At the age of 42, I am in a first marriage, with two children ages 8 and 5, enjoying the benefits and paying the price of a two-career marriage.
I spend 25 hours a week at income-producing work and 25 hours each week with two sons. These hours with my sons are what I call, "prime time," that is, I am alone with them, they are awake and need attention. I have done this since they were born.
My wife is a clinical psychologist. Her schedule is similarly divided between professional and family time. Whoever stays home performs the home tasks. Nothing is "saved" for the other.
I dress my kids, feed them, wash the dishes, "do" the wash, plan the day and meals and try to spend some creative "fun time" with sons. My wife also does all of these things when she is at home.
I am expecting a great deal of praise, applause and admiration from others for this courageous change in my role -- an unfulfilled expectation as of now.
In place of these expected goodies, I have found silence and, at times, contemptuous looks and one early-on derisive remark from my mother-in-law. "You would," she said, "let your wife support you."
My disappointment shifted to self-defense as I said, "Only half, and I'll be making more."
This exchange was prologue for my expected appreciation from the world. Some of our neighbors think I'm partially disabled or recovering from an illness. The neighborly-housewifely requests to borrow an egg, a cup of instant mashed potatoes or an onion are coming now, albeit sheepishly. I suspect the female borrowers are thinking, "He must (and should) have more to do than lend eggs."
The asking is a breakthrough, however, and I appreciate it; it frees me to ask back. No man has asked me yet to borrow an egg.
There are days when "working at home" proves burdensome. I have changed the way I refer to running the house. Formerly I said, "staying at home," clearly an incorrect notion. I do much more "staying" at work than at home. Working at home is the correct phrasing.
The feeling accompanying child-oriented work is similar to an athlete or musician performing before an empty stadium or hall. Applause, appreciation and ego-gratification come from the self, or they do not come. The knowledge that I am giving creative loving to my sons offers solace, but not sufficient gratification to overcome the nagging self-doubt which often floats through my mind. Some of these doubts take the form of questions.
How much money would I have made today had I worked? Is staying home worth that much? Is the quality of my caring better than a baby sitter?
If this is such a great idea, why am I the only man at the swimming pool, at the grocery store, at the nursery school? Why do I feel so isolated among these mothers, especially at the nursery school? Why have I expected so much from staying home?
These questions arise usually when I am doing some of the nearly totally unrewarding jobs, like folding clothes. Am I too old to go this liberal route?
When my wife was a student I felt better about working at home. The warm self-congratulatory feeling that I "cared enough" to stay home so she could get her degree was a source of gratification.
She now has finished her Ph.D. studies. This completion of her studies left me with no marketable edge to barter with, or to use as a righteous weapon for my sometimes sagging ego. Not always, but some days it is depressing to realize that a $2-per-hour sitter could play kickball or thrash in the pool with more competency, as well as more enthusiasm, than I possess right then.
My suspicion is that this self-concept problem would bother any man who opts to be with children over making money. Most men will not entertain even the prospect of thinking about this choice of fathering or moneymaking. Illogically, however, some men expect women to find fulfillment in these tedious and demanding chores. I think this fear of losing the self-respect involved in earning money, more than any other factor, keeps men from sharing in parenting on a full-time basis.
The question can be put another way: Is it possible for a man to feel good enough being with his children to give up some income? How much income is he willing to sacrifice for the goal of spending time and energy with his family?
I feel envious, frankly, of the affection and love my wife gets from my sons, especially when we are together with them. Nearly always they seek her out as helper, nurturing parent and confidant. The traditional excuse that she spends more time with them does not apply for us and the knowledge that this choosing of mother is healthy development offers little solace.
I am envious of my wife's access to women friends struggling with the tugs of career and family. There are no men in my neighborhood nor my acquaintance who stay home with their children. When a man says to me he would like to spend more time with his children, I often feel like yelling, "Do it, then."
I feel angry sometimes that I no longer can fall back on the ego-massaging feeling that our money is really all mine or at least mostly mine, because I made it.
I feel anger toward my sons for not continually acknowledging me as a truly liberated father and husband. I feel anger toward other women who have yet to applaud my wonderfulness. I felt especially ignored at the nursery school where I felt neither male or female. It felt like exclusion; "You are not one of us," but "You are not a man either." Real men cannot, affort to spend a morning at nursery school each week.
What is a creative guy like me doing here in the washroom (or cooking lunch or doing dishes) when I could be marketing my talent, or using my energy more creatively. At times, I long for the old feeling and conviction that this is women's work, anybody's work but mine. Then I feel shame. Ashamed of the contempt for women involved in this feeling.
Equally sharing both the burdens and joys of parenting and working provide opportunities for growth in our market relationship. Each of us has his own separate professional life with all of its demands, pleasures, and problems. This individuation in the marketplace allows each of us to bring more of his/her person to our relationship. The traditional economic dependency on one spouse is replaced by a mutual dependency on each other. As a marital therapist, I often witness the accumulated resentment of wives caused by a forced monetary dependence on the man.
In our relationship, the traditional form of monetary dependency is not present. My wife does not direly need me to support the family. I do not need her to nurture, cook, wash, and care for our children.
In place of these role-induced needs, deeper levels of dependency occur. Our needs to be taken care of, nurtured and soothed get much attention. We bring fresh and creative energy to our time together. There is a mutual appreciation for the other, as each of us experiences the demands of both roles of moneymaker and parent.
The most enriching benefit of the full-time fathering described here far outweights the costs: I feel very close to my sons.
As my sons grow older I have been treasuring the memories of their early years. The time and energy that I have put into their care has given me a clear, delineated memory of each one's infancy and early years. "It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes your rose important," said the Little Prince.
Mothers have always enjoyed this closeness as they cared for their children. Most men have denied themselves this pleasure. It's a powerful feeling. My hand is on the cradle with my wife's.
I recently spent a afternoon in the X-ray department of a hospital with my 6-year-old waiting for our turn. My son was to have an arthurogram to check a growth on his knee . . .
We sit in the waiting room. I am frightened. He is frightened. I am afraid the tumor is cancerous. He is afraid of the impending X-ray that will require a painful injection of fluid into his knee.
We feed one another's anxiety. I talk to him, hoping the words will help me as well. "Everyone is afraid when something is wrong with his body. Not knowing what is wrong makes it very hard. It's okay to be scared. I'm scared, too. But everything will be all right."
His uncharacteristic tension infects and holds me. His customary overflow of words and energy slows down to a near grown-up pace. He moves as close as he can, almost on my lap. He makes as much contact as he can. He puts my arm around him. He talks softly. He has trouble concentrating. He speaks with intensity, carefully choosing his words and speaking in a quiet, almost whispering voice.
The room accentuates what we both feel. The bright red and green lines look effervescent. Everything else is white. The walls, ceiling, chairs, and window frames -- all are in the same white, the color of emptiness. The man dressed in white comes out from behind a closed door. He speaks, almost in a shout, "Aaron Lovett."
Aaron grabs my arm and hangs around my neck. I feel what he feels. I do not want to leave him any more than he wants to leave me. He looks straight into my eyes and speaks with his eyes before his words repeat, "Dad, I'm scared."
Uncharacteristically my words dissolve in my gut. I hug him firmly as he cries softly. As I search for words, I realize the embrace is enough. Vainly looking for a nonexistent casualness, I say, "It will be over in a half-hour." He hugs me hard. He leaves with the white-robed stranger behind a "No-Admittance" door.
I feel alone and so separated. Silently I yell to the unseen radiologists. "Don't hurt him." My helplessness swells to a rage. "Don't you hurt him, he's mine."
The intensity of my love for my son nearly overpowers me. I wait alone. I let in the feeling of how important he is to me. The doctor returns to tell me the growth is not malignant and that Aaron has been a brave and calm patient.
When I am an old man the memory of our X-ray day will help me feel warm and full, just as it does now as I write this.
I am grateful that I did not "have to work" that day.