Home and (sort of) alone

The best way I can describe being a stay-at-home dad is that itís like eating in a restaurant by yourself. It can be a pleasurable experience, but itís hard not to feel conspicuous and alone.

I donít even like the moniker "stay-at-home dad." I prefer "housewife," which describes the position more aptly. But the lack of a good job title is the least of the obstacles.

Before I begin a litany of the challenges arising out of a long day at home with a three-year-old, let me first say I recognize what a luxury it is. Most families canít afford to have a parent do what Iím doing. This town is full of women in tennis dresses sipping Fourbucks mochaccino lattes complaining about how busy they are.

Whenever I overhear one of these conversations, I long for a magic wand which would zap these women into the role of a working mother who keeps a clean house, steps forward to be her sonís den mother and has the first hand up when the elementary school calls out for volunteers.

My day is no longer than my wife Lizí, who leaves on the train for New York in the early, early morning and returns after prime time TV has started. We agree that the difference in our lives is that her hours pass too quickly and mine get lapped around the oval by a snail. At the end of a two-hour period, she might be scrambling to get her twentieth phone call in while Iím finishing up my fifth straight game of Chutes Ďn Ladders. Sometimes time flies, sometimes it trudges.

When people ask me how I like being home with a toddler, I usually answer that a few times a day kids do something funny or endearing and that keeps your spirits up, but that itís lonely not to have any friends who are around during the day. I attribute the latter to gender and my own tendency to be overly opinionated when it comes to how children should be reared.

I have tried to be one of the girls around the playground Ė I was even the Room Mom in the preschool class this year. But in the end, men are men and women are women. Moms have totally different conversations. While men debate, women compare.

Women can bond just on the basis of the commonality of their experience. Two women who have just met and find out their children are the same age can talk for hours.

Decorating is a big subject with women. Iím at a total loss here since my idea of a perfect room is a Barcalounger, a big TV and a Farrah Fawcett poster.

And women are, at least overtly, nice. One preschool mother told me her dilemma over whether to mention to a close friend that she had put on so much weight her clothes werenít fitting her.

Men would just start calling the expanding person "Orca."

Not that I want to hang around men, either. The thing about being a male at home with a small child is that you have to be in touch with your feminine side Ė be affectionate, kiss boo-boos, that sort of thing. Iím generally okay with this, but itís not the kind of thing I want to do in front of guys in lieu of lamenting the Red Sox or comparing the best types of motor oil. Iím just not that secure.

When the distaff stay-at-homes do go out of their way to be inclusive, I often say something to make them regret it. My approach to creating the appropriate environment for children boils down to : If it wasnít done when I was a kid, Iím not doing it. So when moms tell me about music classes for their two-year-olds, I ask them if they think Eric Claptonís mother did that for him.

If they talk about Gymboree or Tumble Bees, I ask why people would pay money for little kids to jump and run around. If they rave about their Baby Einstein videos (yes, there is such a thing), I ask how Einstein got to be Einstein without them. The people who market activities for toddlers could sell sand to the Saudis.

Our society has adjusted to women in the workplace, but being a male housewife is one of those roles for which we havenít written the rulebook yet. Sometimes people trying to be nice end up being a little patronizing, as in "Oh, my sister has a brother-in-law who stays home with the kids and he just loves it!" I mean, you wouldnít say, "Oh I have a cousin by marriage who is an actuary, too!"

The other thing that people say is, "Oh, you have the most important job in the world." It sounds nice but it isnít true. It is true when applied to society collectively, but in the scheme of the big, wide world one more dermatologist or one more car thief isnít a big deal.

But the cost of posting bail being what it is, it does matter to my wife and me. So I will continue to dine at my table for one (well, one and one-half) knowing that while the days can be long, the years fly by. Iíll be sad when the schoolbus starts to come by my house.

But Iím still going to be out there at 4 a.m. with a lantern to make sure my kid doesnít miss it.

July 24, 2004