(Words of Wisdom from two Fredericksburg stay-at-home dads)
by Cabell Smith Melson
Would you notice a guy hauling a baby in an infant carrier into the bank at 11am on a Wednesday morning? Would you assume that it is "Daddy's day off," Mommy's sick or out of town, or Daddy works nights? Would you comment? If the response was "I stay home with my son" would you be surprised? Impressed?
This scenario happened recently to a local stay-at-home dad, Jonathan Hunley. The female bank employee who noticed him did think he was simply off for the day, but when corrected, she, like most folks, was supportive. In fact, Hunley says he has been surprised by how supportive and unfazed most people seem. Hunley, who writes from his home office, has even been "increasingly surprised by how many people in the business world are understanding…. It's not a masculine no-no, or a business faux pas if your kid interrupts a business phone call." Another local S.A.H.D., Lance Mitchell, has also been relieved to see that most people are generally supportive. He does add, however, that in his experience the women usually recognize the responsibility and exhaustion factor where as some men often don't "get it." "Everything is, 'Man, you've got it made, staying home all day,' and 'I would trade with you in a minute,' are a few of the responses I get. Not to mention the looks they give me. My response back is always, 'Come on over and babysit for me for a few minutes if you think it's so easy. (Never any takers!)'"
As a stay-at-home mother myself now for almost four years, I am well aware of the challenges, stereotyping, and misconceptions that come with the territory. As I have described in several of my "musings" articles, I struggle with the repetition, the isolation, the winter blahs, the tantrums, the loss of control, the mess, and the lack of intellectual stimulation. Yet, the perks are infinite, and I, like most stay-at-home moms wouldn't trade it for a second! I wondered how different the experience was for a dad experiencing this change in lifestyle, so I found a couple of local stay-at-home dads and we chatted.
My "subjects," introduced above, are both fathers of infant sons. Jonathan Hunley, dad of nine-month-old Jackson, is a writer. While his wife Beth is teaching Journalism and English to high school students at Fredericksburg Academy, Jonathan cares for his son and runs a successful small business. Lance Mitchell stays home with his three-month-old son Lance and cares for his six-year-old stepdaughter, Chloe, when she is not in school, while his wife Amy commutes to her D.C. job. Before his new job as an S.A.H.D., Lance did everything from property management to sales, to construction.
What do you see as the biggest surprises and challenges about being an S.A.H.D.? Your favorite parts? The most frustrating?
Jonathan: My biggest challenge is the time factor, seemingly never having enough time to get everything done. But I guess that makes for a surprise, too: it all does get done, somehow. And I'm no loonier for the enterprise. More tired, but no more loony. The most frustrating is related; sometimes I can't believe how long it takes to get somewhere with a baby, what with the car seat, and the diaper bag-packing, etc. Or how much stuff you have to take with you when you travel. These aren't unique to being a dad at home, I know, but . . . The best part has to be the moment when I'm rocking that little boy to sleep and he puts his head on my shoulder. It's that little gesture that says he knows that I'm supposed to be there for him, that he's counting on me to be there. It's a small--but important--affirmation that I really am a father. That there wasn't a mix-up at the hospital. This is my child, and I am his dad.
Lance: My experience so far has had its ups and downs. It has been, for the most part, what I expected, however, you can never really prepare yourself for it. My biggest surprise so far, is how fast the day goes by and the little time it leaves for getting anything else done. The feedings seem to never stop, after you start one, another is around the corner. It leaves very little time between the burps and the diaper changes before the next feeding is due to begin. I have been getting better at managing my time to run errands, but, as you know, you have that small window before feeding time starts again. Biggest challenge for me so far is REST...I am not a napper, so I find myself being exhausted by mid-week. If I could learn to "let things go" and get back to them when I have the time, that would be huge. Favorite thing, by far, is watching him grow and all the new sounds and facial expressions I see for the first time. My least favorite would have to be not being able to be in control of my day...everything is depending on the baby...planning is virtually impossible because you never know what is waiting around the corner. (Gassy ,wet, cranky, tired, etc., etc., etc.)
Images of Michael Keaton's "Mr Mom" or Eddie Murphy's chaotic set-up in "Daddy Daycare" make a mockery of those dads considering the job. So, here's some more relevant advice from Jonathan and Lance for those brave men contemplating taking over care at home.
Jonathan: I'll borrow from the real-estate world. The three most important things are: be flexible, be flexible, be flexible. Now, I have a different scenario than a lot of stay-at-home parents, male or female, because I run a business out of the house. It's the smallest of the small, of course--one employee--but I still have to work as much as I can. Some days I get a ton done. Other days, zip. So if I have to work after midnight, I do it. If I have to work after 2 a.m., I do it. But I try to always keep my eye on the prize. The most important job--more significant than any of my paying work, though I love my clients--is being a father. So if something has to be sacrificed, it is never the well-being of my child. Sometimes that's made me late to appointments, or caused me to miss important phone calls--the kind where even if you call the person back a minute later, you can't reach him or her--but that's okay. All my clients know the deal when they hire me, and they've all been supportive. For that I'm eternally grateful. My other piece of advice--which sounds silly, but is serious--is lots of caffeine.
Lance: Buckle-up boys! It's not easy. Throw the ego out the window and start changing some diapers! Car seats and leaving the house is a whole other story..... Also, staying home is harder in my opinion. I have done it all over the years, from selling cellular services to pouring concrete. But, with every other job I have ever worked, there was always the down time.... No down time at home!
So, if you are still ready to join this elite group, you might be wondering how many men there are out there like you. Locally, hard to say; nationally, also hard to say. Statistics are misleading and inaccurate. The National Census, for example, indicates that there were approximately 147,000 S.A.H.D.'s in the United States in 2005 but this number does not reflect men who work from home or those who have stayed home for less than a year. Jonathan and Lance, therefore, wouldn't qualify, although given what each has been doing for the past several months, I bet they both feel like they should! Suffice it to say, that the numbers of S.A.H.D.'s are increasing and there are many more out there than the numbers indicate.
Once you've joined the ranks, where do you go for help, support, or play-dates? For stay-at-home moms, there are varied and ample support groups such as MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) where a mom can seek friends and advice. For men in this traditional feminine role, such groups may not seem so inviting. Venues such as Toddlin' Time, Mother Goose story time at one of our local libraries, a Baby Signs class or Music Together class, or a local Parks and Recs playgroup are great options for getting out of the house, socializing your baby or toddler, and meeting some friendly, supportive comrades, albeit possibly of the opposite sex. Another helpful option is getting online. Jonathan's favorite website is Rebeldad.com which includes links to "dad sites," numerous dad blogs, and even tips for starting your own dad's group. Jonathan also points out that Brian Reid, who runs Rebeldad, also contributes to a blog on work-family issues on washingtonpost.com. Finally, read words of wisdom from Jonathan himself: he has a column on Tuesdays in the Free Lance Star and subject is often related to his experience as a stay-at-home dad in Fredericksburg.
Jonathan and Lance may not make the cut according to the National Census, but they are clearly holding the fort at home with gusto despite a lack of prior "job experience". And to borrow a quote from Rebeldad.com, they are an inspirational example that "Men who change diapers change the world." Here's to them and all those men out there who are "changing the world" by changing diapers, carpooling to sports practices, wiping runny noses, kissing boo-boos, and running a household. Daddy's Home!