For stay-at-home dad Vincent O’Keefe, the Days of being “less Dad” are over.
As much as children embarrass their parents, parents also embarrass their kids. While my two daughters, Lauren (age fifteen) and Lindsay (age twelve), have yet to reach full mortification at some of my behaviours, I do get an earful whenever I don a large animal costume. In the first scenario, my children’s school needed an adult volunteer to wear a Clifford the Big Red Dog costume for a reading event. Because I’m a veteran stay-at-home dad who volunteers often, I obliged. I was hot, claustrophobic and disoriented within minutes, but luckily several parents helped me through the slog.
The following year, I offered to don the costume of “Honey Bear,” who looked a lot like a certain television bear who loves honey but for licensing reasons was called by a different name. When Lindsay learned that I was to be “Honey Bear,” she complained: “Aw Dad, why do you always have to be an animal? Why can’t you just be a regular dad?” Her question reminded me of a family exchange one night at dinner when nine-year-old Lauren was getting increasingly embarrassed by some of my bad jokes.
“You are so Dad” she said to me while shaking her head and half-smiling.
“Who do you want him to be?” asked my wife, Michele.
“Less Dad,” she replied.
I have been thinking about the many possible meanings of “less Dad” for years now. As a stay-at-home father, I am radically different from my own working father, who never donned any animal costumes at my elementary school. My wife and I were married for five years before deciding to start a family. At the time, she had just become an OB/GYN, and I had earned my Ph.D. in American literature and was teaching at the University of Michigan.
There were several reasons why I chose stay-at-home fatherhood even though I enjoyed my teaching job. Financially, a physician’s salary is much higher than a professor’s, which made the decision possible in the first place. Geographically, we were isolated from extended family who might have been able to help with childcare during our long work hours. Philosophically, I actually wrote my dissertation on American pragmatism, so it just seemed to “fit” my values and aspirations. And emotionally, I knew that I had always enjoyed children. (Granted, I had yet to realize the vast distinction between “Uncle” and “Dad,” but I knew I had Clifford-size amounts of patience.)
Fortunately, my decision has worked out well for me and my family. I was a full-time at-home parent while my daughters were young, but now I am also a parenting writer who has appeared at The New York Times “Motherlode,” The Washington Post “On Parenting,” and City Dads Group, among others. I am also writing a memoir about gender and parenting titled Been There, Wiped That: The Romantic, Absurd, and Sublime Evolution of a PhD Turned Stay-at-Home Father, a project that was featured at CNN Parents.
My daughter once asked me to be “less Dad,” but I do not feel any less masculine as a father due to my caregiver status. In fact, many times I have felt I couldn’t be any “more Dad,” given the life I have tried to provide for my children at home. Granted, occasionally I still get teased that as a “Mr. Mom” I am “more Mom” than Dad, but that moniker is fading fast. (As it should, since “Mr. Mom” emasculates fathers but also erases mothers—i.e. a working mom is still “Mom.”) Overall, perhaps talk of “less” or “more” Dad is moot. Today’s stay-at-home fathers are just like today’s (and yesterday’s) working fathers: Though their means differ, they are all trying to provide what’s best for their families.
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