Yes, Yes, Fatherhood Is Worth It

Diapers, playgroups and bouts of listlessness—dispatches from a young (stay-at-home) dad, just in time for Father's Day.

This Sunday is Father’s Day, and I will spend it parenting as little as I possibly can. I’m 30 months into fatherhood, and I have many thoughts on the subject. Most fathers do. It makes us feel important, even if we’ve forgotten most of our experiences. A friend handed me his newborn son to hold recently, and his head flopped awkwardly against my arm. Baby neck muscles are useless.

So I can’t tell you much about parenting a newborn anymore. But I can tell you about staying home. My name is Jordan, and for the last two years, I’ve been a stay-at-home dad.

Many factors go into determining who stays at home with a child, or, indeed, if anyone stays at home at all. There are, after all, any number of daycares and sucker relatives to pass your kid off on while you and your spouse pursue careers.

No one thinks twice if a mother stays home with her kids, but it’s not that way with dads. You’re an oddity, and perceptions vary wildly. On one end of the spectrum, people gush over your selflessness, regarding you as a progressive and nurturing demigod. I call this the “flirty housewife” perspective, because it’s often stay-at-home moms who’re most impressed and because I generally assume every woman I meet is trying to flirt with me. (It helps me sleep at night.)

On the other end is what I call the “father-in-law” perspective. This perspective holds you as Lord Fauntleroy incarnate, a fraction of a man who spends his days reading the unabridged works of Jane Austen and munching Bugles. 

As always, the truth lies somewhere between. I stay at home because I have significantly less earning potential than my wife—and I spend the day watching pirated cable dramas, thank you very much.

Staying at home as a man is uniquely difficult, primarily because you’re on your own. Women are still far more likely to become housewives, and there are decades-old networks and support systems to keep moms busy. You’re not invited to those networks as a stay-at-home dad. At least not fully. Most Fridays, I take my daughter, Lana, to a playgroup at the local library. There’s only ever been one other dude there. I wouldn’t say I’m unwelcome—the women always smile and comment on Lana’s cuteness level that day—but I’m an outsider. If I didn’t have my daughter with me, they’d probably call the police, and I can’t say I’d blame them. I look alarmingly disheveled most of the time.

Staying home isn’t the hardest job in the world, but the isolation takes a toll. And that can be true for all fathers, whether you're staying at home or not. If you’re entering fatherhood and you’re not sure how to cope, here are some suggestions.

1. Find work/hobbies.

Child-raising is the most significant job you can have, but it doesn’t feel like it. The day-to-day is menial. Milestones occur in a thankless vacuum. Your kid won’t realize what you’ve done until they have a kid of their own, and even then only hazily. Your spouse may be thankful, but spouses don’t see the minutiae, those tiny epiphanic strobes when your sense of responsibility wins out over selfish desire.

For added purpose, find a hobby. Mothers know this, which is why many women take up craftwork. (Not to be confused with Kraftwerk. I don’t know any women who like Kraftwerk.) I don’t recommend craftwork for fathers. If you get into crafting, you’ll have to spend all your time on Pinterest, which may be preferable to pornography, but the comparison is closer than you’d think. If you feel lonely now, what happens when your friends find out you sold your vinyl collection to make room for a terrarium station?

The following is a list of potential hobbies, some of which are culled from the pages of The Art of Manliness:

Building boats in bottles. Ooh, look at you, Mr. Vintage!

Ham radios. At least until humans figure out a way to communicate more easily over long distances.

Cars. Sorry this isn't specific. I’m not a car guy. I assume you just start learning about cars and how they work and whatnot.

Collecting baseball cards. Kids don’t collect cards anymore. You wouldn’t either if the alternative was Battlefield 3. Only weird middle-aged men collect sports cards, but that’s who you are now.

Pursue a medium of art (music, painting, writing, etc.). You know how many people out there would kill to have time to create art? Probably just a small percentage of psychopaths. But plenty more would love to be in your shoes without resorting to murder—that’s my point. Of the mediums, I suggest writing. It’s by far the easiest. All you have to do is know how to talk, basically.

Archery. Any kind of marksmanship is nice. There’s a zen-like state of mind to guiding deadly items into targets. I mention archery here becauseit’s quiet. Discharging firearms is generally frowned upon in urban andsuburban areas.

Chess. This one won’t exactly get your spouse in the mood for romance, but Idon’t think there’s a man on Earth who isn’t impressed by someone whoexcels at the royal game.

2. Find a support network.

My friends are all gainfully employed and captains ofindustry (or city planning). I assume there are stay-at-home-dad support groups out there. There have to be,right? Well, I ran a Google search for Phoenix, which is the fifth largest city in the United States, and I couldn’t find a thing. This is only moderately surprising since, honestly, I don’t want to hang out with a bunch of strangers and talk about babies. I don’t know many menwho do. Male friendships are forged over time through the crucibles ofmutual living places, substance consumption and shared toil. I’m 30.I’m not really up for making new friends at a meet-and-greet.

So when I say “support network,” I really mean “other men you can eat hot wings with.” Make it empirically clear to your spouse you need time away. Don’t be a jerk about it, but let her know your mental health is at stake, because it probably is.

3. Exercise.

You’d think dragging a baby around and pushing a stroller wouldmitigate any sugar/fat/carbohydrate-fueled self-medication, but in mycase it didn’t. In fact, it was surprisingly easy not to get outside atall, particularly during the Arizona summer, when only masochistsventure outdoors. That first year, babies are absurdly immobile. Theynap every two hours or so, so if you run errands, you can pretty muchonly run one errand. And if there’s no reason to get out, why do it at all?

Exercise is a necessity at every age, but there’s less time as a father. I sometimes look back and wonder what I did with my time pre-child. Then I remember I played video games and watched television, just much more frequently and for longer periods of time. I could’ve written a whole series of dystopian young adult novels. Why didn't anyone tell me?

Yes, fatherhood changes your life. Yes, it's worth it.

The other day, I talked to my friend Gabe. I was frustrated about staying at home and being in a city far away from my friends and family, and I was dreading another year caring for my daughter alone. I pictured those days when I’d be sick or when Lana is especially needy, and time runs like the last 15 minutes of seventh grade in those moments.

Gabe works and his wife stays at home, and he talked about knowing his day really just starts when he gets off work.

“I think raising kids has the potential to bring us to a higher plane of living. We teach them. And we learn from them—they have things they want to teach us,” he told me.

“The big picture helps, sure,” I sighed. I wasn’t sure it did. I get the big picture. I struggle when it comes to details, and the problem with stay-at-home fatherhood is it’s almost all details. It’s hard to see how beautiful and endlessly pleasing your children are when you have to provide for them day after day after day. 

Gabe sensed my despondency. “Look, take this from someone who works outside the home: Every thoughtful person will have regrets. They might regret working too hard or working too little. They might regret wasting their time on film trivia or sports fandom. There are a hundred little regrets everyone deals with every day.” He paused. “But you'll never regret spending time with your family and living a life loving people around you, no matter where you are.”

I felt better after that.

Jordan Green is the editorial director for Burnside Books and co-founder of the Burnside Writers Collective. He writes a television column for the Tucson Weekly and co-authored Besides the Bible—100 Books That Have, Should, or Will Create Christian Culture. Jordan lives in Portland, Ore., with his wife and daughter. Follow him on Twitter.

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