Back when my first kid was a baby, I was stroller-schlepping him around town one drizzly day when a little old lady came over. I figured we were in for a pleasant, coochy-coochy-coo. But Grandma was pissed. “Baby’s toes are getting wet!” she scolded me. “He’ll get pneumonia! Where’s baby’s mommy?!” In retrospect, I could have told her that baby’s mommy went back to work when her maternity leave ended. Instead, I smiled and thanked her for shoving baby’s tiny toes back in the transparent plastic windshield-bubble thing. It didn’t really bug me that a stranger told me I had no clue what the hell I was doing. I was a new parent. Of course I had no clue what the hell I was doing. The thing that bugged me was that she thought it was because I was a dad.
Many years later, I still have no clue what I’m doing; I just have more experience doing it. I’ve become a stay-at-home father, you see, a job title that makes me cringe because it’s a contradiction in terms. All the stay-at-home dads I know—and, trust me, we find each other—will do anything to get out of the house. On the morning of the wet-toe incident, I was pushing the stroller to the Y for baby swimming class. It was called “Mommy and Me.” There were four other dads in the pool.
I never expected to be the guy in the pool at Mommy and Me class. I didn’t plan to be the dork in the minivan, ambassador to pediatricians, screener of summer camps, enforcer of homework, and griller of salmon by the time mom gets home from work. On the other hand, I also didn’t expect to be a grown man who gets to climb trees and engage in water-balloon combat—but guess what I did with my kids after lunch last week while all the Wall Street dads were in meetings?
Here’s the truth: Not a day goes by that I don’t feel like the luckiest dad on Planet Earth. Okay, maybe yesterday. And today. But that’s just because my kids won’t stop fighting over the Wii. Which is why I disconnected it. So now they hate me. It’s fine; they’ll like me later. I’ll take them to the new ice cream place.
I know what you’re thinking. “Dan, how did you do it? How did you wind up leading the electrifying life of a suburban stay-at-home dad?” Let me see if I remember. When my wife and I reproduced, we were living in Brooklyn and concentrating on our careers. I was a busy freelance writer able to make my own hours and keep my eyes open after 9 pm. Like every other couple in our pre-suburban stage, my wife also had a successful career. Unlike mine, though, hers took place in an actual office building, with perks such as dental insurance, and, you know, a steady paycheck.
That’s how it unfolds for stay-at-home dads like me. We were already staying at home, either by (1) the nature of our jobs or (2) the nature of getting laid off from them. Throw a baby or two in the mix, and the only practical thing to do is become the primary caretaker. The way I saw it, nothing much would change.
If there is one thing I have learned as a dad, it’s that everything changes. I don’t even have a name anymore. It used to be Dan. Now it’s just “Leo and Josie’s dad.” Why do you think I put my own name in the title of the book I wrote about this whole transition from dude to dad? I was taking back my identity! And it didn’t even work. Nobody knows who I am until I tell them who my children are.
“Oh! You’re Leo and Josie’s dad!” a random mom will say at the playground. “Nice to meet you. I’m Timmy and Tammy’s mom. Hey, I think we know someone in common: Joey and Jaynie’s mom.” You will note in those last few sentences that the word “mom” was used in each example. Not an accident. The city was lousy with stay-at-home dads, but, in suburbia, we are an emerging demographic. At least until the next round of job cuts.
So listen to me, moms. I would now like to leave you with some advice. When you spot us at the pizza place, pool, or aisle 5,000-B of Costco, please do not act all weird and afraid to interact. I am not hitting on you when I ask if I can borrow a Band-Aid. I have a wife of my own. She probably rides Metro-North with your husband every day. And he’d better not hit on her, either.
Dan Zevin is a Westchester-based humorist and speaker whose books include Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad and The Day I Turned Uncool: Confessions of a Reluctant Grownup. He’ll be speaking and serving donuts at The Voracious Reader in Larchmont on June 1. You can reach him at danzevin.com.