An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
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Tag: Fatherhood

Joy and Isolation: My Experience as a Stay-at-Home Dad – Part II

May 20, 2017

Thanks to all who commented, shared and gave feedback on Part I. I did not realize that many stay-at-home moms felt similarly. I appreciated hearing your experiences and I’m grateful for your support as a stay-at-home dad and writer.

stay-at-home dad in the park

A local park ‘selfie’

Playgrounds are alienating. Sonali loves them. I find them intimidating and uncomfortable.

I’ve entered a women’s domain – the dynamic is similar to standing in line to get my eyebrows threaded. I am the only man there. I’m the interloper. It is the same on the playground. The women will be happily chatting, we arrive and everyone goes silent.

Playgrounds are awkward because I’m usually the only male adult during working hours. Everyone else is a nanny/au pair, mother or grandparent. Most nannies are immigrants, usually Latin American or African, speaking broken English. In our neighborhood, many moms are foreign as well, due to the nearby locations of embassies and general international environment of Washington, D.C.

It feels very cliquey to me. It’s clear many caregivers know each other, banding together in certain sections of the park. For moms that don’t appear to know anyone, they still have security in being a woman around many other women and everyone seems generally welcoming.

Talking to me was probably always going to be a struggle for the nannies and au pairs. But as a stay-at-home dad, in their world, it’s near impossible. They have their relationships and jabber away with one another in Spanish or another non-English tongue. As I observe them and guess which country they are from, I presume many come from strictly gendered societies. For them, a man does not provide childcare and if for some reason he does, it’s definitely not outside the house.

I think most of their native cultures view men as tough, relatively unemotional creatures, not guys down on their hands and knees with their toddler making funny sounds. Raising children is not a masculine way to spend time in their culture’s eyes and they might think it’s weird seeing me with Sonali.

But the moms don’t speak to me either, except to ask questions or comment about Sonali. They usually say she’s adorable and ask her age. Then the conversation dies. I ask the same about their kid(s) and then we both smile and realize we have nothing else to say. Sometimes we’ll have extended smiles and hold eye contact a second longer because we recognize we see each other daily, but no words are exchanged.

I’m not really sure how to ‘break’ in. Asking if they are from around here seems like too much of a ‘pick up line’, as a man to a woman, so I let the interaction expire. Part of me wants to seek their advice about a child-rearing issue, but then I think, what if they are one of ‘those’ parents who once they begin speaking about raising kids, never stops talking?

I’ve noticed a marked difference between my interactions with women on the playground, versus walking with Sonali in the stroller around the neighborhood.

In many instances, I’ll come to a corner waiting for a stoplight and another mother is also there with a stroller. It’s immediately a much friendlier vibe. We’ll smile, say hello and sometimes say something more. Our interaction is as brief as the park, but it feels freer and easy.

We’re outside of the boundary, (playground yard) in a public and open space.

On the playground, everyone seems on the defensive towards me, the dad. Interactions appear stilted and uncomfortable. We’re acknowledging one’s presence and our children as a social duty, but not in an overly warm way.

People discussing their children is a universal conversation starter in almost every other social interaction between strangers, yet it is not enough for me at the local park.

I was telling my friend, an African-American guy, who grew up in the white suburbs about my feelings about playgrounds and he said something interesting. “I feel the same way when I go to a barber shop and it’s all black guys. What do I talk with them about? My life is nothing like theirs and I have nothing to say to them or in common, except that we’re all black.’

I feel judged, like everyone is watching me and measuring my interactions, seeing if I’ll meet their expectations of a ‘good father’, whatever that means to them. I feel silently evaluated; am I aloof with my daughter, or engaged and attentive? I envision them saying things like ‘can’t he tell how cold she is, or see hot it is outside and he has her in that outfit, she’s that high on the swing, etc.…’

I think people scrutinize how I handle Sonali. Our neighborhood is full of high-achievers, with very specific ideas about child-raising. I’m a first-time parent. I’ve never done this before. I’m learning every day and raising Sonali with my best judgment.

When we get there, it seems as though the kids move away. Part of this is because Sonali is often the youngest child at the park, and she can’t ‘play,’ like they are. But when the kids move to the other parts of the playground, I want Sonali to join them.

While this is annoying, I understand it. I’m more concerned about Sonali. We go to the playground, specifically for her interaction and observation of other kids. If immediately after we enter the park, the kids shift, then it becomes additionally awkward because I want to follow them with Sonali, but it feels strange and I rarely do.

Now the reason, beyond just leaving the house is moot because Sonali and I are alone again, as when we’re home, but now we’re in public.

Society still assumes women do all the child rearing.

Nearly every parent resource I’ve read online targets the mother, but never the father. The gender norms of child raising seem engrained and strict. I assumed with the reality of men more involved in their children’s lives this would be different in 2017, but I see scant evidence of this.

All the blogs, the internet message boards, even the neighborhood list-serves, automatically assume that women provide childcare. And all the activities offered to stay-at-home parents are stereotypically female interests (clothing swaps, shopping, personal grooming etc.) Nothing seems gender neutral.

As much as I crave personal interaction with adults, I don’t attend parent meet-ups, because I’m certain I’d be the only man there.

Sometimes I take Sonali to baby lap time at local libraries. For those unfamiliar, it’s a half hour period for babies who aren’t walking to bounce on their caregiver’s laps and sing songs. I’m always the only father.

If another male is present, it’s nearly always a grandfather. But we don’t talk either because again, often they are immigrants or I feel judged by them.

Another aspect of this experience to briefly mention is letting go of one’s inhibitions when interacting with young kids, especially babies is crucial. You must make silly sounds or sing nonsensical songs, whatever makes them happy as you communicate in ways they’ll understand.

But I’ve found when doing so in a mixed gender setting, it’s more trying. Everyone has a public persona we present to others, but for me, it’s much more uncomfortable to be ridiculous and fun with Sonali when I’m the gender minority or token member.

Maybe I’m over-thinking this whole situation.

This time is not about me, it’s about Sonali and giving her love, comfort, and affection while educating her about the world she inhabits.

Sometimes I miss my previous life, the intellectual stimulation, the collegial atmosphere of the office, spending time with peers.

But then I remember this; no one ever said they wished they’d spent less time with their child. It’s usually the complete opposite.

This season is special and won’t last forever. In a few months, she’ll be in school and I’ll be working outside the house again. Looking back on our time together, years from now I’ll never regret it.

It’s only a segment of my life and its benefits are exponential for Sonali’s growth while solidifying our beautiful lifetime bond.

Joy and Isolation: My Experience as a Stay-at-Home Dad – Part I

April 27, 2017

I recently began the hardest and most rewarding job of my life, being a stay-at-home dad. I lost my job in March 2016 and after a year-long job search that yielded little fruit, I now watch Sonali 50 hours a week.

It’s difficult. Spending all day with an 11-month old that can’t talk, walk and requires constant stimulation is exhausting. I’ll forever appreciate just how taxing life is for full-time parents.

This article, pulling figures from the 2014 Census, shows Washington D.C. has the third lowest number of stay-at-home dads in the country. But it also says that nationwide 80% of these dads are not voluntarily staying at home. I fall into this category.

Sonali had a nanny for five months, while I received unemployment benefits, which ended late last year. It’s impossible to pay rent and childcare solely using Sasmita’s salary. In early 2017, we decided I would stay home and watch Sonali full-time and job search at night.

Our friends fully support this decision, especially ones with children. Everyone, parent or not, thinks it’s great that Sonali and I spend our days together, especially at this stage of her development. It’s the right choice, we have no doubts, but that has not made it easy.

When I meet someone new for the first time, and they ask me what I do, things get a bit awkward. The first few times I just blurted out, ‘I watch our daughter Sonali.’ But then there’s a silence as if they are waiting for me to say something more. I would smile and they responded ‘cool’ or ‘neat’ and we moved to other topics. I noticed this and now I say the same thing, but then add-on, ‘I also do business development for an international economics consultancy.’

The new addendum seems to satisfy them. But it bothers me. Why do I feel like I need to justify my role as a stay-at-home dad? I’m pretty sure when mothers say the same thing, no one thinks twice. But our society says being a full-time dad isn’t good enough. Dads have to provide more than child-care; they must have a job outside of the house. But people wouldn’t ask the same question to a woman, hear she is a full-time mom and expect her to say anything else. There’s a lot more I could say on this, but the double standard seems unfair.

As I’ve become more immersed in the day-time dad life, I’ve made a few observations.

Sonali’s first ride in a shopping cart at Costco

Our neighborhood has few stay-at-home dads. We live in a section of Washington, D.C., where most households are dual income and I rarely see dads with their children anywhere during working hours. I’m not sure I’ve seen a single full-time dad in all our walking. I only see men with children in the late afternoons or early evenings, presumably after they are home from work and school is out.

Watching Sonali and hanging out with her in this way is precious. I could write for pages about what Sonali is learning, observing and ways she’s grown in the last few months. I feel privileged to spend all this time with her. I’m friends with a lot of great parents, and this was never an option for them. It’s a sacrifice for our future, but it’s well worth it. She and I are building bonds hopefully never to be severed.

To have someone so young, relying on you for all their needs and protection is awe-inspiring and intimidating. Sonali just began crawling and we’re waiting for her first teeth to emerge. She loves watching the rain fall outside the windows and recently discovered insects, particularly ants.

I’m speaking and singing to her constantly. A few days ago, we sat in the grass for the first time together, and she was very uneasy. She immediately lunged towards me, back into the safety of my embrace with gleeful giggles.

She’s become fascinated by shadows and reflections from the sun. I constantly remind myself she is learning everything. Everything is new, compelling and interesting to her. The simplest act or object will grab her attention. She’s a total sponge, and I’m educating her in ways I never could if I only saw her for one to two hours a day working outside the house.

But, this is an incredibly isolating job. I’m a social guy, thriving on communication and good conversation. Now I spend more than 55 hours a week with someone who cannot say a single English word. It’s a huge adjustment.

Coming in Part II, I’ll discuss more thoughts on my isolation, explore how I feel I’m perceived and reveal my least favorite place to take Sonali.

Readers, what do you think, does anyone have similar experiences to share?