Editor’s note: This guest column is being run anonymously to be sensitive to the author’s internal debates with himself and verbal ones with his partner over his difficulty returning to the workforce after years as an at-home father.
I’ve been teaching my daughter recently about the concept of something being bittersweet — of the same thing being simultaneously happy and sad. That’s because, right now, I’m going through a bittersweet experience.
After years of being an at-home father to my daughter, I’ve returned to work full-time, and I am both delighted and despondent about it.
When our daughter was a baby years ago, my partner and I agreed I should stay home with her. It was something we both wanted. But it wasn’t supposed to last quite as long as it did, and my getting a job after an extended period of time out of the workforce turned out to be difficult and ultimately quite stressful.
But like most modern middle-class families, we need two incomes to live where we want to. While on just one income, we barely treaded water. And I knew this was my fault.
Working parent vs. at-home parent
This would occasionally lead to ugly arguments with my partner. We’d make up, it would stop being an issue … for a while. Then it would always come up again. And, the fact is, I didn’t know what to do about resolving the situation or getting a job because I was getting nowhere.
I wondered if I was actually employable any more, and I suspected being a stay-at-home dad held a greater stigma than it did for a stay-at-home mother. I dreaded to think what not getting another job would mean for our life as a family. This base level feeling of inadequacy never quite went away. Occasionally, it overwhelmed me. In those times, I felt the way that some of my friends did when they described suffering from depression.
But I lived a more dominant parallel life. The one where I was a stay-at-home dad. Where I was having the best time of my life. Where I spent my days with our amazing kid who I got to watch grow from a delightful baby into an awesome school girl.
I didn’t want that to end. I swear I put my best efforts into finding work, but I also knew my heart wasn’t in actually ending this part of my life. On top of that, I felt strongly that having a parent at home continued to be a really important aspect of our daughter’s development.
Coming to terms
Then, relatively out of the blue, a job opportunity arose. I nailed the interviews, beat out the competition, and got the job. It’s a really good role, and my new employer agreed to all my requests for flexibility related to child and school duties. Perfect, right?
Not quite. I missed our daughter. A lot. The times we’d spend together. The things we’d do, things we’d talk about, even just watching TV together. This special time – our special time — had ended. I was just another working parent.
I don’t think my partner appreciates how difficult and heart wrenching this has been for me. For instance, a few childcare hiccups arose. I wanted to try to juggle my hours to do a couple of school pickups that weren’t covered. It would solve the issue, and give me back some of that missing time with our child back.
My partner strongly opposed this. We had, like before, an ugly argument. The irony wasn’t lost on me: before we’d argue about me not having a job, now we’re arguing because I have a job. We took a step back and made up. She admitted jealously came a bit into play. I would yet again get to spend more time than her with our child.
Our discussion isn’t over, but is parked for now. I am coming to terms with being a working parent, and reveling in all the positive things that means for us as a family. We can do more things like taking days out and vacations, and plan for a better future. But in many ways, there’s a big adjustment I have to make. I need to stop seeing myself as the default care-giver. That time has passed, and I need to look forward to a better future with us both having jobs, and making that work for us as a family.