The phrase was uttered within minutes of my announcing the plan at work: "So you're going to be Mister Mom?" I wasn't sure yet if I was ready to spend most days looking after my kids, but I sure knew I didn't want to be Mister Mom. Mister Mom? Do Mister Moms get to celebrate Father's Day?
Here's the short version of how I got here (you don't want the long one, believe me): The nanny quit, my wife was offered a full-time job she very much wanted to take, and my employer agreed I could work part-time from home instead of full-time at the office. Better still, I'd have the opportunity to address the nagging concern that I was getting to see some sitcoms with more regularity than I was seeing my children. Our income would be reduced, but so would the nanny expenses. All that was left up in the air was the question of whether I had what it takes to look after a daughter nearly 3 and a son only 14 months for days at a stretch.
That and the whole Mister Mom matter.
Am I the kind of guy who cares what some yutz at the office calls me? To be honest, yes and no. Between my wife and me, the idea of my staying home sat well. Once it was underway, the kids seemed to be good with it, though I suspect their mother and their past nannies have had a more varied bag of daycare tricks than I've so far mustered. Really, it's between me and me. Like a lot of my friends and co-workers, I don't know what to make of me. There's the me that carved out his little place in the grownup world as it exists in 2005 -- a place that in some ways resembles the place his own father carved out -- and the me that now keeps sippy cups filled and rushes to make Kindermusic classes.
The requirements of that latter self are pretty simple, which is not to say easy: Do what needs to be done to keep two small children engaged, avoid the impulse to freak out from frustration when it turns out that absolutely no one is going to get an afternoon nap, maintain some sense of fun, and collapse in a neat heap at the end of the day after completing a bit of that part-time work you promised your boss.
It's the demands of that other self -- that creature spawned by years in the workplace, childhood expectations, cable television and too many magazine articles -- that are complex. That self inevitably takes stock of his place in the larger culture. Let's face it: In our progressive, evolved era, there still aren't a lot of guys doing this. And the ones who are look a little suspect. Don't feel bad, I used to think so, too.
That's where Mister Mom comes in. "Actually," I took to responding in those last weeks at the office, "it's my wife who's been playing Mrs. Dad for these past years, and now I'm going to show her how it's done." I looked for a similarly snarky comment with which to respond to "househusband," only to realize it's not any more charged than "housewife." But it just sounds so emasculating and terrible, doesn't it? (Draw your own conclusion.) Just last week a friend of my wife's called and asked how "the new lifestyle" was going. "I didn't come out of the closet," I said. "I'm just spending some more time with the kids." Am I a little touchy? Maybe, but I would argue that men looking after kids have to work a little harder than women to find a comfort zone in our culture, an identity. There are four mommy-caregiver types, as far as I can tell: the perky young mom, the earth-mother mom, the hip I-don't-belong-in-this-playground mom, and the cranky, overburdened, mom. Any others you see are minor variations on these. If you're a mom, you just decide which one you want to be and you're done.
Now identify a daddy-caregiver model. Not so easy, is it? I know, I've tried to find some. At the park, I overheard a stay-at-home dad explaining his system of Kleenex management to a mother as they both watched their kids on the see-saw. "Clean tissues, front-right pocket; semi-used, front-left; used, back-left." (His wallet, it turns out, was the sole occupant of back-right.) His array of snacks was awesome to behold. He brought a military precision to his full-time fathering that I thought I'd never be able to match. He was tough and wiry-looking. Nobody would call him Mister Mom. Maybe that's who I wanted to be. I imagined him following up the Kleenex distribution with instructions on how to tear out a man's heart and show it to him as he died at your feet. But finally, I decided I wouldn't be able to pull it off. I looked for another role model. But no other guys showed up. For days.
The switch itself had been anticlimactic. Instead of dashing to the Metro at 8:25 one Monday morning, I undertook an enthusiastic reading of "Olivia Saves the Circus." Together, that week, the three of us went to the park, we visited the National Gallery, we danced to old T. Rex records, we met Mom at the Metro. An unexpected calm began to overtake me. Sure, I made some rookie errors, mostly involving food service and potty training. But -- and here's the point -- I didn't feel very bad about it.
It turns out there's an upside to not having a ready-made role to slip into. In this season's parenting books, we've been told yet again how American mothers are hostage to the expectations that are placed upon them and, more importantly, that they place upon themselves. There may be four types of moms, but they share the same burden. A woman who forgets sunblock for her children or lets them out in mismatched clothes looks to the world like something less than a mom.
Flip that sentence to apply to fathers, and try to keep a straight face. To be a father in America looking after children during the day is to escape expectations entirely. We are the ghosts in the machine of childcare. I don't think climbing the wrong way up the sliding board is so awful. I don't care as much about which preschool my daughter gets into as maybe I should. The progress of my daughter's potty training certainly isn't something I want to talk to you about. (She'll get it when she gets it.)
So in the early weeks of my new arrangement -- having given up on finding a role model, instead chugging forward by my own lights -- I've begun to meditate on this hopeful thought: Maybe we father-caregivers are the antidote to all that parenting stress. Maybe we're the ones who can bring some individuality and eccentricity back into parenting without feeling the need to look over our shoulders to see if we're being judged to be playing our role properly. Study us closely, moms. We may be better at this than you think.
Author's e-mail: email@example.com
Mark Trainer is a writer living on Capitol Hill.