I grew up in the ’70s, and turned 9 years old the same week that our country celebrated its bicentennial. Everything was theatrically blanketed in red, white, and blue. If there was a time since World War II that a generation was going to better its predecessor, this was it. I had a childhood dream of becoming an architect, a career path inspired by Mike Brady and my infatuation with all the Brady women (sans Alice). That was realized as I earned a master’s degree in architecture and then spent close to two decades of my life honing my craft. So, as I stand here in my basement folding laundry and turning my kid’s clothes right side out, I wonder, What went wrong?
Through the hiccups of a cross-country move, a tech-bubble bursting, and two recessions, I seemed to have been forced to reinvent myself professionally over and over, until finally, in 2008, I just couldn’t do it anymore. This worked out to be great timing, as my kids needed help in school and our longtime babysitter was getting married. So I reinvented myself one last time, as a stay-at-home dad.
What I didn’t realize was that even though my vocation would change, the players would not. The nightmare client that couldn’t be pleased was no longer the wife of a hedge-fund mogul. That role would happily be filled by my youngest son. His bedtime milk was never heated to the right temperature, the pasta sauce was never the right shade of red, and he would go through more clothing changes in a day than Cher. The incompetent contractor who couldn’t follow directions was easily replaced by my oldest son. His love of procrastinating defied logic, and the scheduling for his long-term assignments usually depended on some type of snow day or natural disaster in order to be completed on time. My wife filled in nicely as my boss. As I would kiss her goodbye on her way to the office each day, I would gingerly be slipped a list of things that needed to be done. This piece of paper would then neatly be placed on top of the previous day’s list of things that needed to get done. Quite frankly, I was in a rut.
One night, I even had a horrible dream. It starred me as all the symbols of open-shirt, hairy-chested machismo that I had grown up with—and, man, was it boring. I was Magnum, P.I. in a minivan, Dirty Harry armed with only a DustBuster, and Burt Reynolds with a mop. No longer was I living the swinging, Mike-Brady life that I had envisioned. I wasn’t designing groovy things in orange and yellow Formica—I was cleaning them! I had become a suburban eunuch.
I realized that I was having trouble finding my own self-worth in this new role, and then I had an epiphany: I was still building things. Only, no longer was I constructing with steel or bricks. I was using materials that were much more personal. I acquired some new skills and put myself out there building some new relationships. I took cooking classes, ran study halls after school, and volunteered to coach any sport that they would let me, regardless of whether or not I knew how it was played. At the helm in a different role, I was empowered to finally break away from my generation’s preconceived notion of what a family was supposed to look like. Even if my mother-in-law and her friends didn’t quite understand the path that my life was now traveling on, I was a success. As time has gone on and my kids have evolved into being good students who for the most part are well-adjusted citizens, I know that they have been instilled with a keen insight about family structure that belongs to this generation. To them, dads can be domesticated gods, and moms can be successful in the workplace. Now when I question myself and ask what went wrong, the answer has become: Quite simple, absolutely nothing.
Jack Miller is a Scarsdale-based former architect, occasional Op-Ed writer, realtor, and coach. He is working on his first novel, and his previous musings can be viewed on the website, dadtopia.com.