So…you married a doctor. All of your buddies are ‘high-fiving’ you since, now, YOU just made ‘easy street’. Mom and dad are holding that straight face around company, and whisper to one another how smart their boy is behind closed doors. Sure, maybe you won’t have to worry as much about affording braces but like everything in life, nothing good comes free. And there is a cost closing in on those couples planning to have a family.
Like most, including myself, you will likely meet your future spouse before kids. Maybe it was in undergrad, or during medical school, or even when you’re both post-grad and already in the workplace. And since our Type A significant other has little time to beat around the bush in conversation, it’s not unusual for a second date discussion to start out like “so, how many kids and when do you want them?” Yes, our little snookums has racked up a few hundred thousand in school debt, works 90+ hours a week and had to sell her soul to get 3 hours off the call schedule to meet up with your sorry ass. At least that second date throws you into the category: Possible Breeding Stock. And if you’re anything like my situation, we met after she became an Attending. The Clock is a’ ticking.
Well, now you’re married. The big bucks?–yeah, we have basically two mortgages for student loans between us before considering a third and I’m driving the same kind of crap car as the kid working at the corner Starbucks. You suddenly get a text from your lovely bride to clear your schedule for the first week in October. Why? you text back. Her reply is in her usual surgical precision, “I’m ovulating then.”
It suddenly occurs to you that it’s still August. She explains that her partner is pregnant and due in April, will be back in July, and that will be perfect timing for you two to have a child next summer. That, and she has read several studies that babies born in August have distinct advantages over their rivals, er, classmates, both in grades and athletics. Oh, while talking, she’s already sent you a calendar reminder to add to your smartphone. You want to be upset that she didn’t talk about this before making plans, but, a week of planned sex…and, you are excited about becoming a father. The phone chimes a reminder that you have a week of sex planned in October. Cool.
The idea of your new wife jumping your bones for seven days straight masks a volcano simmering under the surface of being a dad married to a doctor; who’s going to raise your bundle of joy? Like most American families with two working parents, there’s the constant juggling of who picks up little junior at daycare, or who can get home first because the nanny is taking night classes and has to leave by 5:30 pm no matter what. The daily crush of who can deliver our kid to the designated location and who can plan to be home in time to sweep them back up is a constant strain to already stressful days. Some families have a lot of flexibility either with extended family nearby, or where one partner has a job that allows getting away. My situation didn’t allow for that; at times neither of us could leave the hospital, no matter what. The strain on the marriage was noticeable.
Years pass, two beautiful boys enter our lives. It’s busy. We’ve cycled through nannies and daycare, all with varying degrees of success. My wife’s guilt over missing chunks of their lives creates a huge weight on her shoulders. There’s T-ball, soccer and karate lessons as both of them become old enough. The emails from coaches announce that practice will be twice a week starting at 4:30. What the hell? I’m still seeing patients then! There’s doctor visits, calls from the school nurse that our kid is sick or missing teeth that shouldn’t be. Seven days in a row of sex turns into once a month. There’s the inevitable moment when you both pull into the driveway thinking the other picked up the kids. Life piles on.
Those of us old enough to be from the tail end of the baby-boom generation recall the standard American family structure of the dad working and mom staying home making everything work–and looking good doing it. Despite having grown up in the midwest, I felt fairly liberated as a man. I was okay with my wife keeping her maiden name (easier for work), had zero problems she made more than me and never had the notion that a woman’s place was in the home. What I never considered in a million years was a question lingering since that text all those summers past; would I be the type of man to be a stay-at-home father? Nah. That just wasn’t me. Hey, I went to a shitload of school to practice medicine too. Many of the dads here busted their ass in one form or another to get to where they were before kids. I’ve met, through the Dads Married to Doctors consortium of fine gentlemen, guys from just about every walk of life. And, as varied as our backgrounds are, the idea of leaving our careers to stay at home to raise our families is a very real subject. It’s an option for many of us because of our wives’ chosen profession, but a choice that cuts to the root of men’s’ existence; a burning need for purpose in our lives.
Us cavemen are pretty simple. There’s food, sex, college sports and certainly one of the most important– the need to feel useful. And since we have little need for much else the idea of taking any one of those away is a pretty big chunk of who we are. Society still is NOT setup for the stay at home dad (SAHD), nor is there really much out there in terms of supporting us contemplating going in that direction. It’s also quite likely that you don’t know anyone else who has gone through the transition of badass corporate dad to one who gauges time by the amount of diapers he’s changed today. Your buddies tell you how lucky you are and that they’d do it in a heartbeat! Easier said than done.
I’m a financial-minded kind of guy, so thinking about dropping a huge amount of coin by not working was my first mental hurdle. You look at your paycheck and then consider the added costs of care for the munchkins. Subtract B from net A and you have a baseline. There’s the drop of your healthcare, you may or may not be on the wife’s plan. Your 401K effectively goes into carbon stasis. There’s some more nitpick stuff but that’s the gist of it. Your mind swirls on all those awesome things you could buy with that lost cash; but would you really do it? Fun to think about it, but you wouldn’t. I am NOT going to get the okay to buy a Ducati no matter what. Don’t lie to yourself. That money would go into various buckets with a lot less impact on your life than you’d think. Contrary to what I would have sworn to, there has likely been less than a five percent change in our family’s lifestyle despite the drop in income. I’m more convinced that all we would have said is, “man, we could totally get a nicer house!” True. But is the excess consumerism worth the price you pay to get there? Not for one damned minute.
After you mull over the financials, the next thing that comes to mind is “what do I actually do when I’m not busy with the SAH-dadness?” Can you keep working part-time? Start a little side business? Stay busy with a hobby? Some guys know exactly what they’d do. Some ‘think’ they know and others don’t have any idea. It’s a personal choice, and no one else can really advise you on it. Just be honest with yourself on how much time you think you’ll have to devote to it. Think of a number of hours per week and multiply it by 0.7. That’s a more realistic truth. If you’ve never been a SAHD before, chances are you don’t have a clue how much time gets taken off the clock doing all the dadness.
What do I tell people when they ask me what I do for a living? At the beginning of my transition, I would go into these long-winded explanations that probably had people wondering why the hell they even asked me the question. Eventually, I swung the other way and said I was a SAHD. I’d see their expressions change into what was a cross between contempt and jealousy. Of course, that would inevitably lead to the next question which was “so, what does your wife/husband do?” I’d say, “Doctor!” and often could hear the barely audible scoff. Their eyeballs were like billboards broadcasting the word “leech” across their retinas. I felt the need to explain I was educated and had never planned the transition but, really, what was the use? My own pride wanted validation. People closest to me knew the truth so, truly, who gives a rats ass what they thought? Apparently, my psyche did. There are two magical words that satisfy both parties, and I wished I’d thought of it sooner. After the first six months, it became clear to me how to respond. “I’m retired,” I’d say with all casualness. Eyebrows raise when it’s obvious I’m a tad young compared to most that can accomplish the feat. Rather than get the tongue click and smirk, I often see the wheels turning in their head wondering how smart I must be to have made enough cash to retire early. You know, the guy that fills a rack with purple chips at a craps table and walks away before giving back to the house. That’s the cat you want to be and I must be that kind of guy. They lean in closer wanting to know more as if your wisdom was a magical elixir. The best part of it is, that it’s the truth. I did retire and I’m onto my next career. Plenty of people switch professions in life, and why should my change need any further explanation?
No matter what you decide to do and when to do it, there is one thing that you must come to grips with — your perceived worth in becoming a SAHD. Out in the world, it’s really easy. You perform X service or product and you get Y in return; usually money. I can tell you that you will perform X to the 5th power as a SAHD and you will receive exactly ZERO dollars in return. Your value system will take a massive hit since there will be decades of Pavlovian training that hard work equals cash rewards. It took me at least a year to come to some level of comfort with this. Why? Because I was self-conditioned to equal income as my contribution to the nuclear family. I have to admit that after almost three years staying at home I still have a bit of struggle and twinge with this. The idea that every single thing we spend a penny on comes from my wife still grates on my nerves. I’m pretty self-sufficient and the idea that someone else, albeit my wife, provides me with everything in my life is a tough pill to swallow. I don’t think we’ve ever fought about this and don’t recall her ever bringing this up in even the most tense moments of our twelve years married, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it with some regularity. And, that’s okay. It helps me to not take advantage of the situation and keeps my eyes on the hopeful pay out of my own goals as a writer. At some point down the road, I’m confident that I’ll once again provide financially to our home. In the meantime, I constantly remind myself that what I do give to my family is something money CANNOT buy: my gift of time to my wife and sons.
You’re a SAHD. Don’t think about what you don’t provide — money. Think about what you do give them. The answer is time. What is it that even the richest man on Earth cannot do for his family? He can’t give his family, time. You have that power. The first day I became a SAHD, it was the summer before my boys were starting first and third grade. The summer before that, my oldest was stuck in a non-air conditioned WW2 barracks, bored out of his mind, and my youngest was in his fourth daycare after being ushered out of the three previous due to certain issues with ‘getting along’ with others. I saw the sheer wonderment in their eyes when I was not only home with them when they woke up but also there to feed them, play with them and tuck them in at night. My youngest turned to me just before drifting off to sleep and said it was the best day of his life. I still get misty-eyed thinking about that. What would you pay to hear that curled up next to your five-year-old? I’m absolutely convinced that summer was a turning point for my boys. They weren’t getting mixed signals from multiple adults, they weren’t feeling like mom and dad would rather do something else than be with them, and the stability of knowing that dad was always there no matter what they were doing created a rock-solid foundation for them as they explored and learned about life. I am in as much control as one can be with influencing their lives, now. There’s no question of anyone else raising my boys and the possibility of misguidance, real or imagined. I’m not perfect at it by a long shot. But there is absolutely no question that there’s not a single person on this earth who has more skin in the game to see that my sons turn out to be good men than I do. I could have gone on to make a bucket of money, sure. How much of that would I have spent getting them off drugs and trying to unwind their wounded minds with a busload of psychiatrists and behavior meds? I would do anything in the universe to help keep that from happening; so what was a job doing holding me back from thinking I was anything less because I chose to stay at home with them? It was my pride. Fuck pride. My kids are more important than that. Let’s not forget you have very limited time to be their Superman. Age 13, if you’re even that lucky.
So, what about the old lady? It’s likely that she’s thought about this longer than you have. For many, she’s the primary breadwinner. Even if she’s not, unless you met in residency she’s paid way more dues to get where she’s at than you have. I was fortunate that mine (I bet she thought about this way longer than I imagine) never pushed the idea. I don’t recall she ever even brought it up. The idea of me being a SAHD seems to have grown organically over many years. The decision to stay at home solves a shitload of potentials as it comes to your kids. There are quite a few things that help your wife too. What could possibly be a unique situation to marrying a physician, and echoed by many of my contemporaries, is that there is a high degree of alpha females in this pool of brides. They were all in the upper tier of their classes from kindergarten to college. They all entered med school as brilliant, competitive people — all of them. You don’t get there being a mental wallflower. Yes, they are a demanding bunch; both of themselves and the men they marry. And there I was, my first day of retirement, standing in line at Walmart around five o’clock, when my wife called to ask what I was making for dinner. Her vocal tone was one I was familiar with; you know, another shitty day in hospital ICU paradise. Like my youngest, she has a pretty limited palate and so I asked her what she’d like. Her astonishment in that I wasn’t preparing something fabulous, now that I wasn’t working, came through the cell phone like icy tendrils searching for the soft flesh of my neck. Great. I made arguably one of the biggest decisions of my life and the wife is already pissed at me. I was already on edge before the Kraken was unleashed. The next day, I was ripped into because the spoons in the kitchen drawer weren’t stacked neatly. I’m not kidding. It appeared that something important was missed during the struggle to make the change. Looking back, it seems obvious now.
Here is another one of the ‘musts’ that you and your better half need to discuss before making the jump. You both have to absolutely talk about expectations of one another. And when I say ‘one another’ I mean you. What does your wife truly think you should be doing now that you’re home. There’s the fairytale version of what you should be doing and then there’s just reality. The fairytale is you spending 16 hours a day caring for and entertaining junior, fixing broken shit in the house that you may have no clue about, joining PTA to ensure the kids have every advantage, maintaining your couple’s relationships with neighbors, getting ripped in the gym since you now have all that free time, cooking like a goddamn winner of Master Chef, laying out her clothes (don’t screw that up)…the list goes on. In her defense, think about what you imagine accomplishing if you didn’t have to work. That’s right, you’re list is utter bullshit too. Why? Because nearly every one of us has never been in this situation before. You don’t have a clue. So, that’s why you need this discussion BEFORE you “retire”. And this isn’t a one-time thing. If you really want this new reality to work, you need to continue discussing things as you move forward. Within my first week, I kept feeling the heat and finally blurted out, “I’m trying to figure this out!” Though I was home there wasn’t any rhythm to our house. Nothing was in sync, despite our kids’ newfound happy place. But what’s to figure out? How hard can it be to go from fixing human beings to making a decent dinner and keep the kids from killing each other? There’s a lot to it, actually, and it boils down to expectations. It may take you keeping a journal of what you did when that day to allay her fears you’re not in pajamas playing Xbox against 13-year-old Korean kids halfway around the world until 30 minutes before she gets home. The sooner your Type A gal understands you’re doing what you can to make things work well, the sooner the harmony can return. It’ll be hard for her given they sometimes scoff at research from the New England Journal of Medicine, so your whiny-ass explanation why you forgot to pick up dry cleaning might come into question. I recommend not making it her job to understand you’re not slacking and that it’s up to you to provide her that comfort in whatever way works best for her. Sometimes it’s a glass of wine and a foot rub and for others, it’s a spreadsheet. It’s in your own best interest; so do it.
You’re a smart guy. She’s smarter, and we all know it. It. Will. Work. Out. There are bumps and bruises along the path and, yet, it always works itself out. Every time. Why? Because you’re both smart, and it’s just too damned important. My wife is a Peds ICU doc. She sees kids hanging onto life by a thread, and sometimes failing the fight. It’s not that uncommon that her patient reminds her way too much of one of her own children. Me being at home gives her that level of comfort that her husband and father of her children is on constant standby if our life should take an immediate turn for the worse — just like the parents in room 5 huddled in the corner wondering if the love of their life will even see the end of the day. You don’t make the big bucks anymore and you crave an adult conversation like Charlie Sheen needs hookers and blow, but to her and the kids you’re a fucking Spartan ready to kill to keep the village safe. Don’t worry about spoons or late dinners, those are just frustration conversations stemming from someone at work your brilliant wife can’t seem to make better, despite her awesomeness. She earns a pass once-in-a-while, and you’ve likely learned your limits to that already.
- Your value measurement is no longer monetary. Get over it.
- Decide what it is you’d like to do if/when you have free time. Still gotta challenge yourself.
- Tell people you’re retired. It’s true! You’re just onto your next career move.
- You’re giving your family the most coveted item in human existence — TIME.
- Don’t forget to continue talking about expectations. Retiring is stressful enough.
- You will never EVER regret having given your kids maximized attention. You will if you don’t.
So my brothers, wear that diaper bag like a bronzed-Spartan shield and rock it like a boss at Costco as you keep life’s wolves at bay. It’s not a 2-day old t-shirt, it’s a cape you wear in your kid’s eyes. Push that dad-bod against the kitchen sink and slay the dishes like an Adonis. There’s always a chance, according to research, you may get an ass slap from your quivering physician wife as her hormones kick into overdrive. You traded in that embroidered lab coat for the sticky, awkwardly placed name tag at a noon Chucky Cheese party but, good God man, you make being a stay-at-home-dad look good! And, for Pete’s sake, put on a real pair of pants this week.
– Mike Houtz
On probation for egregious usage of sweatpants and SAHD. Oh, and novel writer.