Five years ago I drastically changed my life. I did something none of my friends had done. Something unorthodox. Something that I had never planned for: I became a stay-at-home dad.
Our nanny came rushing in behind me carrying my nine-month-old daughter in her arms. I was on the computer, working remotely from home. Not paying attention to what the nanny was saying, I only noticed my daughter. She was laying limp in her arms, limbs dangling, mouth ajar, eyes slightly open with pupils rolled back. I started yelling her name, softly at first, then louder and louder until I was screaming. I touched her bare feet and hands. She was unresponsive. I called 911.
It was her first of a half-dozen febrile seizures she would have before she was 5. When she gets sick and spikes a fever, her brain sometimes shuts down. The important thing is to make sure she's breathing. Put her on her left side and wait. The seizure itself only lasts a minute or two. The period following a seizure is called the postictal state. This can last about 20-30 minutes as she comes back around. It's scary. The whole time, every time, you sit and wonder if she even will come back. 40% of the time, you still call 911, even though you know what's happening.
We had tried nearly every permutation of childcare available. When my son was younger, we had an au pair from Columbia live with us while my wife and I both worked. Next, he was in a traditional day-care setting, which we all hated. After that, we had a live-out nanny. Then, a live-in nanny. Each arrangement has very serious tradeoffs for you and your kids. The only thing we hadn't tried was doing it ourselves.
We decided I would be the one to stay home. My wife was just starting her career and had a higher average salary than me. Her career field is highly regulated and hard to stop and start. My career had a lower average salary, but higher maximum takehome due to equity and such. My career field has almost no regulation. We are lucky to both be high earners in demand.
I gave notice to the company I helped found, after giving it my blood, sweat, and tears for the prior 15 years. It was my life, my obsession; but it was time. The company had already been acquired and was about to be sold to someone else. My son was almost 3 years old, my daughter was almost 1.
My son is now almost 8 and my daughter is almost 6. Both kids are in school, giving me a natural moment to reflect. There are benefits and drawbacks of being a stay-at-home dad. Some of which I already know, some of which I've yet to discover.
First, it's still an unusual thing for a dad to stay-at-home, so judgement and stigma abound. I've had people ask me if I'm still "doing the daddy daycare thing" instead of working. In a sad, self-deprecating humble brag, I've had people tell me they love their kids too much to raise them themselves. I've had friends tell me that because I left the workforce, I'm now unskilled. In fact, some of my former work colleagues act like I have the plague. People have asked if I miss working. I do. I worked hard to establish my career. Yes, it's hard to put it on the back burner.
Second, the gender wage gap impacts your whole family. Your wife should probably be paid more than she is. Her management will assume she still does most of the home duties. They won't comprehend the fact that her spouse stays at home. My wife has recruited male colleagues with the same training and fewer professional accolades that ended up with a higher salary than her own.
Third, there are many moms groups, but few dads groups. I'm sure part of this is just a critical mass issue: there aren't many of us. But I think part of it is also structural: dad's are expected to be solitary. Plus, usually moms groups are exclusive, dads are NOT welcome. I think there is fear, maybe justified, of improper conduct in a coed group. I think also the general topics of discussion are likely very different.
I think the hardest thing about deciding to really invest time in your kids is that the payoff is far from certain. I won't know until my children are adults whether what I've done has been beneficial. I may never know. There are too many variables and unknowns. I hope to raise happy, healthy kids. I care more that they care about other people than about material wealth. Yes, I don't want them to end up broke and on the street. I also don't want them to be rich and miserable.
First, I know that my kids know they are loved and people care about them. They know their cousins, uncles, second cousins, grandparents, etc and see them on a regular basis. Getting together with extended family isn't something that only happens for holidays or reunions.
Second, me staying home has really enabled my wife to shine in her career. Without both of us struggling to balance our careers and home life, we're both able to divide and conquer. She's able to over deliver at her job in ways that get noticed. People routinely ask her how she does everything she does.
"I blew it"
- Sam Walton's last words
Third, I won't regret not having done more. Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, died a very wealthy man. In our capitalist society, many people aspire to achieve his level of "success". It's impossible to know exactly what Sam was referring to with the above quote, but we know that he was far more dedicated to his business than to his family. I won't have the same regret.
Lastly, I haven't missed a thing. Every scrape, success, failure, first, etc. I was there and able to frame, coach, encourage, and comfort. I can easily say I have spent more waking time with my children than anyone else, at a time where that really matters.
My belief is that one need not be a perfect parent. Instead, I believe time spent with our children, in almost any form, is the most important thing we can give them. Time, more and more, is the most precious commodity we all have to give. I find it amazing that we somehow rationalize spending 4 years concentrating on learning in college. But we have trouble rationalizing spending over 3 months concentrating on raising our children.
Americans are fiercely independent to a fault. At our core, we feel the need to amass large fortunes to feel secure from large unknowns that our social structure does not afford us. Namely, healthcare and retirement. It's hard to say exactly how much wealth you need to accumulate for some unknown future event, so we all accumulate as much as we can. This is ridiculous. We aren't all going to need an expensive medical procedure. We aren't all going to need 40 years of retirement savings.
“Dynastic wealth, the enemy of a meritocracy, is on the rise. Equality of opportunity has been on the decline”
- Warren Buffett
By accruing as much wealth as possible to help your children, YOU are furthering inequality via dynastic wealth. Your actions say that you want to help your kids get ahead by giving them money. You are enabling a society where the most money wins: a Plutocracy.
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do."
– Mahatma Gandhi
To summarize the above quote, that you'll often see misquoted: "Be the change you want to see in the world".
Being a dad has been harder than anything I have ever done. I'm not perfect. I sometimes get angry too fast. I sometimes get overwhelmed with the chaos and disorganization. I've learned that no matter how much you love something, breaks are essential. Kids are intense. I've learned that sleep deprivation is bad enough, but when combined with sickness, lasting weeks on end, it is excruciating. I've learned that nobody is cut out for this. Everybody struggles.
The kids are far from grown and they will continue to be my priority. However, I'm not sure how long I can be out of the workforce. I work in tech, things change quickly. With them in school, I have more time, and am looking to rejoin the workforce. The kids are old enough that we can talk about the changes that will happen. We've started to prep them for the changes they will see in their lives: sick days, half days, snow days, summer break, piano, violin, and swim lessons.