The Set-up:

“That sounds like a great idea!” I heard my wife rejoice into the phone.  She looked my way after saying it.  I knew then and there, she had committed me to something I didn’t want to do.

“…but Jake is a nice guy!” she pleaded.  “He’s intense, but nice deep down.”

I had met Jake at a bar once or twice, so I gave a polite answer:  “No friggin’ way!”

“Please.  Judy says he is lonely in the house all day, alone with the baby.”

My wife was setting me up on a man-date play-date.

“I’m fine at home.  Really, I don’t need to be set up with dudes.”

Perhaps my face betrayed me, because she knew I would actually enjoy getting outside.  The truth was, and still is, that I miss adult interactions.  I welcome the opportunity to share the joys of fatherhood and freedom — especially with someone in the same situation.

Jake has a few college degrees, like me.  He worked until his wife’s job elevated and his declined, like me.  A happy baby came, and the cost of daycare to daddy-care didn’t match up.  So, again, like me, he chose to stay home and raise his child.  Our pairing looked great on paper.  But I knew Jake.

The Date:

Jake arrived at the park 15 minutes late.  He unloaded a flimsy Snap-and-Go stroller and popped his kid on top.

“Snap-and-Go?” I thought.  “We are going on a hike.”

As I judged him, he was judging me.

“Dude, where the hell are we?  The Appalachian Trail?”

We were at a state park, with groomed trails and gravel.

“I’m starving,” he said.  “Where’s the food at?”

Silently cursing my wife, I ignored Jake’s buffoonery and pushed my son’s stroller onto the nearest trail.  Pine trees surrounded us.  Birds were calling to one another.  The wind blew cool, without bite.  Crisp autumn air filled our lungs.

“This sucks,” he said, interrupting a fine rendition of “Sunshine on my Shoulder” playing in my head.  “Let’s go grab a pizza.”

“Why are you always moaning?” I asked him.

“Because staying at home kills me,” he said.  “I haven’t had a piece of pizza since she was born.   All I do is roam the internet, play video games, and eat leftovers.  This sucks.  Not her,” he said, pointing to his daughter, “but everything else.”

Just then, a three-hundred pound black bear grabbed Jake and dragged him away.

No, that didn’t happen — even though I wished it at the time.   Instead, I started feeling bad for the guy.  Here he was, outside during a weekday work-hour, bullshitting with a “friend” and strolling around his beloved, healthy child.  Paradise defined.

One man’s paradise is, apparently, another man’s hell.

“Judy leaves by 8 a.m.  Baby wakes up at 9:30 and doesn’t take a nap until 11!  Then she gets up, I put her in a Bumbo or swing and we watch ESPN until 1 or 2.  Judy comes home at 3, and I take the car out for a drive.”

I didn’t pity him.  But, at that moment, Jake pitied himself.

“Awful, dude,” he continued to whine.  “It’s like Groundhog Day, over and over again.”

Jake went on to complain that he ran out of movies to rent, he had no money, the new watch he bought off eBay was not shipped yet, his wife stopped cleaning the house in protest of his filth, leftovers were bland from his wife’s poor cooking, his mother-in-law only took the baby twice a week, and he wasn’t sure if the kid at the store put his name on a waiting list for the newest warfare video game.

I tried to talk with Jake about his woes, but he complained over any attempt at conversation.  The man was in a rut and did not want help out.  The day took no notice.

Sunshine on the water looks so lovely Sunshine almost always makes me cry

“Dude, are you even listening?”

If I had a day…

“I’m tired, let’s go.”  He turned his stroller on its tiny wheels and headed back in the direction of our cars.  We hadn’t even looped the first trail and it was time to leave.

Shake.  “Goodbye.  Yeah, we will do it again soon.”  Sure.  “Later.”

That was it.  My first failed man-date play-date.

The Message:

I went home, played with my son, straightened up the house when he slept, and set-to-task on productive activities.  When my wife came through the door, exhausted and triumphant after a long day at work, I hugged her.  I looked at the clock and knew Jake was somewhere alone in his car, driving on a road, the opposite direction of home.

My wife took my son, said hello, and handed him back.  We both knew she would love and smooch his cheeks later, but she had just come in from chaos, and this was her moment to unwind, throw on pajamas, and get comfy.  Once settled, she would relieve me of first in command.

I did not waste breath guilting her into thinking that my day was more stressful.  It wasn’t, and I don’t need to pretend like it was to make myself feel better.  Why?  I have overcome sloth, self-pity and self-deprecation.  Life handed me the chance to raise my son without the stresses of work, and this is my new job:  giving as much love and support to my family as I can.

My wife leaves in the morning, and the last thing she sees is me snuggling with our son in bed, cartoons on the television and coffee on the nightstand.  I hear the scraping of frost from her windshield and immediately remember the drag of going to work.  Our two mutts hop on the bed, and a family cozies up for the day without their mother. It is sad and wonderful at the same time.

So, what do I do different than Jake?  The answer is simple:  Everything.

Aside from differences in personality, mood, and general brain chemistry, there are simple steps all married stay-at-home dads can do to help maintain a happy house:

Marriage:

Your wife works.  You do not.  As much as we like to tote that it is “work,” it is not really.  Raising a child is what comes with the actions we have taken in life, and the responsibilities that follow.  Work is painting a bridge or filling potholes at night.

I would love to work and have my wife home with the baby. This instinctual desire to support my family, however, does not mean that I can’t take advantage of my current situation.  My wife does not get to enjoy our son during the day.  I do.

She deserves a hug, a compliment, and an ear.  Listen to her vent about the long day.  She was thinking about her family the whole time.  Let her unwind and take off her shoes before you shove a child into her hands.

Don’t be a slob, get comfortable pushing a broom, and avoid dependence in the kitchen.  You will not lose your balls by helping out.

Appreciate.

Children:

You are a man, not a sloth.  Get off the couch and interact with your child.  The reason you are home is to raise your kid, not to pacify them so they don’t interrupt your game or program.  On the subject of games, you are a grown-up:  keep games to a limited time frame.  Getting to level 7 does not trump your fatherly duties.

Love and interact.

Family, Peers, and Professional Ego:

Keep busy.  Don’t scour the internet for hours to justify that you looked for a means of income.  There is no quick way to make a buck online.  Commit to a vision and swing with it.  What do you enjoy?  Now is your time to try out an idea.  Blog, write, create music, design upscale birdhouses, whatever.  If you doubt yourself at the moment, you are defeating any chance of making money from home.  Even if you can bring crumbs to the table, they will feed your family during times of need and make crust when times are good.  In the event something pops off, you can wave it in the face of your in-laws.

On family, you just have to roll with the punches.  Focus on your home.  Keep it happy, healthy, and productive.  Behaving like a bum only makes you one in the eyes of others.  Chin-up, back straight and set your mind to something positive.

Be a dad, not a Jake.