Up front: July 2011

On a dad line

When my wife and I decided to have kids, we also decided we didnít want them in day care their first few years. After our son, Kian, was born, my mother-in-law became his nanny for a year, but she moved back to California in May. My wife works in financial services, and those folks make more money than journalists do. A lot more. So I left my job as a senior editor of this magazine, a position I had held for 12 years, and became a stay-at-home dad.

I realize this is a terrible career move when jobs are so scarce. And stay-at-home dads get no respect. People who have never raised a child think itís easy. A neighbor recently asked how Iím liking retirement. Trust me, Iím not planning to work this hard when I retire.

Journalism takes brains and a thick skin, but itís not physically demanding. Itís much more tiring to chase a toddler bent on self-destruction while juggling cooking, laundry and other tasks. When I worked at BNC, it often took me an hour to fall asleep at night because I still had enough energy to fret about the next day. Now Iím usually out cold in 10 minutes. I donít worry about tomorrow. Iím too tired from today.

Fatherhood is changing me in other ways. In journalism, if you tell relevant truths, no matter how mad it might make people, youíll usually do OK. I liked that. Parenting, Iím finding out, is more like public relations: A good PR person never lies, but his job is to accentuate the positive and avoid the negative. As a parent, you donít show, for example, the concern you might have that your kid is a little late hitting the milestones for fine motor skills. Instead, you revel in the fact that heís ďoff the chartsĒ (to quote our pediatrician) in gross motor movement and quietly work with him on what heís not yet good at.

The main skills I honed in journalism seem useless in my new job. A warts-and-all written summary of his day would have no effect on Kian. He doesnít read, preferring instead to eat books, using his fine set of new choppers. Besides, I donít want to find out what kind of adult is produced by a steady stream of brutally honest criticism during childhood. So I just try to stay patient, keep talking to him and show him how to do things until he starts doing them himself. And when he does, I cheer as if he had just won the lottery and set up a fat trust fund for his doting parents. I think thatís how itís supposed to be done.

Because our chats are one-sided, I go off on tangents a lot and even catch myself babbling as I try to expose him to language and stimulate his brain. Often, he ignores me. In fact, I sometimes think Iím wasting my time. Workers at a decent day care center probably know more than I do about raising kids. Maybe heíd have reached those fine-motor milestones by now. I was pretty good at writing and editing. Why did I interrupt my career at the vulnerable age of 48? By the time Iím ready to re-enter the labor force, who will hire me ó especially if the economy falls back into a recession? Whoíd risk adding a 50-something to their health plan? I donít like being financially dependent on someone else. What the hell was I thinking?

Then my boy makes a breakthrough. A few days ago, he learned to clap. Maybe Iím not so bad at this, I think. Maybe this investment of time will pay off in a happier, smarter, nicer, funnier, more successful kid. Then he gets up from his toys, toddles over to where Iím lying and, with a smile, dives headfirst across my chest, giving me a full-body baby hug. I grab his legs, hoist him in the air upside down, and he laughs. In those moments, I donít care if my investment pays off. Iím a lucky guy, and I wouldnít miss this for the world.

Frank Maley