Would I have taken on the role of primary caretaker so readily if there hadn’t been that huge adventure to go along with it? The honest answer is no, probably not.
It was easy to be a stay-at-home dad in Hong Kong, mainly because I hardly ever stayed at home. In my imperfect memories of that time, my daughter EJ and I are always out exploring: discovering a new park, scouring the city of skyscrapers for yet another delicious noodle shop, navigating the underground network of the MTR as a welcome escape from the unrelenting humidity. Dragging her around that city of 7.3 million people was physically demanding but mentally thrilling. There was so much culture we would never even scratch the surface of understanding, and I loved that, being in the midst of so much unknown.
But of course there were difficulties. It was my wife’s job, in training and leadership development for a Western retail brand, that had brought us to Hong Kong, and as the months passed, the reality of what I had run away from in the United States started to catch up with me. Two years before we left, I had earned a PhD in English, with a focus in creative writing. I had loved the coursework and the community of writers (misfit toys, all of us), but when it all went away, I was left with what was, on an economic level at least, arguably the most useless advanced degree on the planet. Degree in hand but no published book to speak of, I had been unable to land a full-time job at a university. If I let myself think about it, I felt like a failure.
I didn’t want to think of myself in such a negative light, because I knew that being a stay-at-home dad was this amazing privilege I had. It was a gift. I got to bond with our daughter in Hong Kong and numerous other cities throughout Asia, having fun, no doubt, but also holding her tight in the aftermath of countless meltdowns that left me both knotted with tension and overwhelmed with love. Because we chose not to hire a domestic worker to help take care of our daughter, as so many other expats did, I was there for her, and I was proud of that. EJ and I were buddies, so much so that my wife was occasionally jealous of how close we were. But inside, I was starting to struggle big-time with my identity, measuring myself against some old-school societal notion of what makes a successful man.
A man should provide for his family. It’s a narrow notion of masculinity that I don’t even believe in, and yet can’t fully break free from. Who knows what cultural mash-up of school, friends, TV, movies and whatever else even built it. Even now, more than two years since our return to the States and the birth of our second daughter, having attempted to reinvent myself as a bartender but being unable to hack the hours given the needs of my family, I still sometimes feel deeply ashamed for not working to bring more income into our bank account.
On a logical level, I know that my not working full-time is part of what allows my wife to have such a successful career. She deserves that. More women deserve that from their partners. I also know that my being with our daughters while they’re young saves us significant money that we would have spent on child care, and, more importantly, lets me be the one to teach them what I believe are good values and skills for the lives they will grow up to lead.
Unfortunately, shame doesn’t hit me on a logical level. It’s an internal voice that quickly gets visceral. It hits me in the gut. It radiates out from my torso like a wound, sometimes twisting the tension in my neck into a migraine headache, sometimes bringing me to tears, sometimes both.
How do I rise above that? And if there is a shared shame among us fathers who are now doing the hidden work that women have been doing for centuries, how do we silence the dangerous voices we harbor, the ones that tell us we’re not enough of whatever it is that we think we need to be?
For me, it starts with redefining masculinity. Masculinity can still have strength at its core, but that strength shouldn’t be about having power over someone. It should be about kindness and empathy. That goes for everyone, our kids most of all. No, I don’t have boys, but if I did, I would stress this to them the same as I do to our girls: It takes more strength to lift a person up than it does to knock them down.
I think I’ve been wanting to redefine masculinity ever since the moment when a boy on my eighth grade basketball team loomed over top of me, calling me a vulgar term for the female genitalia as I struggled to do push-ups, my punishment for missing too many layups in a row. I didn’t have the language to do such a thing then, and so to survive further taunts into adolescence and beyond, I just focused on getting good at push-ups. Once I became a stay-at-home dad, challenging conventional notions of manhood became its own sort of survival mechanism. I did it to cope with my own anxious mind, and the manufactured voice — sadly, not unlike the voice of that kid on the basketball court so long ago — that told me I wasn’t strong enough.
I also need to remember something my wife recently reminded me of: that it’s okay to feel two or more conflicting emotions at once. I can feel a tenderness for my 2-year-old when she calls my name at 3 a.m. to help her get back to sleep, while simultaneously being frustrated with her (and myself for enabling her) because I know I’ll again be a zombie in the morning, and as a result will not be able to get my writing done until late the following night. I can feel grateful to my wife for being the breadwinner for our family, for working to give us the good life we have, and yet still feel resentful toward her because I have had to sacrifice so much of my time to make it all work. It is, however, crucial that I don’t let that resentment fester. To ensure that doesn’t happen, I remember another thing my wife has told me, more than once, when I’ve been feeling low: that her career successes are my successes, too. We’re a team.
Like other stay-at-home parents and caretakers of all genders, I hold the home together. I hold it down. This Father’s Day, I’m reminding myself that it’s okay to open up about it sometimes, too — it being the emotional burden of all this work. Sharing this story, about who I am, is a start. Though it makes me feel exposed and vulnerable, I’m trying to learn that it can also make me feel strong. I owe that not just to my family, to which I already give a lot, but to myself as well.
Jason Basa Nemec is a freelance writer with a PhD in English. You can follow him on Instagram @jasonbasanemec.
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