The saying goes that you can’t know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. I can’t claim I’ve ever worn women’s shoes (they’re way too uncomfortable), but I have experienced the boatload of the pressures many women typically endure, and let me tell you, it ain’t for the faint of heart.
As freelance illustrator and writer working out of our home with three girls, I was usually the go-to guy for everything from lunchbox detail to parental appearances at school plays. My wife, a devoted elementary school teacher, was simply not available to do those things for much of the time.
I’m not saying I was a national pioneer for stay-at-home Dad-dom. By the mid-1970s, I’m sure there must have been others around the country doing more or less the same thing. But I think it’s fair to say that in Eastern Montgomery County Pennsylvania, I was on the forefront.
I was usually the one to do the kids’ hair in the morning. My entire hairstyle repertoire was one sad item—the lowly ponytail. Most days I’d make one in the back of the head, vaguely centered. If I was feeling ambitious, I might attempt two side ponytails. I really did go for symmetry, but after two tries I was done, and if one or more of my girls looked like an emotionally unhinged cocker spaniel, then so be it.
Lunch assembly was a daily ordeal. I’d often look in our pantry for chips to put in their lunch boxes, only to find nearly empty bags with finely ground potato chip or pretzel dust. I’ve somehow blocked on what I actually packed, with one exception. My youngest daughter, Lindsay, took a liking to pea soup at age seven or so, and for quite a while I’d fill her thermos with tepid ladlefuls of the stuff, which I’m sure was stone cold by the time she ate it. I can only attribute her survival to the fact that bacteria probably don’t particularly like pea soup anymore than most children.
I was often the parent to go on field trips, helping to chaperone excursions to museums, historical sites, aquariums, and other educational attractions. For the most part, being the only dad wasn’t an issue, although one particular incident left a few scars. I chaperoned a hayride with about 20 mothers and their kids that culminated in a muddy pumpkin field, where the kids could pick their own pumpkins for Halloween. I found that a deeply dispiriting moment, the lone guy mucking around a cold patch of ground with a troop of women and their children. Rightly or wrongly, I assumed their husbands and fathers were off doing what respectable married males were supposed to be doing, earning a substantial, stable living. I took no pride in being there—quite the contrary. Sad to say, I felt a kind of shame that perhaps I wasn’t doing what society expected of me.
And this, even now in this age of evolving gender roles, is the dark underbelly beneath the At-Home Dad experience. Even if you believe, as I do, that making lunches and braiding hair should not inherently be the women’s role or the father’s, but rather what is best for the individual family, it’s awfully tough to shake the nagging belief that professional success trumps childcare, that real men don’t spend precious daytime hours in zoos and natural history museums wrangling youngsters.
To my young brothers who may now find themselves walking a mile in my muddy shoes, maybe after a job loss or an unconventional career choice, I offer this—several decades later, with three daughters now grown into exceptional and accomplished women, married to outstanding men, with dynamite kids of their own, I wouldn’t trade those moments in the pumpkin field for anything.