Recently, I took my son to visit my parents — just me and him. During the train trip, we talked about the scenery passing outside the window, read Richard Scarry, and played with Spiderman figurines. Eventually, my patience reached, I allowed him to play on my smartphone for the last twenty minutes or so of the ninety minute trip while I daydreamed.
As we were disembarking, the elderly couple who had been sitting in front of us said, “We were listening to you back there. He’s a good kid, and you’re a great dad.”
I should have felt touched, happy, proud — any number of positive emotions. And I did. But those feelings were dampened by a sense of failure. I relied on my smartphone to get through that train trip! I could have done it on my own. I could have been more entertaining! More patient! More upbeat! A super dad!!
Yesterday on The Huffington Post, author and mother of four Allison Tate wrote a thought-provoking piece that asks “When you are a stay-at-home parent, how do you define success?”
Wow, is this a difficult question to answer. I started writing that the question of success is particularly pressing for a stay-at-home dad because traditional cultural expectations perceive men as the financial provider. However, I don’t think that’s true.
As Tate writes in her piece, when we’re young and in school we feel good receiving A’s and moving on to the next grade. On the job, we feel good after a glowing review, or with a promotion. Even receiving pay is, in effect, a form of reward. (A former boss made this clear by saying, “You’ve earned your keep this week,” whenever he was pleased with my work.) A paycheck lets you know you’ve done a good job, or at least good enough. We’ve been trained from childhood to recognize our own self worth by others’ estimations of it.
Our culture as a whole celebrates external reward systems to the point that we find it entertaining to watch singers and dancers compete on television for votes of success. So for anyone, male or female, to take oneself out of the work-force in order to stay-at-home with a child is a major upset to how they measure achievement.
And yet, the cliché I often hear is: Being a stay-at-home dad must be so rewarding!
Is it? I respond, only partly in jest.
I mean, really, does the reward come when your child tells you, “I had a nice day with you da-da?” It’s nice hearing that, but kids are fickle, and their memories short. My son might remember that we spent half-an-hour playing outside with neighbor, and that means we had a good day. But he’ll forget that I lost my temper with him at lunchtime, or that he moped about while I washed dishes and I snapped at him to find something to do, or that I keeled over in boredom when we played trains. Whereas I’ll recall those things and wish that I didn’t lose my temper, or that I had a bigger appetite for the inane repetitions of toddler’s play.
I’ll also see other kids, my son’s age and younger, working on letters, or playing musical instruments, or drawing detailed, figurative pictures, and I’ll fret that I’m not teaching him enough at home. I’ll think of kids who seem, from my outside perspective, so much better behaved, or parents who seem less stressed, or tired, or who just appear to be having a better time hanging out with their kids. “We colored for an hour today, it was fantastic!” Really? Cute photos and oh-so-proud status updates on Facebook can really muck with your self-esteem as a stay-at-home parent.
(Sometimes it takes my all not to comment, “Yeah, but your kid will still hate you when she’s 17.” Lovely, right? Come out from under the Bell Jar, Gresko!)
Taking a Zen-like approach helps me manage my dignity. My journey as a stay-at-home parent may be more rewarding than any specific destination or milestone that my son achieves.
Asking: Will I manage my temper today? Because my son will, at some point, challenge me in some childish way — he’s a child, after all. I can’t control his mood swings or irrational reactions to me, his playmates, or the world at large. But I can control how I react to it. Sometimes, certain situations — a tantrum, for example — feel like lose-lose. So not sinking into a low when he has a meltdown or a bad day maybe as good as it gets.
Also, lowering expectations is important. I often feel inadequate if I can’t get the dishes washed before my wife comes home from work, but really, what’s the big freakin’ deal? They’re just dirty dishes. And maybe I didn’t find a chance to exercise today, but I did yesterday, and I’ll make sure to do it tomorrow. It’s not the end of the world.
It takes a lot of emotional energy to keep one’s self-esteem up as a stay-at-home parent, because ultimately, whatever success you feel need come from within. Which is a good rule to apply to any endeavor, really. So all you stay-at-home parents out there, keep at it, and keep those spirits up! When your situation changes and you head back into the world at large — and one day, when your children are older, you will — you’ll be all the more tough and ready to tackle difficult challenges from your time at home with the little ones.