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“Shut the hell up!”
We are driving home from a weekend at the beach. I'm kneeing the
steering wheel while flipping for a new CD. My wife, a family
doctor, knits in the passenger seat. She concentrates on her
handiwork, a baby blanket (for a gift), while habitually glancing
at her pager. The kids are in back. Behind them, in the rear of the
minivan, the dog curls up in the evening sun and chases squirrels
in a Dramamine dream.
Shut the hell up?
Each child presides in a captain's chair. Deer Park water
bottles slosh in the flip-out drink holders. Snack boxes erupt out
of a shopping bag. The kids wear earphones or, as they call them,
“earmuffs.” The portable Toshiba DVD player swaying in the hammock
slung between the front seats plays Shrek 2 or
Madagascar or Dinotopia. The movie ends. The
earmuffs come off and get hung on the straps of the DVD hammock.
And then my daughter, 11, makes one of her under-the-breath,
trademarked comments to my son, 10, who snaps, “Shut the hell
My wife knits. Incredible. She doesn't even look up. Miraculous.
She's waiting to see what I'll do. Because this, of course, is not
my son's fault. It's mine.
My wife and I are working parents. She's a family doctor and I,
as a friend once joked, am the doctor's wife. Nowadays, that's
“WIHF.” Before I'd read Ellen Lupton's
Voice essay, I had no idea terms like “Working In Home
Father” existed. Or is it “Working At Home Father”—WAHF? No. Sounds
too much like other WAFs: Women in the Air Force, the World
Armwrestling Federation, the Workers Autonomous Federation, a
Chinese union. Yes, I'm an exploited WWII pilot, arm-wrestling
Chinese women. “Hold your grievances, boys. We've got a textile
worker at two o'clock. Dive, dive!”
My mind flits like this, from light to light, as I stand and
slice apples or sit and set type. I star in Daddy Day Care
meets The Shining. This is the crazy that working
parenting is. Take a WIHF.
On days when I roam the kitchen repeating an innocuous phrase
over and over again in different voices—from Jim Carrey (“All
righty, then”) to Mrs. Doubtfire (“All right, dear”), which leads
to Shrek (“No, you great stupid pastry”) and then somehow to Mr.
Miyagi (“Squish—like grape”), all in the time it takes to nuke
Morningstar's enriched organic veggie nuggets—I detect the faint
strains of familiar music, there, cutting through the nutty clutter
of my mind, the sweet voice of my daughter, kindly wondering,
“Maybe you need some alone time, Dad?”
No. I don't. I get a lot of alone time. Alone time is what I
get. Ten years of it.
Let me rephrase. I have had alone time only since the kids
started school. Prior to that, I had kid time. Actually, looking
back, it's all so complicated. The balance of our lives changed
from year to year, if not day to day. There's no such pre-formatted
family life that dual-working parents set up once and then forget
about. I wish I could go to Costco or Wal-Mart and buy a family
setup like that, something like one of those party canopies you
unzip and toss in the air and, by the time it hits, the thing has
unfolded its legs and landed squarely on the bright green lawn of
your expectations, shading you and yours from the harsh glare of
freakin' reality. But it doesn't work like that. We all struggle to
achieve our own uniquely makeshift, unbalanced compromise of work
and family. I am tempted to generalize from my own experience
because that is what people, especially parents, do—abstracting
their frustration in order to find solace in the shared plight of
working parents the world over. I do it this way. You do it that
way. Either way, the Man has us jumping, don't he?
So here's a generalization. Today's dual-working-parent
household survives like a desperate jazz band on a leaky ship,
improvising riffs and solos as if the music powered the motor of
salaries and bonuses, caulked the holes of credit-card debt,
steered the course of college funds and 401(k)s. Whatever it takes:
nannies, day care, part-time, flex-work, Daddy here, Mommy go,
Mommy stay, Daddy back soon. In my case, our arrangement is not
described by pert acronyms or phrases that include the word
“sharing.” We live, instead, in apprehension of the instability of
what is currently if only barely the case, and we are sustained by
the hope that things will, someday, get better.
The family as social bedrock has cracked under the stress of the
job system, which has narrowed the needle of its efficiencies to
fit into the groove of the individual, not the family, and so we,
as individuals, are being played to generate music we do not have
the ears to hear or the legs to dance to.
While I espouse the honor of pursuing one's calling, I am, by
necessity, an e-serf on a cellu-leash. I am a mercenarial
money-grubber, an insistent perk-sniffer, apropos of the wildly
unhinged employment relationships inherited (and accelerated) by my
tech-addled generation (Ye Olde Generation X.O.). My wife brings
home the bacon, a third of which goes to Sallie Mae and the
Department of Education, for we are indentured graduates (still);
and half of which goes to the Bank of America, for we have a home
mortgage (thanks to a boost from my boomers-in-law).
My wife—the beautiful, wonderful, generous family doctor for
whom I do sit-ups and push-ups and drink lite beer—works late. I
design magazines and books, but honestly that's the least of it.
Mostly I wake the kids and feed them and drive them to
kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade . . . fourth
grade . . . fifth grade . . . . . . . . . . sixth grade . . . . . .
. . . . And after school, what's with the homework? We do rote
penance at the kitchen table until dinner and even after that, and
then again in the morning. It's Groundhog Day. “Where's
Mommy?” She's getting ready. She'll be home soon. She had to leave
early. She'll be home late.
When we were twentysomethings living in an apartment, I stood in
the tiny kitchen—Mac laptop on the countertop, mac-and-cheese on
the stovetop—while interviewing lawyers for a legal magazine and
aiming the remote control at the VCR playing The Lion King
so my two toddlers would continue to romp quietly on the bare
mattress I'd thrown on the living-room floor in one of my “what the
hell's the difference” moods that struck me, stranded on the island
of my dad-working-at-home apartment while my wife finished her
senior year of medical school.
Now, 10 years later, I stand in our open floor-plan kitchen—Dell
desktop with wireless internet, 100 gigs of memory whirring in the
home-office library, the latest recipe from Cook's
Illustrated necessitating the warming up of the outdoor grill,
the plugging in of the KitchenAid mixer, the molding of mini-crab
cakes—and while the kids beg for help with story problems, weather
patterns and the definitions of “deign,” “plinth” and “portico,” I
listen to my mother on my wireless headset, click to call waiting
to hear my wife say she's still got an hour of dictating charts,
switch back to my mom who's happy with the business cards I made
her, and try to jot notes in a tiny Moleskine notebook for ideas
about how I can make more money doing design and writing as a
freelancer because I just lost my job.
It would be nice if work/family arrangements were as stable as
gyroscopes, locking you in a saving embrace with the gravity of
predictable days and the steady spin of candlelit nights. But
nothing stays the same. Not even Daddy, Inc.
The day after my son growled, “Shut the hell up,” revealing not
only the limits of his self-control, but also the limits of my
parental influence, I lost my job. It is the job I had since the
very day my son was born in 1996. I left my wife in the hospital to
interview health and safety reps at a Michigan auto plant. I
started as a writer for an in-house magazine, but soon I was
traveling the Midwest, interviewing employees, photographing them
on the line, art directing the magazine and acting as client
liaison. I look back on those years with nostalgia now that I've
lost my job. We had a nanny for the three years in which I traveled
the most, designed the most and learned the most—and earned the
most, enough to split my check with a nanny (aye, those were rum
years for auto pirates, the SUV-driving '90s, the American
industry's good years). When times got tough in 2000, and tougher
in the years since, the magazine dwindled until now it is on
indefinite hiatus. I don't pretend to know much about the situation
the auto industries now face. I just appreciate that for a decade
my situation was damn good. It wasn't only the money, but I was
rich with time. I was a full-time stay-at-home childrearing dad,
and a part-time home-office-working-and-traveling designer. I was
the doctor's WIHF.
Now I'm unemployed, in debt, and facing about three hours of
grade school homework every night for the next eight years. My
working life has cracked again, its tectonic plates floating away
from the pristine ur-continent that was my part-time
Pangea (my daughter has a geography class, so sue me).
Family, though, waits for no man. Instead, man waits on the
family. My kids are growing up, their needs knocking me around on
the bumper car of my daily domestic existence. My wife sees
patients at the office and the kids on nights and weekends. I email
clients from my home office and care for the kids (providing meals,
answers, dirty jokes and mild insanity) for the 17 hours a day the
kids are not in school. In the dining room, my daughter sings, my
son bangs the piano, I play the drums, and my wife shakes a
tambourine while the dog chases its tail. The big bad economy will
always have its way with us, but that doesn't mean we have to go
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