Not Working. From Home.

I don’t know it yet, but my dad is old. — (L) Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash; (R) Photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash

My one-year-old daughter is a very independent little kid. I’d like to think that’s because I don’t pay that much attention to her.

Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration. In fact, it’s a joke I wrote for a stand-up routine I probably won’t do. The truth is, I love my daughter and I interact with her a lot throughout the day. Just not all the time. Some of the time I’m cleaning the house. (Especially vacuuming. I love vacuuming. The laundry might pile up for weeks, but you can always count on me for some vacuuming. I vacuum the couch. Every day. I love it. A lot of men do, I’m told. So, hey, at least we’ve got that.) Some of the time I’m paying bills, disputing medical charges, sorting the stacks of old mail to find bills I missed the first time, and doing assorted other household chores. Some of the time I’m watching Wimbledon quarterfinals, World Cup matches, and other crazy mid-day, midweek sports I’ve never seen before. (My daughter watches too sometimes. Mostly she pulls all the diapers out of the box. I let her. I’ll put them back later.) For I am that brave new breed of American male: The Stay-At-Home Dad (SAHD). (Despite the acronym, neither it nor we are sad. In fact, it’s great.)

But I will admit here that despite my status as a SAHD I do not follow my daughter around all day “coddling,” or “interacting” or “playing” with her very much. Once or twice a day for about five minutes at a stretch I’ll get down on the rug and we’ll play. But mostly, I keep an eye on her. I talk to her like she’s thirty. I look at things she brings me and give them back to her with my approval in gibberish. I pick her up and console her when she falls down. We run errands together. And I feed her and change her diapers (of course). But we don’t spend every moment staring at each other, eye to eye, while I read her Baby Einstein books and arrange her blocks for her for ten hours a day. And if the fact that her favorite toy is a plastic jar of brewer’s yeast makes me a bad parent, then I guess call CPS.

But you better make your fingers dial faster because I’d wager a lot of SAHDs are like me. Yes, we stay at home. Yes, we’re dads. But we are not on our hands and knees all day acting as one-man entertainment extravaganzas for our children. Because we have other things to do. Because before we were SAHDs, most of us had jobs. Careers even. And now that we’re SAHDs, many of us are looking for an identity and sense of purpose somewhere beyond and in addition to being SAHDs. Because for most SAHDs, parenting is not a vocation, it’s an avocation with no vacation.

For most stay-at-home dads, parenting is not a vocation, it’s an avocation with no vacation.

A famous chauvinist jerk once said that one can know women are the natural care-giving sex because no man will play with a baby for more than five minutes. Was it Hitchens? Kipling? I don’t remember now. But I don’t believe it. I mean, it is true that I’ve never seen a man play with a baby for more than five minutes without starting to throw the child in the air just to see that hilarious look of terror on their little baby faces. But I don’t think that proves that women are the natural-born and exclusive care-giving sex. In fact, I also don’t know many women that play with a baby for more than five minutes, because they want to that is. I know many that will play with a baby for more than five minutes because they believe they should do so, however. Most men I know, including myself, have no such compunction. That is surely a societal construct that is imprinted in women’s and men’s brains from our childhoods in the patriarchy. But in my experience it is nonetheless true more often than not: A man looks at a baby and, after confirming that it is not crying, not hungry, and not sitting in its own filth, concludes that the child is in need of no further parental attention; a woman will look at a baby, confirm all those same basic things, and then conclude that her parenting duties can now begin. That does not mean women are caregivers and men are assholes, though the latter may be true, it just means that men tend to parent a little differently in the aggregate. Both are caregivers in their own way. Neither style is better or worse than the other. They’re just different.

And I know too that all stay-at-home moms do not consider that to be their complete and exclusive role in life. I know many, if not most, erstwhile stay-at-home moms will go back to continue or begin their careers, and many more who continue them part-time while staying at home. Some people are content to be parents. Full stop. And some are not. Perhaps a few more women than men fall into the former category, but that is academic and irrelevant anyway. I’m not a stay-at-home mom, I’m a SAHD, and for me (right now anyway) parenting is something — not everything — that I am and do. And as a result, my daughter watches more ten-part World War One documentaries than episodes of Masha and the Bear. And that’s probably for the best, because whenever we do watch Masha and the Bear, I provide my own voiceovers — Mystery Science Theater 3000-style — that turn the cartoon into violent communist propaganda. (Which will probably become an actual alt-right “scandal” now, if it isn’t already.)

[Me, in exaggerated Russian accent]: “In Soviet Russia, all children are property of state and are raised by state. State here in cartoon is bear, symbol of Soviet Russia. Together, Masha and Bear will crush Western capitalist lackeys.”

Becoming at Stay-at-Home Dad and a Writer

When I am not actively parenting my daughter (or, I should more accurately say, safeguarding, feeding, and cleaning her) or doing chores, I am usually writing. Usually humor. Sometimes short, silly things. Sometimes long, more developed pieces (like this). Sometimes fiction. This is not something new for me; I wrote humor pretty consistently from 2004 to about 2007. But then, once I got a serious girlfriend and my responsibilities at work increased, I just stopped writing. Part of it was I wrote and read all day at work as an attorney and just didn’t have the will to do any more of it when I was at home. Another part of it was I didn’t think there was an audience for what I wanted to write (thanks, Medium, for changing that, for now). But whatever the reason, I didn’t write anything for about ten years.

When my then-fiancee and I were about to get married, we decided we did not want to be the couple who both worked crazy hours and never saw each other. She loves her job (as a veterinarian) and I hated mine (as a specialty insurance litigator) or at least hated where I was doing it. In addition, it was becoming more apparent that I was never going to truly succeed at my erstwhile profession. I began to see that I would end up as a sixty-year-old “grinder,” working other lawyers’ clients until I burned out. I could not envision spending the rest of my life the way I had been spending my 30s — working excessive hours, travelling far too much, spending “vacations” at work conferences, all to make my firm’s equity partners richer. So although it meant a lot of lost income, once my wife suggested it the decision to leave my job was easy.

My last day as a lawyer was two weeks before my wedding. The next morning, I departed for my bachelor party. My life changed that day. For the better. I sold my house. Instead of buying the four-bedroom we’d been looking at, we moved into an un-updated, Watergate-era 1,500 square foot town home close to my wife’s work. I married the woman I am totally in love with, and left a job that I had done only for the money and that had sucked out my soul and about fifteen years of my life — and that’s just chronologically speaking, it’s likely a lot more health-wise. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I love my wife all the more for supporting me in doing it.

For the next year we got to spend real time together as newlyweds. Then our daughter came and as my wife works hard to establish her own veterinary clinic, I get to stay at home with our little munchkin. This enables us to save the expense (for us) and experience (for our baby) of daycare. It is more and more a luxury in the United States today to be able to have a child at home with a parent all the time (which is a crime in and of itself but not the subject of this piece), and it is a luxury we are very grateful to be able to have.

Another small luxury I have had (first as a stay-at-home husband/remodeling contractor and now as a SAHD with a daughter who naps a lot) is time to write, something I hadn’t had for ten years. And, for better or for worse, I can’t find it in me to give that up just because I have a little kid in the house. Yes, I could spend every minute that I spend writing more actively interacting with my daughter. But I don’t. Judge me as you will. But first hear me out.

I didn’t start writing right away.

After I left my job, I for months continued to wake up with the feeling that I’d failed to send a letter that day, or that I’d missed a deadline. I felt guilty. I felt like someone was going to come and knock on my door about a malpractice claim. I worried about cases I’d handed off. I ruminated about the time I’d wasted. I seethed about moments at a trial two months before I left the firm where I was royally “home towned” and screwed by an imperious judge. I debated myself. I second-guessed my numerical hyphenation when I wrote out checks. I argued in my head with anyone I came in contact with. I red-lined Instagram posts. I fidgeted. The stress was an emotional phantom limb. I had left my job in March 2016, but it was July before I noticed I was no longer constantly having full, detailed, imaginary arguments with my boss or some past opposing counsel; four months before I noticed I was looking up into the sky and just taking in the day, my mind free to wander.

Any lawyers out there will know what I mean. All jobs involve a sale of your time for money. Most jobs involve the renting of some mental space. But as a lawyer, you rent out your entire mind by the hour. And when the billing clock stops, the mind doesn’t. There is little time and mental space left for relationships, for religion, for family, or for fun. There’s none left for hobbies, let alone for just letting your mind go as it pleases, let alone for writing humor.

Letting your mind meander within itself is the key to being able to write. If you don’t have time to do that, you’re going to have a hard time being a productive writer.

And letting your mind meander within itself is the key to being able to write. If you don’t have time to do that, you’re going to have a hard time being a productive writer. And for a SAHD, that means there are going to be times where your little daughter is playing on her own with a doll and a jar of brewer’s yeast for a couple of hours, while you write and listen for her out of the corner of your ear. (I think she’ll be the better for it because it’s teaching her how to use her mind to entertain herself, and not rely on others to entertain her. I think that’s a key skill for everyone to have, especially anyone who might want a creative career. At least that’s what I tell myself.)

In those months that I began to mentally recover from my legal career, I was doing a lot of home improvement projects, including a lot of painting. About nine months after I’d left my job, in December 2016, I started to cobble together an essay about house-painting. It was the first thing I’d written since 2007 or 2008 and the writing gears in my mind were rusty. It took me a good six weeks to finish a draft. We continued remodeling our house. We went on a long vacation while my wife was on maternity leave during her last trimester, as the contractor removed a stupid fireplace from, and added a second closet to, our master bedroom.

When we got settled back in, in July of last year, I dug up my house-painting essay. Rereading anything after six months is a great way to tell if it’s any good. [I later found out Stephen King had this same advice in his book, On Writing. — ed.] And it was good, I thought. Moreover, after three years of law school and twelve plus years as an underling attorney, I had become a pretty tough critic of my own writing, so I was confident in my assessment of its worth. But whether anyone else would ever see it, I had no idea.

Also around that time, I discovered Medium. I poked around in the Humor section and realized that this might be where I could find an audience. So in August 2017, I published my house-painting essay as my first piece on Medium. I put a link to it on Facebook and thought maybe a dozen friends and relatives would read it.

Lo and behold, someone at Medium saw it because it got placed on the front pages of the Humor or Culture sections, though not the front front page. After a couple of weeks it had garnered a little over a thousand views and a couple hundred reads and a couple dozen fans. A curator at Medium emailed me about featuring it at that time, but as part of my new life I was rarely checking my email and never saw his.

I’ve noticed a lot of Medium writers have had the most success with their first piece. It’s because you’ve spent your whole life up to then writing it.

I wrote a handful of other things. Each time, it got a little easier to cobble together the sentences and paragraphs. I got a little sharper with my structure and jokes, a little more intent on creating the premises.

I tried to write mostly during my daughter’s naps, but some of the time she played in her playpen while I was on the laptop. On breaks, we’d go to the park or the grocery store or Half Price Books.

In March of this year, that same Medium curator from the August before emailed be again about my house-painting piece, asking again to feature it if I could put it in the newly open Partner Program. This time I saw the email and, of course, accepted. The piece ran on the front front page for a weekend, I did an audio version, and I finally got some followers who weren’t Russian bots.

As of now, it has nearly 7,000 views, 1,100 reads, and 125 fans. That’s hardly It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers-, let alone Gangnam Style-territory, but its probably more people than read a lot of “important” liberal arts college literary quarterlies.

I kept writing.

The Dilemma: Our Children, Ourselves

As my daughter got older, she got more active and independent in her play, but kept taking naps. So I had more time to write. Of course, there have been challenges along the way, like there are for everyone. I’ve had aging in-laws who need help, more and more remodeling projects, crises at my wife’s new vet clinic, and me occasionally letting the chores slip for too long. But I’ve been able to regain a feeling I hadn’t had in a long time and that a lot of people rarely or never have: The feeling that I am doing what I am best at it in this life, what I enjoy doing the most, and what I am meant to do.

Should I forgo that to spend more time playing directly with my daughter? What if we have another child? And another? What then? Give up writing until I’m sixty-five? I was thirty-nine when my (or, I should say, “our”) first daughter was born. I’m forty-one now. I lost a decade and a half not writing when I could have been (though it would have been hard). I have a middle-aged person’s awareness of how fast years go by. I have a keen sense of how little time I have left to do this.

So I can’t not write. I cannot wait until... Because my daughter will be happier if I’m happy, especially as she gets older. And I will be happier if I’m writing. More so than if I devote myself to spending all my spare time being her all-the-time edutainment droid. And I want her to do what she’s best at one day, even when/if she has children of her own. And my grandchildren too some day (if The Heat hasn’t by then destroyed the Earth). For if all each of us do is sublimate our needs to our children’s (real or exaggerated or imagined) needs then that’s all any of us will do until the end of time. As long as the basic needs of care, affection, and instruction are provided for, who has decreed that it’s best for us and our kids for every parent to forgo their desires forever, to spend all their time driving their kids to Kinder Music, listening to their songs, watching their movies, and helping them draw their own doodles? When do some of us — any of us — including our kids themselves once they’re adults — get to fulfill ourselves? According to a lot of parenting culture, in the United States anyway, never.

But for a me and more parents today, we’re looking back to the benefits of a bit more distant of a parenting style, one from our grandparents’ era. One where us parents — us “grown-ups” — can enjoy our hobbies and avocations while our kids develop their own interests largely on their own. I think many Boomer/Gen-X helicopter parents were reacting to too much distance and aloofness from their parents. But there’s got to be a middle ground. I’m trying to find it.

The Rat Race from Outside the Maze:

Telecommuting as a Stay-at-Home Dad

All of which brings me to telecommuting. I suppose that’s what I do now. Though I’ve probably earned the equivalent of about a dollar on Medium for every hour spent writing, insofar as I have one writing is my job. And I do it remotely, writing in a home office or on the glider chair on my laptop, transmitting work product into the ether (getting occasional deposits into my bank account into the bargain), exchanging emails and “private notes” with editors and fellow author/coworkers about projects. That’s what telecommuting is, right?

Admittedly, it is not telecommuting as most people would understand it. That is, it is not working a full- or part-time amount for an amount of money that most would consider something close to a full- or part-time salary or wage. Even in the dismal state of modern American income inequality, the amount I’m “working” for on Medium would still be illegal in all fifty states were I an employee and not a freelance contractor of sorts.

Still, in a sense, I am telecommuting. But in a more accurate sense, I am standing astride the American workforce, in a state of “voluntary disengagement” from it. And often it is only from such a distance that one can accurately observe something for what it is; as a stay-at-home dad and writer, I have a perspective on the American workforce and economy that those laboring ferociously within it do not. Therefore, I can see it for what it is: Insane.

As a stay-at-home dad and writer, I have a perspective on the American workforce and economy that those laboring ferociously within it do not. Therefore, I can see it for what it is: Insane.

The modern American economy is just that. Insane. We keep doing the same thing, working way too hard for far to small a slice of the income of the corporations most of us work for, yet expecting different results.

The unskilled and semiskilled are working longer and longer hours in less and less dignified jobs for less and less money and fewer and fewer benefits. Cheap things get cheaper: Clothes, consumer electronics, garbage food. The dear things get dearer: Housing, education, health care. With those things increasingly beyond reach, paychecks are stretched to meet the necessities. Larger expenses are paid by debt, to be paid off ever later if ever. Financial ruination from layoff or outsourcing or sickness or accident is a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of half or two thirds or even four fifths of the population, with no way to guard or affordably insure against or plan for its fall. More of us than ever are oxen under a yoke of student loan debt, which chokes out any hope of a future life free in a field more fertile than the one plowed in circles today.

The highly skilled and professional workers fare much better, but they too are mostly working longer and longer hours for the same money. For some in certain (less metaphorical) fields, they are earning much much more. But for all of them, ever more of their income is devoted to guarding against financial ruin. Larger portions of paychecks and bonuses are shoveled into fee-heavy 401(k)s to account for the “fact”-because-it-is-assumed-to-be that Social Security will disappear. Ever more money that could be put to more productive uses is poured into Health Savings Accounts to account for the “fact”-because-we-allow-it-to-be that $750/month health insurance still has a $6,000 deductible. It is poured into overpriced real estate to account for the “fact”-because-we-made-it-one that in most cities there are only a handful of public schools that anyone who has a choice will send their children to, whether due to racism, bigotry, or the reality of public under-funding. Yet of course, because people in this cohort have disposable income, at least some of it remains to be poured in to Range Rovers, vacations, watches, wine, clothes, and dining.

And the real rich watch over it all, not understanding or caring. Shutting the blinds in their gated manses while we trim their hedges or sit in interminable commutes on the way to work to make them richer.

But as anyone who has ever ventured outside of America knows, it doesn’t have to be this way. We could have a functioning public-private pension system — social security is only going “broke” because we haven’t yet collectively demanded that it be fully funded, and most of us put a pittance if anything into a 401(k) without knowing that Social Security tax contributions stop at a little over $100,000 a year in annual income (doesn’t that seem odd?). Affordable health insurance could be provided by any one of a dozen or more different methods in use around the world if we demanded it and weren’t scared off by lies about death panels, mandatory abortions, and soylent green in school lunches (instead of the crap that’s in them now). Segregated and poorly funded public schools and housing, while a historic, systemic problem in this country, can be fixed were there is the will among enough of us. In some cities and states progress is being made. But for most of us, the rat-race maze gets ever longer and more dangerous. But we keep working more and harder. (Still, if you’re working more to get a Range Rover, that’s on you.)

Yet it is this way.

It take dropping out of the rat race to see it for what it is.

I call a friend at 6:30 P.M. to meet for a beer at the grocery store two blocks from his house. He’s still working. Has been since 7:00 A.M. This is someone on salary for a company that could easily afford to hire two more people in his position and still keep them all busy 40 hours a week. And yet they work him 60. And he does it. Hell, I did it. I ask another friend in a nearby city whom I haven’t seen in six years to take a Friday off and visit for the weekend. He can’t take the time off work. He only has ten vacation days a year and they’re booked between seeing his family, doctor’s appointments, and staying home for the plumber. And he’s in a fairly senior sales position.

Meanwhile, in Spain every worker gets 30 days’ vacation a year. In Germany 36. And contrary to popular belief, those countries are not “socialist” hell holes. Do they have problems? Yes. But unlike in this country, those problems are usually eventually fixed via a functioning, responsive democracy.

And that’s what you notice the most as a SAHD — everyone is working all the time. No one takes a day off just to enjoy some nice weather or just for the heck of it. And no one can explain exactly why. To say you’re “too busy at work” only begs the question.

People take time off for vacations here and there, sure. Or to visit family. Or when family comes to visit. But it wasn’t until I was staying home every day that I realized no one else ever takes time off just for its own sake. They just can’t. And they can’t tell you why.

In the end, we get the country we deserve. We are manipulated. We are the victim of scare tactics, race-baiting, demagoguery, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and fear. But at the end of the always-longer workday, if we all decided — hell, if only twenty percent of us from each party decided — that we wanted all of us to have a guaranteed three or four weeks of vacation a year and we were going to vote out any state legislator, congressional representative, and senator not in favor of that — the way so many of us do on issues of abortion and gun control — we would have it.

And that’s just the way they want it. By “they,” I don’t just mean the fund managers, CEOs, and hedge-funders, I mean a system. The system is only an abstraction, but it has a life of its own. Like a prion, it is not alive, but it uses life — us — to propagate itself for no other reason than its own benefit, a benefit that causes us harm. And we created it. It is a system that is programmed into far too many of our understandings of the way the world works and has to work. It manifests itself in a cynicism and self-loathing that has now been programmed into us for almost fifty years now. It is a system that many of us thought was a good idea at first, and which has spawned some benefits, but which has now gotten out of control. It is now a zombie-ant prion that has taken control of too many of us and is driving us to ends that even many those benefiting from the system no longer understand or particularly want. It doesn’t even resemble what it was originally meant to be. It is the sense that we are sublimated to the “economy,” that we work for it, and not the other way around.

The irony is that this slavish devotion is to an abstraction, i.e., the “free market,” that has become a collective. It is an “other” to all of us. It is the opposite of individual freedom. At least communism was a devotion to a collective that could be identified, seen, and recognized. The collective we now serve has become a meta-abstraction that results only in more zeroes on balance sheets that are hoarded, too many to ever be released or spent, to no one’s benefit. Some can leech of the system to fabulous wealth. But even they are only accidental beneficiaries who want to propagate it not because it is good but because it just so happens to serve them.

The rest of us it leeches, using our toil as fuel for its own reward, a reward of benefit to no one, a reward that is an abstraction of an abstraction, a copy of a self portrait of itself in a mirror. And our children are expected to do the same. With no end in sight.

Working like we do in this country makes us all like the parent who ignores their own fulfillment to cater to their children’s whims so that their children may do the same to their children. We all work to serve the system for the sole goal of one day not having to serve the system, a day that is increasingly likely to never come.

So what?

If you can’t afford to work less, then demand in some way that the system change. At a minimum, vote that way. Every time.

If you can afford to, and if your work is not your calling and fulfillment, stop working more for more stuff. Move to a smaller home. Get a cheaper car. Decline a promotion. More to a lower-paying job. Have one spouse stay home. Use that extra time to fulfill yourself outside the system. Paint. Write. Sail. Hike. Get involved in politics, in civic groups. Get a hobby. Spend time with your loved ones. Take a day off to enjoy the weather, to meet a neighbor, so let your mind meander within itself. If you are a boss or owner, give your employees more leeway or a bit more pay. I know there aren’t many that can afford to do that. But I bet twenty to thirty percent of Americans can. But that can be enough to change it for everyone. And even if you can’t afford to disengage from the system a little bit, still demand the system change. And if you can, change it.

Does that sound insane? Why?

Leave the country, not for a two week holiday at a resort or a hotel, but for a month to actually live somewhere else in a country anywhere close to the type of wealth we have in this country and you will see that it is not insane. We are.

It took me stepping outside the system to see it for what it is. You can too.

Now, I am going to go play with my daughter for a while.

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J.P. Melkus

It's been a real leisure. [That picture is not me.--ed.]