A stay-at-home dad wears many hats. (Vincent O’Keefe)

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Dad?”

When my oldest child was 4, she asked me this question while we were watching my wife leave for work. My daughter had obviously processed that her mother was both a Worker and a Parent, whereas I was merely a Parent (and a playmate).

For a moment, I was dumbfounded as I contemplated this new and unlikely source of self-doubt. I was used to questioning—and listening to others question—the value of my stay-at-home decision for myself, but the question of what kind of example I might be setting for my children had never flitted through my brain. While my mind defensively sputtered “I’m already grown up and I’m a former English professor and a full-time at-home parent but I also consider myself a part-time writer,” my mouth articulated nothing.

Ten years have passed since that moment, but my daughter’s reverberating question has helped me develop my main piece of advice for fellow stay-at-home parents—both moms and dads. Granted, the usual self-care tips apply—e.g. try to steal enough time to nap, exercise, date your mate, see friends. But my #1 tip for at-home parents is to nurture a passion or hobby unrelated to parenting, and make sure your children see you enjoying that passion.

It is very easy for at-home parents to lose themselves in the nonstop tyranny of baby care. Indeed, many days I would literally lose myself upon rising from bed by slapping a baseball hat on my head, wiping my bloodshot eyes, and not remembering to consult a mirror until midday. When your baby has colic and sleeps like, well, a sleepless baby, your life can quickly devolve into moderate-to-severe misery.

But I would still urge at-home parents to try their best to nurture a passion. For some, there is obvious value in nurturing a hobby that dovetails with previous (and future) employment and helps you stay marketable. Even if you have no intention of returning to your pre-children employment, it is important for identity—both yours and your children’s. If they become at-home parents someday, would you want them to become one-dimensional in the eyes of your grandchildren? While at-home parenting is a noble endeavor, its built-in expiration will someday require an exit strategy.

I had always tried to hide my writing activities because I didn’t want my children to feel I was not paying them full attention. But my daughter’s question showed me that I had been hiding my passion too effectively, which contributed to my one-dimensionality in her mind. In other words, after you quit your day job, don’t quit it entirely.

As a parenting writer today, I can report a happy ending to this story. My wife, two daughters, and I recently toured a movie studio in California. When we explored the gift shop, my oldest (now 14) cried from across the store: “Dad, you should buy this!”

To my surprise, she was holding up a black baseball hat with the words “WRITER” printed on it in white letters. I smiled deeply. Far from instant, this moment of intense gratification from the movie of my life had been 10 years in the making. Scene One: At age 4, my daughter had misread me as merely a “PARENT” in part because I had fostered such a misreading by not foregrounding an identity beyond parenting. Scene Two: At age 14, she was finally reading me accurately since maturation had led her to understand my larger life. The moment was made even sweeter by my realization that during all the at-home nurturing of her and her sister, my daughters had been indirectly nurturing my passion for writing.

As instructed, I bought that hat and wear it proudly — both when parenting and when writing. It’s also a great conversation-starter (and marketing tool), as in people asking “What do you write about?” If I’m alone, I answer “parenting.” If I’m with my daughters, I smile and motion towards them.

Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a PhD in American literature. He is currently writing a memoir on parenting and gender. Visit him at www.vincentokeefe.com or on Twitter @VincentAOKeefe or Facebook at Vincent O’Keefe.

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