Odd Man Out

By Mark Trainer
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Almost three years ago, just after I left my full-time job, I went to the dentist. I'm about as close to my dentist as anyone, maybe less so. He asked how life at the office was, and I told him I wasn't doing that anymore, that I was working from home and looking after my two children. He nodded, inscrutable behind his sanitary mask. It was a real conversation killer.

After the poking, prodding and cleaning, I got up from the chair and extended my hand. "See you in six months." He shook with an iron grip and an expression that suggested we shared a secret. "Good luck with the job search," he said.

His assumption, of course, was that being home with the children was something I had fallen into and would extricate myself from as soon as possible. I could have told him, "No, doctor, no! This was a choice, a modern choice!" but I think he would have taken a lot of convincing.

I hadn't thought about this visit until recently. My wife and I came out of this year's round of school panic (Where will he/she go? Is there a lottery? Is there sibling preference?) fairly certain that our just-4-year-old and our nearly 6-year-old would, for the next several years, be in school every weekday from 8:30 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. Was I looking at the end of day-care duty? Would I now need that luck my dentist had offered?

In these past years, I've found my place in a world that surrounds me with people like my dentist, people who find it very, very odd that it is I, not my wife, who's picking up the kids at preschool and carrying the snacks. I've grown used to the slight hesitation on the phone of the mom who realizes that if she wants my kid to keep hers company for a play date, she's going to get me with my X and Y chromosomes coming along for the ride. Is it just me, though, or is my choice a little less odd than it used to be? I see them at the park, other men of all shapes and sizes looking after small children. They place themselves on the periphery of the moms. They don't talk about eating and sleeping habits. They check their cellphones a lot.

Ask any parent who's staying home to raise children "And what do you do?" and you're likely to tap into an internal conversation that's been going on since the day the office took him or her out for the farewell lunch. Behind the carefully phrased reply is simmering anxiety over a larger question: Are you staying at home because you wanted to or because you had to? Did you prove yourself sufficiently in the working world before you left, or did you flee to the sidelines and leave all that office stuff to your spouse?

Insecurity over the wanted-to/had-to question is responsible for dumping a lot of bad corporate jargon into the realm of child care. Too many stay-at-home parents try to pretend they're still on the job. I was once thanked for "reaching out" for a play date. One parent within earshot of me counseled another to keep the "marriage bucket" separate from the "child-care bucket." And I wish to never again hear the more pleasant tasks of parenting described as "low-hanging fruit." Let us stop pretending that being a parent is work similar to what we all did for a paycheck in our previous lives. It's not. It's entirely different. And shouldn't that be a good thing?

But when is it time to reassess? Some stay-at-home parents carry about with them a sense of the career from which they are absent. I'm not talking about the business-speak or anything like that, but rather a peculiar quality of not being entirely present in the park, on the play date, wherever. Something about them suggests the empty office chair and the cooling cup of coffee on their desk waiting for them to return. You know they'll be gone from the playground as soon as circumstances allow. I'm pretty sure I'm not one of those people, so when will I know? Will one of my children look up at me and say, "Dad, it's time to get a real job again"? And how old will she or he be then? Is this a first-grade scenario or something farther off?

When I do decide to reenter the workforce, what about that gap in the résumé mothers have worried about for decades? That talk about the boys club you hear from so many women? Of course it's true. But that boys club has made room to some degree for women returning after raising kids -- even if that room is only 70 percent the size of the boys' and is too often not on the top floor.

But for men coming back into the working fold? If you left a perfectly good job to look after your kid, all the business-speak in the world isn't going to disguise the fact that you made your priorities pretty clear when you left. Don't think that decision won't follow you. I've read of companies that seek out stay-at-home parents returning to the working world because they tend to return more focused and productive, but they always seem to be boutique tech start-ups in places far away from the world I live in.

Maybe what my dentist knew -- in addition to the benefits of flossing and the tenacity of plaque -- was how difficult it could be to extricate oneself from the stay-at-home-dad life.

Needless to say, any woman who has stayed home could shed light on this predicament. But after all the feel-good trend stories we've read about dads who stay at home, how good will the dad-goes-back-to-work stories feel a few years later? It's hard to resist Iraq war analogies. Was I overly optimistic in entering on this stay-at-home venture? How will I know when I'm no longer accomplishing anything and am bogged down without an exit strategy?

I'm not quite sure what those solitary dads in the park are thinking about, but I promise you at least a couple are worrying about the endgame.

Mark Trainer is working on a collection of short stories titled "Bad Daddies." Comments:health@washpost.com.

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