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  • Man and WIHF

    “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 up!”

    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.

    Ahem.

    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 quietly.

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