Charlie LeDuff isn’t sure how he got to be a stay-at-home dad after years of jetsetting. But he’s glad it happened the way it did.
Before my daughter was born, men my age—colleagues and other acquaintances—were happy to ladle out unsolicited advice about becoming a father. I would come to find that it wasn’t advice at all, but rather superficial observation, masculine lip gloss about what it feels like to be the Male Influence. I would realize how little they knew about their children. What they told me ranged from the obvious to the disturbing:
“For the first six months, they’re pretty much just digestive tracts,” said one friend, whom I shall call Mr. Unhappy.
“It’s the most meaningful thing that will ever happen to you,” said Mr. Oprah’s Book Club.
“To tell you the truth, I can’t wait to go to work in the morning,” said Mr. Saddest of Them All.
Of course, five days a week these men pack off and dutifully trudge to desks somewhere, though a few of them aren’t necessarily chained to those desks. These lucky sorts of men are writers for big, important, sometimes meaningful publications. And from my perspective, sitting here in Los Angeles at noon, still in my underpants, such a man may be the most envied creature in all of manhood.
I imagine him now, off in the bush, meeting with an aggrieved group of rebels. Or he is carousing in the streets of a European capital, drinking good wine with a minister of something or other. Or he is beating it across a border with a group of barefoot migrants. He could be anywhere, meditating over a body of water, bewitched by the lights of an exotic city.
Wherever he may be, I am consumed with him and his adventures. You see, I was once one of his species, a jet-set correspondent for the New York Times. I’d be in the Arctic watching Eskimos prepare for a whale hunt one week and drinking beer with a Mexican smuggler the next.
Now I am another creature altogether. I am a stay-at-home dad.
Allow me a qualification here. It is a blessing to watch your baby’s eyes—those fluttering, little half-moons—slowly transform from slate to brown. The eyebrows grow in later, in case you did not know. There is the moment when the little beast has figured out how to stand on her wobbly legs with the help of a chair. These are the good parts.
But I am a man, and a man at home alone with an infant is up the hill without a rope. Confusion reigns. How much to feed? How much sleep? When? The baby does not know. You do not know. Those baby books are confusing, long-winded, and in need of some good editing. The little thing howls, flushes crimson, gasps for air. You grow frightened. Fear gives way to weariness. Then, like a heel, you close the door and walk away.
My go-to-work wife returns home after I’ve endured nine hours of this, nine hours of my cleaning toilets and ruining clothes and washing Claudette’s diapers and mopping floors. When my go-to-work wife walks in the door thirty minutes late, I’m there to ask where her priorities are. It’s the stuff of daytime talk shows.
How did I come to raise a baby? It was simple, really. My wife was alone for months at a time while I was scampering around Iraq or Mexico or working on an investigative piece about a slaughterhouse. While I was out for late-night cocktails, accepting prizes, speaking at universities, she was studying child psychology—of all things—and working small jobs and never complaining.
Then, a month after our baby was born, she got a job offer. What were we to do? My job at the Times was wearing thin. I could feel it, like the last days in the palace of Haile Selassie. The baby had come unexpectedly early, while I was across the continent working on a story. The job owned me, and I was sick of it. I resigned. No leave of absence. No severance package. No gold watch. And off my lady went on her career. Becoming a stay-at-home dad seemed noble from the romantic distance of a boy with two stepfathers. Stay-at-home dad—why not? We are an older couple who’d been waiting a long time for a baby to come, and now that she had, what were we to do? Fob her off on a stranger before she had taken her first step?
They say the number of stay-at-home fathers in America has doubled in the last decade, but I would venture to guess that this has more to do with a shaky labor market than it does with a mass flowering of male compassion. It was never a dream of mine to raise a baby, and sometimes, when the baby’s asleep, I find myself staring into the rearview mirror of my career. There was that time in Iraq when I wandered into a city hall taken over by a radical cleric and his followers. Me, the Catholic. They, the Muslims. It was Good Friday, and in the spirit of brotherhood we prayed together. By the end, the holy man’s supporters were chanting with thumbs raised high: “Charlie good! Charlie good!” In some way I was an ambassador that day, an American armed with only a pen.
Every year, in early September, I get phone calls. I got one the other day, in fact. It was a tough man with tears in his throat thanking me for the work I had done during those dark days at Ground Zero, thanking me for writing his name down for posterity. You’re welcome, Bobby.
As a reporter, your job is to write about history as it is happening, so our grandchildren know how we lived. The reporter gives people things to talk about. He rubs elbows with and makes suggestions to people in power and exposes the wrongs they do. He holds up a mirror to society, going where few would, asking questions few dare. He is the arbiter of what is interesting. That is power.
That is what this stay-at-home dad would tell his old self.
I also would tell him that once he stops being a reporter, the governor won’t call anymore. Neither will the old colleagues. There will be no more Hollywood parties. No expense account. No action.
It will be just you and the kid. And the kid will have no idea how good you were. And worse, in the mania of your empty house and isolated by the Los Angeles car culture, when the afternoon sun is bright and debilitating and that old deadline time, that hour of adrenaline, is upon you, right about then you will wonder whether you were really any good at all. You will find yourself staring into a dirty diaper as though it were tea leaves, trying to augur some story about the failings of the latest immigration bill.
You might say we are in the early stages of a love story, my daughter and I. Her first words were either “kitty, kitty” or “Hi, Daddy.” I’m not sure which, but it doesn’t matter. I taught them to her, and I was there to hear them. When she falls or bangs her head, she cries it out and then crawls on about her business. Resiliency—I am teaching her that. She likes people, and people are attracted to her lumpy smile and flailing arms, and this makes me hopeful for her future. She pulls hair at the playground, and we’re working to correct that. She takes naps on my chest.
The go-to-work man loves his baby too, of course, sometimes more than his job. He loves the little one from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and during the Saturday trip to the petting zoo. He loves her from the time he removes his jacket to the time he pours himself a Scotch and then all throughout his dinner. He changes a diaper perhaps, pats the dumpling on the head, and gives her a good-night kiss. If he has a more intense job, go-to-work dad arrives home at 7 or 8 or 9 p.m. or next week or maybe next month. My wife reminds me that if I had kept my power job, I would be watching the little one grow up through pictures on my cell phone.
I am sad for those fathers I knew during the years of my power job. I remember the soldier in Iraq who was not there for the birth of his child; the journalist who came back from the war zone only to be called Uncle by his son; the Mexican man on Long Island whose only presence back home was his photograph and a Western Union receipt. I feel sadness for the man who lost his son because of a wayward bomb; the father whose son was snatched away in the middle of the night by Saddam’s secret police; the father whose son died when a skyscraper collapsed on him one unseasonably warm September morning.
I was mulling this over one workday morning as I drove my daughter to a Mommy and Me yoga class. “I’m sorry,” the nasally male clerk behind the desk said when we arrived at the studio.
“Sorry about what?” I asked.
“The class is closed.”
“The class is closed?”
“Yes,” he stammered. “Closed, uh, well, closed…”
“What are you trying to say? Closed to me because I’m not a mommy?”
“I’m afraid so. Some women might not feel comfortable with you in there.”
I left without incident. Why shouldn’t women have a club where they can be free from the stink of testosterone? No woman wants to reveal her sagging parts, her leaking parts, her postnatal pimples to the male interloper. I could have made a scene about the unfairness of it, the double standard, the fact that the golf clubs and fraternal orders have been pried open by women in the name of equality.
I could whine on about how, during the birthing classes and prenatal checkup appointments, the man is considered slightly more than a nuisance—a damp dog, more or less. “What?” the doctor said as I tried to articulate the emotional difficulties that I, the man, was having with “being pregnant.” She acted as though she did not hear a word I said, as though her misplaced paper clip needing tending to first.
I left to put coins in the parking meter, thinking, “Be a man, for god’s sake.
The feelings of the homebound male range from self-pity to joy. I’m told that women have similar struggles. Who is she when she becomes a mother? Is she who she once was? Will she ever be anything more? Beats me.
As the baby and I left Yoga World, I was thinking I really ought to be working. I wondered what country my friend Mike was in that day. What glorious trouble might he be getting himself into? Does Mike do yoga?
We went off to the park to see my new friends, the Latina nannies who care for the Little Lord Fauntleroys of Los Angeles. This is a park for the upper-middle class. It is on the edge of a neighborhood with enormous, early-twentieth-century Craftsman homes. It is a fifteen-minute walk from my working-class neighborhood, but it is another city altogether. Strivers live here, people who crave the lawn, the prestige, the German car. So both parents go off to fulfill themselves; and off the babies go, with the nanny or to day care.
The price of striving can be steep. As my nanny friend Angelica puts it, “The children love us more than they love their parents. The little one calls me Mommy.”
I am determined that my child will not call someone other than me Papa. And so we run our little routine: breakfast, nap, walk, church, park, lunch, nap, bath, book time, toy time, Mommy time, dinner, bed, and then a nice glass of Pinot for Papa.
Still, the ennui must show like welts. An older man in my neighborhood, Jose, offered me an observation one day without prompting. It was so penetrating, I wrote it down: “The whole world is in your brazos there, amigo. That little girl is your world and your future and your blood. That is your hair and your eyes I can see. A man, if he is truly a man, does what God asks him to do, to honor his family.”
“I know this, Tío,” I said, fascinated that he could decipher me from across a street. “But it is hard sometimes for me to be happy about it.”
“Ah, you are a traveler? And sometimes you see this duty of yours as women’s work?”
“Yes,” I said. “I think they must be better at it.”
“This does not matter,” he told me. “You must be better. If not the woman, then the man, yes? This is preferable to the stranger, who is not truly able to give the child love.”
He said it just like that. Jose articulated the true point—the nut graph, they call it in journalism—the thing my friends, the go-to-work dads, could not or were unwilling to tell me: You have to decide whether the child is more important to you than the stature, the action, the laurels, the money. If she is, then you must accept it and get on with the dreary business of the routine.
My daughter is awake now. She is standing in her crib, her arms out. I’m still in my underpants. “Hi, Daddy,” she clucks. Or maybe it’s “kitty, kitty.” It doesn’t matter, really. She is talking to me. I know I will return to work someday. We could use the money, and honestly, I need a place in my life that belongs to me. Right now my life is here, but eventually I’ll find new places to go.
I already know that day will be a sad one. It will be the day my daughter will not need her father so much anymore, and perhaps by then, her father will not need her so very much either.
Charlie LeDuff is the author of US Guys: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man. In addition to being a writer, he also is a filmmaker and a multimedia reporter for the Detroit News. He is a former national correspondent for the New York Times. He covered the war in Iraq, crossed the desert with a group of migrant Mexicans, and worked inside a North Carolina slaughterhouse as part of the Times’ series “How Race Is Lived in America,” which was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.
Stay at Home, Dad is an excerpt from the original anthology created when The Good Men Project was first founded. To find out how you can get a copy of The Good Men Project book free, and other benefits, become a premium member.
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