The Stay-at-Home Dad Handbook
By Peter Baylies, Jessica Toonkel
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2004 Peter Baylies with Jessica Toonkle
All rights reserved.
Starting Your New Career
A few weeks before Christmas 1992, my childcare provider called me at work with a worried tone in her voice. "I think your son has a fever," she said. "He won't stop crying. What should I do?" Just an hour after I'd dropped off my son at childcare, I found myself back in my car, rushing to pick him up. But as I reversed my dreaded one-hour commute, I secretly felt glad that, despite my son's illness, I had an excuse to spend a weekday with him.
During that drive, I began to daydream about what it would be like to stay home full time with my then nine-month-old son and how it would make my family's life so much easier, since we wouldn't have the rush-rush lifestyle of two working parents. This was an idea that I liked to think about a lot, but since I didn't think we could pull it off financially, I didn't have the nerve to quit my job.
John was born the previous March; my wife, Sue, a schoolteacher, had stayed home with him, right through her summer vacation. My boss allowed me to stay home for a week with my baby, which was about par for many dads at the time in the corporate world. (The Family and Medical Leave Act, which would have allowed me up to twelve weeks to care for my son, didn't exist yet. It wasn't signed into law by President Bill Clinton until August 1993.)
That fall, we were lucky enough to find an excellent daycare center on our street. Like many of our friends, we found ourselves living the day-to-day dual income lifestyle. Each morning, I would drop John off at daycare at 7:30, the beginning of my commute to work. Although my son was in good hands, my wife would be worried sick because, in a group of six other children, she feared he wasn't getting the one-on-one attention that she could give him. An entry in my wife's journal, written for John to read someday, was telling: September 22, 1992: "I wish I could be with you every second of the day and protect you. All these ear infections, colds, fears — You are so young for it all. ... I miss the time with you." She could hardly wait to pick him up at four o'clock each weekday.
My wife's anxiety led us to discuss the possibility of her staying home with John, but I feared that the layoffs at my computer company might catch up with me.
On a Friday afternoon in December, one of the many waves of layoffs that swept through my company finally captured me in its wake. My boss informed me that I was "involuntarily terminated." As I sat there in shock, wondering what the future would hold, anxious at how we would make ends meet, I was secretly relieved and happy. My wish to stay home with John had come true. It was the best Christmas present I'd ever received from a boss! I finally had my son on a full-time basis.
This chapter will give you a first taste of what it will be like to be an at-home dad and will provide an introduction to the challenges you'll face.
Making the Decision
Whether you decide to be the primary caregiver voluntarily or as a result of circumstance, the new role will take you by surprise. It will change your life just as your decision to get married or have a child did, and like those events, it will come with many joys and disappointments. Peter Steinberg of Springfield, Virginia, started making his decision during the many chats he had with his kids' preschool teacher, who supported the idea. "She had a big influence on us, and it got my wife and me talking seriously about it," he says. When his oldest child asked why he worked, the only thing he could say was, "So I can pay for daycare for you." Then a defining moment came that made him quit.
One time when I went to pick my son up at preschool, there was a very bad car accident. It usually takes thirty minutes to get to daycare, but this time it took three hours. When I finally got there, my son was watching the news instead of Barney, and said to me, "Daddy, I thought you would never pick me up."
Add to that the fact that his wife, Caroline, made more money, and the decision to stay home was pretty clear.
Timothy Nohe of Catonville, Maryland, who cares for three children, says,
I quit my electrical engineering job eighteen months ago and haven't looked back. I hated that job. All government work and programming. Yuck! We had a seventeen-year-old daughter, a five-year-old son, and a six-month-old son we had adopted as an infant. The baby was in daycare. My wife made more than 60 percent of our household income. More than half of my share went to daycare and before and after care. What's wrong with this picture?
Brian Rollins of Dayton, Ohio, says his main reason for becoming a stay-at-home dad was simply to be there for his kids:
My own instinct before I started being an at-home dad (five years ago) was that young children needed a parent to be there for them at all times. Day in and day out I have been there for my three sons. We've spent long, lazy days roaming the local park and throwing rocks in the "little river." We've ridden the city bus and explored downtown with all the glass buildings and old-fashioned elevators. We've spent hours just snuggling together on the couch and watching silly kids shows. (Yep, TV is probably not a good thing, but the closeness we feel for each other during those times is one of my most precious memories.) I've learned about my own feelings toward my kids and gotten to know them better than just about anybody else on the planet. In turn, my kids have learned about who I really am. It has been a good experience for all of us.
Stories such as those of these men fit the results of researcher Dr. Robert Frank, who conducted a survey of 368 readers of the At-Home Dad Newsletter. Dr. Frank found that the main reason dads stayed home is to keep their kids out of daycare.
Many dads are not fortunate enough to choose to stay at home with their kids, and instead find themselves in this role due to a tough economy. More and more men are taking on the role of primary caregiver simply because they cannot find a job. When I lost my job, I seized the opportunity to be an at-home dad, but many fathers do not. For these dads, who are making the change not by choice but by necessity, the adjustment may be more challenging, and at times, unbearable.
Whether you are considering becoming an at-home dad by choice or this role is thrust upon you, there are a number of important issues to discuss with your partner that will help you make an informed decision. It's important to be honest and open during this discussion and also to be a good listener. Here are some issues you'll need to discuss to figure out how this choice will affect your household financially and emotionally:
* What are your fixed expenses?
* What are your variable expenses?
* Can you meet all of these needs on one income?
* What does daycare cost?
* How much will you automatically save by being at home (daycare, car expenses, work clothes)?
* Are there ways you can cut down on expenses to make it possible to survive on just one income?
* What are the benefits of this choice in terms of cooking, and thus of saving money by eating out less?
* How will the loss of a second income affect your family's entertainment?
* Will family vacations still be possible?
* Can you afford to hire a babysitter and go out on a date without the kid(s)?
* Are you the kind of person who can stay home during the day?
* What are the long-term benefits to your children and wife?
There are many more issues to discuss, but this list will give you a good head start.
The First Days
Since it was Christmastime when I was laid off, and Sue was off on her school's Christmas break, too, I had the luxury to treat my first days as an at-home dad like a vacation. My vacation ended the day she returned to work. That's the day being an at-home dad officially became my new career. As the winter days got colder, my new life jarred me out of my cubicle-induced autopilot lifestyle and into a fresh routine that unpredictably changed with my growing baby. Each morning, with Sue off to school at seven o'clock, John would eventually wake up and I would change him, feed him, and play games with him. Compared to my old job as a software engineer, this was a job that required a full day of attention. My trips to the watercooler at work were replaced by trips to the baby wipes. Instead of "doing" lunch, I was spooning cereal with yogurt into John. Instead of meeting with my coworkers, I was meeting with my son's pediatrician.
After I spent one week as a rookie at-home dad, my wife made the following entry in her journal written for John:
You and your dad had your first full week together. You weren't feeling great with the cough and all, but things went well, it seems. Dad loves getting to really know you, your moods, the subtle signals you give. You're getting to be great buddies.
I would play with John, read to him, and take care of his needs while my wife prepared dinner. I was amazed that the simplest things would amuse him. I remember I used to put my hand just below the edge of the table and pop it up to make him laugh. He kept following my hand to see where it would jump up next. (Now that he is twelve, this doesn't seem to work anymore, but it doesn't stop me.) Times like this made me relish being home with him all the more. Getting a huge grin from my son was a lot more rewarding than a flattering e-mail from my boss.
The transition period to adjust to my new role lasted about six months, but it can take much longer, depending on how drastic the change is for you, your experience with children, and how many kids you will be caring for at one time. (You and your wife should set a reasonable span of time for a trial run to stay home with your children, keeping in mind that you need to give yourself six months to a year, not just a few weeks, to adjust to your new role.) For me, beginning my new life during the New England winter made it harder. When Mother Nature treated us to many subzero days, I was housebound with an infant. The walls began to close in on me.
I learned a lot of hard lessons in my first days as an at-home dad. These lessons, which I will examine throughout this book, include:
* Being an at-home dad includes household chores as well as childcare. Unless your name is Trump.
* Dishes need to be washed. Dishes, once dirty, don't disappear on their own. Either they have to be put in the dishwasher (and the dishwasher turned on and then emptied) or you need to start using paper plates whenever possible if you want to cut down on your dish washing duty. And baby food doesn't sit too well on paper.
* Create an environment that your wife will enjoy coming home to, even if you don't care if the house is a little messy. By cleaning, you will make your wife happy — so if you don't want to clean for yourself, do it for your wife. (See Chapter 3 for more on house-cleaning.)
* Remember that your wife worked hard all day, too. Give her a pat on the back, even when she doesn't have one for you. (See Chapter 2 for a discussion of the tensions this situation can create.)
* Related to this, sometimes you must give yourself a sorely needed pat on the back for a job well done.
Losing Your Status as Breadwinner
In addition to juggling the diaper changes with the dishwashing and housekeeping duties, you need to grow comfortable with the idea that you are no longer a breadwinner. This can be incredibly freeing, but it can also be terrifying. When one dad decided to stay at home with his daughter, he began to have second thoughts. "The stress of the decision was unreal," he says. The question he had to ask himself was: "Can I live with myself if I forego the precious time with my daughter to earn this income?" Ask yourself this question, and if your answer is no, then the monetary adjustments, while difficult at times, will be worth it.
Once you and your wife have made the decision for you to stay home with the kids, the next thing you need to do is figure out your new budget. Obviously, putting some money away before you quit your current job is preferable, but many at-home dads do not have this luxury. When I left my job and figured out my budget, I found that by the time I deducted daycare, gas, car repairs, lunches, clothes, and more, I wasn't making half as much as I thought. As for the other half I did make, it just wasn't worth the time. (See Chapter 5 for tips on living on one income.)
Also, just because you are quitting your current job to stay at home with your kids does not mean that you can't still make money. Many at-home dads with whom I have spoken over the years have found that they can start home businesses and end up making more money than they were making when working for someone else. (I will discuss this further in Chapter 6.)
When I was the breadwinner of the family, I received a concrete result for my labor: a paycheck. But suddenly my wife was the sole income-earner. This didn't bother me as long as we could make it with one income. Jim Mains of Oak Park, Illinois, notes that when his wife became the breadwinner of the family, he had trouble buying her a gift: What am I going to do, buy her $40 worth of roses with her money? I needed to realize that my working wife most likely would not come home each evening and shower me with affection and thank yous for being the perfect father and husband. Instead of a boss giving me a monthly job performance report, my kids were busy giving me a minute-by-minute performance report in the form of tears or smiles. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Stay-at-Home Dad Handbook by Peter Baylies, Jessica Toonkel. Copyright © 2004 Peter Baylies with Jessica Toonkle. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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