One of the first things I notice about Anthony Law as I'm talking to him about his life as a stay-at-home-dad at his home in New Haven, Conn., is how well he juggles taking care of his two-year-old son, Oliver, while he's talking to me. His multitasking is impressive.
That skill -- the skill that includes cutting up apples and ensuring your kids are entertained while also talking to another adult -- is not something you're born with. You gain that skill. Or, more specifically, you earn it when you take care of children.
There's no point in denying the obvious and perhaps even sexist -- in a modern-day definition of the word -- point I'm making: I'm surprised when I see a man undertaking these tasks and doing it well. I've watched female friends balance the challenges of parenthood on a daily basis -- watching multiple children on a playground, ensuring no one gets hurt; starting dinner while answering a barrage of questions delivered by their curious toddlers.
I almost never notice or applaud the ingenuity with which they approach these situations. As a part-time stay-at-home-mom, I don't celebrate my own domestic successes. But with dads, it's often different. When I went away for the weekend and my husband, who goes to work as a post-doc in a research laboratory every day, took my two young children to a birthday party by himself, he got rave reviews. Just for doing it.
There is some logic behind the disparity; he isn't with our children as much as I am, and is not as practiced in that particular skill set, in the same way that I'd be lost if asked to complete an experiment for him. Of course it's not that simple, as me doing his sophisticated scientific work is a ridiculous prospect, whereas these children are his, too. We parent them together.
The complexities involved are interesting to say the least, especially as in recent months we seem to be discussing various aspects of parenting on a national level, from the now infamous TIME magazine cover to debating just how much work was involved in Ann Romney's raising all those boys.
I've been talking to Law, and others, because of a desire to explore parenting in a more thorough way. I decided to begin a parenthood "adventure" of sorts, and reach out to individuals who might have a story to tell. I started with stay-at-home-dads.
My research first led me, via the internet, to Daddyshome, Inc, an organization run by stay-at-home-dads that connects fathers in play groups all over the country and organizes an annual convention, in addition to doing advocacy work and a multitude of other projects.
When I talked to Al Watts, the current president of the group and a stay-at-home father to four in Omaha, Ne., he says that leaving his job to care for their children was a practical matter. His wife could make more money going back to work than he could, and they weren't interested in daycare.
Staying home with kids -- as anyone who has done it knows -- is difficult in ways that jobs outside the home are not, and Watts stressed to me that finding other dads to socialize with was his saving grace. We talked about this for awhile, because the networking capacity of fathers is one of the topics I was most interested in when I began my interviews.
But something else stood out to me as I chatted with him over the phone, and that's the tone in which he described his role. He talked about the challenge of getting people to take him -- and other fathers who stay home -- seriously. Even in what might be considered an enlightened modern day society when it comes to gender roles, men are chided for making this choice.
"Ask yourself, if one of your mom friends went back to work, would you make fun of her?" Watts said to me, and I replied that of course I wouldn't. When a stay-at-home-dad is questioned for his choice, he went on, "you're making fun of them for being a parent."
It makes sense. Even if men are taking more on more parental responsibilities, as explored in a recent Wall Street Journal article by Susan Gregory Thomas, traditional gender roles aren't dead. Far from it.
So I'm not surprised that men have a hard time admitting their roles as primary childcare providers; what surprises me is how strongly I identify with what he's saying. Because although it's more "normal" for mom to be with the kids, it's never easy for me to admit that I'm not working much these days outside the home, as I always imagined I would.
When I talk to Marc Levenson, another New Haven area father who stays home while his wife, a professor at Yale, works, we began the same way, talking about the philosophical quandaries involved when mom is at work and dad attends playgroups.
Levenson talked about how it was somewhat difficult to break into the inner sanctum of mom-to-mom friendships, no matter how many kid-centric social activities he attended, and about how he sometimes struggles seeing his wife as the primary breadwinner, especially because he left a good job to move to New Haven, and assumed he'd be working again by now.
"I don't want to have existential stress because I'm not working," he said. I replied that I've also felt that way.
But again, despite trying to leave my role as mom behind while acting as journalist, I respond most to our casual discussion about the challenges of organizing our children's naps, and what to do during that time, so very precious to every stay-at-home-parent. Levenson suggests jokingly that there should be a "naptime therapist" you can call the minute your child goes down, guiding the parent on how to best utilize that time, minute by minute. It is brilliant.
Law and his wife -- she also works at Yale -- plan a weekly "date night." He told me how excited he gets about it. His wife looks forward to the night out, too, "but not as much as me," said Law. I know exactly what you mean, I told him. Being home is tough.
My husband is a loving, hilarious and capable father, but he hasn't stayed home with our two children in the capacity that I have, and in talking to these men I experience something I haven't come across in my parenting days: a male voice of understanding regarding the challenges of stay-at-home parenting. It isn't what I'd expected in conducting these interviews, but it inspires me to think about gender roles, marriage and having children in new ways.
More importantly, I'm breaking down double-standards I didn't even realize I possessed.
My husband has said to me on several occasions that he thinks he'd enjoy staying home with our kids and my immediate response is usually a lighthearted bout of disbelief and sarcasm.
But I need to change the way I think. A lot of us do. So perhaps next time he makes a comment like this, I'll say, "You know what? You'd be really good at that."