Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
When my wife and I found out we were pregnant last year, I was thrilled at the opportunity to become a stay-at-home dad. I loved my job, but it was just a job, and my wife is a doctor, a career she’s spent most of her adult life working toward, and one that provides a much better income than mine. So there was never any debate on who would stay home with the baby.
I was ready for the hard work, the sleepless nights, the frustration, and the exhaustion, but I wasn’t ready for the feelings of complete isolation. Being a stay-at-home dad is lonely. My guy friends, all of whom went back to work days after the birth of their children, don’t really get why I made this choice. Even my own dad isn’t totally supportive of our decision, but he’s old school so I forgive him. My wife works very long hours, so it’s just the kid and me. Alone. All the time. Honestly, how have stay-at-home moms done it all these years?
How can I break these feelings of isolation? Is this normal, or am I doing something wrong? And how can I find some much-needed support from other like-minded men?
I was lucky enough that, when I gave birth to my first child, I was able to take six months of maternity leave. For half of a year I was a stay-at-home spouse while my husband worked outside of the home. And I hated it. Being stuck inside all day, no one rational to talk to, unable to get anything done for myself. I couldn’t even shower—the constant work of feeding, cleaning, and soothing a small child consumed me. Many days my husband came home to find me in tears, weeping because this job that I was supposed to love, the job of caring for our child, was so fucking hard.
Staying home alone with a child is the hardest job in the entire world. I’ve heard that some people find it to be emotionally fulfilling and rewarding work, but I don’t know any of them. Everyone I know who stays home with a child full-time finds it to be isolating, tedious, and stressful.
Children take everything that they can. It’s their job to run up to the world and absorb all of it. They want to touch, push, pull, smell, lick, and bite everything. They want to find a new way to move their bodies, a new way to put one thing into another thing. They want every single ounce of energy their caregiver can provide, and then they also want 40% more. They do not stop, they do not slow down, they only know what they want want want now now now.
I think it’s completely ridiculous that we, as a culture, have come to believe that a single adult can and should be wholly responsible for a child’s care when a child can easily emotionally and physically shred an adult without any significant effort or thought. A 4:1 adult to child ratio makes much more sense. When I move my mind outside of our current situation, where one parent is supposed to leave the house to go to work and pretend to not have children for upwards of eight hours a day while the other parent stays home and cares for the child(ren) all on their own, I think that this must have been different before industrialization. It must have been a group of adults taking care of a smaller group of children. At no time in our evolution would it have been beneficial for a single adult to take care of a child all by themselves without any help.
How have stay-at-home moms done it all these years? They haven’t, not really. Stay-at-home moms have turned to many outlets to get them through the stressful work of raising children day in and day out—each other, extended family, playgroups, part-time jobs, demanding more childcare from their spouses, day drinking, pills, neglect. It’s a notable fact that a 1960s housewife spent, on average, less time with her children each day than a current mother who works outside of the home.
We expect more from parents now.
I know a few stay-at-home dads, one of whom is my husband. I now work outside of the home and he works inside of the home, and this means that I need to be very aware of what I’m asking of my husband. It makes it very convenient on a day-to-day basis to not have to schlep our son back and forth to daycare, to have someone available to take him to doctor’s appointments, to perform daily housework, and to be able to manage the small business that is running a family.
But that arrangement means there are some trade-offs: Just because my husband is home most of the time doesn’t mean I am able to be home less. If some girlfriends want to have a fun night out, I can’t immediately respond “Yassss!” I have to first check the calendar to see if I’m already going to be out any evening that week, and then check in with my husband to make sure that my going out still won’t be putting too much on him. I work all week and deserve a fun night out, but my husband also works all week and my going out means that he’s going to have to work overtime. Because when you’re stay-at-home, your work is your home, which means that the work has the possibility of never ending. It could go on into infinity, until you’re finally too exhausted to do anything but sit on the floor and cry while the baby takes your moment of weakness to make another run at the cat food.
A work-at-home spouse deserves just as much time off as the work-outside-the-home spouse, but they usually don’t get it. Working outside of the home means that you get to leave work at the end of the day—working inside the home means that you only get to leave work when someone shows up to relieve you.
So being a stay-at-home spouse is hard, but being a male stay-at-home spouse is hard plus, because you have to deal with the shade you are inevitably thrown because your life choices are subverting the expectations of others. My husband’s father is also old school and predicted that my husband would not be successful as a stay-at-home parent because, “Men aren’t built that way. Taking care of children comes easily to women because they have the instinct. It’s harder for men.” I love my father-in-law so I didn’t call him out on that rank bullshit, but it is a self-fulfilling prophecy of bullshit. When babies are born their mothers are usually their primary food source, and men don’t get paternity leave, so the mother is also the primary caregiver for those first few months, which establishes a pattern that is rarely revised or revisited. It also perpetuates the lie that women are just naturally better at this. But childcare is a learned skill, the same as any other skill on planet earth.
Your choice to be a stay-at-home dad is valid and you’re not the only one making it. I posed your question to Chris Gayner, a comedian and stay-at-home father. His advice is to actively look around to find other stay-at-home dads: “I went to the playground once and there were four other stay-at-home dads there. If there aren’t any around you maybe try to find an online community. You could also try and have another baby and then you’ll be too tired to feel lonely. I think it comes down to economics. The cost of daycare for two boys was almost what I was making when I was working. I love being with them, but it can be exhausting talking to a 2- and 3-year-old all day.”
It sounds as though your wife is at work a lot. Dr. hours are long hours, and I’m guessing that means you work overly long hours as well. You need to find a way to schedule in a break for yourself, be that just one night a week where you get to leave the house exactly at 6pm and not come back until well after the kid is in bed. You agreed to be the primary caregiver 40+ hours a week, but that doesn’t mean you agreed to be the primary caregiver all 168 hours a week. When your wife is home, she needs to be assuming primary caregiver duties, at least for a few hours.
Find other stay-at-home dads. Use Meetup.com, your local community center, or just go to the playground and do that cool nod thing when you see other dads. If it’s financially possible, you can also enroll your child in daycare part-time, or find a babysitter to come over once a week. The job of taking care of a child is a job 100 times bigger than a single person and you feel isolated because you’re attempting to do this job all on your own. Ask your wife, your family, your friends, and other dads for help. And know that’s how stay-at-home moms have done it all these years.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.