It’s not as unusual as it used to be that my husband is a stay-at-home dad while I have a job outside the home, but the way it happened was accidental. In fact, we’ve fallen into ass-backwards into just about everything Johnny and I have done related to adulting. I like to think of us as intentional parents, but that’s not how we started out. That it works for us the way it does is nothing short of magical.
When we met and fell in love, we were kids. We had no idea what we were doing, and it showed for years. We broke up. We got back together, we broke up again. Eventually, it was time to settle down or call it quits. We agreed we were committed, and suddenly we were trying to conceive. We got books, we made charts, I tracked my temperature and my mucus, I peed on sticks. Within five weeks, I was pregnant, and that served as a catalyst for us to get our act together for real. Marriage was an afterthought, but we decided hastily that it was important. We planned a tiny ceremony in the park, wrote vows, bought rings. I got myself a white maternity dress that I wore proudly, and we made the wedding a family affair: two spouses and their baby. But what would we do when the baby was born? Who would take care of her?
We couldn’t afford a nanny and it didn’t make sense to try. At the time, Johnny was working part-time and going to school. A full-time nanny would have cost far more than he was earning. Full-time day care was also expensive, and we agreed that we wanted to play a primary role in raising our baby ourselves. I tried to volunteer to stay home with her because I had some very specific ideas about how I was going to parent, but it didn’t make financial sense. I earned considerably more than my husband, worked more optimal hours, and had better perks and flexibility. Meanwhile, he hated school and hated his job and just didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up — other than a dad.
Of course I missed my baby terribly. But knowing she was with her daddy made me feel better about being away.
I took to mothering like a fish to water. I loved everything about it. I loved nursing, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, cloth diapering, bathing, all of it. But as much as I loved being home when each of my babies was first born, I also loved going back to work. I am lucky to have a job I love, that challenges me and invigorates me, and while I was on leave, I missed it. By the time my first parental leave was up, I was ready to be back at work full-time. My husband had quit his job. He took a leave from school. He was as ready to take over as he’d ever be, but he was nervous. So we practiced. I decided I’d go to the deli three blocks away, but he called me before I made it to the corner, begging me to come back because he didn’t know where to find the frozen breast milk. I went to get a pedicure, but before I sat in the chair, he called me and begged me to come back because she was crying, and he didn’t know what to do. The calls continued. He couldn’t find this, he couldn’t figure out that. Where was the laundry detergent? What brand of baby cookies did she like again? Finally, I went to work for half a day, and I worried that I was going to be summoned home. But that day, I wasn’t. He did just fine.
Of course I missed my baby terribly. But knowing she was with her daddy made me feel better about being away. All day long he texted me. He sent photos, he sent videos. I never missed a milestone because I was either there in person or watching it live on FaceTime. And slowly, he developed the confidence to make decisions himself, without consulting me. And I had to be okay with that. I had to give him the space to be the parent he is, not the parent I thought he should be.
For years we wondered what he would do once our kids were in school all day long. Would he return to work? Would he go back to school in the hopes of a more lucrative career later? We felt we needed the money, so it was only a question of time. Johnny stressed about this and I did too, but we focused on the present and agreed to shelve the conversation until we had good reason to revisit it.
As it turned out, we bought ourselves some time when our second child was diagnosed with a serious neurological disorder. Her prognosis was so precarious, especially at first, and her needs so vast and complex, that it made sense for one of her parents to be her primary caregiver, and we felt especially grateful we’d landed on this decision before she was even born. We wanted him to be available to take her to doctor appointments, evaluations, therapy sessions, and to be ready to drop everything and pick her up if she got sick or hurt. We felt he could be there for her as her parent in a way that no nanny or anyone else could possibly do.
I often worry that I am like the stereotypical American dad of the '50s and '60s: the breadwinner, the absent parent, always working. That when the girls are grown they will scoff to their friends, 'My mom was never around.'
After a few years, her health started to stabilize a bit and we wondered if Johnny’s tenure as stay-at-home-dad was winding down. But then my job changed, and I started traveling frequently. If he had been working too, that would have been impossible. When I am away, he does everything I cannot: he gets the girls ready for school, makes lunches, runs all the errands and does all the chores, goes food shopping and cooks, and becomes a chauffeur the moment the girls get off the school bus five days a week. He handles all the piano and guitar practice, gets them bathed and ready for bed, and reads stories until he can read no more. And because we have had to learn to live on one income alone, he does this almost entirely on his own. When I travel, I often work 12-hour days. When I travel, his days are even longer than mine. But he makes it work so that I can work to support our family.
I often worry that I am like the stereotypical American dad of the '50s and '60s: the breadwinner, the absent parent, always working. That when the girls are grown they will scoff to their friends, "My mom was never around." To combat this, we have developed an aggressive twice-daily Face Time schedule to say good morning and good night that I rarely miss even in different time zones. My older daughter and I read a chapter of the same book every night I am away so that we can talk about it the next morning. We all write letters, draw pictures, send postcards. Occasionally I bring back small gifts. We find lots of little ways to stay connected. And when I am back home, I elbow my way back in and take over as many drop-offs and pick-ups and trips to the library and books at bedtime I can cram into my schedule. It is inconsistently consistent, and I am grateful that even though I am away for long stretches, I do sometimes get to do the fun stuff that my kids will remember I was there for.
Strangely, Johnny is not exactly the Mr. Mom type. If you knew us, you would not guess that this is our ideal situation. He’s not social like most of the stay-at-home moms we know. He never arranges playdates or hangs out at the playground. And his executive function skills are not the same as mine: I make all the plans, I sign everyone up for activities. I schedule everything, make all the lists, pay all the bills. Johnny happily executes it all and more, but he keeps no lists, no schedule, no calendar. It’s just not who he is. I am exhausted at the end of the day from all that I manage for my job, plus the mental load of having to remind him to enter some mom’s phone number into his phone for the eighth time, or to look up the address for an appointment or a playdate because it’s easier for him to ask me than look it up himself, or what time so-and-so is coming to pick up her daughter from our house or, for the millionth time please use up the bok choy before it wilts entirely and can you please wash my favorite jeans so I can pack them for my trip tomorrow? He is exhausted because he does absolutely everything the girls and I ask of him while I am sequestered in my home office — including brewing and bringing me coffee all day long — or while I am on the road, often thousands of miles away.
So while we didn’t start out planning it this way, it has ended up working perfectly. I don’t think Johnny has any intention of returning to the workforce anytime soon, and the girls and I don’t want him to. This arrangement makes our lives manageable, so he has plenty to do right here at home, where he’s happy.