Dads on Duty
My solution was simple in theory, if not in practice. The dogs needed to go outside, and I couldn’t leave my 7-month-old daughter alone in the house while I walked them. So, I strapped baby Maggie to my chest using her special carrier and hooked the three dogs to their separate leashes for a walk around the block. It was one of those beautiful October afternoons in New England.
I couldn’t have walked the dogs individually – as my wife later suggested – or just taken them out to the front yard while staying in sight of my daughter in the house. Instead, 10 minutes into that walk, I had a screaming baby who left me a squishy surprise in her pants; three dogs who decided it would be fun to interweave their leashes with my legs; and two bags full of dog waste, which, by the way, is an adventure to pick up when you are carrying an infant and have 130 pounds of dog pulling you apart. If a squirrel had crossed our path, I would have been done for.
I’m a stay-at-home dad. My approach to the challenges faced by all parents is often creative, full of rookie mistakes and can get me into some precarious situations.
It also gets the job done. That October walk may have been quite the scene to the neighbors, but the dogs got their exercise and Maggie was no worse for wear.
Of the 5.5 million American families with a stay-at-home parent, according to the United States Census, only 2.5 percent include a stay-at-home father, which explains why when one of us goes to the park or a play class, there don’t tend to be other adult males around.
Being surrounded by babies and women, by the way, gets a little weird and a little lonely; but it isn’t so bad because you’re there to watch your child play, not hit on a hot mom.
While some stay-at-home dads are like Peter Baylies, 52, of North Andover, Massachusetts, who had significant childcare experience as a camp counselor before his two sons were born, most of us – like most fathers – are learning as we go when it comes to rearing children.
Roy Van Cleef, 29, had never really spent time alone with a child before Shea, now 7 months old, was born. Dean Starbuck Bragonier, 36, held a baby for the first time only four months before his son Bodhi came into this world. And I had only ever changed one diaper before Maggie provided me with the chance to perfect my skills several times each day.
Unlike other fathers, the stay-at-home dad doesn’t have the safety net of mom to fall back on. At the park, Baylies says he often encounters mothers who are horrified when they see a stay-at-home dad let his child dangle precariously off the monkey bars or even fall and not immediately rush over to pick her up. Baylies, who published a stay-at-home dad newsletter for seven years and co-authored The Stay-At-Home Dad Handbook, adds that while moms tend to be overprotective, fathers will teach self-reliance by letting their kids make mistakes. The trick, he says, is convincing ourselves and our spouses that our style may be just as effective.
"Your standards might be a little different, but your morals are still the same. They are still going to grow up to be good kids," says Baylies, whose own sons are now 17 and 13.
When 3-year-old Benjamin Skoler wakes up every morning, he asks his dad what they’re going to do together that day, wanting a sort of itinerary. To drain his son’s large supply of energy, Fred Skoler, 48, runs laps with Benjamin in the basement.
When they’re at the mall or the park, Fred challenges his son to foot races.
The smartest move Fred made, he says, was to buy a mini-trampoline for the house. Even while watching TV, Benjamin will spend up to 45 minutes bouncing on it, making the whole house shake.
"That thing is his best friend," Skoler says. "He goes like a madman. It’s the best money spent, ever." For Maggie and me, playtime usually involves me chasing and tackling her and/or some sort of throwing and jumping game. My wife is more protective. Even though she has grown accustomed to our style of play, she has, on occasion, reminded me of the time that Maggie slipped and cut her tongue. Then I remind her that the bleeding stopped.
When Baylies was laid off from his job 17 years ago, he was secretly happy because he wanted to spend more time with his infant son. He slowly took over the housekeeping duties, but his standard of cleanliness wasn’t equal to that of his wife. This led to conflicts, particularly in what he called Hell Hour, the time between 5 and 6 p.m. when dinner wasn’t cooked and his wife was home but still too frazzled from work to take over watching the children.
Solution to Hell Hour
The solution to Hell Hour, Baylies says, was creating a friendly environment for his wife to come home to. In the five-minute span before she walked through the door, Baylies would wipe down the kitchen counter – the first thing she would see when returning home – light a candle and turn off the TV. Although his wife eventually caught on, it helped make the adjustment period of her returning home much easier.
Van Cleef has resigned himself to being the housewife and not the breadwinner of the family. A native of Ireland, his work visa has been slow in coming, so his wife works while he takes care of Shea.
A stay-at-home dad for four months, Van Cleef says the tough part isn’t knowing what to do with his son but knowing what to do with himself. Before Shea was born, Van Cleef could go cycling or kayaking, but now he must keep his son with him at all times. While the lifestyle change can make him stir-crazy, he finds relief in seeing his parenting pay off.
"He is a great baby," Van Cleef says. "Every day, you can see you’re nurturing and he is growing."
Making Each Day Count
Before his wife went back to work in April, Skoler could focus his time at home on running his business.
Now that Benjamin takes up most of his day, time to work is much harder to gauge. To create something productive for him to do, Skoler started a meet-up group for Boston-area fathers to share their childcare experiences and discuss concerns that are hard to bring up with wives. Since March 31, more than 20 fathers have joined the group, including five who came to the first meet-up in April.
For Bragonier, finding success in each day has meant spending more time with 20-month-old Bodhi and making their relationship about what was lacking in Bragonier’s relationship with his own father. Shortly after Bodhi was born, Bragonier and his wife decided to job-share at Charity Partners, LLC, in Boston. The two work one position, selling tickets to music and sporting events to raise money for charity, splitting the 40-hour work week so that they get equal time alone at home and the office. Bragonier says it’s the best of both worlds, getting to play an integral role in his son’s growth while avoiding the isolation from the adult world that plagues many stay-at-home parents.
"I have no problems expressing my love for my son; holding him, it feels like he is part of me," Bragonier says. "He is truly an extension of my spirit." For me, the stay-at-home lifestyle was a dream too good to last. At the beginning of April, with my freelance writing business in freefall and my eight-months pregnant wife taking time off from her work, I began waiting on tables full time. Instead of not missing a single moment, I am no longer there for feedings, diaper changes, playtime, bath time, storytime and goodnight kisses.
Being a stay-at-home dad certainly had its bumps and bruises, but I would give anything right now to go back
The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family, by Jeremy Adam Smith, Beacon Press, 2009. Facts, history and a timely focus on the politics of parenting.
The Stay-at-Home Dad Handbook, by Peter Baylies and Jessica Toonkel, Chicago Review Press, 2004. Anecdotes and a look at the issues men face as the primary caregivers.
At Home Dads – Resources, information, stories and connections for dads all across the country.
Dad Labs – Advice and points of view, often humorous, from fathers Troy Lanier, Clay Nichols and Brad Powell.
Rebeldad – Brian Reid, a former stay-at-home dad, lsuggests ways for fathers to connect to their families and provides tips for starting a dad’s group.