As much as I like the idea of becoming an unconventionally employed, stay-at-home dad, I get to wondering what impression I would be giving to my kids.
“What does your dad do?” they would be asked.
“He does a lot of gardening, and laundry,” they would say. “Sometimes he plays his guitar.”
“No, I mean, for a living,” the questioner would say.
We’re told that work is a thing you do, not a place you go – a common saying of telecommuters and the tech industry. Right?
But part of being a parent is being a model for your kids to learn from, for better or for worse. They get their impressions of being an adult based on what they see the grownups in their life doing. If I took on the role of primary householder, what model does that present, especially to my son? Would it show the benefits of an unconventional life or demonstrate that dad is a slacker?
A lot hinges on semantics: what do we mean by “do”? When people say “what do you do?” they really mean “what activity do you perform for which you make money.” For some people, the answer to that question is obvious and clear: “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a lawyer.”
For many others, however, what they “do” and what they want to be doing are very different, and answering the question can be much more complicated. “I serve coffee, but I’m really a musician,” for instance. Or the job has no recognizable label: “I key summaries of government activity into a database so that others can search and retrieve the information based on topic or stage of government action.” It does not roll of the tongue easily, or have the same cachet as “I’m a reporter.”
My kids are already at a disadvantage because they don’t really know what I do. I leave for work every weekday and come home in the evening, presumably having done something valuable in that time. It is hard for me to explain it to them because what I do is very academic and very derivative, and it takes place out of their view and field of experience (more on that another time).
Back during my involuntary hiatus in employment, I was telling a neighbor about how my job search was not going well. I had hoped to use the situation to find an ideal new job but was close to settling for any job offer that came across my desk. “As long as it’s not soul-sucking,” was his advice. And he is right, of course, but sometimes you have a trade away your soul because you’ve been left with no choice. Forget about gaining phenomenal guitar-playing prowess. These days it is enough just to keep the roof over your head.
In this age of declining prospects for employment for the next generations, I see two alternatives. One is that we continue with the current model for education and career and hope to God that it is not your kid that ends up on unemployment. That requires a lot of blind faith and wishful thinking.
The other is that we redefine the concepts of employment, career, and what people “do”. If we did that, we must infuse these concepts with personal passion and social goals. We must be more liberal about labels and pigeonholes, and what is deemed “okay” for one’s life pursuit. If a kid wants to be a “rock and roll education reform administrator” instead of “lawyer”, we should not just think it is fine; we should encourage that choice and support it unreservedly.
I think I’m too stuck in the old industrial model of dad-commutes-to-work, dad-brings-home-the-bacon for there to be any hope for me. But I hope my kids can find not a career in the conventional sense but a life’s work. And if that means staying at home, let it be so.