On Becoming a Suburban, Stay-at-Home Dad
NOTE: This piece was originally published on 5.2.16.
“So you’ll be, like, a stay-at-home dad?” my brother asked, with a mixture of genuine curiosity and probably a little amusement.
“I prefer work-from-home,” I responded. “But, yeah, that’s the plan.”
I was explaining the plans my wife and I had cobbled together in reaction to our new life — the one where we were suddenly parents to an adorable baby girl.
After nearly a decade of toiling in the professional worlds, we had reached a critical crossroads: We had to figure out who would watch the baby. We were appalled that our home state had the most expensive childcare in the nation, yet we couldn’t afford the transition to a single-income family.
Something had to give, so we had to start thinking more creatively about work/life balance. And with my wife’s maternity leave ending, the window to make that change was closing.
Since I had already been researching the possibility of a freelance writer lifestyle, it was a logical time to officially make the leap. My company, though, graciously offered to let me work part-time as a remote employee. It was really the best of all possible worlds: I’d have no interruption in my career history and would still get weekly (albeit reduced) paychecks.
I was ready to dive-head first into this new stage of life. My vision of telecommuting included leisurely breakfasts over giant mugs of coffee, working from my sparkling home office blissfully free of distractions, and generally passing the hours with the enlightened serenity of someone who’s escaped the rat race and the everyday grind of urban life.
I was — to put it kindly — misinformed about the lifestyle.
My first of many errors was underestimating the time and care and attention and energy and emotional presence a baby requires. Unlike adult relationships, where you can discuss House of Cards while prepping dinner and thumbing through timelines on Facebook, babies are terrible multitaskers.
And even when you have the time to work, you’re not always in the right headspace. Workplace tasks require a certain presence of mind — it takes sustained concentration to diplomatically answer emails, make insightful contributions to a meeting, and brainstorm innovative solutions to complex problems.
But juggling work responsibilities with childcare often means constantly switching contexts, sometimes a dozen times a minute. By the time I brush my teeth, I’m already physically, mentally, and emotionally burned out.
Then there’s the decision fatigue. Every day with an infant requires an endless litany of little decisions. Should she nap before she eats, or after? Will she like the pears better than the apples? Is it worth packing the jogging stroller, knowing there’s a 30% chance of rain?
Being a parent is very much like being a CEO — you don’t have to be right every time, but you do have to be decisive.
My second error was assuming our baby would respect my work schedule. I learned quickly that “real” work is done during the sweet spot when a) the baby is sleeping, and b) all your basic human bodily needs have been taken care of. You’d think those cycles would overlap pretty frequently, but they often don’t. Put the baby down for a nap, step into the shower, and by the time you turn the water off your baby has pooped so hard she’s startled herself awake — which begins a new cycle of changing, soothing, shooshing. So much shooshing.
My third error was being overly ambitious about the delightful father-daughter bonding moments we’d have every day: Trips to the park, swingsets, pointing out and naming cataloging exotic bird species.
These were the activities that filled my head when I envisioned being a work-from-home dad. But what I came to realize is that taking your baby further than the mailbox requires as much preparation and forethought as a weekend ski trip to Aspen.
You have to think about transportation (stroller, car seat, Baby Bjorn), hygiene (baby wipes, hand sanitizer), feeding (formula, water, bottles, applesauce, spoons, bibs, burp clothes), weather protection (hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, coat), and about six changes of clothes that you absolutely will need. Then there’s your wallet and phone and watch and keys and other adult stuff. So the thought of a long walk or a trip to the pond to feed the ducks quickly becomes a mental exercise in inventory management and disaster preparedness.
I still manage to do some fun excursions when I have a big enough window between my meetings. I have to overcome the inertia because these experiences aren’t just for my benefit — they’re for hers as well. So I pack the bag, arrange the supplies, and walk our daughter to the library on an early spring day when the air is full of the promise of flowers.
I keep my expectations in line, though. We can feed the ducks as soon as she can tie her own shoes.
My wife works for a financial startup. One of their guest speakers put forward the radical idea that, at least for Millennials in the 21st century, “flexibility is the new wealth.”
So my decision to become a remote worker hung on a single hypothesis: I’d be happier shedding the “old school” lifestyle (daily commuting, endless meetings, competitive career jostling, the lure of professional prestige) and embracing the new goal of an autonomous, decentralized work/life balance.
One aspect motivating this decision was my realization that our colleagues get the lion’s share of our time. They get us at our freshest, our most alert, on our best behavior.
Our family and friends are the ones who get our lesser but more authentic selves: beat down by a long commute, drained from the endless treadmill of work, frustrated by the million little things that didn’t go our way while the sun was shining.
By stepping out of the cycle of chasing new and better jobs in the city, I hoped to rebalance that system, and save the best parts of myself for my new family.
But what, really, is at stake when we take ourselves out of the rat race? I’ve spent the last 10 years working my way up some kind of ladder; I’ve only been unemployed once, for a handful of weeks, after I withdrew from my graduate program. So I’m used to always working toward something, even if that something is just continuing the career momentum of what I’ve already built.
Education is almost always presented as a means to meaningful employment, and I had a decade and a half of school before I filled out my first W2. Was I throwing it all away — all the time spent studying, memorizing facts, writing papers, asking questions — in vain, in pursuit of some fictionalized “better” life?
Besides the potential career stalling, there were other concerns that, in my rare moments of quiet, fueled a gnawing existential angst.
One was the loneliness. Isolation is the default sensation as a remote employee. While “working from home” isn’t the same as quitting your job, it certainly feels like it for me: Divorced from the physical and social interactions of the office, I miss out on hundreds of micro-moments during the day that deepen my professional relationships and create the sense of belonging, of being indispensable. Of being part of a group.
I think that’s why coworking spaces and coffee shop alliances are so important. They fill the social need to be in the company of other people, even if those people are latte-buying strangers. I’m still finding my new tribe. It will probably be a mix of neighborhood parents, some fellow remote workers, and people I’m connected to over social media. While these digital connections can’t replicate the warmth of a hand on a shoulder or the comfort of a smile in person, it’s still a welcome lifeline when I’m feeling marooned and adrift on the days when my wife, who also works from home three days a week, is at her office.
Another concern was the loss of identity. I’ve always felt a certain pride and satisfaction in having a clear-cut answer when someone asks me what I do. The first few times I had to answer the question as a remote worker, I stumbled. “Well, I work part-time from home, and I do freelance writing. And I also help out with our daughter.” I felt an overwhelming need to justify my experience by rattling off the activities that fill my day.
Now that the dust has started to settle I’m working to embrace my new fluid identity as a positive rather than a negative. I’m learning to see it as a blessing and an opportunity: A chance to explore all the things that aren’t logistically possible when you’re bound to an office: volunteering, navigating the maze of neighborhood sidewalks, being aware of new doors being opened.
It’s funny what a difference a preposition can make. “Stay at home” has a frozen, anchored denotation. It implies being hopelessly fixed in place.
“Stay” is a command we give our dogs, after all.
But “work from home” seemed much more positive and progressive. It has a kind of Jetsons-like optimistic sheen to it. The merging of worlds through the promises of technology. And, selfishly, I liked the subtle reminder that I was still working.
I wasn’t giving up my career, I told myself! I was just changing the scenery. And whenever the tea kettle of anxiety would whistle in my head, I’d convince myself that the real losers were the ones who remained: the ones shuffling their tired bodies into an office, fighting hordes of subway zombies and the brutal, notorious New England winters.
I, on the other hand, was the Icarus who fashioned my escape from office drudgery, not with feathers and wax, but with the simple boldness to advocate for a better work/life balance.
Disabusing myself of these notions has been an uncomfortable journey. Choosing the unfamiliar requires sacrificing comfort and security. But being a parent has also taught me that complacency is its own form of death. That joy is not the logical result of following a set of plans but rather found unexpectedly in the mud and mire of challenging situations.
A friend who had two daughters of his own advised me not to make any big life changes when the baby is born. I understood the good intentions of his advice but disregarded it anyway. After all, my wife and I have had five addresses and ten jobs between us since getting married. We’ve never sat still.
Which is what gives me hope that being a work-from-home suburban dad is just one step along the path.