The third path

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, February 14, 2007 | , ,

Occasionally I have to tell people what I'm doing for a living these days. I try to avoid such situations by never leaving the house, but that just makes it worse. When they do ask, I have to be honest and tell them the truth with shifty eyes and then follow my answer with some exclamation about how good it feels just to be out of the house. Usually men ask the question ("so what do you do?") And when I tell them I am home taking care of my daughter, some chuckle uncomfortably and inevitably say, "playing Mr. Mom for awhile, huh?"

That kind of happened this past weekend. There is this rich little man from Cincinnati whose antique cars my dad occasionally restores, and he came by while my dad and I were working in his shop last Saturday. When he asked me what I do, my dad answered for me: "Dutch here is playing Mr. Mom for a few months."

The rich little man obviously didn't hear him right, or perhaps he is simply accustomed to not really listening to anyone. "Oh you don't want to do that," he said. "My wife had back surgery last week and I had to take care of my son all day, let me tell you, you don't want to go anywhere near that kind of work. What a nightmare." My dad later apologized for his friend, noting that this was a man who bribes his 13-year-old son not to misbehave. In cash.

Still, I had to wonder why even my own father felt the need to explain what I was doing with my life in terms of a Martin Mull film from the 1980s, and also to place a time limit on my doing so when I have never set one for myself. He is clearly a bit uncomfortable with my choice.

I actually don't mind telling people what I do, mostly because I'm pretty comfortable with the decision. And more often than not, I discover some envy in those who ask. "That sounds so great," they say. Or, "You're so lucky. I would give anything to go back and spend those years with my kids." More and more men, it seems, are open about admitting that they would like to do what I am doing, or regretting that they didn't. I have now been doing this nearly six months, which is almost as long as Wood stayed home and I worked. But Wood always had a job on her horizon. Me, I'm trying to avoid getting her pregnant again so that I won't find myself in that 9-month endgame. I like this gig. I have no intention of going back into an office any time soon. If anything, as Juniper gets old enough for preschool, I see myself opening my own small law office but spending most of my time writing.

The one thing that does trouble me even with all the positivity about staying home I get from other men is that all the positivity seems tied to the idea that this is just a temporary phase: that I'm down on my luck but making the best of it. The underlying assumption, of course, is that the natural state of anyone with a penis is to be winning bread, and though I may have been temporarily gelded, before I know it I'll grow my balls back and they'll rest comfortably against the crotch inseam of a pair of dockers once again. One thing my favorite senior partner said to me when I quit my big law firm job was that the longer I spend away from the big firm environment, the harder it will be to get back in. "Despite what people say," he said, "these firms are still old-boys' clubs, and you will not find a lot of acceptance there for what you are doing." But the longer I spend outside of that environment, the less desire I have to return. Quitting that job feels even more significant to me now than it did at the time. I was on track to be a partner there in four or five more years, locked into a cycle of heavy work and heavier pressure. When I first arrived at the firm, I watched as a senior associate on the cusp of partnership worked until midnight every night and every weekend day. Assignments he gave would occasionally draw me into this hell. One Saturday he didn't call me into the office, but the next day I came down in the afternoon. He showed me pictures of his new son, who had been born the day before. In the maternity ward one day, in the office the next. That is the life I left.

And now I feel as though I have been cut free from that life. I can't even begin to explain how good it feels. I will go back to work eventually, and what makes that exciting for me is that I think I will be able to do it on my own terms.