My dad had two stories about the men who shaped his childhood. One was about his father, Martin. After my grandmother died in the early 1930s, my grandfather ditched my dad and his siblings, leaving them to live with her family. Martin came around from time to time, always bearing candy. But the visits eventually stopped, and he never did a thing to meaningfully support his kids or even keep contact with them. Fifty years on, my dad sneered at the idea that this deadbeat thought he could show up twice a year and buy a son’s respect for a few gumdrops.
The other story was about Uncle Joe, the man who actually raised him. Joe and Sadie, my grandmother’s sister, had taken in my dad and his sisters to live with their own daughters after Martin split. Joe was a New York City cop, with the Prohibition-era waterfront among the tough beats he’d worked. He was a good provider, morally upright, a passable tenor, confident in the proper roles for everybody in the household. My father had privileged status as the only other male, embodied partly in rights to a huge model train set in the basement. Only he could only sit and watch while Joe assembled, laid out, ran, and repaired the set. Since the kid didn’t know what he was doing, Joe never trusted him to actually touch the trains for more than a few minutes, and he didn’t have the patience to teach him.
During my childhood in the ’70s, I heard these stories enough to know they were important, although it wasn’t my dad’s personality to explicitly unpack them, at least with me. Their meaning was clear in how he acted as a father and a partner. He went out of his way to let me get my hands on things and figure out how they worked, let me put stickers all over his desk and come along to his rehearsals and wrap parties and makeshift offices, and was generally a warm and affectionate presence. Anytime he gave me an unexpected candy bar or ice cream, he made sure to tell me there was nothing behind it.
But maybe the most radical break from the men of his childhood was that he was a stay-at-home dad, at a time when many Americans were just starting to wonder whether man-hunter/woman-gatherer was still the best way to divide household roles. What it meant in practical terms was that I spent my days with my dad while my mother was working, that he was the one who made the food; sang to me; bathed me; cleaned up my errant crayon marks; walked me to the preschool, and the market, and the park.
How did fodder for this year’s trend stories happen so quietly almost four decades ago? The same way it does now: when circumstances larger than either of them put my mom at the office and my dad at home, they did what worked best for themselves and their young child.
My dad retired from his career in the Air Force when I was two years old. His final assignment was at the airbase in Albuquerque, NM, a strange high-desert city that was different enough from anyplace he or my mom had ever known that they decided to stay. They were a pair who didn’t neatly fit anywhere in 1970s America: a career military guy, fifty years old, out in the civilian world for the first time in nearly three decades, and an itinerant English nurse-midwife fifteen years his junior, happy to leave her homeland for new adventures.
Their arcs were similar even if the specifics were different. Both had managed to get beyond their limited early prospects – his in blue-collar Brooklyn, hers in a stifling middle-class Britain – and see the world. They found vocations that meant removing themselves from their families and building what relationships they could in nomadic lives. They married late, by any generation’s measure. And that was all just fine with them. After they met in England and brought me about, deciding to put down roots thousands of miles from where they’d come from was one of the more domesticated moves neither had made for years.
There they were, new parents in a new city, weirdos out of time and place between my mom’s foreignness and my dad’s age. She went to work as a mental health nurse while he went to college, and they worked out my care however it made sense, making up their childrearing as they went along. Since my mom was the one working – often overnight shifts that meant she slept during the day – my dad spent as much time with me as she did. My childhood was as likely spent running around behind the scenes at the mental hospital as hanging out with my dad, meeting freaky characters around the university or in the seedy Central Avenue diners that he loved.
All I know about these earliest days comes from remembered conversations with my parents, both of whom died several years ago, or my own patches of memory. Though they must have been influenced by the social upheaval that was still churning in the ’70s, they were rarely dogmatic about anything. They weren’t explicitly steered by neither traditional gender roles nor by the feminist critique of those roles. Their relationship was simply built on the mutual care and respect of two mature individuals; the way they raised me, and my dad’s large role in that, flowed naturally from this.
This model of what a dad should be didn’t matter much during my extended post-adolescence – not until recently. I was laid off in 2009. My wife and I had our first child in 2010, just as I was finishing the fool’s errand of getting another degree to break into a new industry. When our son was born, it was barely even a discussion that I would be the main person taking care of him, especially after we did the math on childcare costs in Chicago. I kept waving my fresh new diploma at potential employers for a few months after he was born, but the thought of making just enough to cover the cost of leaving him with strangers all day kept us from even considering much of what might have been open to me. And now with a second baby on the way, I’d have to come out of the gate pretty spectacularly to make a job even worth getting out of bed for. So at least until preschool, I’m not even looking for serious work outside the house; I’ll pick up the occasional gig, we will muddle through, and our kids get to be with their dad all day.
This is the same math that lots of families are doing right now, whether it’s a dad or a mom or some combination of the two putting a career on hold or coming up with new ways of doing things as jobs come and go. However they arrived at them, my folks’ ad hoc parenting arrangements presaged by decades the kinds of demographic and economic pressures now driving the growth in stay-home-dadhood (and the attendant growth in dad blogs). At least there’s somewhat of a choice now, rather than half the population being automatically relegated to that job alone, or families being consigned to poverty because only men were allowed to work
As a new stay-home dad, it wasn’t until I started reading dad blogs that I realized I was part of a community performing a radical disruption of normative gender constructs, and that if I was worried, I might affirm my unbowed guyness through the forceful appreciation of sport and dudely foodstuffs. I always figured that staying home to help raise my children was a natural thing to do, one that didn’t warrant much anxiety or analysis. As wonderful as this idea sounds, though, it can be tough making the leap from theory to practice in a culture that bristles at challenges to sentimental Cleaver family values. When economic and social realities collided to make this my story, I was lucky that I had not only the idea that there’s nothing neutering about a man staying home, but also a solid example – call it a family tradition – that showed me just what it can look like. And my kids will have the same, regardless of where their lives take them.
Let’s be honest – no matter who’s doing it, full-time parenting can be a slog, alternating between joy and frustration and pride and numbing tedium. I won’t pretend, in my parents’ case or in my own, that the dad staying home was based on enlightened thinking any more than it was on dull circumstance. But I’ll tell you what: it sure is easier to deal with the job if you don’t also have to do battle with some idea of manhood that history has been grinding into dust for decades.