The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My wife and I swapped traditional parenting roles. It’s been harder than we expected.

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When I quit work to stay home with the baby, our family and friends were not entirely supportive.

The decision made sense. Both Anna and I are (mid-ranking) diplomats. Our family-friendly employer, the State Department, supports career flexibility, particularly when children are involved. My job would wait for me.

More importantly, we were uncomfortable with the thought of leaving our baby with strangers. It also seemed prudent not to disrupt the more promising career. So when Anna started work at the U.S. Embassy in London, I became the only man on playgrounds during the workday, an object of suspicion and mirth for young English mothers.

From the outset, my gratitude to my wife, who made possible my life as a gentleman of leisure, was boundless. (The leisure never materialized, but the gratitude grew with the baby.)

To my traditional parents, a man who stays home to change diapers and cook awful meals is an oddball. The worker should suit the work, my mother murmured, citing an Urdu proverb and the cost of my education.

Even for many progressive friends, our arrangement is uncommon. Modernity demands the woman lean in, her partner support her and — the woman’s emotional labor and angst at still not having it all notwithstanding — both pursue careers.

My mother’s misgiving was not misplaced. Even by my low standards for success — a living baby and an edible dinner by sundown — I was unprepared for the relentless intensity of one tiny person’s demands on my innermost self. A constant sleep deficit and my extroverted toddler’s endless energy brought me close to unfamiliar emotional and physical limits.

If I have not failed after a year of being a stay-at-home dad, it is because society’s hypocrisy works in my favor. A harried mother in public is an object of scorn. Why can’t she control her brat? Could she put on real pants? Can you believe she still has not lost all that baby weight? These are actual comments I have heard.

In contrast, a struggling father is a magnet for sympathy, even admiration. This double standard lives in the grocery store worker who cooed at my toddler amid meltdown, the librarian who cheerfully praised his singing voice and the gentleman who invited me to the first-class airport lounge “for the baby’s sake.” If my female comrades have such experiences, they do not tell me.

I am lazy and impatient. In tough situations I procrastinate, then quit. I was mentally ready to fail. What I did not expect was the strain fatherhood would put on my marriage.

Traditional relationships such as my parents’ functioned smoothly because everyone knew what to do. The home was my mother’s domain, the children her problem. My father took on the outside world. For Anna and me, however, the baby’s arrival was akin to the redrawing of national boundaries, creating uncertainty, unrest and the occasional border dispute.

In a household where the man cooks, cleans and takes care of the baby, who does the taxes? Who carries the suitcases? Who takes the car to the shop? (Hint to the recently liberated man: It might still be you.)

Anna and I consider ourselves sensible. We have similar values (introversion), religions (none) and temperaments (conflict-avoidant). We love each other, Spanish wine and the works of Kazuo Ishiguro. We hardly quarrel. Yet, despite strong and mutual agreement on our roles — she works, I parent — the pressures of motherhood caught me by surprise.

The challenge of modeling shared household duties when Mom works at home

The traditional man was not terribly worried about his offspring’s feelings for him. My father worked hard for a respectable salary, scolded his errant child and kept the family car running. He was (and is) a good father.

The modern woman, I learned quickly, is reluctant to adopt my father’s role fully for fear of estranging her child.

When our baby was a few days old, I bunked with him in the nursery one night to let his exhausted mother sleep uninterrupted in the bedroom. Terrible idea. “Stop trying to take my baby away from me,” Anna sobbed the next morning. Lesson one: Never get between a mama bear and her cub.

The hormones and exhaustion wore off, but the pattern remained: A father who does too much is a failure. The career woman who sees her child primarily on weekends still expects motherhood’s mystical bond. Accordingly, the best stay-at-home dad is competent but slightly imperfect, and his spawn does not demonstrate too obvious a preference for him over its mother.

During a weekend crisis at the park (such as a stubbed toe, a raspberry shortage or a passing ambulance), when the toddler runs wailing to his father instead of she who gave him life, the man faces a grim choice: Ignore the tide of tiny tears or pretend not to notice the sadness his wife is trying to hide behind her paneer roll.

This, then, is the full-time father’s challenge: Raise a happy, well-adjusted child, but without becoming the favorite parent.

The paths to failure are many. If your baby sobs at bedtime when he suspects mama, not abba, will bathe him tonight, you have failed. (You are favored.) If he pushes another kid on the playground, you have failed. (He is not well adjusted.) If he wrecks his mother’s designer glasses, you have failed. (Nobody’s happy, and mama cannot watch “Gilmore Girls.”)

Like any modern, sensitive couple, we talked about our concerns. “Of course, the boy favors you; he sees you every minute of every day,” Anna said sensibly. I nodded. But in the moment, when the ungrateful narcissist forgets who carried him inside her, birthed him, even gave up coffee for him, common sense is a shaky accord that crumbles at the first sign of great-power conflict (or affronted motherhood).

The traditional father was a decisive disciplinarian; today’s working mother yearns only for a demonstration of her baby’s affection. As a consequence, I have concluded, the job of the stay-at-home dad is to provide not only a good life for his child, but a satisfying mothering experience for his spouse.

On nights when Anna returns from work before dusk, this means persuading the toddler of the benefits of bedtime, bathing him and delivering him to mama’s lap without tears. The glory of the good-night kiss is rightly hers. Performing a task of such delicacy, I imagine myself to be the faceless civil servant whose all-nighter enabled the secretary of state to sign the Iran nuclear deal the next morning.

Our story has no neat ending. I am certain Anna will be both mother and diplomat par excellence. With any luck, I will muddle through. Our child will be confused about what mothers and fathers do. In life, as in diplomacy, optimal outcomes are as precious as they are rare.

Zia Ahmed is a father and the husband of a first secretary.

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