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by Graham Charles
I was fetching my 4-year-old daughter, Claudia, from gym class when one of the moms posed a familiar question: “So, what do you do?”
“Dishes and crowd control, mostly,” I joked, and when she looked bewildered I clarified that I’m a stay-at-home dad.
She laughed and left it at that, but inwardly I wondered how anyone could mistake me for a full-time working parent. I was sporting my usual two-day growth of beard and clothing at least three steps below “business casual,” complete with a splendid smear of avocado across my shirt.
Maybe I should have a better answer. I could have said – “I explain things” – since that’s how I spend most of my hours. I find the words to unravel life’s puzzles for my children, like how wedgies occur or how a guy got a padlock through his earlobe. (We live in San Francisco, you see.)
Or I could tell people that I brush teeth and wipe butts, slice gallons of grapes for preschool snack and host impromptu pasta lunches for 12. Child husbandry: that’s what I do.
And because I’m male, onlookers find my mastery of basic childrearing slightly exotic. At swim class, a mom gaped when I put Claudia’s hair into a ponytail. Not even a good one, just tidy enough to stuff under a swim cap. “My husband could never do that to my daughter’s hair,” she said with admiration, and then added, “Not that she’d let him.”
I was tickled; the voice inside my head shouted, “Look at me! My daughter lets me put her hair up!” But my pride soured when it dawned on me how low the woman’s standards were. Man Does Daughter’s Hair! Call the newspapers!
All in a Day’s Work
To pare the catalog of “what I do” down to one crucial activity: My job is to pay attention.
This summer, for example, I noticed that Claudia started putting eyebrows on her face drawings. Not much else. A face for her became a circle with two squiggles perched on top like bugs. This phase quickly passed since Claudia adds anatomy every week (nose came next, then clavicle). By the New Year, her figure drawings might be recognizable as mostly human. But I will have witnessed every step along the way.
These observations excite the at-home parent and bore nearly everyone else. My friends (quite appropriately) glaze over when I gush about eyebrow-heavy faces, or how Claudia dips her salami in milk, or how this week her imaginary friend has two dads and two moms. For me, minding the details is the core activity of raising children.
And making these observations had better be important, because there’s another alarming answer to “what do I do.” I do cost the family money we can scarcely afford. Lately, my wife’s income has been whittled away by cutbacks and furloughs. With debts piling up, I feel the urge to work for pay – assuming I could find something that pays more than child care costs.
The pressure is entirely internal. My wife and daughters like having me at home, and we’re lucky enough that we can just manage. But I want the world to see me as contributing. I want something non-jokey to say when someone asks what I do for work. Like the scarecrow’s diploma from The Wizard of Oz, I need a document to establish myself, without irony, in my chosen profession.
So I made up some business cards. Below my name and above my phone number in the “job title” spot, I printed, simply, “Dad.”
I don’t know how to explain what I do any better.
Graham Charles blogs at Doodaddy.net.
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