Three summers ago my newly formed architectural practice was proving inadequate at keeping the family financial fire stoked. My wife, June, and I decided that she would return full-time to the work force while I practiced the dual role of househusband and part- time professional.
I really felt qualified for my new role as househusband. I always was neater than June. I have a fine assortment of noises and monster faces for kiddie entertainment. Cooking is a favorite hobby of mine and I’d already seen my share of messy diapers. Prepared as I felt, it was still like waking up in a different world: a world where tears, fears and love are as common as spare time is rare.
A triangle began to emerge in my life between the supermarket, the pediatrician’s office and the co-op preschool. Mornings I’d often be scratching my head at the supermarket trying to figure out where the 50 pound dog food bag would fit on the cart without squashing Kyle below or Kirsten on top. Afternoons were filled with cheese sandwiches, telling stories, nap time and "Mr. Rogers." Evenings I used to enjoy June’s amazed reactions when she would come home and find the table set for a candlelit dinner, the kids already fed, and a warm glow emanating from her on-top-of-things husband. I’d fill her in on the day’s events – like Elaine at preschool saying her husband would love staying home with their baby "if it weren’t for the diarrhea," and how Kyle decided that ants would make good pets "because they’re real nice and they don’t stink."
For a while, I was pretty amazing all right, but it was short-lived. Any jealousy June may have felt was quickly wiped out when her nocturnal arrival was greeted one day by the smell of baked urine from melted plastic panties in the dryer (I thought they were washed!), and a furrow-browed husband hunched over the stove poaching eggs (for dinner?). I probably shouldn’t have been so defensive, but after a day of Sundance, our golden retriever, deciding he’s incontinent, Kirsten teething, surprises in the bathtub, and a bird getting caught in our chimney, I was in no mood to discuss a pair of ninety cent plastic panties.
Shortly after discovering you don’t soften butter in a warm oven, it hit me: All my life, from quarterback to architect, I had been in excellent positions to receive praise, and now praise was becoming quite hard to come by. Other things, of course, were contributing to my dilemma: I had just been vasectomized (two will do!); my over-30 basketball team, The Swollen Joints, had finished the season 2 and 10 (one victory by forfeit); and my part- time architectural career was presenting full-time problems. The "juggler" was, indeed, missing his balls and as each one hit the floor he plunged deeper and deeper into Househusband Blues.
It was a time for finger pointing: to June ("You don’t seem very turned on these days"), to the kids ("You kids and all your screaming have given me psoriasis!"), to relatives, friends, and friends of relatives. Nobody missed the Finger of Truth’s waggle.
I started bio-feedback classes and was shocked to find that I had difficulty squeezing 30 seconds of relaxation into 30 minute periods. As soon as I’d shut my eyes, there’d be a crash, or the phone would ring, or a buzzer would go off or somebody would start screaming.
At first I tried hiding. I’d go for my 30 second break in the john, the car, or even the closet. Then it occurred to me – Hey, who’s running things around here anyway? So I explained why daddy needed his thirty second timeout, disconnected the phone and presto, it worked. Relaxation became more dignified.
Two events during this period also helped greatly. The first: A close friend looked me straight in the eyes over lunch and called me "Pizza Face." If I ever doubted the authenticity of my depression, the image of two slices of pepperoni staring blankly while an anchovy mouth gradually slides into a scowl on a bed of hot cheese was too close to what I had been shaving each morning.
June was largely responsible for the second event. Throughout our marriage, true to an honesty-as-best-policy conviction, we found it helpful to express our negative feelings. "Maybe we’ve overdone it a bit," she said. "We’re always saying how hard things feel. Let’s start substituting ‘challenging’ for ‘hard’ and see what happens." My first reaction was to rake Pollyanna over the coals. "If ‘hard’ doesn’t fit your vocabulary, it’s because you’re having too easy a time of it and at my expense!" etc. etc.
But after a while I calmed down, pried the foot out of my mouth and thought about what she said. Maybe that’s why the frustration, the helplessness, the heartbreak and psoriasis. By just looking at things differently – as "grist for the mill," as Ram Dass puts it – they all become acceptable.
I realized today that I no longer check my lapels for Kirsten’s spitup. Kyle makes his own bed now – sort of – and kindergarten is just around the corner. Each day these little beings are growing more and more independent, and being intimately involved in their preschool years is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I’m glad not to have missed.
Choosing to stay at home with the children may have impeded the growth of my career; though, in fairness, this has been offset by my wife’s ability to resume hers. Recently June has started her own part-time business. Now, having both parenting and income-providing in common, June and I feel on more equal terms when discussing business or children. Also, it is easier for us to empathize knowing the shoe could be on the other foot the next day.
Diverging somewhat from the norm has brought its share of frustrations. After all, June and I were children in the 1950s and such cultural implants as "Daddies work and mommies take care of the home" or "Mommies nurture while daddies discipline" couldn’t have missed us. Maybe our difficulty in accepting these influences on ourselves has made it harder for us to accept them in others. Still, neither the unspoken messages to me ("So you’re a househusband. What career did you fail in?") nor the spoken words to June ("Aren’t you lucky to have such a wonderful husband?") describe the willing choice we both exercised in coming by our parenting arrangement.
June and I have enjoyed the flexibility that we share in our approach to parenting. We are excited at the prospect of rearing two children who we hope will have minimal problems with sexual stereotypes. Come to think of it, maybe here too there has been some overcompensation. I remember June telling me how bringing Kyle to her soccer games would help him understand that active participation in sports is not just for males. She also hoped that he might develop an interest in soccer. After her last game, she asked him if he ever wanted to play on a soccer team. "Nah," he scoffed, "soccer’s for girls!"