I never expected to be a stay-at-home dad
Special to The Washington Post
I did not seek this role, and I was caught off-guard by my ability to perform it well
I never expected to be a stay-at-home parent. Even after two years, my role still surprises me. Before my son’s birth, the idea of becoming his daily caregiver seemed laughable. I had no experience caring for small children, much less an infant. No-one had ever asked me to babysit their kids, except one time when my sister was in a bind. In that case, I could hear the desperation in her voice as she asked me to watch my three-year-old nephew.
The thought of staying at home with my son first crossed my mind after my wife and I concluded that I needed to resign from my job for the sake of my sanity. After her maternity leave ended and she returned to full-time work, I agreed to care for my four-month-old son while I was unemployed. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement.
Leaving work to become his primary caregiver felt like a death blow to my male ego. I consider myself an open-minded person, but my progressive views were no match for the residue of a tradition that expects men to work outside the home. I was a young man with a career, ambition and professional dreams, and the critical voice within reminded me that the choice to care for my son did not match the version of masculinity that had formed me. During those first few months, I learned to prepare bottles of breast milk and insert rectal thermometers and bounce my son to sleep. It was demanding work; different from a nine-to-five job but exhausting in its own way. In those first months, I didn’t have a clue if I was competent or not, and my self-esteem plummeted.
However, as I learned to balance the daily routine of child care and to understand my son’s particular needs, I had an illuminating realisation. I wish I could point to a moment — a diaper change or a doctor’s appointment that revealed my new insight — but I can’t. It was an intuitive feeling, a signal in my gut that told me I was good at caring for him. My temperament is suited to the work. Despite my initial reservations and concerns, my calmness and patience matched the needs of an unpredictable baby. Even my wife, who wondered how long the arrangement would last, noticed how well I fit my new role.
What did this discovery mean? It was confusing. I did not seek this role, and I was caught off-guard by my ability to perform it well. I didn’t know if I should embrace or resist this newfound knowledge. My discovery made sense in some ways, because I’ve never been the type of guy to identify with traditional masculinity. I’ve just imitated it. I am sensitive, feeling-oriented and nurturing. Tough guys do not appeal to me, and when I have tried to imitate them, I have failed miserably (and believe me, I’ve tried).
Looking back on that first year, I realise that caring for my son helped me access my capacity to nurture. It gave me an opportunity to grow into this side of myself and in so doing, to become more whole. What felt like a downturn in my personal and professional life — a moment of shame and unemployment — led to plenty of good. It gave me the chance to become my true self.
I’ve experienced joy in moving closer to my authentic nature, but I still fear announcing this discovery to the world. I know how our macho culture treats men who reveal a nurturing and sensitive side. It definitely does not celebrate them and often, they are ostracised for expressing something that makes other men uncomfortable.
This insecurity makes me worry about how other men will view me. I’ve experienced their bewildered stares as I carried my son in a cloth wrap, strapped to my chest. Will they call me a pansy, or a wimp? I’m sure some will, and that many will project their insecurities onto me. I’ve done the same.
The thing I’m most terrified to admit out loud is how completely I’ve embraced my nurturing side. I find myself wondering what it would be like to carry a baby full-term, and labour to deliver it. I find myself wondering what it would be like to breast-feed. The thoughts are rooted in envy, because as a male I will never be able to achieve the same bond with my child that a mother develops because of biological features.
Becoming a stay-at-home father has been a blessing for me, but I don’t want to romanticise daily child care; at times, it is mind-numbing. There are beautiful moments, but there are also brutal days when you want to lie in a dark room and cry because you feel so overwhelmed. It has heightened my struggle with anxiety and depression and sleeplessness. Yet, despite the gruelling work, I have fallen in love with caring for my son. I find deep joy in nurturing him. The role given to me as his father is a natural and safe relationship that allows me to explore my nurturing side. It’s one of the richest blessings of my life.
If you had told me the day I left my job that I would love caring for my son every day, I would have scoffed. If you had asked me what good could come from a man with a master’s degree leaving work to care for a baby who slept half the day, I would have told you not much. But if you ask me now what good has come from me caring for my son, I would say everything.