Sitting on low, carpeted stairs, I feel like an animal in the zoo. I am at once exotic and unrelatable. I image the other people gathered nearby whisper and wonder. What do they eat? When do they sleep? How do they keep clean? Unlike at the zoo, these people do not openly gawk or take pictures. Instead, no one looks directly at me. At least, I do not see them. For I am a man. And they are women. And we are all waiting to pick up our children after preschool.
On most days, I do not call myself a stay-at-home dad. No, when asked to identify myself, I use terms like freelance medical writer or self-employed.
I am these things as well. Having survived ten years, however, I think I can admit a very simple truth, finally. I am far more the former than either of the latters.
To answer some of the phantom questions I like to think people ask: I cook for my kids, although I have failed miserably at promoting whole grains, and I’m still not sure what a whole food is. I am a taskmaster when it comes to bedtime, though that efficiency may have more of a selfish motivation. Finally, I keep the kids clean, I think. Maybe not the cleanest. But neither of them have suffered lice or a bedsore, so I’ll take those small victories. On a side note, my daughter recently commented on someone in her class that dresses very “girlie.” I said, “You dress pretty girlie,” to which she replied, “I do now that I pick my own clothes. You dressed me more like a boy.”
In the effort to blaze a trail and smooth gender relations for generations to come, I have delved into the wisdom I gleaned from ten years of being a stay-at-home dad.
I imagined myself a dad-whisperer, someone who might spread the wings of understanding and bring peace to preschool waiting rooms everywhere.
Or, I just had some fun and thought about the things you should and maybe the things you shouldn’t say to a stay-at-home dad. You decide.
- “Is this your day off?”
You’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard this one. It is accompanied with a look of utter confusion, usually while I am in the grocery store during normal business hours. I get it. I don’t even get mad. Sometimes, on particularly non-masculine days, it’s not the best for my self-image. Flipside — the lines are far shorter at grocery stores during normal business hours.
- “We are looking for volunteers to be homeroom mom.”
I’m no Rosa Parks. At the moment, 98 percent of homeroom moms are, in fact, moms (okay, I made that percentage up, but it could be right). I am 100 percent not a mom (I made that one up, too, and there have been fleeting moments when I’ve forgotten). I wish we used the word “parents” just so that I am not reminded of my trailblazing status. Flipside — I have used this as an excuse for not being a homeroom mom, not once. I’m ashamed to admit this, but it is true. I mean, really? Can you imagine me a homeroom mom?
- “You look hot in those jeans.”
We dads are not pieces of meat. We don’t want to be objectified. This is…. Just kidding. We’d probably like this one, but I can’t recommend trying it. Like the signs at the zoo warn, DON’T FEED THE ANIMALS.
- “Would [insert name of dad’s child(ren)] like to come over for a playdate this afternoon?”
Maybe some dads out there are more gregarious than I am. For at least some of us, group dynamics can be a struggle under perfect circumstances. As the ugly duckling in the group, it seemed impossible for me at times. I’ve often worried that my social discomfort being the only guy on those carpeted steps had an adverse effect on my kid’s social life. I figure guys are probably as likely to ask for a playdate as they are to ask for directions.
- “Did you hear that the kids need to bring in empty two-liter bottles on Tuesday?”
Discussing the mundane, necessary minutia that makes up the day of a parent can at once be helpful and normalizing for a stay-at-home dad. Plus, we probably either totally forgot about the bottle or never heard the teacher say it. So thanks.
- “How about that Eagles game? Right?”
The golden ring! Perfection may be unattainable, but don’t fault me for trying.
I find myself sitting on those steps, my kids just about to come out of their preschool class, and that’s when it dawns on me. I wrote this essay to discuss how different it is to be a stay-at-home dad. Oh, it is different. I learned that when my daughter decided that at age four, she would no longer go into men’s rooms (could I blame her?). At the same time, it’s the same. But maybe we dads speak a slightly different dialect.
So, when my daughter skips out of class and calls me “Daddy,” I know I’ve at least done a little something right. When she looks up at me with her intense green eyes and says:
“Can we go to the zoo today?”
Before answering, I can only think, I am not an animal, I am a… Daddy?
“Sure thing, peanut,” I say. And I get a big hug.