Thursday, May 21, 2015

What I Really Learned in College

How My "Overpriced" Education Helped Me Become a Stay-At-Home Dad

It's mid-May, which means it's commencement time for the 4,500+ college and universities in the United States.  Two weeks ago, my alma mater celebrated their commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2015, marking ten years since I completed my own undergraduate studies.  It also marked only the second time since 2002 that I was not present at a college commencement ceremony, either as a graduate or assisting with the execution of the event.  Ironically, that Friday, as many of Minnesota's colleges and universities were busily preparing for their own institution's commencement exercises, the Friday Roundtable discussion on MPR featured three college presidents discussing the future of college and their reaction to a recently released book entitled The End of College.  I was able to catch a few minutes of the discussion as we were en-route to the grocery store (for the third time that week).  

Having worked almost exclusively in higher ed since completing my own years as a student, I tend to follow the commentary and analysis on the current state of higher education in America.  If you work/worked in higher ed, have kids in school, or are getting ready to send kids off to college, it's hard not to.  With tuition rates increasing at astronomical rates, much of the narrative has centered around affordability, access and outcome, often posing the question if a college degree is really "worth it" anymore.  Being a product of one of Minnesota's private, liberal arts colleges, and having spent a number of years working in higher ed until my "retirement" last fall, I'll be the first to admit that my view is incredibly biased.  I've drunk the Kool-Aid.  Read-on with that disclaimer if you'd like, as I share why I think my college education was instrumental in my decision to become a stay-at-home parent.

During my last few months on the job before my retirement, I was able to have a lot of candid conversations with some of the student employees that worked in our office, especially the six seniors.  Four of them had started working with our office as first-year students and the other two started as sophomores, so I had a unique opportunity to watch them transform throughout the course of their college years.  I really enjoyed our conversations, as I knew they were in a place similar to where I was ten years prior.  Apprehensive about the future, wondering if I would get a job I liked, or a job at all, after graduating.  Wondering how to make sense of the past four years and how that experience made me a marketable employment prospect.  I could tell that they were both excited and nervous about the future held in store for them.

They were also pretty curious about what I thought the future held in store for me, as I would be leaving my job before they finished their senior year, for a new, and somewhat unknown adventure.  And since I had essentially attended the same school as they did we seemed to be in similar circumstances.  They were leaving college to find their way, most likely by getting a job, while I was making probably my biggest career decision ever - leaving mine to stay home with our growing family.  During each conversation, I told those students that I truly believed it was the educational experience I received, one that was very similar to their own, one that I was still making healthy, monthly loan repayments for, one that some may deem "overpriced" and "not worth it", that best prepared me to make the decision to voluntarily leave a paid job that I enjoyed and become a stay-at-home dad.

I told them that what my education provided me, above anything else, was the opportunity to create my own definition of success.  It was the individual-oriented, whole-life development experience that I had, which was a byproduct of the close friendships and the authentic personal & professional mentors I was able to develop.  This education showed me how to examine my life and decided ultimately what was important to me.  It help me objectively ask the important questions like, "what the hell am I doing, and is it what I want to be spending all of my time on?"  It gave me the background to answer those questions in a thoughtful and educated manner, and ultimately decide it was personally time for a change, even if that meant forgoing a paycheck.

This was not by chance either, but more by design, as the college I attended describes itself as a place that emphasizes "leadership and a personal development profile that includes intellectual, spiritual, emotional and physical development."  No doubt a lot of colleges and universities use a similar tagline to promote their institutions, but I feel the education I received really lives up to that.  In the most recent alumni magazine I received, the current President, also an alum (and an economist), opines that the education one receives at our alma mater is "as much about the formation of character and the search for meaning as about academics", providing "a solid foundation to help young men seeking to develop their moral understanding and find meaning in their lives."  

Am I realizing the maximum economic potential of my degree?  Absolutely not (I probably wasn't even when I was working).   When we/I (depending which story you follow) decided to have one of us stay at home, it was a bad financial decision from a strictly dollars and sense standpoint, even after considering the cost of daycare.  I once read a great quote (pretty certain it was in Bill Bishop's The Big Sort) that I'll paraphrase because for the life of me, I can't seem to find it again. The quote suggested that one of the great things about receiving an education is knowing what luxuries you can afford to live without (or something like that).  When I stopped working, we had to make financial adjustments to figure out how to make it all work.  But I definitely believe our education helped us navigate this aspect in a way that we felt comfortable with, even if I did get one of my worst grades of my college career in Econ 101.

Does my alma mater care that I'm not a high-powered executive, pulling six figures?  No.  One of the biggest things they are concerned about, and that they promote to prospective students (and parents) is if I would rate my college experience highly (which I do) and if I am satisfied with where my education has gotten me (which I am).  Sure, the Development Office may wish I made a little more so I could up the very modest donations I make to the annual fund, but overall they likely see me as a successful product of the institution.  Though I doubt they'll start using me for an sort of Admissions marketing campaign - "come to school here, and you too can be a stay-at-home parent."      

Could I have gotten a similar experience at a different institution?  Maybe, but I feel like the personal nature of a liberal arts education best prepared me for the daily challenges of life, and not just a career.  I was a very mediocre good student.  I graduated with honors, but the lowest level of honors you can graduate with.  At a larger school, with larger classes and much more onus on students navigating their own way with less guidance, I'm sure I easily could have slid through with minimal effort.  However, I'm pretty certain I wouldn't have done as well academically and definitely wouldn't have been forced to challenge my own personal and intellectual development.  I often comment that I didn't entirely possess the ability to think critically until my second year of college.  It was the various mentors; faculty, supervisors, and other administrators, and fellow classmates and friends that helped bring this capacity out of me.

It's also been these mentors, colleagues, and friends, most of who have had an educational experience like mine, that have been incredibly supportive of my decision to become a stay-at-home parent.  Not once have I heard a comment suggesting that this will negatively impact my career, which undoubtedly it will.  Nor has anyone questioned why, after spending six years in college and getting two degrees, I would chose to leave the workforce.  Not even my parents, who provided me massive amounts of emotional support and equally significant financial support during my college years, have wondered what they did wrong (openly to me at least).  They all get it, and some have told me that they are a little jealous.  They know it was not a decision that was made in haste and without a sizable amount of thought; pros and cons lists, cost benefit analysis, risk valuation, etc.  No doubt it was a relatively unconventional decision.  But as I told my Dad, it was both the hardest decision to make and the easiest decision to make.  He responded by telling me that he had a ton of admiration for my decision.

So when I was filling in for an event a couple of weeks ago and a current student I had just met asked me if I was using my degree, I didn't hesitate to tell her that I did everyday.  Maybe not in the traditional aspect of the content of what I learned in my classes, but with the myriad of life skills that I learned through those transformative experiences I had while in college, which included my classes.  Had I known nearly ten years after finishing undergrad that my life would lead me to be a stay-at-home dad, instead of majoring in Political Science I should have double-majored in Elementary Education (with a double emphasis in Foreign Language and Music) and Psychology (pediatric emphasis), and minored in Art, Accounting, Nursing, Nutrition, Peace Studies, Sociology, and Theater - seems like a manageable load.  I also probably should have taken some night classes in Culinary Arts at the Tech College.  My kids don't care that I understand Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" and understanding it doesn't make me a better parent.  But I don't think that's the point.  In my opinion, the point of an education like the one I received is to challenge you to live an engaged and thoughtful life.  To question what is important to you and where you find fulfillment.  To have the bravery and courage to put those things first in your life.

In her commencement address to the College of Saint Benedict Class of 2015, the class that included those six seniors I got to know so well, activist/author Valerie Kaur told the 475 women about to receive their diplomas that; "You are brave.  You just need to believe in your own calling - wherever it leads you after graduation."  Her comments could have easily been directed to me, or any of us, when she asked; "Who is calling you?  Whose calling will you become?"  My kids are calling me.  No seriously, I think all three of them are currently crying, so I should probably wrap this up.  I think my education, as "overpriced" as it might have been, has helped me hear them better (figuratively, of course).  Seeing as I haven't thrown in a musical reference yet, I should probably close with one, and this one seems to work seeing as Pitch Perfect 2 just came out last week.  To quote Jessie J. (yes, Jessie J.), "it's not about the money......we just wanna make the world dance, forget about the price tag."  My world dances everyday, and not just because of the almost daily dance parties that get held in our home.  It's tough to put a price on that.

One of my all time favorite photos.
My roommates from senior year of college after our commencement ceremony.

After graduation, these guys went on to do amazing things like:
teach English in China, get a law degree, work international assignments in India and Hong Kong at senior level positions for one of MN's largest companies, travel extensively in Asia, teach on one of the poorest Indian reservations through TFA, get a Master's Degree from USC, oversee the New Mexico Department of Education

Until now, I felt like I had done nothing to compare to their accomplishments.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015



My wife has been back at work for just over three weeks now, so the kids are under my (questionably) responsible care for most of their day.  I'll divulge more of how it's going in a week or two.  I figure I'd let the dust settle a little bit first, if that is even possible.  Since Jess is back at work, I actually wanted to reflect on the time we all had at home together while she was on maternity leave.  If you've just welcomed a newborn into your world, planning on welcoming a newborn in the near future, or if you just like to follow modern parenting topics, you're probably aware that maternity/paternity/parental leave is kind of a hot button issue.  I figured I'd offer up my thoughts and opinions, since that is essentially what you are supposed to do with a blog, right?   

Jess took 16 weeks of maternity leave with Gus, the same amount she took after Havi was born (she took 12 weeks with Isla).  This time around was remarkably different though because we were all home the entire time.  When Havi was born, Isla was still in daycare, so when we felt the urge we could always send Isla there to relieve us of having two kids at home to tend to.  Not the case with Gus, as both girls had been home with me for almost two months at that point.  We had a newborn, a terrible two-er, and a four-going-on-fourteen year-old - a tantalizing recipe for multiple disasters.  It was incredible to have that amount of family time together though, and it started to feel like it was perpetually Saturday at our house for a while.  As much as we felt occasionally guilty about this, we recognized that this would likely (hopefully) be the last time we experience something like this and figured we should take advantage.

It was under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that Jess was allowed to take unpaid time off following each birth without fear of losing her job (the law also covers other medical reasons, like caring for an ailing family member).  If you follow modern parenting topics, you're likely well aware that the United States is the only developed country (aka non-3rd world) that does not provide or mandate paid time off for parents following the birth of a child; this groups us with the likes of Suriname, the Marshall Islands and a few other countries most people can't identify on a map. One of the reasons Jess started working part-time from home during all of her maternity leaves, was that she received no paid "maternity" or "parental" leave from her employer.  To help cover about half of the lost income during her maternity leave, along with working part-time from home, she exhausted her vacation and sick leave and borrowed future sick leave (she won't be able to take a sick day until next year).  

She was definitely not alone in this experience.  In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Services estimated that only 13% of workers in the US had access to paid family leave through their employer.  Also interesting, and relatively disheartening to note, is that the benefits of taking time off under the FMLA (even if it is unpaid), only apply to just over half of the U.S. workforce.  I would venture a guess that the ones who don't qualify to take time off under FMLA are probably the ones who could most benefit from it.  To contrast, I was one of those fortunate few who received paid time off, getting four weeks of parental leave from my employer when both Isla & Havi were born - a benefit given to either a female parent or a male parent following the birth of a child.  Had I been smart about things (and kind of a jerk), I should have kept working there until Gus was born, taking my paid parental leave and then "retiring" when it was time for me to go back.

When I returned to work after my time off after Havi was born, I made a point to contact our HR Director to express my gratitude for the parental leave benefit.  I knew she hadn't personally developed the policy, and it had been around for a number of years, but I felt the need to thank someone for allowing me to take that much needed time off (and keeping me on the payroll at the same time).  I hoped that she might share my gratitude with other senior administrators to get a first hand sense of what the benefit had provided one of the institutions employees.  One of the most eye-opening realizations for me when we had kids was how much undivided time they consume, especially as newborns.  It was great to have this opportunity to spend a substantial amount of time just being with our newborn children without needing to worry about what was going on at work or how we were going to make ends meet financially.

The data obviously suggest this is not a luxury that a lot of parents have, especially dads.  When I was off on parental leave following Havi's birth, I took advantage of the time off by scheduling a regular dental visit.  During my obligatory chit-chat with the dental hygienist, it came up that I was currently off on parental leave following a new addition to our family.  The hygienist commented on how lucky I was, mentioning that her husband was back at work before she even left the hospital following her births.  As I pondered her statement, I couldn't help but think about the environment that those kids were being born into.  A different time and a different circumstance, but my Dad even had to get back to the farm and chores shortly after I was born.  From what I've experienced firsthand, childbirth is an incredibly amazing and exhilarating experience, but it is also very stressful and emotionally and physically exhausting.  And of course it can be insanely painful for the mother.  I can't imagine how much more challenging this might be for a new mother if her spouse or partner has very limited time to be present because he or she has to return to work.  Even harder to grasp what single mothers must feel.

Given my bleeding-heart liberal views, you'd think my opinion would obviously be for the government to provide paid parental leave (at least for mothers) or mandate that employers do so for their employees.  Yes, I think it is critically important that parents, both parents, take a substantial amount of time off once a new baby is born.  I believe this is an essential part of creating a strong bond between the parents and their newly born child.  I know that having the opportunity to have that undivided time with our children has helped me grow and better understand my role as a parent, and I believe it created a better environment to foster love and support for our children.

But, I get it.  My wife works for the Federal Government, with it's seemingly bazillion employees (if you follow conservative punditry).  To grant them all a paid parental leave would be absurdly expensive, and we, the taxpayers, would be footing the bill.  I also understand that by my former employer providing me paid parental leave, they undoubtedly had to cut back on other benefits within my compensation package - most likely my actual compensation.  After returning from my leave with Havi, a childless colleague joked that she felt she should have a child just to get the paid time off.  I politely told her I would strongly advise against that.    

Having kids is a huge responsibility.  It is also a huge financial obligation (okay, maybe not the right wording there, but you get the point), especially pending what type of health insurance you have.  In an ideal world, we would have all expectant parents be at a place where they have attained a certain level of emotional maturity and financial stability.  Unfortunately, I don't think we can require a certain amount of cash in the bank before allowing people to conceive.  In one of his performance monologues, artist Kip Fulbeck remarks that he, "wants to live in a world where you have to pass a test to have kids."  While I don't believe this would ever fly in the good ol' U.S. of A., where freedom rings; it is an interesting theory to think about, considering anyone can procreate as long as their necessary anatomical parts function properly.  There are at least a minimum set of requirements for nearly every other human endeavor - getting a job, driving a car, serving in the military, owning a home, voting.  Having and raising a child seems to be the exception.  But how can we infringe on the right to bear children?  That's only something that would happen in one of those socialist Scandinavian countries.

Speaking of, someone who currently lives in one of those countries posted a link to this article about a photo-series entitled, Swedish Dads.  The project is a series of images and reflections from, yep, you guessed it, Swedish Dads about the benefits of their country's insanely generous parental leave policy - 480 day of leave while receiving a stipend from the state; 60 of which must be taken by the father.  The comments about the importance of spending a significant amount of dedicated time with your new child as a father are not only spoken in Swedish (safe assumption those dudes speak pretty good English too), but also echoed in studies conducted among American dads as well.  A study done by Boston College concluded that "early, more intense engagement in parenting for men has positive long-term effects for father and child, and mother as well."  Another report argued that paid parental leave for fathers may help promote gender equality for women.

I couldn't help but notice the sanctimonious poignancy of US Senator and Republican Presidential Candidate Rand Paul's comments a few weeks ago about the events that had taken place recently in Baltimore; citing some of the causes for the unrest as the "breakdown of the family structure" and the "lack of fathers".  Obviously paid parental leave wouldn't be the cure for all of our societal ills, but it does seem a bit bizarre (read: ass-backwards) that our society doesn't seem to provide the necessary support for the family structure at arguably its most critical juncture.  One can wonder if we would spend less on policing things that may have occurred because of the "breakdown of the family structure" if we invested a little bit at the start of that family structure to ensure it started on the right foot.  Although I don't see Senator Paul, or many of his colleagues, lining up to the support the President's proposal for paid family leave.  It often amazes me, not it a good way, how our country can claim to be founded on family values but develop public policy that seems to directly contradict that.        

So where does that leave us?  Personally, I think it has to be a multi-faceted approach.  Yes, it is great that some employers offer very generous paid parental leave benefits, but I don't believe that needs to fall on them (just like I don't believe employer sponsored health insurance or retirement plans should exist, but that's another topic).  This would be an impossible financial obligation for a lot of employers, especially small businesses.  It was a tongue-in-cheek comment by my colleague, but it can be seen as an unfair benefit for those who do not and choose not to have kids.  And what about those people who don't work outside the home and choose to stay home with their kids.  Aren't they essentially doing what a working parent is doing during his/her parental leave without receiving any sort of financial compensation?  I think it's a nice plus and recruiting tool when employers offer this benefit, but it can also create additional disparity between those employees who could afford to go without the benefit, and those who would likely benefit from it more.

Yes, I believe that the government has some responsibility to promote this.  Of course there are tax credits for having kids and the like, but I don't think we should be financially-incentivizing people to have kids.  We should be encouraging them to raise well adjusted children in a healthy family environment.  In numerous countries, there are income replacement stipends subsidized by the government for a portion of a worker's salary.  But this still alienates those who choose not to work outside the home.  In other countries, like Finland, parents receive a direct stipend following the birth of a child.  The most progressive benefit, but again, someone has to pay for this, and Finland, like its Scandinavian & European counterparts, has one of the highest tax rates in the world.  I do believe though, that in the $3.5 trillion Federal Government budget, some money could be set aside to provide financial assistance for new parents.  Again, maybe if more was invested up front, we'd be investing less elsewhere in programs and services, and wondering why our "family structure" and family values are in such disarray.

Ultimately though, it's up to us, as a society and especially those of us who are parents, to recognize the magnitude of responsibility that comes with parenthood, and ensure that our own actions match that belief.  We just celebrated Mother's Day this past weekend, and will celebrate Father's Day in about a month.  Most of us probably think we need to celebrate mothers and fathers year-round instead of trying to cram it all into one day, but what do we actually do to make this happen (I'm guilty of this as well).  Most of us are also probably familiar with the Forest Witcraft quote, and we love to broadcast it in frames at our offices or homes.  But how many of us actually take that quote to heart?  When I decided to stay home with my kids, I felt that was me doing my part to actually act on that sentiment.  By no means am I implying that if you don't do exactly what I do or did (like taking a substantial amount of time off when your kids are born or be a stay at home parent), you will be a bad parent and won't love your kids as much as I love my own.  I just know that for me, personally, having had that opportunity to spend as much time with my kids as I was following their births, and as I am able to today, I've become more of the parent I want to be and now better understand what is important in getting me to that point.  Be the parent you want to be.  Be the person you want to be, not what you think society wants you to be.