Still a statistically small group, stay-at-home-dads are becoming more prevalent and represent a unique corner of the work life balance milieu. I asked Stephen de las Heras, one of my daddy friends who is parenting and balancing a freelance photography career, if he would share his story.
“I’d clawed my way up through the publishing ranks as an Editor and suddenly saw what my career would look like thirty years down the road. It wasn’t a bad future, but I practically ran screaming from the building, determined to build a more meaningful life. This was a major turning point for me. In hindsight quitting was somewhat immature and maybe foolish. It would have helped to have the option of scaling back a bit rather than cutting loose completely. But part-time workers were seen as little more than glorified interns, so I’d calmly punched the red button and nuked my humdrum publishing career.
“My then fiancé married me anyway and by the time the baby rolled around I was freelancing during a recession, and therefore ideally situated to stay home and care for our son. It was important to both of us that one of us be at home. Secretly I’d always hoped I might get the call. But if I hadn’t veered off the road a year and a half earlier, financial considerations may have dictated that I be the one to trudge off to the ‘coal mines’ every day. Instead, I became a part of the first generation of men that could consider staying home an option.
“It’s got to work for both people. In every marriage people have their different preferences. Certainly there are times when my wife feels she is missing out but she also values her career and it works for our family. So much of parenting requires trade offs and we’re just lucky that our personalities and ideals lined up.
“As a new father I discovered I loved babies, much to my delight and horror. Everyone’s babies – which is more than I can say for most of the moms at the local Mommy and me classes. So there I was, off to the park with my mom friends, happily changing diapers at home, and pushing the stroller down to the supermarket. People I met often shared their opinion on what a great dad I was or what a saint my wife was, depending on their own views. I suspected and hoped that both things might be true. Without a doubt those were the happiest years of my life, something about having a little goblin dependent on me for food, love, and protection made me insanely happy. There was plenty of angst too – days and weeks where all I sensed was disapproval. At times, money worries crashed through my contented little bubble. Other families we knew had financial problems, but the world would never dream of blaming dedicated at home mothers for it.
“Our son is now in second grade and many of the at home parents have trickled back into the workforce. Though a good number still show up at 3pm everyday for pick up at school, including more than a few dads. I’ve been putting together a photography career during school hours. It proceeds in fits and starts, with big assignments followed by weeks of slim pickings. As a means of creative expression photography has been a wonderful outlet. But as a part time freelance business run on a shoestring budget in New York City, it’s a real challenge. Thankfully it’s very flexible, since like many parents, the dream is to fill the downtime productively, and still be there to supervise the play-dates, the after school activities, the homework, the chores.
“Why is that so important? One of my photography clients once asked me if I dreamt of “traveling the world and getting paid to take photographs in exotic places?” This was presumed to be the pinnacle of my chosen profession. I told him that I didn’t dream about that because “I have to pick my son up from school everyday at 3pm.” I’m sure he didn’t understand, and I didn’t try to explain. But what if I had to make someone understand?
“Step back to the delivery room in the moments after my son was born. I was holding him against my bare chest, like a proper new age dad instinctively does, while the nice doctor did her best to stop my wife’s hemorrhaging. I held him close, my eyes swimming with tears, and loudly promised that I would be “the best dad on earth” to him. Not just a good dad. Or a great dad. My competitive parental instincts had kicked in, and I was determined to be the very best one on the whole darned planet.
“The problem with this was obvious from the start. What is a good father after all? There were a lot of competing theories in the marketplace of ideas and I had to settle on one. My own father, by which I mean– the only father I’ve ever known–was a great dad to me growing up, but he worked until 9pm everyday, and was frequently away on long business trips. I knew this model wasn’t going to work for us. What it all seemed to boil down to was being there for my son when he needed me. A simple proposition at first glance, until I realized that it meant being on call 24/7 for the rest of my life. Simply put, that became my priority. Other parents may prioritize putting food on the table, paying for college tuition, helping others, keeping the world safe, or simply holding on to their own sanity or self respect. And who’s to say they are right or wrong? All I knew was that I never really had a choice.
“Many people would disagree, pointing out that not only is there a choice, but that it is a real luxury. I know I am very lucky, although I resent people highlighting it. On the other hand I know there are many impoverished mothers, who are secretly wealthy because they hold tight to what matters to them most. And I know that even a child can put up with great hardships, as long as they know someone is always watching over them. It seems to me that as a culture when we sacrifice the goal of being there for the sake of practicality, or comfort, or convenience, or even ‘the future’, that we risk a lot more than we gain.
“And that’s my balance. I do most of the cooking, almost all the cleaning, all the laundry, and the weekday food shopping. I do my best to scratch out some profit as a photographer. I don’t give a damn what people think about my life. And I pick my son up from school.”