Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Two Years Down

"Four More Years, Four More Years!"

I recently surpassed my two year mark as a stay-at-home dad.  Luckily, I wasn't up for re-election this year.  Actually, I think mine is an indefinite appointment, removable only by impeachment or all kids being in school.  It has certainly been a whirlwind of the last two years, with many ups and of course a few downs.  If anything it has been a series of transitions over the last two years; staying at home with the girls, having a new baby and everyone being at home, Jess going back to work and me trying to keep three kids alive, figuring out that first summer, and then that second summer, and now our oldest hops on a school bus at 6:30am and doesn't come back until 3pm.  Even two months into the school year, I still feel like we're trying to find our footing for routine.

People will often ask me how it's going, or what's it like, being a stay-at-home parent.  While I don't like to compare it to a job, it draws similarities in the fulfillment department.  Some days I feel very accomplished as a parent, and I'm certain I'm doing exactly what I should be.  Other days, I wonder what the hell I got myself into and worry about how much I might be screwing up my kid's future.  I felt the same when I was working (outside the home).  Some days I felt incredibly fulfilled by my job, and other days I felt like walking out the door and sending someone back for my personal items.  Like anything, you have good days and bad days, but in the aggregate, the good has definitely out weighed the bad.  I'm certain there won't be any part of me that will regret my decision to stay home with my kids at this point in my life.

Of course eventually I'll probably have to go back to work once they are all in school.  Jess let's me get by with a lot of stuff, but I don't think she'd allow me to just sit on my ass all day once the kids have all gotten on the bus in the morning.  At least now when I sit on my ass all day, I can make the argument that I'm "watching them".  Truthfully, I've never had much of an end game in mind.  People will ask me if I'll go back to work at some point, and what I think I might do.  Honestly, I haven't given it a whole lot of thought.  I'm sure I'll go back to paid employment in some form, but I haven't made any sort of plan as to when or what that might be.  The more we've been able to operate on a schedule that revolves primarily around the kids, as opposed to one that is dictated by a job, the more enticing it seems to find a job that allows me to be on their schedule.  I've given serious consideration to following in the footsteps of my mother-in-law, who became a teaching assistant, or my own mother, who drove school bus, once their kids went off to school.  Maybe I could do both.

While I think every parent could be a stay-at-home parent (see earlier post for reference) deciding whether or not it's the best decision for your familial situation is a completely personal one.  I'll share below some of the impacts I feel the last two years has had on the various components of our family.

My Kids
Of course our kids are the main reason I am a stay-at-home dad.  Without them I'd just be a stay-at-home husband, or, in layman's terms, lazy.  I get the general sense that my kids being at home with me has been a net positive for them.  But then again, my opinion is pretty biased since I think I'm pretty awesome.  It certainly has allowed them to connect better with me, which in turn has made me better parent.  Of course they still love their mom the most, and would pick her over me in a heartbeat, but I've definitely drawn to a closer second than I otherwise would be.  I commented before on how I think the generous paid parental leave of my former employer helped me better connect with kids and make me a better father.  My opportunity to be home with them has continued that betterment in my view.

The practical positives of my kids being at home with me all day is they certainly don't get sick as often.  Unfortunately when they do though, it tends to wreak havoc on our house and doesn't provide me much relief (see earlier post for reference).  I also get to control the types of things they are exposed to; what unhealthy foods they'll eat, the type of bias of their media outlets, and how much physical aggression toward their siblings is socially acceptable.  There is also the relatively stable continuity that comes with having a parent at home.  This has become more salient now that Isla is in kindergarten.  She knows that dad (and usually everyone else in the family) will be there to see her out the door in the morning, and for sure dad will be there when she gets off the bus in the afternoon, probably still in his pajamas.  The continuity is good for kids.

Of course, having the luxury of being at home with our kids has allowed me to have more experiences with them, whether through adventurous outings, trips to the library, or impromptu (and probably ill-advised) patronizing of the local coffee shop.  These experiences can be fun filled, memory making outings, and they can be epic failures.  Similar to other "creative" things I might try to get them to do around the house.  Being a stay-at-home parent is definitely not a continuous Instagram feed of architecturally amazing forts, Etsy worthy craft projects, or viral YouTube videos.  I would average that for every "creative" idea I have for something to do with my kids, about 18% of them probably end up working out.  I often like to post on social media about my #realworldparenting moments.  The goal is to balance those annoyingly cute posts of parents and their kids in their "my heart is full" moments with a check of reality.  Like, "my hair is full....of the lice my kid brought home from school".            

Certainly there are some drawbacks, and having our kids at home with me full time has likely increased some of the separation anxiety they have when they go to school, or do an activity without the direction supervision of my wife or me.  They're usually limited to interacting with those who are around them, which, during the coldest days of winter, can be a pretty small group of very closely related people.  And as nice as it is to have some flexibility with their schedule, too much can sometimes backfire.  If your goal is to get them dressed by 10am most days, it can make it that much harder to get them up and at 'em by 7:30 on the times it's actually necessary.  They also have to put up with my mediocre culinary talents, but then again, so do I, so I can empathize.

My Wife 
My decision to be a stay-at-home parent was obviously made in consultation with my wife (sort of, at least).  One of the contributing factors in my decision to stay home was that it would (hopefully) make things a little less stressful for my wife and I.  Overall I think it has.  One of the nicest aspects about having one working parent in the family is you have only one schedule you need to work around.  It has also allowed me to attempt to do some of those domestic tasks necessary to keep a household with multiple inhabitants functioning - cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, etc.  Without a need for me to put on pants most mornings, I can also do romantic things like get her lunch ready for her workday^.  I'm sure there are times though when my wife wishes she had a wife of her own who stayed at home with the kids and undoubtedly had a higher standard of cleanliness, was better at folding laundry, and didn't eat as much.

Of course, having a spouse at home with your kids is not always rainbows and unicorns, especially probably if you are a woman and your spouse is a man.  While I've never really felt emasculated as a man being a stay-at-home dad, I know my wife can at times feel like she is not living up to the societal norms of what a mother and wife should be doing.  Often this will revolve around the amount of time spent with our kids.  Her standard for if she is spending enough with her kids is based on how much time I am spending with them, which is an excessive amount of time.  I try to point out that a vast majority of my time spent with them can hardly be considered "quality time", as it usually entails cleaning up their perpetual messes or constantly telling them not to climb on the furniture/table/countertops/roof, etc.

I can certain understand how those feelings of "parental guilt" can persist though, despite my attempts at insisting that they shouldn't.  Our society puts a ton of pressure on moms, and we're while we're evolving to a point of putting more pressure on dads, which will hopefully relieve some of the pressure for the moms, we are certainly a long ways out.  Of course I think part of the problem is that our expectations of what constitutes an incredible mom have gotten blown way out of proportion.  Much of this is self induced, but the prevailing accepted narrative around parenting roles is still focused heavily on the mom doing a lion's share of the parenting and the domestic necessities, while also being expected at times to contribute to the finances.  So, I can understand when my wife occasionally wonders if she is a "good mom" or a "good wife".  But thankfully she's not either of those things.  She is an "amazing mom" and an "incredible wife"*.      

For Me
Of course everyone is most concerned about me, right?  I mean, I'm the one staying home dealing with my disgustingly adorable and annoyingly well-behaved children.  How does he do it every day?  It has to be taxing.  Honestly, some days I don't know.  You just do what you have to do I guess.  In the aggregate, it has been amazing.  Sure there are plenty of frustrating moments, but I also get to experience a lot with my kids that other people don't, and for that I feel very, very fortunate.  I'm certain that once my stay-at-home tenure is completed, I will certainly look back on the years (however long they happen to be), as some of the best of my life.  And I've had some pretty awesome years already....

The pros of being a stay-at-home parent as plentiful.  Of course you get to hang out with your kids all day, but the auxiliary perks, like the fact that I've not worn a collared shirt on a weekday for almost two years, are pretty sweet as well.  I also get to (typically) listen to whatever sort of music I want to around the house during the day, without any disgruntled coworkers unplugging my computer speakers.  I get the benefits of "working from home" without having to make annoying sales calls or listen to boring webinars.  This is good because the decibel level in our house usually hovers between 80-110 pretty consistently.  While there is certainly chaos aplenty in our home, it has not contributed to any elongated spikes in my blood pressure or stress-induced ulcers.  My annual check-up this past week confirmed this.
Obviously there are cons as well to staying home, and I certainly have my bad days.  Kids can be a fickle bunch, and it can be mentally exhausting trying to reason with people who can't reason because their pre-frontal cortex is still developing.  It can also be an isolating experience too.  As a fellow stay-at-home parent once commented, "being a stay-at-home parent can be as lonely as you want it to be, since you get to choose who you interact with."  Some days I'm more than happy to only interact with my kids, but every once it a while some adult conversation is a welcome change.  Fortunately, I've had the opportunity to get to know a number of incredible parents (mostly moms, but also a few dads) who are at home with their kids, and often encountering situations similar to myself.  It took me a little bit of time to realize the importance of making these connections and how it has helped me to stay sane at times.

In his book, Dad is Fat, comedian Jim Gaffigan discusses the difference between how men and women cope with the challenges of parenting.  He comments that moms like to commiserate, through playdates and mom's group, while dads like to escape, through activities like eating and watching football (in his case at least).  About a year ago I was making cordial chit-chat with a mom at one of the library story hours I frequented with my kids.  After commenting that I was a stay-at-home dad, she replied that "it must be hard to meet other stay at home dads".  It wasn't something I had given a lot of thought about before that, as I didn't much consider how being a part of a network of other stay-at-home parents would be that beneficial.  In my view, my kids and I just kind of went about our day doing our thing, and that was that.

About a week after that interaction, I recall having a particularly challenging week.  A week when I wasn't feeling very accomplished as a parent and the kids were driving my absolutely crazy.  That was the point when I realized how important it can be to have those supportive people around you, beyond just your spouse and your close family.  Other parents who can relate a little more closely to what you might be dealing with because they are also interacting with their kids for a vast majority of the day.  As a guy, I think it can be challenging to admit that at times you need help, even when it comes to parenting your own kids.  But when you open up and allow yourself to be vulnerable about your fears and insecurities, you often find you're not the only one struggling with those things.

So that's what I've tried to do more consciously, to make those connections, especially reaching out to fellow stay-at-home dads, and challenge myself to be open about the aspects of parenting that I struggle with.  Interacting with other parents can often be a very superficial experience, focused solely on the nuts and bolts of the familial experience - how old the kids are, the activities they are involved in, what milestones they've hit, etc.  But as parents, we know there is so much more that constitutes the dynamic of parenting, and at times it just takes a little more willingness to be okay broaching those topics.  It can be scary and awkward, but it can also be extremely helpful and validating.  I recently started up a Stay-at-Home Dads Facebook Group for Central Minnesota, as a way to try and reach other dads in the area who may also be looking to make those connections.

At this time of the year when we are reminded of the many things we can be thankful for, I think of this opportunity I've had to be a stay-at-home parent.  It has certainly given me a different perspective on my life and the world around me, and I believe, positively impacted the relationships I have with others.  When I was in grad school, I had to come up with a sort of "mission statement for myself" as part of my professional portfolio.  One of my goals was to learn everyday by having new experiences and adventures.  This experience as a stay-at-home parent has certainly allowed me to do that, and for that I am very thankful.  At some point it will certainly come to an end, but if I make it until Gus goes off to kindergarten in 2020, I'd be old enough to throw my name in for another important position that might be opening up around that time.  I'll probably have a little more free time on my hands then.


^I've gotten pretty good at making turkey & cheese sandwiches these days, so I suppose I could always see if Subway is hiring sandwich artists.

*These balance my abilities as a mediocre dad and a slightly below average (on a good day) husband.

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