by Michael Stubbs
One Sunday, our son came home from Primary clutching a strip of white paper. On it was the line he was supposed to memorize and repeat in the upcoming Primary program. It read, “A father’s role is to provide. My father works to provide for our family.” I recognized it as a variation on the words and ideas in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” which reads, “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs.” Although the Proclamation does not say in so many words that the father should go out to work while the mother stays at home, I have heard prophets, bishops, and advisors say this explicitly. That had certainly happened in my family of origin. As long as my experience had fit this prescription, I hadn’t worried about it, but now the words bothered me. I was a stay-at-home dad.
“Why did he get this line?” I asked my wife, who was in the Primary presidency.
“I don’t even know what his line is,” she replied. She’d walked into the calling midterm and wasn’t in charge of the program. She read the strip of paper and said,”So what?”
“So what?” I repeated. “How come the son of the only stay-at-home dad in the ward gets this line?” I was getting angry, but I didn’t have anyone to be angry with. I just didn’t want to feel like my church was criticizing me.
“It’s no big deal,” she assured me.
“It is a big deal,” I snapped. “Somebody gave our boy that specific line to say. Somebody is trying to make a point.”
“It’s just something the prophets have said,” she replied as if this was supposed to make it seem less significant.
“Yeah, I know,” I told her, “and someone is directing it at me.”
My wife told me to not be so sensitive, but it was hard not to be. Either I listened to my son say the line while telling myself that the words I heard in church didn’t apply to me personally, or I ignored the words I heard in church. Neither seemed right. Of course the other option was to get a job and start providing for my family in the traditional way.
It wasn’t that simple for me. Two years of scouring the employment section of the Chronicle of Higher Education and filing more than 80 job applications had yielded nothing more than the seasonal firefighting job that I had used to pay my way through college. And I’d quit that when my wife found a job as a dietitian. Better pay, better hours, and health benefits meant she was our best option for the breadwinner role. I would be a stay-at-home dad.
It turned out that the line had been randomly assigned. After my wife had told the Primary president how I felt, she phoned and apologized to me. She assured me that I was providing and working for my kids, just in a way that was . . . different.
I felt out of place in my new-found role, but I tried to make “different” good. I towed my son to kindergarten in a bike trailer, then rode a few miles around town while my daughter napped in the trailer. The bike ride helped me feel that even though I was a stay-at-home guy, I was a tough one. I was fit. I was doing things my own way. The bike trailer gave me a healthy distance from the children who constantly pawed at me and clung to my legs every other minute of the day. And riding a bike was slower than driving. It passed the time. This was good because, sometimes, staying at home was simply passing the time.
I picked my son up after school and biked the kids to story hour at the library, where I sat in a room full of young mothers and three-year-olds who were singing and clapping along with the librarian. I sat my kids on the colored squares of the library rug and found a chair in the back. Most of the time, I sat alone. Most mothers sat at least two chairs away. When their toddlers wandered too close to me, they yanked them back. Was it because I wasn’t singing along or clapping my hands? Was it my long hair and beard? Maybe it was because I smelled like a man who’d been towing kids around on his bike all afternoon. Maybe it was because I was the only man in the room. I don’t know, but I saw these things, and felt the rejection.
Things improved some when I volunteered at my son’s kindergarten each week. There I was greeted with enthusiastic hugs from many five-year-old girls and high fives from the boys. They called me “Ian’s dad” like it was a cool name by itself and said they couldn’t wait to see me on my bike after school. The teacher was also excited to have a dad in class. She slugged me in the shoulder whenever she made a joke. She winked at me and nodded as she explained the assignments I would help the kids complete. She confided that the girls who hugged me were the girls who didn’t have dads at home. I was a constant, reliable man in a world through which their mothers’ boyfriends periodically came and went. In kindergarten, I was abnormal, but that was cool. I was needed.
But one day, my son asked me to stop biking him to school. He didn’t want the attention. He’d rather ride the bus like everyone else. I gave up and let him ride. Then, on my first assigned kindergarten snack day, I really put my foot in it. I spent all morning peeling thirty tiny mandarin oranges which I could barely stuff into two large Tupperware canisters that barely fit into my son’s small backpack. The weight of the oranges nearly pulled him backward down the steps of the bus and so displaced him physically that he barely fit his butt onto the seat. He didn’t smile out the window at me on the way to school that day, and he didn’t smile when he came home with a backpack still full of oranges and explained that the kids didn’t eat them because “no one wants fruit for a snack at school.” Brooke’s mom had made popsicles with fruit, juice, and a real popsicle stick frozen in a paper cup, and Mason’s mom had made cookies with faces on them. I was a stay-at-home who was no good in the kitchen. The kids saw this. So did their mothers. I was not invited to bring food to the school parties as the stay-at-home mothers were.
Fortunately, I had support. A friend from my college days was also a stay-at-home dad, with a boy and a girl. His wife, like mine, worked in the health care profession and made more money than he could. We were both looking for a job that would take us into the traditional world from which chance and circumstance had excluded us, but we also embraced our roles in daddly fashion. Not only did we go to story hour, we also took our kids rock climbing. We pushed our kids on the swing set at the park and also pushed them up mountains, nudging the older kids ahead, their pockets filling with rocks and acorns, while we carried the younger ones on our backs in external frame backpacks. We carried diapers, wipes, snacks, and toys, and we did it in Kelty, Black Diamond, Trek, and North Face bikes, packs, bags, and jackets. This gear made it all OK. These names provided a manly place for our kids to fish out fruit chews and an abrasive shoulder on which to wipe their noses.
On cold days, we met at the mall playground, where we let our kids push each other down the slide. Sometimes our wives worked late, and we met after dinner. On these occasions, we brought the kids’ pajamas so they could put them on and fall asleep in the car, and we wouldn’t have to feel bad about putting them to bed in their dirty clothes. We were dads familiar with our children’s patterns and habits. We knew secrets that usually only moms knew. However, we also knew that meeting at the mall playground meant that neither one of us owned a home, that we were poor, that our wives were off working to provide for our families while we were not.
But we were doing the best we could. Our kids were healthy and happy. Having a dad at home was a good thing even if it meant we had failed to find a “real” job, even if it meant we were swimming against church traditions. On our way out of the mall, we joked that we’d better not catch the other dad brushing his kids’ teeth at the J.C. Penney’s drinking fountain. In the parking lot, we tried not to let each other hear the swear words we used to get the kids into the car when their mothers weren’t around to help.
I’d come to the stay-at-home gig after four years of fighting wildfires for the Bureau of Land Management and after three years of graduate school in a dying English doctorate program. I was already a frustrated man before two kids spent their days crying at me and telling me that Mom could do it all better than I could. I was transitioning from running a chainsaw in a burning forest to braiding a three-year-old’s hair. And I was trying to braid this hair as the girl jumped up and down in tears while her brother stood watching cartoons rather than tying his shoes to go to school.
On Sundays, I would wrestle the same children through an exhausting sacrament meeting where I listened to people testify of the recharging power of church. I didn’t believe them. Church was more exhausting than home was. Others bore witness of their knowledge of their divine roles at work or at home. I heard these people more sharply than I’d ever heard them before. I told myself that they weren’t criticizing me but still wondered, “Why else are they standing up there proclaiming that women should be at home and men out at work? Am I doing such a bad job? Is there anyone else in this situation at all?”
Even though the testimonies and comments seemed to arise more often as time went by, my wife and I learned to let them slide. We were doing what was right for our family, and we were the best judges of our circumstances. Church structure was against us, though. All of the meetings required for her calling came during the day when she was at work. All the meetings required for mine took place evenings and weekends—the only time I could be with my wife. We asked people to adjust meetings for us, but clearly less adjustment was required for the members in traditional roles. When other men were taking time off from work to attend Scout camp, I was finding babysitters and planning meals. My situation was so unusual to some people that I regularly had to explain that I was a stay-at-home dad and my responsibilities were different. The constant need to explain to the same people made me feel as if I were being rejected over and over again for my decision to stay at home with my children while my wife worked.
In August of 2010, I was offered a job teaching English at Idaho State University. This new job paid less than my wife’s did and it kept us in a town we did not like, but I had spent so many nights praying for a job that I didn’t feel like I could get down on my knees and say, “No thanks. Try again.” Though I had finally trained our ward member and neighbors to work with me as the stay-at-home, I was desperate to make sense of the ten years I had spent in college. I also worried, as many stay-at-homes do, that the growing blank space on my resume would be harder and harder to overcome.
The decision for me to go back to work and for her to be a part-time consultant was not a pleasant one, but we made it knowing that for every three years it took me to get a job with my English degree, my wife could get a better one in three weeks. We also knew that if we needed to, we could successfully change places again.
So, suddenly I wasn’t at home with my kids anymore. I’d made many mistakes during the time I had spent at home with the kids. I’d forgotten play dates, made the wrong snacks, taught the kids too many swear words, or let them get too muddy at the creek, but I never felt I wasn’t doing my job as a father. In fact, I bragged to myself that I’d already spent more time with my children in their youth than most dads have spent with their children by the time they reach eighteen.
But now, while I was at work, I felt like a terrible father. I constantly asked myself, “Who will feed the kids lunch? Who will make them eat some fruits and vegetables? Who will make sure that they spend enough time playing outside?” These were things I had become good at doing. I knew my kids—their wants, likes, and needs, and I could deliver. I felt as if I’d become irreplaceable in their lives, and I’d liked that feeling. Now I’m learning to deal with the feeling that I’m just like every other dad out there, and I’m having a hard time adjusting.