In second round of fatherhood, retired Army veteran turns down six-figure salary to be a stay-at-home dad
“Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted… He lived happily ever after.” Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971)
“Really? Are you sure about that?”
Those were the most common replies when we announced Katy and I were going to have a baby. Not an uncommon event for most married couples, but somewhat of a puzzler to many who knew me, given my 45th birthday was around the corner and I already had three college-age children from a previous marriage.
“Dude, you’re finally done with that stuff. This is YOUR time now.”
Yeah, so they say.
Years ago I told my first wife I would gladly stay home and take care of the kids if she were able to find a job that would provide a similar standard of living as my job in the Army. She scoffed at the idea as an empty boast—and I occasionally wondered if it was. I mean, I truly loved my children, but was I really ready to take over the day-to-day grind of parenting 24/7? I’d like to think I could have risen to the task, but looking back at that period in my life—a 30-something man with career in the testosterone-laden Army—I’m not so sure.
Centuries of male social conditioning which served us well in many regards was working against me here. I would have rattled around the house wondering what I should be doing. Wasn’t there a dragon to be slayed? A log cabin that needed to be built? Meat that needed to be put on the table? You know, something worthy? Something manly?
A dozen years, a few deployments to some unpleasant places and the inevitable cycle of life and death one witnesses with age, and my perspective changed.
I witnessed children in war-torn countries try to make the best for themselves under surreal circumstances, their parents struggling simply to ensure their survival, knowing their happy days would more than likely be counted on thumbs.
I saw good men laid to rest, their lives defined not by the cars they drove, the homes they lived in or the money they made, but by the legacy of their children and grandchildren they spent their lives raising.
I watched forensic teams churn through the mind-numbing process of identifying scores of people killed in a horrific fire. Children were among the dead, found beneath the remains of their parents who had vainly tried to shield them from the flames with their own bodies in a final act of love. I struggled with that thought. The lives unfulfilled. The final moments of agonizing love and sacrifice…I thought of my three children and grimly acknowledged that the endless supply of tomorrows we assume exists eventually runs out.
Those were the signs the universe had been sending me: The simple, unwavering fact that life is precious and sometimes fleeting. Life is the only thing that matters. And there is no greater act than to bring life into the world and devote yourself to it. No greater gift can be entrusted to you. No greater legacy can be left behind.
When my wife and I began discussing having children I was treated with the reactions above as well as some others:
“You know, that’s kind of selfish of you. You’ll be too old to really play with it as it grows up. They’ll miss out on a lot of things you can’t do anymore.”
“You’ll be 64 years old when they graduate from high school.”
“You’ll never live long enough to see their grandchildren.”
Perhaps. But how can you say no to life? Really? Knowing you have the capacity, the means, the devotion and the love necessary to raise a child, how can you really say no?
Yes there are people who declare themselves “done” having kids. I get that. I also have friends who never had children, don’t want them, and that was their choice. I get that too. I don’t judge—it’s an individual decision. My life led me to this point. I interpreted the signs and this was the right choice for me.
Now after years of trying and Katy finally pregnant, we had to start thinking about how we were going to balance work and taking care of a baby. We both had six-figure incomes—Katy had been a successful businesswoman before we met; I had retired after a 20 year Army career and found a very lucrative government civilian position. We lived in a historic area near D.C. and were quite comfortable given our current situation.
Katy was reluctant to give up her job and frankly I couldn’t blame her. I was firmly ensconced in the government and would be a fool to give up a position many of my peers would kill their own mother to have. At the time it seemed like a daytime nanny would be the answer.
But I had accepted my current position out of loyalty to my former boss and promised myself when I had done what he asked me to do I would leave. I never intended on staying in government and hated the bureaucracy.
So I resigned my position shortly after Poppy was born, staying home with Katy while she was on maternity leave. We came to some conclusions during that time, mainly that while we loved our neighborhood, the cost of living in D.C. was quite high and the environment was just too hectic to raise a family. As we looked for places to move, I interviewed for several jobs in the east and was offered a job in Boston.
But when I thought about returning to work, I kept thinking about how that would affect Poppy. Our plan to look for a full-time day nanny just didn’t click with me. I had always been a firm believer in the goodness of having a stay at home parent. My thought had always been, “Why have children if you’re basically going to have someone else raise them for you half the time?”
I’m not judging two-income families. I understand the economic burden of having a one income family and the fact that many families don’t have the option of someone staying home with the children. But we had a choice. We looked at moving to a place with a lower cost of living and did the math—Katy’s income coupled with my retirement—and realized we could afford to make that choice. We could afford to have a stay at home parent: Me. It made sense.
It was time to put my money where my mouth was.
So I declined a six-figure job offer in Boston and turned down two other offers that came my way over the following months to stay home with Poppy.
And the comments from friends, family and former co-workers was, as Yogi Berra once put it, “Like deja vu all over again:”
“Really? Are you sure about that? Do you realize what you’re giving up with your job?”
“You are going to get bored with it you know.”
We celebrated Poppy’s first birthday last week in our new home in South Carolina. We haven’t fallen into a steady routine yet, but that’s to be expected. Katy travels frequently for work; I spend my days with Poppy as we tackle life’s little tasks together and chuckle quietly when the clerk at the grocery store sees us doing the shopping and says, “Giving mom the day off—isn’t that sweet?”
All in all I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out. Not only has it allowed me to spend time with her in ways I missed the first three times around, but it has unexpectedly deepened my relationship with my other kids.
For those who ask me why I made this choice, I simply tell them: You can’t get these days back. Ever. And I remind myself of that daily—whether I am up, bleary-eyed in the middle of the night with Poppy when she’s tired and teething, or simply listening to my older kids tell me about their days at work, school or with friends. I try my very best to take each moment and enjoy it with a smile and sense of wonderment. Because that moment is all that matters.
—photo by Corey Leopold/Flickr