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by Sara Solovitch
Children’s stories frequently portray the stay-at-home father as a bumbling fool who misplaces his own kids, can’t figure out how to boil water and doesn’t know how to diaper his own baby.
There are children’s stories and then there’s life.
Over the past 15 years, the number of stay-at-home dads in the U.S. has doubled. Their actual number, according to the last census count, was 2 million – and that number doesn’t include men who work from home while doubling as primary caregiver.
Hats off to all of them.
The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family, a new book by San Francisco’s stay-at-home dad, Jeremy Adam Smith, gives an eye-opening look at the emotional pay-offs (good and challenging) that come when fathers leave the workforce to nurture and raise their children.
The book has been embraced by stay-at-home fathers for its strong detail, historical research and honest take about feelings of economic inadequacy and dealing with relatives who suddenly regard these men as “less manly.”
Here in Santa Clara, however, there’s at least one stay-at-home dad who likely won’t find the time to read it.
Meet Alex Tea, father of 3-year-old triplets Alexis, Brianna and Christopher (A, B and C in the womb) and 19-month-old Diana.
It was three years ago – one week before the triplets’ birth - that Alex walked into his boss’s office and quit his job as a salesman for a biotech company. He had enjoyed the work and was moving quickly up the company ladder.
But when he found out that he and his wife, Katherine Lo Tea, were going to have triplets, he did the math. His job was more expendable than Katherine’s. As a medical social worker at Kaiser Permanente, she earned considerably more than he did.
That fact is hardly remarkable. According to Smith’s book, 80 percent of moms work outside the home and a third of them earn more than their partners.
“There was no way we could afford to hire someone to take care of all three,” Alex says. And beyond the stark numbers, another thought was emerging, namely: “How many people know how to take care of triplets?”
He never questioned his own capacity, despite the prediction of his boss that he’d be back at work within a few months.
“I only have one chance at this,” he says. “My passion is to raise my own kids.
“You figure there are no perfect parents, you do the best you can,” he says, as the triplets – just woken from their nap – clamber around him on a padded floor of brightly colored interlocking foam cushions. The handiwork, he says proudly, is all his.
Indeed, the house has been completely reengineered for toddlers. The couple’s once upscale furniture has been sold off and replaced with plastic climbing structures, childproof gates that block off all egress, and gated areas designed to keep in baby – and keep out toddlers.
Even the kitchen chairs have been lashed together so they can’t be dragged around willy-nilly. The computer, TV and fireplace are firmly closed off behind gates – to which all shoes, including visitors’, are relegated.
“People may think I’m obsessive,” Alex allows. “But I do whatever I can to survive.”
From the moment the kids rise in the morning (no earlier than 9) until they fall asleep at night, their day follows a strict schedule.
It begins with a full breakfast of oatmeal, bacon or sausage and French toast, before Alex bundles them up and out the door. Rain or shine, they’re gone by 10:30 – either to a park, museum or local mall. The idea, he says, is simple: tire them out.
He is almost always the lone man in the park – but he insists he’s never lonely. His life, he says, is too demanding and rich to miss male companionship.
True, Baby No. 4 – Diana – practically sent him over the edge. For a year, the Teas hired a nanny just to help with the morning feedings. Now, Alex does it all by himself.
“It’s draining,” he says. “Gosh, the kids can drive you nuts. And you need a lot of strength to pick them all up over and over. All those strollers. Every day the same routine.”
A former sports hound who worked out at the gym every day and played competitive volleyball, he stopped returning calls from his old buddies and pretty soon discovered that they stopped calling him.
So when he recently played a game of grass volleyball with an old friend, he was shocked at the soreness in his body the next day. “My thighs hurt, my back ached, I couldn’t lift Diana. I thought, oh, I really have to slow down. If I get hurt ... I can’t do that to my wife.”
When the kids lie down for their afternoon nap, so does he. Then, when they wake up, it’s go-go-go for another five hours.
At bath time, the kids know the drill and line up beside the tub to remove their clothes, bouncing against each other like ping pong balls.
Every night before he turns in, Alex checks the weather forecast to anticipate the day ahead. “Short sleeves? Long sleeves? I have it all in my head the night before. Because if you change one, you have to change all three.”
Mostly, he feels proud of the job he’s doing. The kids are thriving and they love him with the kind of abandon that little kids typically show their mother – running to him with their cuts and scratches.
But as they get older, they also feel free to challenge him, running away at the mall, looking back and laughing at him, waiting to see what he’ll do.
“I could never do what he’s doing,” Katherine says. “Never.”
Sara Solovitch is an associate editor of Bay Area Parent Silicon Valley.
There are plenty of resources for dads who are thinking about staying at home fulltime – or even some of the time - with their kids.
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