Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Father's Day: Being a daddy really is the best job in the world"

David Neiwert:
I knew from the time I was a teenager that if I ever got the opportunity, I wanted to try my hand at being a stay-at-home father. My youngest brother was born when I was 11 and I wound up learning a lot about child care – especially the knowledge that it was a special thing.

The opportunity didn’t come till I was in my forties, which was when my wife, Lisa, and I decided that it was finally time to have a child. I was looking for an opportunity to do something besides my longtime newsroom work, and she had just been hired by a major software company; we’d intended all along for one of us to remain at home when we did have a child, so I bid farewell to the regular paycheck, built up my freelance writing business from home, and when Fiona was born in May 2001, I launched into the serious work of being the primary caregiver for our baby girl.
That was more than seven years ago, and Fiona’s been in school full-time for over two years now; the intervening time has given me room to put the experience of being a stay-at-home dad in some perspective.

And I have to tell you: it's been without question the most satisfying and rewarding thing I've done in my life. When I shuffle off this mortal coil, it will be with the knowledge I really did accomplish something worthwhile, and nothing can take that away.

Perhaps more to the point, it's only confirmed my belief that it's an experience more men need. It's important not just for making men better fathers, but I think also for helping women be better mothers -- and most of all, for giving child-rearing the cherished and significant place it should have in broader society.

It was hard, often sleepless, often nerve-wracking, and sometimes unpleasant work, but it was also the best job I ever had. Yet as the months and years added up, and I spent days on end at playgrounds, gymnasiums, swimming pools, and in playdates, it became plain that there really is a certain amount of resistance among a lot of people to the concept of stay-at-home daddies.

And even though a lot of women thought it was neat that a man was being the primary caregiver, there was at times a certain resentment from some women over my invasion of what for them was their territory. Some of this was perfectly understandable; when Fiona was a toddler, the topics of conversation among the gathered mothers often veered into various complaints about female bodily functions, and became my habit to wander off at such moments.

Then there were moments -- whispered comments, offhand remarks, strange assumptions -- where I was reminded that a lot of people, both men and women, privately viewed stay-at-home daddies as wimps or out-of-work losers.

Well, all this faded to insignificance amid the daily reality of raising a child. It's impossible to put into words the immensity of the rewards that come with it: you watch them grow in body and spirit, become real little persons with real minds, dreams, and desires all their own, and you bond with them in a way that lasts for life and maybe beyond. I've done many good and rewarding things in my life, but none of them has meant quite as much as being Fiona's daddy. What other people thought, really, hardly mattered at all, because I knew the score.

Certainly, it never seemed to me that my masculinity might be at stake. Indeed, I've never encountered anything that came close to making me feel like a "real man" as being a daddy.

Caring for children teaches us patience and generosity -- forces it upon us, really -- and that makes better men, regardless of what the people who obsess about a fake notion of masculinity might say. A male presence (that is, if your notion of maleness is about strength and drive) also brings a groundedness and confidence to the table that I think nurtures children in important ways.

Encouraging stay-at-home fatherhood makes for a healthier society in a lot of ways. It makes us better fathers. That in turn makes for better-rounded children who are going to be better citizens. It also helps women whose goals might extend beyond family-rearing reach those goals. It makes more equal partners out of us, and I think makes for a stronger marriage.

I suspect, in fact, that part of my being enthralled with the job had to do with its being somewhat special -- sensing that in many ways, I scored extra points (in the great Parenting Game in the Sky) just for doing it. But this also made me realize that women don't get those extra points. They're expected to do the child-rearing, and so for them the job often loses its specialness, at least insofar as getting recognition and respect. It seemed to me that being a stay-at-home mom becomes drudgery for many women, and that is a sad thing, really. Yes, it is hard work, but it's great work.
Raising children -- especially in their first six years -- is something that a sane and healthy society should celebrate as one of its most cherished and celebrated jobs. It's how we shape our future, and that is a task for men and women alike, equally. It's a task to be embraced, not relegated to the back bench. And the more people – men and women alike – who learn that, the better off we all will be.
Howie P.S.: My daughter is in high school, and appears to feel less in need of paternal love and affection these days. My own "stay-at-home" Daddying has been limited to brief intervals, but I agree with Neiwert 100% and continue to feel very much needed even now for transportation and revenue in addition to food provision (including take-out) and preparation. She is headed to Latin America this summer for six weeks to work in a small community doing volunteer work and I'm sure the separation will much more painful for me than for her. The photo above shows my offspring at age 10. Taking a look at fatherhood from another angle, Melissa Harris-Lacewell writes that Obama is right to focus on fathers, but his life story suggests a more complex reality. She observes
Had his father remained, Mr. Obama would never have lived in Indonesia,and his grandparents would have taken a less active role in his upbringing. Had his father been present, he might have had less adolescent angst - but that angst was part of what sent him into a world of books from which he emerged a formidable intellectual. Part of Barack Obama's greatness is his fatherlessness.

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