Monday, May 11, 2015

[Captain] Daddy, or, We Celebrate Mothers' Day for a Reason

It’s the day after Mother’s Day and the day before my regularly scheduled crew change. It’s the day I’m usually doing the last of the laundry, downloading books on the Kindle, packing my bags and wondering if the children will let me get a nap before I drive 12 hours.

At this point in the crazy cycle of my life I’m usually disengaging from the family. If something on my “honey do” list hasn’t been completed by now, it will have to wait until I get home next time.
If one of the boys has a crisis, my wife deals with it; I’m focused on going back to work, where I will be responsible – at least half of each day -- for millions of dollars of equipment and half a dozen lives.

Parenting fail: he wasn't even supposed to know about the
Golden Oreos Double Stuff cookies. Damnit.
But not today.

Today I’m sitting on the back porch watching the rain, thinking about how badly I bungled my first day of a different sort of responsibility. I fell flat on my face, in fact.

My wife and I are trying out a new arrangement for the next four or five months. In this new scheme, she gets to travel and leave the house and kid stuff to me.

She has in fact always traveled for her consulting business, but usually just a couple days a month. My own longsuffering and generous mother has been available to pinch-hit for the parents; sometimes we’ve been able to find a trustworthy overnight babysitter.

But a new contract that builds toward deliverables in the fall of this year means the travel has increased significantly, and my folks are moving across the state this summer, and … well, it’s my turn to take the strain at home.

Getting some park time so Mommy can take a conference call.
I’ll use the time to study for my next round of tests at the Coast Guard’s Regional Exam Center, too. Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, it’s going to take early mornings and late nights and a lot of patience with sweet-voiced interruptions.

Parents of young children know this already, but let me just put it out there: if you get one little thing wrong – skip a wake-up or delay a nap, in this case – the ripple effects can last for days.

I’m not going to perform a full root cause analysis of why the boys were in the bath at 2300 last night, or why they had oatmeal for supper 30 minutes before that, or why they didn’t actually go to sleep until 0230 this morning, or why they are not in pre-school today …. but the broad outline looks like this:
  1. We let Mommy sleep in on Mother’s Day, which meant Daddy had to get up extra early.
  2. The 2-year-old went down for a nap about 1430. The 4-year-old not until 1700 or so.
  3. They both slept waaaaaay too long.
  4. Somewhere in there, Daddy also nodded off (see 1, above, resulting in 3).
  5. Now we’re all home together on a wet Monday during the last week of “school” and my plans for garage organization/sorting old clothes for Goodwill/er … a nap … well, those plans are in significant disarray.

This is a lot more fun under an old oak
than under a crane 75 feet above the
It's all a bit confusing. Last night when my wife called to say goodnight, the 2-year old looked at me, reached out his hand, and asked if he could talk to Daddy. Because usually it's Daddy who is gone.

But I love it. Sort of. I just had a conversation with the 2-year-old about why it rains. And reassured the 4-year-old that lightning was not in fact likely to strike the chimney, shoot down through the flue and spear him in front of the television.

Last night, in the wee hours before sleep, the 4-year-old picked his favorite sea creatures out of a book I didn’t know he had and asked me to read about them out-loud. I had photos of a surprising number of those animals – a manta ray, a needlefish (his big brother holding a junior state record), a whale shark, a bull shark and a hammerhead, a sea cucumber – on my phone.

I had just never taken the time to show him before.

But more to the point, in just 14 16 18 24 31 hours I have realized – viscerally rather than just theoretically – this solo parenting stuff ain’t easy.

Neither was the decision to stay home and take on a larger share of the responsibilities.

Despite the progress we have made, as a society, in achieving equality between men and women both at work and at home – and even though we are not quite there yet, we actually do better in the workplace – women still perform an outsized slice of the household and parenting duties.

But because of the first thing, greater professional opportunities and earning power of women outside the home, more than ever before men are taking advantage of the opportunity to stay home with their kids. The number has almost doubled since 1989. 

And if you needed another sign that the era of the stay-at-home dad has arrived, A&E aired a reality show about the phenomenon. 

Not surprisingly, the number of full-time stay-at-home dads peaked in 2012, right at the end of the recession. For many, the decision to become full-time fathers was an economic one.

Rudy's BBQ for lunch? Sure. Why not?
It was for us as well. The percentage of wives who out-earn their husbands has almost doubled from about 17 percent the year I graduated from high school to 29 percent in 2012.

We are part of that 29 percent, and it has rarely been anything more than an occasional source of good-natured competition and a constant source of pride for me.

That is to say, I don't feel threatened by my wife's success. I know I'm still smarter, sexier and a better angler than she is.

Okay ... not really. I'm just one of those things. But sometimes I tell myself I'm all that so I'll feel better.

For most guys who decide to take on the primary child care role, the decision is undoubtedly freighted with the same sort of tortured ambivalence I feel: it tears my heart every time I leave to start a hitch and, with young kids especially, I feel like I'm missing so much

On the other hand, I am a man, a husband, a father – my job is to go out and earn a living for the family. Never mind my wife makes more than half the income, my own career field pays pretty well and it is (usually) honest labor I can be proud of. In addition, I really enjoy my job, on balance, and I take pride in the progress I have made in a career I chose relatively late in my life.

For many men, what we do defines us, or is at least an integral part of our identities. But the same is true for many women. My wife earned a graduate degree, put in the years in corporate jobs and at one of the “Big Four” consulting companies, and has earned every bit of her successful career. Which she also really enjoys.

But …. my career!

God willing, there will be time for it. I’ll return to my other work in four or five or six or 10 months with a more valuable credential.I won't accept anything less than an even time schedule.  I’ll also go back, if the last 20 31 hours are any indication, with a much greater appreciation for what my wife accomplishes while I’m gone.

The world we live in today is changing at a remarkable pace. Many things our parents and grandparents took for granted – from lifelong employment and comfortable retirements to gender roles and responsibilities to what makes a family – look significantly different in 2015.

Entire industries and career fields have disappeared and others have taken their place (or, sadly, not). Technology and something called the Affordable Care Act have rendered the office and the corporate employer, if not obsolete, at least just one among many options.

(I just discovered I can get vastly superior health insurance for the family through the Health Care Exchange about 50 percent cheaper than COBRA and only about 30 percent more than my monthly contribution to my former employer’s plan.)

For our little family, all of this change has expanded opportunity rather than limited it. It means that, so long as there is an airport within a reasonable distance and high-speed internet at the house, my wife can work from virtually anywhere.

As a merchant mariner, of course, so can I. Just not always at precisely the same time.

All of this change around us has also changed the way we think about things; we no longer feel compelled to do things the same old way, the way our parents did, or the way society considers “normal.”

Instead, we can do things the way that works best for our family. There are limits, of course: no employer will tolerate unlimited leaves of absence; the kids require a certain amount of structure; and we have to pay the bills and save a little money.

There's no replacing Mommy. Best I can do is fill-in for a while.
There may be other limits we haven't yet discovered, something integral to her or me that will prevent this from working. Like the sink full of dishes right now and the floor that needs to be mopped. Also right now.

As long as I feel like I'm moving forward professionally in some way -- even if it's just a couple hours a day of study for my raise-in-grade -- and as long as I can take an active role in my boys' lives, I think I can live with it.

But holy crap, momming ain't no joke. And my wife does this for weeks at a time, while working five or six hours a day.

Hat's off, Babe. And I'll get those dishes done before you get home. Promise.


  1. Two words: paper plates. Okay only kidding, dishwashers are a wonderful thing, but everytime you empty them you start filling them; everytime you put away the clean clothes you start filling the hamper with the dirty ones; everytime you mop the floor something gets spilled; and still you have to find time to enjoy, to play, to read with the kids and for yourself. Yet you do it with love and with the hope your children's life will be better. That IS the way of the world.
    Aunt Ruth

  2. Good essay. You (both) can make it work. Now go get those dishes done. ;-)

  3. Sounds just perfect as far as I can see. Hat's off to you both.