Confessions of a Househusband

Hi, my name is Chris, and I am a househusband and stay-at-home dad.

There, I’ve said it.

Like many who came of age in the 1970s and early ’80s, being a stay-at-home father had always seemed like an option for me. After all, the feminist movement promised to offer new possibilities to women and men alike. Why shouldn’t women have full-time careers? Why shouldn’t men have the option of caring for their children? Why adhere to outdated gender roles? Why? Why?

Why indeed? My wife makes more money than I ever expect to: college adjuncts are not known for their earning power. It just made sense for me to stay at home. But like many of life’s options, this one seemed rosier before I had considered all sides of it. I’m not referring to the familiar, hackneyed complaints of new parents. The first few weeks of our baby’s life were a challenge, but no more so than for any other parents. Lack of sleep, dirty diapers, drool, etc., etc., ad nauseam ad familycircus; I took these in stride. It’s true that our baby farts loudly and shamelessly, screams and cries when thwarted in the least of his desires, pukes without warning and regularly wakes up soaked in his own urine. But I have taught at a university, so coping with this behavior is old hat. And, unlike frat boys, the baby is eager to learn new things and always happy to see me.

No, for me the interesting part arrived when my wife returned to work and I suddenly became the Primary Care Provider. The first and most shocking discovery was the baby’s omnipresence. The parenting guidebooks said never to leave the baby alone; but this phrase implies much more than the casual observer can imagine. Wherever I go, the baby goes. This may not seem onerous until one considers all the minor daily tasks that the childless take for granted. Out of milk? Just hop over to the grocery store — but not without the baby. Trash piling up on the back landing? Haul it to the curb — but not without the baby. The baby is there when I go to the bank, and sits watching me while I shower. I’d be touched by the depth of his devotion if he were ambulatory.

The baby is not only a constant companion, but one whose presence adds time to every venture. A trip to the grocery store loses its pristine simplicity when it becomes an Outing, complete with putting sweater, hat and socks on the baby; buckling him into the car safety seat; covering the seat with the snuggly fleece; and setting up the stroller and inserting the car seat into the stroller. This is, by the way, only what one has to do at the beginning of the trip. It all has to be reversed at the end. We usually have time for exactly one of these Outings between feedings, and it’s a lucky day when the Outing doesn’t make me collapse in exhaustion. (Provided the baby is willing to nap while I collapse, which has become less and less likely as he gets older.)

Something else I hadn’t really prepared for was putting my work life on hold. This is a concern foreign to the many parents who maintain two-income families by putting their children in day care. I should confess that I hadn’t really had much of a career before the baby was born. I was one of the unlucky ones who made it all the way through graduate school and was then unable to find an academic job other than that of Adjunct Instructor. An adjunct is the professorial equivalent of a temp: employed for the short term, at low wages, with no benefits and no institutional power. Adjunct wages are so low that it made no financial sense for me to try to keep working: day care expenses would have been higher than my take-home pay.

But even a lousy academic job can seem more worthwhile than it is, in retrospect. I’d spent almost two decades of my life at one university or another, as student or as instructor. Losing that last connection to academia, however tenuous it may have been, was more psychologically difficult than I’d anticipated. Yet it wasn’t the final expulsion into the Real World that bothered me. In leaving academia, I was leaving behind my connections to almost all institutions outside the home, and I wasn’t really ready for it.

A job isn’t just a source of income. It’s a place to meet people, to make friends. It can provide diversion and variety; at the very least, it helps prevent cabin fever. At best, it can give a sense of connection, of participation, of belonging. I’d gotten used to finding all these things at work. I had made friends whom I would rarely see, now that I was at home all the time. I had served on university committees and helped create policies for the schools where I worked; but now that was gone, too. I had taught hundreds of students over the years, and in each semester I had made real connections with some of them. For most of these students, I had been their first guide to the great literature and philosophy of the Western world; but not any more. My world had shrunk to our apartment and the grocery store. Instead of hundreds of students, I just have the one.

And even these details don’t capture all of it. I still have some connections to the outside world, but I no longer do what most people think of as work. Whatever gains the feminist movement may have achieved, most men still think of themselves as meant to work — and they don’t mean housework or child care. To my great surprise, I’ve discovered that this self-image had taken root as deeply in me as in any other modern American man. As I explained to a colleague before the baby was born, I had, without knowing it, internalized the familiar American values of work and success. And discovering that I’d done so did not magically free me from their grip. (When I internalize values, they stay internalized.) Giving up a career meant that I had to search for new answers to the questions “What are you?” and “What do you do?”

Those questions used to be easy to answer. “I’m in college.” “I’m a graduate student.” “I’m a college teacher.” I had nice, solid-sounding labels that helped me ground myself in the wider world. Those labels told people (and, more importantly, told me) that I belonged to an Institution, and that I was Headed Somewhere. There was always a lecture to prepare, an exam to grade, a paper to research and write. I had a reason to wake up early, a place to go, a desk — a little outpost to call my own — and work to occupy my hands and my mind. These things are gone. Now I have a home, some hobbies, a few friends, my wife and the boy. I am no longer a teacher, no longer a scholar. So what am I? What do I do? Now, I am a father and I take care of the baby.

I am a father and I take care of the baby. Luckily, the parenting books fall short on both the negative and positive aspects of being a father. They couldn’t really explain what a change it is to have the baby by one’s side all day long; nor could they explain why it’s ultimately not such a burden. I have to be there every second of the day; but this also means that I get to be there every second. (This is something that my wife envies more than she had expected.) When I wake up in the morning, his smile is one of the first things I see. When he plays, I get to watch and play along. He thrives on my attention, and I on his. On our Outings, I get to see strangers coo over him, as is his due. And I may not have as many conversations about politics and philosophy as I once did, but I know that when I talk to the baby, he’s hanging on every nonsense word. I’ve gained much more than I’ve lost.