This past year my wife and I grew weary of the vertiginous dance of dual-career parenting. In the end, I decided to surrender the professorial life in order to pursue nonacademic writing and be with my kids, who are one and three. Everyone has been very supportive: "You’re doing the right thing." "You’ll never regret it." "You go, girl." The trouble is, the most well-intentioned encouragement feels perfunctory, irrelevant, even intrusive. I experience what I’m doing as intensely private, so nearly any comment strikes me as shallow or misguided. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever undertaken, and the most difficult part of it is inside my own head.
If you want me to rebel, label me. And I’ve never rebelled harder than I have from the label "At-home Dad." I know, I know, their numbers are growing, society is more accepting, and possibilities for networking and support abound. There are even conventions and the inevitable Web sites for men on (and I cringe even to write this term) the daddytrack. The most popular and complete, Slowlane.com, says its "mission" is "to help dads connect with other dads." There are chats, loops and Web rings (whatever those are). The acronym of choice is (are you ready?) SAHDthat’s Stay-At-Home Dad.
All this convening, networking and supporting is a tad cloying and leaves me cold. In a recent New York Times article clearly intended to enlighten the public and dispel stereotypes about at-home dads, the one photo chosen depicts a room full of squabbish, balding, unkempt SAHD’s, fists fecklessly raised in self-applauding solidarity, as if to say "We’re at-home dads, and that’s A-O.K. Let’s hear it for US!" Hey, what’s not to love about that picture? No stereotype there.
That’s just it. Publicly drawing attention to it and seeking to garner recognition and approval and respect, while it is understandable to me, doesn’t feel right. For one thing, women have been "homemaking" in obscurity for centuries. Besides, attempting to make a "movement" or "phenomenon" out of a personal decision seems to produce the opposite effect. It reduces a complex being to a fixed identity.
I recoil from any such network. It’s not isolation from other dads or parents that makes my SAHDness difficult, but the isolation from myself. Feeling oversimplified and attenuated is what I battle every day. My life is a series of foibles and episodes of comic inadequacy. A bemused passenger on a runaway train, I find myself by turns embracing the madcap ride and throwing up my hands in utter frustration at its apparent lack of destination.
Upon entering my daughter’s preschool room the other day, I heard one of her playmates say, "Ellen, your mom’s here." My smile disguised the pang I felt, but the truth is my struggle has less to do with gender roles than with human roles. It may be different for a man, but it may not be. It doesn’t matter. As for many other at-home parents, virtually every ounce of my emotional energy is focused on spending as much time as possible with my young children without losing a grip on my self in the process.
The result is one of parenthood’s supreme ironies. The question, Who am I? was until my mid-30’s the subject of deep reflection, a consistent (though by no means constant) part of my inner journey and my allocation of time. Now that my time and schedule aren’t my own, that question has assumed genuine existential urgency; yet even as the question feels more peremptory and more palpably real than ever before, the time for contemplating itindeed, the time for my growth and identity as someone other than a parentis almost nil.
The kids and my wealth of time with them are the source of immeasurable joy and indescribable psychic chaos. I’m happier than I ever thought possible, even as I routinely feel like I’ve reached the end of my rope. It’s not so much the awareness that I’m only nominally in charge or that I dictate my own schedule only in a theoretical sense. What makes me feel like a bit of a hostage, or like a stranger in my own brain, is being overcomesometimes lying awake at night, sometimes lying on the floor playing with blocksby the sense that I’m no longer author of my own mind. It’s the sudden, haunting recognition that I’ve been humming "The Farmer in the Dell" for three days. It’s realizing that I’m preoccupied not by nagging philosophical questions or edifying images, but by imagining Hansel and Gretel’s delight upon discovering a house made entirely of sweets.
The fact is, I’d like to write a profound essay about life as an at-home dad, but it feels more authentic to admit how often I feel I’m on the verge of losing my mind, both in the sense of going slightly bonkers and in the sense of intellectual atrophy. But my self-absorbed fretting and puling always come to an abrupt end with some surprise gift, one of the countless offerings freely given to me all day every day by my childrentwo beautiful souls, worthy companions for a lifetime, not reducing but enlarging me in untold ways, consuming my energy and perhaps kidnaping my brain for a time that I know will be all too brief.
I am what I’ve chosen to be: the center of their universe who must answer their every need. I never regret the choice, and I never stop wrestling with it.
Thomas J. McCarthy