The Father and Forefathers of a Stay-at-Home Dad

My Father John Joseph O'Hagan.
My Father John Joseph O’Hagan.

We stay-at-home dads are a mixed group. Some chose the role. Others had it thrust upon them by circumstance, like losing a job, and some of us, like me, made the choice circumstantially. I could have kept working, but the needs of our growing family and my wife’s career made being a stay-at-home dad the obvious choice.

Setting off into largely uncharted social territory is not often the easiest path in life, but it has its rewards and opportunities as well as its share of pitfalls. I am reining in my more melancholic tendencies here so this doesn’t end up reading like its all doom and gloom, because I realize my circumstances are more fortunate than many.

I’ve also come to appreciate I’m probably well equipped to make this particular journey because of my upbringing. My parents were open minded and progressive. My mother once said of my eldest sister, “We brought you up to challenge the status quo, and she’s been challenging ours ever since!”

When I think of my childhood and the foundation that was laid for me to move into the role of stay-at-home dad, my mother looms large. She was the temporal constant in my life. She was a feminist. She filled her empty nest with employees as her children left home. She had more invested in shaking up traditional gender roles than my father. But he supported her. I can imagine him joking about “leading from behind” on this front.

My father, John Joseph O’Hagan, moved on from this world 14 years ago.

During my lifetime he become more domestic in his habits. He learned to cook. He ironed his own shirts and folded laundry. He cleaned the toilet. He took particular delight in that.

Truth is he made more mileage out of cleaning the toilet than his labor actually warranted. I remember him demonstrating his method; wielding the toilet brush with the flourish of a virtuoso conductor. Such that he may stand accused of diluting the situation rather than cleansing it.

In 1980s New Zealand there were not many dads who did domestic things. My dad dealt with any discomfort he felt by making a joke of it. “Behind every great woman, is a greater man,” he would proclaim, turning the traditional compliment to the uber-housewife, mother, corporate spouse on its head.

He could milk sympathy for his house frau status from his mates, while wearing it as badge of honor with their wives, simultaneously, during a dinner party where he held court at the head of the table while my mother moved in and out of the kitchen.

But he would always do the dishes.

And in that jovial way he set an example. He made normal what would have to become normal in order for me to do what I do. He did much of the emotional legwork for me.

To be fair, he had his less distinguished moments too, where he would dig his toes in and go to a spot that was beyond the reaches of his normally high spirits, his affinity for reason and my, or anyone else’s, comprehension.

My father brought the left-leaning streak to my parents’ marriage. When my maternal grandfather, a rural shopkeeper, met him for the first time in the early 1950s he summed up his thoughts to my mother with the comment that he was a lovely man, even if he was a “little bit pink.”

My father’s father, Patrick, was pacifist. How strong a pacifist I am not sure. His convictions were never tested when he was of fighting age during World War I, because his skills as an electrician were declared more vital to the Empire’s cause in a factory than on the fields of Flanders where my mother’s father served.

Patrick was a tall man, who married a short woman. Her genes prevailed among their offspring until my father shot up above his older siblings. He told the story of my grandfather giving my uncle a sound beating when he signed up to serve in World War II. I guess, it was pre-hippy pacifism.

He may have got his peaceable leanings from his own father, Henry, who fought for the British Army in the Crimean War in the 1850s. I am the youngest son of a youngest son of a late life baby, so the generations spread out.

After that war Henry returned to Ireland, only to be faced with the potato famine. He emigrated to Glasgow, Scotland where he made enough of a fist of life in the Irish Catholic ghetto to get his son a vocation, and hence a ticket out of the trenches. In 1926, that son boarded a ship for New Zealand, where my father was born five years later.

So I come from a strong lineage of men who were not prepared to accept what life dealt them, men who questioned things and made bold moves. Put it that way one almost feels I should be discovering a cure for cancer or pioneering fourth generation nuclear technology.

But I am not.

I am at home, running a house and being the lead parent. I am doing something that my grandfather and great grandfather would probably never have dreamed of. But I would like to think they would approve of my choice and see how it grew out of the decisions they, and my own father, made before me.

The Land That I Love

The Author and his uncooperative son before Mt Avalanche and Mt Aspiring (above cloud to right)
The Author and his uncooperative son before Mt Avalanche and Mt Aspiring (above cloud to right)

One of my oldest and dearest childhood friends from New Zealand visited us last week. His children were very taken with the local squirrels.

Squirrels don’t occur in New Zealand. It has been isolated from other landmasses since the age of the dinosaurs, long before the evolution of mammals as we know them. Save for some bats it has no endemic land mammals.

Everything from cats and dogs, to the pestilent possum, and the synonymus sheep was bought there by humans. The early settlers had Acclimatisation Societies specifically set up to import non noxious animals and plants to make New Zealand more like Home (Britain). When I was a kid the eponymous Kiwifruit was still called a Chinese gooseberry.

Squirrels didn’t make the cut. Hence the joy in my friend and his children at seeing them in our New York yard. They showed no excitement when it came to bunnies. Rabbits are vermin in New Zealand. Every year the farmers down the road from my friend’s place hold an Easter Bunny Hunt to try and control them. But freed from any natural predators and competitors they breed like rabbits.

Our guests were en route to Finland, where my friend’s wife was raised. She noted that her mother hates squirrels because they raid her bird feeders. I perceived the slightest edge in her voice when she made that statement. There is a tinge of sadness that is probably common to all emigrant parents. The sense that your children will never truly know the land you grow up in.

Sure, if you are lucky they will visit it, see the sights and enjoy their extended family, but they will never know the place in the intimate way you do. That deep familiarity only comes with a childhood of memories and years of being present.

I’m looking for a variety of New Zealand flax to plant in my yard in New York. I need Phormium colensoi or mountain flax to survive the winter. Phormium Flaxes are no relation to the Northern Hemisphere flax (Linum usitatissimum). They was just given that name by some home-sick Brits who identified them as a source of fiber.

Planting flax will be a big deal for me. Flax is a part of the New Zealand landscape, but I imagine my kids will think it is just some sword-leaved novelty that Dad thought up.

It is interesting how we take the landscape for granted. I remember visiting Moab Utah and remarking to a local that where-ever he went in the world he would probably be homesick because surely there was nothing else quite like this land of red sandstone buttes, mesas and arches.

The problem with being an expat Kiwi is New Zealand is so gorgeous there is much to miss. I’ve lived in Illinois. I’m sure the locals have an appreciation for the long horizons. Frank Lloyd Wright made architectural movement out of them, but the flatness really got to me.

I grew up among the mountains; real, rugged mountains, still scarred by glaciers. Mountains that tower over you, unlike anything they call a mountain in New England. In my mind if it has trees growing on top, it’s just a hill.

Mt. Aspiring © Craig Potton Photography
Mt. Aspiring © Craig Potton Photography

My childhood holidays were spent in Lake Hawea in the southern part of New Zealand’s South Island. The lake was one of a string of glacial lakes on the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps. It’s larger twin, Lake Wanaka is the gateway to the Mount Aspiring National Park.

Aspiring is a beautiful mountain, an ice carved spire raising 1500 feet above anything else in the area. I visited the National Park with my boys a few years ago. My son resisted postcard shot (above) so I had to hold him upside down to get a hint of a smile.

The 2013 reality TV show Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls was filmed in the shadow of Mt. Aspiring. My boys were addicted to it. They love Survivor and The Amazing Race, but their affection for this show didn’t move beyond that.

I tried to pull them in by figuring out where each episode had been shot on the topographical maps of southern New Zealand I have on the basement wall. But that held no real interest for them. It was like report you have to write after going on a school field trip.

When I studied journalism in Auckland at the northern end of New Zealand, our class visited a Maori Marae (village). I was selected to give the response during the Powhiri or welcoming ceremony.

I referred to the land I came from and described Mt. Aspiring, or Tititea in Maori, as the sternpost of my waka. A waka is a canoe and among the most sacred possessions of the Maori. That could easily have come across and some convenient cultural metaphor but in a real sense the description of the upright glistening mountain as a scared sentinel over the land I love was, and still is, true.

I bring up the Maori, because like many native people’s they speak of an affinity for the land. I feel something similar. Being absent only heightens the connection. We talk of modern people being separated from the land. Of kids not knowing that milk comes from cows.

It might be we modern urban types can’t quite experience the land as native peoples once did or even do now. My ties to the land I roamed during my childhood vacations is much greater than any affection for the cities I grew up in.

I only worked as a journalist in Auckland for a few months, before being drawn back to my summer job as a backpacking guide on the Routeburn Track; a three-day, two-night trek through some of the most varied mountain terrain imaginable.

Over ten summers on the track I noticed my experience of the land changed. I never tired of grandeur that drew people from around the world to see the place, but I also developed an appreciation for the smaller details in the landscape; fault lines in the rock and the subtle changes in vegetation in time and space.

It is something I look forward to sharing with my children when they are a little older. I know I can’t expect them to see it the way I do, but I hope they are impressed with this…

Mountains reflected in Lake Mackenzie on the Routeburn Track
Mountains reflected in Lake Mackenzie on the Routeburn Track

In Appreciation of the PTA

In the summer of 2008 we moved to Chicago. My oldest was due to start kindergarten the following year and the home we eventually choose was in the catchment of a highly regarded public school. It had a 9 rating on greatschools.net, but the parental reviews were mixed.

Some people loved, it others complained about the autocratic principal, lack of communication and the parent body.

“It is a strange, cliquish, unwelcoming environment with nasty politics.”

When my son entered the school I didn’t find the Parent Teacher Association particularly polarized. Perhaps as a man I didn’t notice or I wasn’t made privy to some of the politics. Or maybe kindergarten parents are just too new to adopt entrenched positions.

But those reviews have stuck in my mind.

At my kids’ current school in suburban New York a group of parents, that would be a bunch of mothers and me, tend to congregate in the same spot after school. Other parents come together in different places. Our group is heavy with PTA executive board members. Do the other parents in the playground think of us as a clique? What about the parents who pick up their children and leave the school grounds immediately?

Humans like to group together. It is inevitable that parents will divide into groups on the playground. They might be more loosely bound than the cliques of their kids. Adults are better able to smooth over the social cracks, but they are never far below the surface.

Given this fact, and my subsequent work on the PTA those comments on greatschools.net are particularly irritating. I want to tell those people to get over it. If you are too busy, be thankful someone else has the time to give. Look on the bright side.

If you can’t see the positive, here is a list of things the PTA does for my kids’ school. For effect I’ve put one item per line, so get ready to scroll…
VolunteerSign

  1. After-School Clubs: Over a dozen clubs ranging from beading to lego robotics, animals to TV production run in winter and spring.
  2. Bike Safety Rally
  3. Book Fairs: In winter and spring.
  4. Building Bridges: Week-long focus on people with different abilities.
  5. Car Drop-Off: Volunteers unloading the kids in the morning.
  6. Classical Café: Beautifying lower-grade lunch room while older kids give them a concert.
  7. Crunchy Carnival: A health-focused school fair.
  8. Cultural Arts: A school-wide event focusing on one of the arts.
  9. Directory: A list of parent contacts.
  10. Fifth Grade Events: Events for the graduating class.
  11. Fifth Grade Legacy Project: A gift from the graduating class to the school.
  12. Kindergarten Square Dance
  13. International Picnic: A Spring Friday Night family event.
  14. Literary Magazine: Printed book featuring a written entry from every student.
  15. Parent Perks: Coffee mornings with guest speakers.
  16. Picture Day: The official school photos.
  17. Scholarships: To help struggling families participate in events.
  18. School Charity: Thanksgiving food drive, Holiday cards for troops, school supplies for kids in Kenya.
  19. School Garden: Getting every student involved in gardening.
  20. School Play
  21. School Supplies: Set up online ordering of back-to-school supplies and delivering them to each classroom.
  22. School Talent Show
  23. Slice of Summer: An after-school party to welcome the new school year.
  24. Scare Fair: A Halloween-themed school fair.
  25. Teacher Appreciation Breakfast and Lunch
  26. Teacher Grants
  27. Walk to School Week: With raffles and prizes.
  28. Yearbook

The PTA, its donors and volunteers contribute to each of the above events. Sure teachers are involved in some of them, but they couldn’t do it without parent help. Remove the PTA and our school would be stripped of most of these programs. Our kids would get a bare-bones education.

It took me a long time to realize this. The penny only dropped when I put this list on the PTA website.

Like any non-profit, the PTA is an organization prone to politics. One of the ideas that sticks with me from my from my sociology studies is the power of giving. When you give to someone, you gain a certain amount of power over the recipient. Which is why wealthy people are so keen to give to political campaigns. Us commoners have to resort to more modest giving; usually donating our time. I notice volunteering comes with an elevated sense of entitlement. A noble entitlement to be sure, but it makes organizations reliant on donated labor devilishly hard to manage.

Martha Friedland, Romy Kirwin, Krista Williams and Melissa Perez.
Martha Friedland, Romy Kirwin, Krista Williams and Melissa Perez.

That is the underside of the PTA. Our PTA just installed it’s new executive board, it is an appropriate time to single out four people who do the lioness’ share of the work, managing the process.

They are Martha Friedland, Romy Kirwin, Krista Williams and Melissa Perez. The immediate past, present and future Co-Chairs of our school PTA. There are a couple of people like them at every school lucky enough to have a PTA.

Their role is truly thankless. They have to herd the volunteers together, field any number of complaints, attend meetings, and gently let down every wide-eyed volunteer with a plan to raise money this way or spend it another, when their idea clashes with the reality of the calendar, or the budget, or the rules around the use school facilities.

They spend half their time putting out fires, and the rest of it stoking the engine so everything is done on time. They will no doubt have to soothe the waters when this blog post goes viral and I’ve left someone’s program off the above list. Which would be a welcome change from some of the “controversial things” I’ve been responsible for.

Perhaps you work full time, or you volunteer elsewhere. Maybe your child butts heads with the son of your PTA president. Perhaps you caught them on a bad day and that’s colored your view of the PTA.

That shouldn’t stop you from appreciating the work they do for the benefit of the school community. So I ask you to do two things; Thank the head of your PTA and next time they pass the hat around throw a few bucks in or give up some of your time.

It’s time to go back to greatschools.net and look at the reviews of my kids’ current school.

Whew, nothing but praise for the PTA. As it should be.

The Latest Sexual Menace Stalking the Suburbs

Watch out Moms! A new breed of sexual peril is strolling your neighborhood. He is uniquely placed to exploit any sense of alienation you feel being a mom. He will prey on any want you have for your once high-flying career. He will fill any void in your domestic life with his, er, ‘manhood’. And he’ll even help you launder the sheets after your little tryst. Meet the Stray-at-Home Dad.

Yes, as I worked my way to the Sports section of The New Zealand Herald website last night, I was diverted by this headline, “Beware the ‘stray-at-home’ dad

Under the lead photo of a Dad and his daughter looking at an iPad, browsing Tinder I assume, was the caption, “The bigger the earning gap, the more likely they are to have an affair.”

Holy Molé! If that is the standard I should be the Tiger Woods of the ‘hood.

A University of Connecticut study of 2750 married couples has just shown financially dependent men are the most likely to cheat.

“Infidelity may be a way of re-establishing threatened masculinity,” suggested lead researcher, Prof Christin Munsch. “Simultaneously, infidelity allows threatened men to distance themselves from, and perhaps punish, their higher-earning spouses.”

So as not to smother its romping story in a blanket of academic jargon the Herald moved onto the opinion various authors as to why this might be the case.

Andrew G Marshall, marital therapist and author of “How Can I Ever Trust You Again?” agreed with the study, opining that men cut off from their need to be a provider, usually by circumstance such as a job loss, would be more likely to seek to be men by conquering the local ladies.

Dr. Helen Fisher, the author of “Why Him? Why Her?” was a little less sympathetic to the male condition;

“[The Stay-at-Home Dad] will, most likely, be an entrepreneurial type who registers high on the dopamine scale. Dopamine is associated with spontaneity, unpredictable behavior and addiction. Give this type of man time on their hands and … you get a man who strays.”

All this was reassuring to me as, I my decision to stay at home was a more of a choice than most, and being a cup half empty guy is probably an indication that I am dopamine deficient.

That is not to say that the man as provider meme is foreign to me. Not being the breadwinner is a challenge to one’s psyche, but I’d always assumed being a dependent would mitigate against having an affair. If a stay-at-home dad runs off with mom who is going to provide for the new family? And, succumbing to stereotypes, if that doesn’t occur to him in a moment of lust, it would probably cross her mind.

Then there is the logistics of it. I can totally see two coworkers having a drink at the bar after a day at a conference and ending up in single hotel room. But life at fueled by alcohol at 11p.m. is quite different to that perked up by coffee at 11a.m. Plus, it takes an extra level of psychological defiance to have another woman in your marital bed beside your wedding pictures.

As for me, I don’t think I could be bothered. I imagine an erectile dysfunction commercial scenario. I’m folding a bunch of laundry when a horny emotionally vulnerable Mom drops by my house to pick up some homework. We exchange glances and the next thing its Wham, Bam, thank you Ma’am all over my carefully folded pile of clothes.

Now, me being procrastinating me, it would be at least three loads of laundry. Call me a broken man, but my wife is the only woman I am going to have sex with if it means redoing three loads of washing. Maybe dopamine is not my only biochemical deficiency?

There are plenty of attractive moms crossing my path. Were we single, and thankfully I’m not, these are the type of woman I’d look to date, but none of them can hold a handle to my wife. She is the complete package.

Granted, I’ve never been the type to have an affair. In my younger years I was more inclined to lurch from one relationship to another, which was just as bad for the women concerned, but it preserved my sense of my own fidelity. Since meeting my wife I have read the menu so to speak, but never been tempted to order.

Also my flirting radar is particularly weak. I might have had a few moms make a pass at me without even noticing. Subtlety is not going to work on me. I need a woman to be porn-star forward before I lock in on the fact she might like me.

All this works against me being a stray-at-home dad.

My wife and I have older siblings in their fifties. It seems like whenever we speak to them, one of them or their friends is going through some sort of major live changing event. It’s usually to do with work or love, or both at the same time. We are bracing ourselves for a period of midlife crisis in the next 5-10 years.

Maybe I’ll be seduced by a local mom and I’ll have to eat these words, but at this point I just can’t see it happening. If I have a midlife crisis I’m more likely to up sticks and go and live in Jackson Hole.

Sorry ladies. I’m sure you are devastated.

Come on! Throw me that bone at least. Apparently I’m emasculated enough.

New York Parents to Call for Time Out On Gov. Cuomo’s Education Reforms

Parents across the State of New York are mobilizing against a series of education reforms being championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Governor’s plan was unveiled in the final hours of the State Budget negotiations, on March 31. It tied adoption of a new teacher evaluation system to increased state aid for schools and passed the Democratic controlled legislature within hours of being made public.

Groups as varied as teacher’s unions, school administrators and Parent Teacher Associations have come out in opposition. The New York State PTA is advocating a Time Out as an act of peaceful civil disobedience.

On Friday, the PTA Council in the Mamaroneck Unified School District, in suburban Westchester County, New York, is asking parents at the District’s four elementary schools to stage a sit-in after morning drop off. My children attend one of those schools.

Parents are being ask to sit with their children outside the school building until the bell signaling the start of the school day tolls, then collectively call for a Time Out, by making a ‘T’ sign with their hands.

The aim is to get the politicians in Albany to stop the process of reform that is on track to be implemented this year, and delay any changes until the start of the 2016-17 school year. The PTA Council wants an extended period of public debate in the hope that the reforms can be modified.

That will be the real battle.

In his State of the State address in January Gov. Cuomo signaled his intention to tackle teacher evaluation by calling a system, in which less than one percent of teachers were rated as ineffective last year, “baloney.”

His solution was to reduce the weight of principals’ observations to 15 percent of a teacher’s rating. The judgment of an independent evaluator from outside the school would make up 35 percent, while half would be determined on students’ performance in state test scores.

But many districts, including Mamaroneck, complain they have implemented reforms to the teacher evaluation system, known by its acronym APPR, Annual Professional Performance Review, and the Governor’s proposal is a wasteful power grab.

Dr. Robert Shaps
Dr. Robert Shaps

In a recent blog post “How To Fix Public Education in New York State” Dr. Robert Shaps, the Superintendent of Mamaroneck Public Schools likened the current reform process to a Monty Python movie.

Dr. Shaps and I were unable to arrange an interview for this story on short notice. To call him cautious or calculating would be too negative, but he is definitely a man who thinks before he speaks. So it is no surprise he didn’t leap at the chance to be in the media spotlight.

Since arriving in Mamaroneck in 2010 he has set about implementing a new APPR. School principals and district administrators conduct a minimum of six unannounced mini-observations of each teacher every year. Feedback is given to the teacher soon after.

In a February article in the Lower Hudson Journal News “Stern: Schools can grade teachers without Cuomo’s help” Dr. Shaps framed the evaluation process as a partnership with the teachers.

“We have established a norm that people will walk into your classrooms, but there is a trust that comes with having a professional dialogue,” he told the Journal News.

While the classroom observations are unannounced the goal is to help the teachers improve, and relies on a level of trust built between the staff and the administrators. To that end everything is documented. Teachers are told what is expected of them and given ample opportunity to meet their goals

The point is that an outside observer couldn’t develop the trust and the intimate knowledge of each classroom required to pull off such a detailed teacher evaluation. The Mamaroneck School District makes over 3,000 visits to nearly 500 teachers a year; is the State really going to invest that much time and money in teacher evaluation?

Advocates of reform like to portray district-level APPRs as the rubber-stamp of the status quo. While that might be true in some cases, Mamaroneck is not one of them. Teachers have been denied tenure. It happened in my children’s school last year. As Dr. Shaps told me in the aftermath of some parent dismay at that particular termination, the tenure system puts the onus on him to make the right decision. He gets one shot and is totally invested in making an informed choice.

Chatsworth School PTA President, Kerry Roberts Sneyd calls for a Time Out.
Chatsworth School PTA President, Kerry Roberts Sneyd calls for a Time Out.

Kerry Roberts Sneyd (pictured), President of the Chatsworth School PTA, who is one of the Time Out protest organizers says, “The district has spent considerable time and effort creating a culture of collaboration in the classroom, that seems to be working.”

Her concern is that the governor’s approach would be more judgmental and would result in a step backwards towards a higher-anxiety classroom environment that is too focused on testing and outside evaluators.

Roberts Sneyd shied away from any policy prescriptions, calling instead for all interested parties to get together and explore what is working in terms of teacher assessment in different districts around the state in a less-rushed manner.

“There is a real risk to the joy of learning. Why not explore teacher accountability around the state and see what works?” she asked.

Mamaroneck is not an underperforming district, nor does it have a particularly activist parent body. Student opt-out rates on the 2015 state test were well below ten percent, much lower than some districts. The district’s students performed “extremely well” compared to the state-wide averages on the 2013-14 state tests according to Debbie Manetta, the District’s Director Public Relations.

While parents and administrators have some concerns about the reliability of the tests, their opposition to the proposed reforms is not driven by the fear of being given a failing grade.

Their motivation is to come up with the best solution for their child’s schools. If that means defending an effective local system from the heavy hand of Albany, they will raise their hands in a ‘T’ and call for a time out.

The Dad in Shining Armor

The deadline for my latest book is fast approaching. In fact, I should be sitting here figuring out a final schedule; Work back from the delivery day, June 17. I need two weeks for printing: Let’s aim for June 1. That leaves me less than a week for the least-enjoyable part of being an author, the final editing and proofing.

Crikey, I really should stop blogging.

The book I refer to is the local elementary school yearbook. It is my second year as editor of the yearbook, which is paid for by the PTA, and it strikes me that my approach to this job has been very male; DO IT YOURSELF.

Working alone is fine by me. I’m naturally introverted. I’m a man; asking for help is an unnatural condition. So our school yearbook is published by a man alone in front of his computer, in a strictly functional and precise relationship with the Adobe InDesign desktop publishing software.

The Man Alone
The Man Alone

There is none of this harmonious group of mothers standing around a kitchen table with a bottle of Prosecco pasting snapshots onto a page, which is how my neighbor described the publication the yearbook in her day. I imagine that scenario would also result in a great yearbook, unless someone has one sip too many and asks if that B******’s child deserves a spot on the cover!

Just so I’m not accused of painting a portrait of housewives as vindictive wine-soaked old gossips I will admit that were I in that situation, I might be the first as ask that question. It has a certain subversive appeal to me. I like to stir things up.

While I might approach this project with stereotypical manliness, I’m not stupid. I delegated the really onerous job of collecting the fifth grade baby photos to a woman.

I’ve tried to take the rest of the photos myself. Parents, that has been me at most school events with my camera. I’m doing it for the school, not because I am a creepy guy.

The women I am among, the ones who have assured themselves I’m not a voyeur, give me a great deal for credit for my photographic labor; I’m dedicated, I take lovely photos, I’m always around. It’s a lot of work.

I’ll take that praise, but I feel duty bound to acknowledge that my motives are much more self-serving.

  1. Other people take horrible photos. They are out of focus, full of red eyes, branded with date stamps, washed out by the use of a flash or backlit. Which is what happens when the sun is behind the subject of the photo and their faces are in shadow.
  2. They send them to you in low-resolution files, which look perfect on a screen but print fuzzy. Then you have to spend time chasing them down asking for a larger file. Then they attach six original-sized files to one email, and your server retires hurt…
  3. I don’t want to feel I have to use the photo someone sent me, because they might be offended if I don’t.

It is more efficient to take my own photos. It has the attendant benefit that while I am taking photos I don’t have to volunteer for anything else. No manning the ticket booth at the school play for me! Nor running the donut eating competition at Scare Fair, or fitting kids with bike helmets at the Bike Safety Rally.

Of course, I did end up fitting helmets. My friend was running that event. She is a born and bred Manhattanite, recently emigrated from the Upper East Side. She sniffed out my B.S. in two seconds, called me on it in one, and drafted me in when the line was getting unwieldy.

But I’m ok with that. What man doesn’t like to swoop in like a knight in shining armor and help out when the maidens are in a pinch? Chivalry is not dead; it’s just always been about the guys.

Signing up to volunteer requires organization and commitment. Chivalry is freedom. There is no responsibility to be in place at the right time. But when someone else drops the ball, if you happen to be on the spot, you can step in and get the credit. It works wonders on the coldest morning of the year when no body is manning the car drop off line at school.

Maybe every PTA needs a Dad is shining armor.

After all, there are more than enough women to do all the real work.

News Flash: Working Mom a Plus for Kids

My wife just forwarded me this article from The New York Times, “Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers“.

It arrived in my inbox, not with the usual jaunty ping, but a rather dull thud, like it was carrying a weight that had previously been on her shoulders.

My response was to ask if this meant my being a stay-at-home parent was harmful to my child.

I mentioned it to some mothers as we waited for the kids to be released from school that afternoon. The stay-at-home mom in the group voiced exactly the same concern; Does this mean I am bad for being at home?

I know what side of my bread is buttered and who is providing the bread and the butter, so I think this study is encouraging. The pangs of self-doubt my stay-at-home friend and I felt it are nothing compared to working-mother guilt. Furthermore, you could play “Cat’s in the Cradle” on continuous loop to the dads on the commuter train and their guilt wouldn’t match it either. In fact, if you did that, it would be the working moms who petitioned the railway to turn it off.

Another mother, a working mom, who happened to be free for pickup that day, generously offered that you can find something for everyone in all these studies. In many respects it is true. We tend to frame these debates has win-loose propositions but really every choice in life comes with its costs and benefits.

By then it had struck me that the whole stay-at-home versus working mother divide, while theoretically useful, might actually be less a canyon and more of a continuum.
One of the mother’s in my after school group had to run off to work that evening. Part-time workers fill part of the chasm.

As do volunteers. The head of the school PTA was casting a rather exhausted eye over her phone across the courtyard from us. She doesn’t count as a working mom, but she is running a complicated operation on an extremely tight budget. That is much more work than some paid jobs. Do her kids see the benefits of her extra-domestic labor?

The data came from the International Social Survey Program, which asked people whether their mothers worked outside the home for pay at any point before they were 14. That is a wide metric. I would qualify as a working mom (sic), as would have my mother. Information about the number of years the mother worked or age of the children was not available which limited the scope of the study.

The key findings were daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed, more likely to be in supervisory roles at work and earned higher incomes. Their sons spent more time on child-care and housework.

If the data had enabled a direct comparison of full-time workers and full-time mothers would the effects have been greater? Or would the benefits of working outside the home be the same whether the parent was working part-time or full-time? Perhaps having a mother work part-time is literally the best of both worlds and confers the largest array of benefits on kids.

More study is required.

The findings don’t surprise me. If parents are role models, then these are the sort of effects you would expect to see in the children of parents who work. In fairness the article mentions the benefits of spending time with your children. They are different.

womenofchina.cn
Whoop, Whoop. Pull-up. Pull-up. (image from womenofchina.cn)

Each mode of parenting has its pitfalls. I love the image of the helicopter parent, the howling downwash from their blades stripping every nascent bud of independence from the limbs of their child. This nightmare of stay-at-home parenting in the extreme appeals to me because it’s the opposite of my primary neurosis: that I am not engaged enough in my kids’ lives. When I get down on myself, that helicopter never fails to pluck me out of my own canyon of despair.

Having said that, I find myself still looking for a dividing line. Is there some key attribute of work that distinguishes us at homers and them worker bees?

When my oldest child was born and I moved from full to part-time employment, six hours a day, three days a week. I was usually at work between 10am and 4pm, but the job was flexible. I could move my hours and days fit the demands of my family. While I worked the boys were in daycare. They got the benefit of that.

Work certainly added an element of stress to my life, which had attendant consequences to my performance as a parent. But working was also good for me, which must have had a positive flow-on for my kids.

Will blogging become my new work? I’ve noticed since I started writing I’ve been much more productive in all aspects of my life. There is something to be said for having an interest outside the home. I it has given me a spurt of positive energy. Or it might be that I am drugged with Prednisone to treat a case of poison ivy.

Either way I feel like I’ve been a better parent since I started writing. For me the benefit of working, which flows into parenting and therefore has a benefit for children, is the mental stimulation and engagement. My wife, who is an extrovert, would say it was the social element of being around adults. Either way, it is something that you simply can’t get folding laundry, or doing first grade math homework.

Even the opportunity to ponder how on earth the study of Roman numerals is still in the school curriculum is not enough.

Homo domesticus

 

Welcome to Homo domesticus. A blog by a stay-at-home dad.

Homo domesticus is the scientific name for Man at Home. It’s a play on the name of our species Homo sapiens, which means wise man. In scientific literature it would be shortened to H. domesticus on subsequent references, so Hdomesticus it will be. Plus that is the only website address and twitter handle that is readily available!

I choose this name, because it represents what I do, and it pays homage to science. I believe in science. I’ve got a degree in zoology. And I like to think I’m playing some small part in reclaiming the word “Homo” back from the pejorative.

This name gives my blog scope to evolve. As I look at the landscape ahead of me I see hundreds of possible paths I could follow. Mountains are part of my life. They will appear in some from, as will confronting Middle Age.

Primarily, this will be a blog about my experiences as a stay-at-home dad, negotiating my way through a largely female world. But, at this point, I don’t feel the need to limit it to that. Maybe the odd discussion of something scientific will creep in here.

I have a post about embryos and their fathers and mothers. It is not stay-at-home as such, but in the broader realm of gender relations. At this point I should probably heed the advice of my Journalism Professor, Tony Reid, former editor of the New Zealand Listener who took me aside when I wrote a story about a pregnant woman starting a new business and used a birthing metaphor. He sat at his desk, wringing his forearms and declared that as men we probably would never understand why, but it was best to avoid any foray into female business during my career.

Truth is I have toyed with writing a blog before. In its earlier iteration it was more a glorified journal. I could never quite find a balance between the public and the private world. I don’t want to blog all my family secrets, which is a challenge when being a family man is your topic. So those posts remain private. If I find my feet and a free moment perhaps I’ll rework them into this new format.

Thanks to Emily Peck of the Huffington Post. She tracked me down for a story on being a stay-at-home dad. In the course of our conversation I dusted off my first post about the trouble I had listing my Occupation as a Stay-at-Home Dad. And to Arianna who decided I should give it another shot.

I didn’t know what to expect, but I have gone on since then. I’ve enjoyed my little creative spurt. Will it last? Will the soup hundreds of possible topics swirling in my head slowly simmer away? Will it coalesce into a sharper brew?

Does anyone actually care? We will see how it all evolves.

The cover photo is panorama taken from Mt. Roy above Lake Wanaka in New Zealand. Its where I used to holiday as a child. One of my fondest memories is cresting the ridge and finally seeing the high peaks above the Matukituki valley (to the left in this shot), with Mt. Aspiring towering above them all.

Men and Their Embryos

My fifth grader recently did the Puberty Workshop in health class. As far as I can gather they giggled their way through it.

I’m not sure how much he took in because last week as actress Sofia Vergara and her ex-fiance Nick Loeb continued to battle over their frozen embryos on the morning news, he asked me what an embryo was.

I was busy burning toast to the specifications laid out by my other children, so I was a little caught on the hop so to speak. The hop you get when you think you can flick the slice of bread to the side of the toaster and see if it is crisp enough, only to burn yourself.

I tackled the question with straight biology. As I sketched it out on paper the conversation quickly exceeded his tolerance for such intimate details, and he decided it was preferable to brush his teeth. That was a win, but I was still left alone in the kitchen at this significant moment in a man’s relationship with his son, with a singed finger, a hungry daughter and a fully formed zygote; contemplating that this simple cell, seemingly equal parts man and woman, is not equal at all.

embryo_toast

In his April 29 op-ed piece in the New York Times “Sofía Vergara’s Ex-Fiancé: Our Frozen Embryos Have a Right to Live” Nick Loeb choose to make his case in terms that were pro-life,

“When we create embryos for the purpose of life, should we not define them as life, rather than as property? Does one person’s desire to avoid biological parenthood (free of any legal obligations) outweigh another’s religious beliefs in the sanctity of life and desire to be a parent?”

This inspired a backlash along familiar lines; Loeb was accused of “reproductive coercion” by the head of RH Reality Check.com, Jodi Jacobson and his article was describes as “vengeful, misogynistic, self-involved drivel” by Popsugar’s Lindsay Miller.

Now, I’m not about to go into bat for a guy who, on first impression, would fail the ‘Do I want him dating my daughter?’ test, but this situation is murkier than the normal abortion argument. It raises some interesting issues about men and “their” embryos and those differences deserve an airing.

Let me start with abortion, by saying I am pro-choice. It should be obvious what that means when you are a sexually active man, but as I’ve never heard it made explicit, here goes: A pro-choice man gives up his ultimate rights to decide what happens if he gets a woman pregnant. It is her decision.

That’s not to say a father doesn’t have any rights, it’s just that given the impact having children has on a woman, her body, her lifestyle and her career, her rights take precedence.

I had a girlfriend who was the progeny of young love. I still remember her explaining to me that she could never have an abortion because if her mother had had one she wouldn’t be here. I had no desire to be a father in my early twenties, but I had plenty of other desires, which I exercised in full knowledge that, as my grandfather would have put it, “I would do right by her,” should it come to that.

Loeb faces some significant legal hurdles. Not the least that the pre-fertilization legal agreement between the two omitted to cover the eventuality of what would happen to the embryos if the couple split up. This clause is required by California Law and ironically its absence seems to be the basis of Loeb’s case to have the whole agreement voided by the court. That is the sort of legal tricky that I my grandfather would hardly approve of.

The moral dilemma here is; should one person’s right be a parent, outweigh another’s not to be forced to become a “genetic parent” against their will.

While the moral harm is lesser, he is not asking Vergara to bear the child or even be involved in its upbringing, I think most people would agree she shouldn’t be forced to give up your right of refusal in this situation. Whether his pro-life beliefs are sincere or not, Loeb had little choice but to introduce the rights of the embryo to try and bolster his case, but what if the situation was tweaked slightly or the roles were reversed?

One hates to kick a man when he is down, but because this is a story about artificial reproduction, let’s cross Nick Loeb with Lance Armstrong and turn him into one of the least sympathetic characters imaginable. A fictional Lance Loeb, who happens to be no longer able to produce viable sperm.

At this point, where these embryos represent Lance Loeb’s last chance to have children, would his right to become a father outweigh Vergara’s right not to have her genetic material used to make these children?

The Guardian had it’s own op-ed in response to this issue. In I froze embryos to have reproductive choice, but I nearly lost my reproductive autonomy,  Adrienne Mundorf describes how she conceived and then froze embryos before having chemotherapy only to break up with her wayward boyfriend and later have him deny her the right to use the embryos.

She come up with a satisfyingly ingenious tactic to convince her ex to relent, but still concluded her column saying, “it’s increasingly common for those equal rights (over frozen embryos) to be wielded as a weapon of control, particularly against women.”

As I read her story I found myself quite sympathetic to her cause; certainly, much more with her than I would have been for our fictional Lance Loeb. I suspect I would not be alone in this view. While, I am not about to blame women for being vigorous in defense of their own bodies, there is a problem here.

In terms of moral reality, where the rights of person A are being considered against those of person B Adrienne Mundorf and Lance Loeb are in the same role. Yet one is treated as a victim and the other reproductive power monger depending on their chromosome makeup.

In today’s cultural climate a clash between the realpolitik of reproduction and my pure moral distillation seems unavoidable. Down the road, when women are a little less embattled, this dichotomy is troubling because how can we be equal if we can’t be gender neutral?

The Value of Parenting

Last week I posted about the time it took for me change my occupation on various official forms to “Stay-at-home dad.”

My pro forma occupation was something I hadn’t thought much about until an Airport Customs Officer commented I was the first stay-at-home dad he had processed, and I realized that it was probably the first time I’d listed it as my job. I’d been doing it for five years. Both facts got me thinking and eventually writing.

It turns out many of my stay-at-home mom friends also struggle with what to label themselves. Many condoled me, that if it was hard for them, it must be really hard for a man.

While that was gracious, there is a certain ill-defined novelty to being a stay-at-home dad that works in my favor. My female peers came of age in the 1990s when cultural perceptions of motherhood were sharply divided on whether you bought or baked cookies. Fortunately, I don’t have all that attendant baggage.

But why do we stay-at-homers struggle to call ourselves parents? Is it because we devalue parenting?

Every year, in the week before Mother’s Day various people try and put a value on mothers. See, I told you the stay-at-home dad is still a peripheral figure.

According to one site trying to sell life insurance a mom is worth $1,105,518 over 20 years. An annual salary of $55,276 or $16.27 hourly. This is based on the cost of replacing the labor of a parent in the open market.

Salary.com is a little more generous in its methodology, crediting moms with professional wages for the portion of their time spend doing things like being a CEO or a psychologist. In 2014 they said a mom was worth $118,905 a year. Based on a 40-hour week that sounds like a good gig until you read the fine print; she works 56.5 hours of overtime! That is $23.70 an hour over 52 weeks, because we all know parents don’t get paid holidays.

Salary.com's breakdown of the worth of a stay-at-home mom.
Salary.com’s breakdown of the worth of a stay-at-home mom.

However you do the math, it makes an interesting contrast that with the result of a quick survey of five of my fellow stay-at-home parents. When we left the workforce our average salary was $75,000, and our average year of departure from paid employment was 2005. What would our collective income be today?

There are plenty of people who say parenting is the most important job in the world, but that is not reflected in cold, hard cash. Is our struggle to put our occupation as a parent a symptom of society’s wider reluctance to put real value on child raising?

Is not just parenting. Look at teaching. As a profession it has been dropping in status, and I suspect, relative pay for a couple of generations.

You could argue that these figures reduce parenting to a series of low-paid largely menial jobs; cook, launderer and chauffeur, with a dash of tutor and accountant on top.

Parenting has its share of mundane moments, dead-end yes or no answers, and mind-bogglingly inane arguments about whom did what to whom. On balance there is probably more drudgery than a job with a $75,000 salary, but there is more to being a parent than that. None of my mother friends, who struggle with calling themselves parents on a form, are about to give it up in despair.

Well, I’m the man among them, so I’d probably be the last to know.

Now, I’m a cup half empty guy, so if anyone is going to dwell on negative side of life it is me. I remember calling my mother one particularly rough day with a baby and declaring that I could see why feminism held a certain appeal to many women of her generation. And it is telling that the movement has largely been one-way; away from being at home and towards the option to engage in the world.

But feminism was not a rejection of parenting. It was a reaction to being told what to do, to living a narrowly proscribed way of life. Unfortunately, that “life” was in the domestic sphere, which is why feminism so easily became an argument about cookies.

We stay-at-homers have made a choice to do this. The choice was obvious in our marriage. My wife is much more career orientated than I am. Her drive is greater, her earning potential is higher. Our contribution to the Gross Domestic Product of this country, and a few others, is exponentially greater with her in the workplace.

It’s a tragic to think that had she been born two generations earlier her potential would have been arbitrarily limited. That said, she would have been a great stay-at-home mother.

It strikes me this could be a particularly upper middle-class problem. We come from the class that can afford to have one parent stay-at-home, but entry into that class in the first place implies a higher level of education and vocational achievement, and with that come increased expectations of life.

So perhaps it is our constant quest for growth and advancement, for a meaningful life, that has put us on this course. The suspicion that we are no more valuable than a collection of hands-on tasks irks us. We have become conditioned to want more.

That’s quite a leap in two blog posts. Truth is, it’s been more a fun musing than an existential reckoning, but it’s not a conversation I could have had in the car driving my 8-year-old to piano.

Which I must now do.

Crap, I’m late!