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Confessions of a stay-at-home dad

By Sean Elder, Oprah.com
Being a stay-at-home parent can be a full-time job, but sometimes leaves men with a nagging ambivalence.
Being a stay-at-home parent can be a full-time job, but sometimes leaves men with a nagging ambivalence.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sean Elder becomes stay-at-home dad out of necessity after he loses his full-time job
  • Elder and his brother share recipes and compare notes on their experiences
  • He and wife go from window-shopping together to visions of joint custody
  • But baking with daughter makes him forget his frustrations
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(OPRAH.com) -- My wife offered to buy me a stove for my birthday. We were having dinner at a neighborhood restaurant when she made the suggestion -- just a suggestion, she assured me, a joke, if I wanted to look at it that way.

But the joke was on her. I just blinked and said, "The 30-inch Wolf range?"

I've always been the cook in our house, and not just a weekend warrior, either. My mother was such a bad cook that when I was a boy I would pretend I was a prisoner of war being forced to eat her creative offerings -- macaroni and cheese studded with sliced hot dogs, say.

My younger brother, Ethan, and I learned to fend for ourselves in the kitchen, and after our parents divorced we took turns cleaning, along with my younger sister, while our mother was out earning a paycheck. What used to be called women's work has always been second nature to us.

But I never thought of it as my calling. Whatever satisfaction I derived from cooking or schlepping laundry or changing diapers came in part from the knowledge that I would soon be doing something else.

My job -- writing and editing -- often allowed me to work at home. I mocked weekend dads as gentlemen fathers, as cut off from the real toil of parenthood as gentlemen farmers were from plowing the fields, but the truth was that I no more wanted to be Mr. Mom, a full-time househusband, than I wanted to get behind the mule.

Well, hee-haw. Two years ago, I was laid off from my last full-time job, and it turned out I was ahead of the curve. People who had been calling me with job offers were suddenly calling me for leads, and the only reason I haven't seen them selling pencils on the sidewalks of New York is that we all use computers now.

My wife, Peggy, meantime, is making a salary more than three times what I pulled down last year.

My brother was laid off late in 2001 from the high-tech parts company he sold for in Silicon Valley; almost immediately afterward, his wife, Leah, took a lucrative position with a nationally known cookware retailer.

Suddenly, we were both home taking care of the kids -- he has two (a son, Finnegan, who's three, and a daughter, Ali, eight) as do I (Franny, nine, and Adam, 18) -- plus the house and all that implies.

I know we're not alone. In the markets and at the matinees I see them: Millennium Men dragging their children on errands or being dragged themselves to Nickelodeon movies, all the time wondering where their work went.

In the past year, Ethan and I have compared notes, via e-mail and cell phone, on grocery shopping and the fortunes of the Giants. Sometimes I send him recipes; sometimes he sends me porn.

Despite the time difference between San Francisco and Brooklyn, Ethan and I are on pretty much the same schedule. The toddler gets up at about 6:15, so Ethan tries to beat him by 15 minutes for what might laughably be called "me time," which for him consists of reading yesterday's front page before today's paper arrives.

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Ethan e-mails me on the first day of Finn's swimming lessons at the Y: "I'd pictured a helpful teenage girl taking Finn and showing him how to kick, breathe, etc. No, not the case. Boom box blasting 'The Wheels on the Bus' and parents in the pool singing and bobbing with kids. I envision our childless friends standing on the side saying, 'See, that's why!' Finn starts to have fun, and so do I. After a half hour, my arm starts to hurt. This is what my doctor refers to as two-year-old arm. I take her advice: I switch arms."

I recall the days of two-year-old arm rather fondly myself. Franny lets me hold her now with the resigned air of a hostage, though that aloof nine-year-old routine seems like a pose, a rude T-shirt she's trying on.

Some parents have told me that nine is the adolescence of elementary school. For girls, maybe. When Adam was nine, he acted like a nine-year-old boy, i.e., Bart Simpson. Maybe aloof is better.

My kids are in school, which opens up my day considerably. Or would. We have an old house, and we tapped ourselves out buying it five years ago. Now the floors are buckling because water is getting in from somewhere into the subfloor, warping the wood.

Before I can get the floors fixed, I've got to find someone who can figure out where the leaks are. Before someone can figure out where the leaks are, he has to come look at the rear walls. In New York, getting somebody to come do anything, even haul away furniture you're donating, is a full-time job. I'm on the phone to the floor guy and the waterproofing guy trying to coordinate their visits, when my son calls. He's left his homework on his desk. Could I fax it to his school?

Ethan calls while I'm grocery shopping that afternoon; he's doing the same thing in San Francisco with Finn in the cart and Ali in tow. Over the phone I can hear Ali yelling. They are already in the Safeway parking lot, and I'm still at the Key Food deli counter, waiting.

"Speed Racer!" she cries, audible a continent away. This, my brother later explains, is when he runs through the parking lot pushing the cart with Finn in the child seat and Ali hanging on the front, imperiling all of them and innocent bystanders to boot. Like to see Mom do that.

One day I decide to make chocolate chip cookies with Franny. Although it's a reward -- she has finished her homework, practiced piano, and washed her hair -- I have an ulterior motive: I really like chocolate chip cookies.

But where our last experiment in cookie baking was a raging success, this time nothing goes right. The dough's lumpy. There's not enough sugar. And then, for reasons I can't fathom, the oven won't get hot enough to bake them. They just sit there, sweating in little warm lumps in this ancient Tappan oven that was new when I was still listening to the Sex Pistols. My daughter loses interest, and I put some water on for pasta (at least the range still works). Peggy said she'd be home about eight.

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Thinking about the Sex Pistols must have reminded me of college, because soon I'm brooding about my wasted English B.A. as I dice vegetables and try to drown out my regrets with "All Things Considered." I had wanted to be a real writer, the kind whose photo you find on the back of books, and instead I'm questioning Marcella Hazan's predilection for butter.

I am reminded of a John Cheever story in which a housewife hangs her college degree over the sink until the joke gets old and she puts it away. I think I'm becoming a feminist.

"Don't know if it's cabin fever, but some days I feel trapped," Ethan tells me in an e-mail. "Most days I can't even seem to squeeze in a workout. Any of my other forms of relief are none too healthy for body or marriage."

Then he tells me that a job he's been courting is on and he should be back to work by January. I feel like a South Vietnamese soldier in Saigon watching the last U.S. helicopter leaving.

He's got tickets to tonight's World Series game, too, he says. "Watch for me on TV -- I'll be the guy in the Giants cap with a beer."

The Giants win that night but lose the series, four to three. The waterproofing estimate comes in at $4,500. The floor work is estimated at a relatively modest $1,400. Meanwhile, our mother seems to be losing her marbles, and Ethan has started looking at retirement homes in the Bay Area. He took her on a tour of one; afterward she said it was okay but she didn't like a lot of old people.

He e-mails me the next day: "I took Finn to a Montessori school for a visit this morning and watched them gently test him. I had to fight myself not to yell the answers and move the blocks myself. This is how I feel with Mom. I wish I could turn back time and bring her mind back into sync. Every day I realize more that this will never happen."

I'd love to fly out there and provide support to my brother, but I can't afford to leave. Franny's piano teacher tells me that her timing is off. I say mine isn't so good, either.

Peggy and I get into a huge fight coming back from the Home Depot Expo one Sunday. Turns out the Wolf range I had my eye on needs six inches on either side because they run so hot, which would mean replacing the kitchen counter and cabinets.

Ours are tragically prefab anyway and falling apart, and when they go, so goes the dishwasher, the sink, and the leaky faucet. The floors, as I mentioned, are pretty well shot, and while we're at it, those pantry shelves should go, too, along with the refrigerator. We've gone from a $4,000 range to a $50,000 kitchen remodeling in the course of a few hours, and the conversation that follows -- touching on money, responsibility, opportunity, and all the places we've never been -- is as sudden and ugly as a dust devil.

Funny how you can go from window-shopping together to visions of joint custody. Afterward, we take turns saying we're sorry, uncertain of what we're apologizing for.

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I call Ethan the next day, and of course I don't talk about the fight with my wife. Instead we speculate about where Giants manager Dusty Baker will end up next season.

Ethan just signed the papers on his new job. "Now that it's the end of my stay-at-home stage, I'm already missing it," he tells me, and I find myself filled with resentment. Short-timer, I think. It's a lot easier to wipe up one more spill when you're not thinking of doing the same thing tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. My pettiness depresses me.

For $130, a bald Russian comes and replaces something called the bake igniter in my oven, and soon Franny and I are making cookies again. The sweet smell fills the house and makes me forget my bitterness. As much as I chafe at my life and its boundaries, there are times when I think I could spend eternity baking with my daughter.

I decide to give my son a shaving kit I'd been saving for Christmas. My father was not around for me when I was a teenager, so I probably attach more significance to the gesture than Adam does: I feel like I'm offering him a leg up into the adult world, the world of shaving and travel and unfettered possibility. "Cool," is all he says, and turns up the stereo.

An e-mail from Ethan: "Shaving in the bathroom. Finn walks in, 'Wha' are you doing?' 'Shaving.' 'Can I shave?' 'No, sweet boy, you have to be big to shave.' Leaves, comes back with two sticks, one big, one small. Holds the big one upright and uses the little one to play it like a cello while humming. I ask, 'What are you doing?' He says, 'Singing.' I tell him he looks like he's playing the cello. He says, 'I play jello.' I ask, 'Can I play jello?' He says, 'No, you have to be little.'"

As much as I made of giving Adam a shaving kit, I am reminded of the appeal of no responsibility and the music only little children can hear. Make us all little again.

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