by Geoff Gillette
When Emma was 4, she had a double ear infection. I dropped Maddy, 6, at preschool and arrived at the doctor's, with baby Harry in a car seat and a sobbing Emma.
"Sir, is your wife here yet?" asked the nurse.
"No, she is working," I said. Then I proceeded to give all of Emma's data.
Interrupting me, the nurse said, "Well, why don't we wait for your wife and she can fill me in."
I explained that my wife was on a business trip to Las Vegas and wouldn't be home for two days.
Completely nonplussed, the nurse offered to let me call my wife to get the information.
Beyond frustration now I asked the nurse pointblank: "Are you refusing my child medical care if my wife isn't present?"
At that, the message seemed to sink in, and we finally got to see the doctor.
My job is a study in contrasts: It is endless repetition in a framework of chaos; it's frustrating, exciting, fun and exhausting; it's remarkably complex while maintaining a simplicity. I am chauffeur, cook, cleaner, handyman, personal shopper, judge and playmate - I'm a stay-at-home Dad.
How did I get here?
At-home parenting isn't exactly new. Most of us grew up with Mom staying home and Dad bringing home the bacon. The decision for me to stay home was sparked by fear and settled by personality and economics. My wife Cindi was a few months pregnant with our third child when her AFP (alphafetoprotein) test came back with a positive result, which meant a possibility our child would be born with Down syndrome. An amniocentesis was performed to be sure and we were excited when it showed everything was normal - plus we would be having our first boy.
Still that was the longest two weeks of my life, and it sparked a lot of serious conversation over what we would do if our baby was born with special needs. We were both working and putting our two girls in daycare, a princely sum that ate up a pretty good chunk of my paycheck. We decided it made more sense for one of us to stay home regardless of the results of the test. With Cindi pulling in triple what I was making in the IT field, it was pretty much a no-brainer that I should be the one to stay home. Personality also played its part. Cindi is much more career driven than I am, and is focused on attaining goals. Being more laid back and less "type A" made me the right person for the job at home.
Oh, I had such grand plans. Our house would be neat as a pin, with everything organized and put in its proper place, the yard would be immaculate, every meal a banquet and our children ... well, they would be the smartest and best behaved in the world because I would be there to read with them, teach them and play with them all day long.
The problem is each of those goals is something you could spend all day on individually. Trying to do them all at once isn't possible. Especially while trying to keep a newborn, a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old safe, secure and engaged.
I started to get a sense of the challenge in the first month. After a week of making breakfast, lunch and dinner I realized that I had utterly exhausted my repertoire as a cook. When we were both working, I had odd hours so Cindi handled the meal planning. My specialty (cue male stereotype) was the grill. I could barbecue just about anything - as long as it was beef, pork or chicken. To continue the stereotype, I supplemented my meals with standbys like chili, spaghetti and Hamburger Helper.
For the first time, I actually had to consult a cookbook, which led to the further realization that I didn't know how many ounces were in a pint, how many quarts in a gallon, or the difference between broiling and baking. My first attempt at a pot roast resulted in smoke alarms going off when I misread the recipe - I thought it said add the water after four hours of cooking, not add the water and then cook for four hours.
Other areas also turned out to be more complex than I thought. Laundry was always "wash the colors and whites separate." Pretty straightforward. Suddenly I needed to know what was cotton or rayon or silk. Who knew wool shrinks when it gets hot? And ironing? How hard can that be? You put the clothes on a flat surface and then push the iron down on it. Did you know that all the metal parts of the iron get hot, not just the bottom? I've got the scars on my wrist to prove it.
Then there's the parenting aspect of being a stay-at-home parent. Did you know that if you have kids, they're around you all the time? And no matter how nicely you ask, they don't want to take naps? Or not all at the same time? I had this vision where baby Harry would be asleep in his swing, while Emma and Maddy would sit quietly at the table and color. Perhaps there would be classical music in the background. IQ's would climb while I prepared a wholesome lunch from all four food groups.
OK, maybe I watched a bit too much "Leave it to Beaver" growing up but that's what I was shooting for. Needless to say that's not quite what happened. Harry screamed until released from the prison of the chair-swing and would only be quiet if held. Maddy and Emma fought like cats and dogs over who got to use the lone blue crayon; with Solomon-like wisdom I took the crayon, broke it in two and handed each a piece. Two sets of eyes gushed tears and I'm surprised no one called family services with all the howling that erupted from the house - all because I "bwoke the cwayon." Oh, and lunch that day? Kraft Mac n' Cheese. This was the first of many illusions to crumble at my feet.
Looking back, I think the learning curve for me was somewhere between 18 months and two years. I had to unlearn the "walk it off" strategy. When I was a kid, if I got hurt I was always told to walk it off. Coaches, teachers, my dad all said, "Just walk it off, you'll be fine."
While that may be OK for raising boys, it doesn't sit well with little girls. When Maddy took a tumble down the stairs, I determined there were no serious injuries and told her to walk it off. She looked at me as though I had slapped her in the face then ran screaming for her mother. When I finally caught up to her, she was sitting in Cindi's lap, tears dry and smiling. All it took was a little cuddling to make the pain go away.
Fighting the stereotypes
Figuring out how to do the housework is a rite of passage for anyone who stays home, male or female. Where it differs is the automatic assumptions of others. When they see me with the kids at the market or the park, many of them say, "Giving the wife a day off, eh?" Or my least favorite saying, "Babysitting the kids?" News flash: If a parent is taking their child somewhere, they're not babysitting, they're parenting.
There's also the automatic reaction that a man can't take care of children, which was so ingrained in the nurse that I nearly couldn't get medical care for Emma.
In retrospect it is hard to blame her. Society itself wasn't conducive to a male at-home parent. For my first year and a half at home, whenever we were in public Harry had to get his diaper changed on a mat I'd put on the floor of the restroom, since no diaper changing stations were installed. And my girls had to use the men's room toilets because they were too young to go in a public women's room by themselves.
The preconception seemed to pervade every aspect of life. When Maddy was in kindergarten I volunteered in her classroom during reading time and for an art program. To the kids I was a "Room Mom" or the "Picture Lady" despite not being a lady.
Around this time we had just moved to Colorado from Illinois, leaving behind friends and family, and I began experiencing a real sense of isolation. Bereft of a support network I scoured the newspapers and Internet for playgroups and parent groups to form a social circle. I joined several playgroups, but once the novelty of having a guy member wore off I inevitably sat alone while the women gathered to chat. It was like a wall of glass separated us. We had a lot of common shared experiences, yet the difference in our genders meant there needed to be distance.
Feeling cut off meant more and more of my time was just me and the kids. All I could talk about was what they were doing, what happened to them. Before kids I was a radio news reporter. I could talk about world events, local politics, movies. I was the answer-man! Now I could do an entire doctoral thesis on playing "Pretty Pretty Princess" with Maddy and Emma. I was "Maddy's Dad" or "Cindi's husband." There was little of Geoff left in me.
Relating to others
At the same time, I wasn't able to relate to the men in our new neighborhood either. Most men in social environments talk about three things: sports, their jobs, their families. I've never been a sports person so that one was out. My family is my job so not much to talk about there. On the other side of the coin, I think it's difficult for someone who doesn't stay home to know what to say to those of us who do. "Hey, how's that laundry going?" doesn't come across as much of a conversation starter.
I have met a few other stay-at-home dads over the years and many have experienced similar feelings of remoteness. My good friend Sid Rubey finally went back to work last year. He and I tried to start an at-home dads group in Colorado Springs, which failed due to lack of membership. After my family moved to Danville, he continued to try to meet other dads but came up short. When he called to let me know he was taking the job he said, "I just couldn't do it anymore. I love the kids, but I need to do something else for a while." He was looking for an environment where he could talk about things unrelated to school, Barbies or Barney. I knew exactly what he meant.
Bridging the divide
Coming to Danville helped my feeling of isolation. For one thing the kids are all in school, which allows me to do things during the day. I volunteer at Greenbrook Elementary and have started doing some work at Charlotte Wood Middle School. My peer group is still mostly women but I've made the effort to get involved in other things. I've coached soccer, football and baseball. I play on a softball league and I go to poker outings. I still sometimes feel like an outsider, having more in common with the wives than the husbands, but I'm bridging that divide. Getting to know people and letting them get to know more of me.
The world has changed. Almost every men's room has a changing table, most malls have family restrooms, and more men are choosing to stay home to raise families. Some of that is economics, some is just that society is more accepting of changing gender roles.
But we have a ways to go. Women still face glass ceilings in the workplace and men still face glass walls in raising their families. Progress is made, but the journey continues.
So why do it? The answer is simple: I love my family and I love our life. I love that my wife can travel for business, or go on a girl's trip without worry. I love that my kids know that when they get out of school someone is waiting for them. I love knowing their friends and them knowing me. So what if my vision of a perfectly clean house and immaculate lawn are a little farfetched? We have a great family, with wonderful kids who know they are loved and supported.
How great to be a short order cook, limo driver, child psychologist, lifeguard and in a Wii Rock Band every day! As for compensation? It's hugs, kisses, smiles, laughs and a Father's Day poem that brought tears to my eyes - the best paycheck I ever got.