I checked my rearview mirror and signaled for a lane change. Traffic was light and the morning’s dusting of snow had already been cleared away. They don’t mess around here in Minnesota. As soon as the weather turns, an army of snowplows and salt trucks take to the streets. Sometimes we’ll get several feet of snow overnight and by noon the next day the streets are glistening and pristine. All the cars are covered with a thick layer of salt, but we can always get around. Just as the Swiss seem to move mountains and the Fijians forge the seas, the Minnesotans know how to handle their snow.
Our little sedan was packed. My friend was sitting shotgun and in the backseat my wife was wedged between his wife and my daughter’s car seat. I always find it fascinating when multiple conversations take place at the same time in a confined space. In this case, there were three different discussions happening at once. My friend and I were chatting in the front seat, his wife and my wife were talking in the back seat, and my daughter was happily babbling to herself.
My buddy and I were catching up on life. It had been a while since we talked. I had finished my PhD, moved to Minnesota, and bought a new house. He had also finished school, started a new job, and got a dog. He was curious to hear more about my decision to be a stay-at-home-dad.
“At first, it was really motivated by finances... The more we looked into it, the more we realized that it didn’t make sense for me to work. My salary would really just be paying for daycare.”
“At first, it was really motivated by finances,” I said. “Yeah, I’ve heard that daycare is expensive,” he replied. He and his wife didn’t have any kids but had heard about some of the woes that come with trying to find reliable and affordable childcare. “It’s really expensive,” I said. “For her to go full time would almost be the same as our mortgage.” His jaw dropped. “I know,” I said. “Minnesota is actually the second most expensive state in the country when it comes to childcare. The more we looked into it, the more we realized that it didn’t make sense for me to work. My salary would really just be paying for daycare.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” He nodded. “So, is the stay-at-home-dad thing just temporary until something else comes along?,” he asked.
I paused. Embedded in his question seemed to be an assumption that parenting falls under a different category than what he considered to be normal work. Although he may not have intended it to come across this way, I interpreted his question to mean that being a stay-at-home-dad is somehow less than or inferior to what he referred to as 'something else.'
I don’t blame him for asking the question he did. Deep down, it’s the same question I ask myself when I’m feeling insecure or uncertain about the decision to be a full-time stay-at-home-dad. Even after doing it for about six months, I still have days when I longingly peruse job listings and dream of going back to my career as an educator. But after the daydream wears off, I realize that there is no job out there that can measure up to being a full-time dad. My office attire is a pair of sweatpants and a flannel. Morning meetings happen over a cup of French press and a bottle of milk. Instead of emails, I read board books. My daughter is by far the best co-worker I’ve ever had. She laughs at my jokes and goes along with my goofy ideas. Truthfully, it would take something really amazing to get me to leave this gig.
But after the daydream wears off, I realize that there is no job out there that can measure up to being a full-time dad. My office attire is a pair of sweatpants and a flannel. Morning meetings happen over a cup of French press and a bottle of milk. Instead of emails, I read board books.
I wondered how I would answer my friend’s question in a way that would make sense to him. If I told him the truth – that being a dad is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received or that parenting is more fulfilling than anything I’ve ever done in my professional career, or that since becoming a stay-at-home parent I’ve discovered a purpose for my life that far exceeds my previous ideas of success and achievement – he would probably look at me like I have three heads. To him, these answers would likely all sound like clichés and platitudes; not because they are empty and shallow but because he simply doesn’t have the life experience to fill in the gaps where words falls short. We paint the world with the colors we have on our palate. If we don’t have a certain shade or hue, we simply make do with the colors we have.
How would I explain to my friend that from my perspective, there is nothing else right now? I have spent more time than I’d like to admit when I was physically with my daughter but my mind was somewhere completely different. In the early days of being a stay-at-home, she would be playing with her toys or flipping through a book and I would be lost in thoughts about my failing career. My self-worth was so completely wrapped up in my professional identity that I didn’t know who I was without a job. I felt lost and depressed. I believed I was a disappointment.
As I filled out job application after job application and received rejection letter after rejection letter, it became abundantly clear to me that the universe had different plans for my future. It also became abundantly clear that in order for me to find peace and regain my mental health, I would have to let go of my hope for ‘something else.’
It also became abundantly clear that in order for me to find peace and regain my mental health, I would have to let go of my hope for ‘something else.’
Don’t get me wrong. I’m relatively young and I still have a lot of life ahead of me. I know very well that I will likely rejoin the world of gainful employment one day. My daughter will grow up, go off to school, and I will find myself with way more time on my hands. But for now, I am much happier and healthier since making the decision to release my professional aspirations and embrace my role as a stay-at-home dad. I realized that I have to be willing to let that part of myself go in order to become whoever I am meant to be now. As Joseph Campbell said, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
I didn’t think this is the life that was waiting for me, but now that I’m here I can’t image it any other way. Something in me changed. I no longer believe that my life’s purpose is tied to my professional career alone. While I still believe that professional achievement is incredibly important, leaning into my role as my daughter’s primary childcare provider has allowed me to see that my life’s purpose is way bigger than a job. Through parenting, I've discovered that my fulfillment in life is not dependent on what I accomplish, how much money I make, or what job title I have.
Parenting has awakened me to the realization that my life’s purpose is to be fully present for the gifts all around me and help others to do the same. My daughter is one of the most incredible gifts I’ve ever received. I often call her my ‘greatest teacher,” and she has shown me how much of my precious life I’ve missed in the pursuit of some abstract achievement that I believed would make me happy. She’s taught me that I don’t need to wait for ‘something else’ to be happy. I can be happy right now.
My daughter is one of the most incredible gifts I’ve ever received. I often call her my ‘greatest teacher,” and she has shown me how much of my precious life I’ve missed in the pursuit of some abstract achievement that I believed would make me happy.
Being a parent has allowed me to see that I don’t need to strive or achieve in order to feel fulfilled. Fulfillment is in the here and now. Meaning and purpose are available everyday of our lives. Through my daughter, I’ve realized that we don’t gain fulfillment in our lives.
Our lives are fulfillment.
The simple moments of daily life can bring us immeasurable meaning and purpose, if we are open to them. The more I yearn for a life that is different from the one I have, the more I suffer. In other words, my desire for professional achievement, status, and money actually causes me to be blind to the incredible riches that are all around me. And my daughter has shown me just how wealthy I really am. She has allowed me to see that I don’t need to look elsewhere for happiness and fulfillment. It is right here, in this moment, giggling with her as we roll around on the carpet of our living room floor. It's seeing her climb the stairs all by herself and hearing her say, ‘thank you, daddy,’ for the first time.
I’m even learning to find fulfillment in the hard moments, like when I prepare a nice meal and my daughter refuses to eat anything or when she violently protests having her diaper changed for the thousandth time. Because even though these moments can push me past my patience, I know they are helping me by showing me where I need to grow. I also know that there will probably come a day when I miss these hard moments. Every parent I’ve ever met has told me to cherish this time in my daughter’s life because it goes by quickly and I won’t get it back.
By letting go of my aspirations to be an accomplished professional with a career full of achievements, I’m beginning to appreciate the advice offered by those who have been there before me. I don’t want to look back on my life and regret that I spent my time chasing after the things that society has told me I need to be happy, instead of chasing after my daughter. I don’t want to come to the end of my life and realize that I missed all the good stuff because I was so caught up in attaining the material stuff.
I don’t want to look back on my life and regret that I spent my time chasing after the things that society has told me I need to be happy, instead of chasing after my daughter. I don’t want to come to the end of my life and realize that I missed all the good stuff because I was so caught up in attaining the material stuff.
But letting go of my achiever mentality is easier said than done. Choosing to see the fulfillment in the everyday moments of our lives can be a radical act. It seems like every day I have to battle with the voices in my head that tell me I’m not (fill in the blank) enough unless I’m making lots of money, commanding people’s attention, and holding positions of authority.
As a white man with a PhD living in the United States, I am constantly being told that my value as a person is tied to my ability to achieve and dominate through my actions, my intellect, and my career. Over the course of my life, I’ve been conditioned to believe that in order to be a ‘real man,’ I am supposed to ‘bring home the bacon’ and be the main breadwinner for my family. Capitalism and competitive individualism are perpetually reinforcing the idea that in order to have value in this society, I must be a productive worker and an eager consumer.
Here might be an appropriate time to share how much respect and admiration I’ve gained for the many generations of stay-at-home-moms who have come before me. My new role has shown me how little value our capitalistic, male-dominated society seems to have for the stay-at-home parent. This is even more true for women, who are often just expected to drop their career aspirations when kids enter the picture. The curious looks and questions I get about being a stay-at-home-dad are nothing compared to what countless women who do the same work have experienced. I know that I couldn’t be talking openly about these issues if it weren’t for the many brave women who have spoken up to show that raising children is one of the most important and valuable jobs in society.
My new role has shown me how little value our capitalistic, male-dominated society seems to have for the stay-at-home parent. This is even more true for women, who are often just expected to drop their career aspirations when kids enter the picture.
So yeah, it’s not like I flipped a switch one day and now I don’t care about achievement, status, and wealth. Sadly, being a stay-at-home-dad doesn’t make you an enlightened monk overnight. But I am finding that if you are open to it, being a parent provides daily opportunities to live in the present moment. Some of these moments are incredibly beautiful and full of the most wonderful gifts that anyone could ask for in life. Other moments are unbelievably frustrating and all I can do to keep my cool is walk to the other room and sing “Baby Shark” at the top of my lungs. And in those tough moments, I have to remind myself that there were many times like these in my previous life as a working professional and the people who pushed my buttons were not nearly as cute as my daughter.
Suddenly, I snapped back to reality and realized that my turn signal was still on. The blinker sounded like a ticking clock and my friend’s question lingered heavier with each passing second. He asked me again, “So, is the stay-at-home-dad thing just temporary until you find something else?” I took a deep breath and began to speak. “You know, I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m really happy right now and I feel lucky that I get to spend this time with her. She’s enough.”