like the cable-customer Rob Lowe who watches folks swim at the rec center—at least I don’t when I’ve had a shower that day—but I’ve lost count of the number of times my kids have gone running toward the slides, only to watch the other kids get called over to the benches by their moms, who suddenly remembered it’s time to run errands.
When strangers realize that I’m the primary caretaker of my children—even if it’s only for those couple hours at the playground, as far as they know—I still get odd, discomfiting looks. And in the moment, it’s hard not to feel offended. Once, I took my daughter to a Cracker Barrel when we were on a road trip, and I could tell the waitress was debating whether to spell out, “Do you need help?” in our order of French fries. Another time, when I was walking into my son’s preschool to pick him up, a woman who was leaving with her kids stopped me. I had to persuade her that I wasn’t there to take hostages. This kind of thing happens all the time, in large and small ways. It’s my wife who gets the invitations to other kids’ birthday parties. The school nurse calls her first if our daughter gets sick. I get long stares when I’m shopping alone in the girls’ section at the department store.
You can’t take bias like this personally. When people expect one thing and get another, they become suspicious, especially when children are involved. So, the women who clear out of the playground maybe watch a little too much cable-news coverage of kidnappings. Or maybe they’ve been creeped on by people who don’t know how to make friends at the park. The woman who wouldn’t let me walk into the preschool maybe had a bad encounter with someone in a custody dispute. Who knows? The point is, when you find yourself getting the side-eye, ignore it and let your actions speak for themselves. Just go about the business of playing with your kids, and eventually people will relax.
I suspect this process moves quickly or slowly, depending on where you live. I’m in a region of the country not known for its barnstorming acceptance of alternative lifestyles. If you live with the coastal elites, you’ll probably have an easier time meeting other dads in your situation. Your neighborhood might even have a critical mass such that no one calls in an Amber Alert when you inevitably end up having to drag your (mid-tantrum) toddler away from the playground toward a (mini) van.
Don’t Believe Your Hype
On the other side of the coin, some people—mostly older ladies, in my experience—are going to compliment you for spending time with your own children. It’s the novelty effect. Scores of cashiers have exclaimed, as I rolled the cart full of kids and groceries up to their lane, “Oh, you’re giving Mama a break, huh? Good for you!” The best approach here is to smile and nod and say something innocuous like, “Doing what I can.” You don’t need to lecture anybody about how you take your kids shopping all the time, thank you very much.
And don’t go thinking you’re a hero. If somebody’s grandmother tells you how nice it is to see a daddy playing with his kids, remember that your shit still stinks. I’m not going to lie: It feels pretty good to get complimented for being superdad. Just don’t let that good feeling get out of hand. All you’re doing is working for your family. You don’t get to judge the dads who work long hours and don’t see their kids very much. We stay-at-home dads are ridiculously fortunate. Our wives or husbands make enough money to support our families on one income. That certainly isn’t the case for most families. And many fathers—and mothers—simply don’t want to be part of the relentlessly moody and illogical maelstrom of interacting with children for eight or nine hours straight. Just because you’re dead enough inside not to let that craziness get to you does not make you a superstar.
Practice Selective Amnesia
You shouldn’t be cocky or judgy, because the fact is you’re just a guy who’s been entrusted with shaping a few young souls. Without any formal training. You’re going to fuck up. I do, every single day.
They say that quarterback is the hardest position in sports. You have to memorize all of your plays, and all the schemes the defense might run. You have to account for factors out of your control, like weather and crowd noise. You have to be ready to ditch the plan and improvise. And most importantly, you can’t let your past mistakes take you off your game.
As a house husband, you are the quarterback of the family. Let’s say you’re Eli Manning. (I know.) Maybe one year you’re the MVP of the Super Bowl. Two years later, you’re going to throw 27 interceptions. You still have to take the field. Maybe on a Monday, the kids are beautiful and generous with each other. You get your chores done and dinner on the table without incident. Well, on Tuesday the kids will snipe at each other all day long, and they’ll each demand your undivided attention simultaneously. As you’re making dinner, your son will sneak into the pantry and dump out everything he can reach. Your daughter will spontaneously fall down and begin wailing in overdramatized pain. You’ll start to clean up the mess in the pantry, and then you’ll smell the chicken burning. That’s when you’re going to shit the bed like Eli and start banging the pots and pans around the stovetop while you bellow at everyone to just quiet down, goddammit!
Deep breaths, motherfucker.
The measure of your performance is not how you react when everything is easy. It’s how you ride out the storms. The goal is to stay calm. There will be bad times, and after those are over, replay the film in your head. Whatever you do that is instinctive and lovely, keep doing it. Whatever you do that is punitive, start fixing that. But ultimately, learn to stay in the moment—not deluded by the good days or discouraged by the bad ones. It’s impossible to do this job perfectly. And even when you do it well, the most you’re going to get is a peck on the cheek from your wife as she heads out the door, or a quick hug from your daughter as she’s running into school. That’s your reward for sending them out into the world with clean clothes and bellies full of home-cooked food. For me, it’s enough.
All of this advice is just the start of Mr. Mom training. There’s lots more I could tell you about, if you want to hear it. Any questions?
Geoffrey Redick is a freelance writer and radio producer. He lives in Memphis. He’s on Twitter.
Lead image by Sam Woolley.
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