Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Do Men Change Diapers? - One of the original Mr. Moms

From Po:

During my research, I interviewed one of the original Mr. Moms. (I’m going to withhold his name and other identifying details – for reasons that will be clear later). His experience was harsher than most stay-at-home Dads today. He was a trailblazer, and I think it helps us remember how much has changed for the better in the last twenty years.

Like most arrangements, it began as a convenience, nineteen years ago. His wife was pregnant, but she had a fast-track job with Apple Computer. He had just published a book, and so it seemed easier if he stayed home with the baby for awhile. Back in 1987, not many men would have even considered this option. So why’d he?

Well, because he had been married before, and it had been a by-the-book traditional marriage. He worked at a bank, wore a suit, et cetera (this was back in Minnesota). His wife raised their two children. They’d married young. At the age of 27, he had a major existential crisis. He began to wonder, “Is this all there is?” If all he had to look forward to was an occasional promotion … The script he was following had little drama or suspense. In their divorce proceedings, he did not get joint custody, only “reasonable visitation.” His ex-wife didn’t know why he wanted any custody at all – what did he know about raising kids?

So when he married again, five years later, he was open to doing it different. He didn’t want to follow society’s script. That was partly why he married a woman with a good career. And that was how he ended up taking care of their two boys – now 18 and 16.

It wasn’t supposed to be permanent. That one book he’d written was supposed to turn into a whole series of books, and he expected to be running seminars and producing events. He wrongly anticipated that he could keep his career in the air despite being the caregiver. He had a vision that it’d be “like taking care of a puppy. Feed it, play with it, let it go back to sleep.” He was proved wrong, but he stepped up to the challenge, and put his boys first. It was hard, though.

Back then, when he asked to hang around the preschool and watch his son, he was told it was against the rules for a man to be around the school.

He thought he wasn’t wired for being a full-time parent. He said men focus on the goals, while women are comfortable with the process. Once in a great while, a man can note a milestone, “great, my kid just learned potty training.” But those milestones are few and far between. So he took parenting classes. He asked his wife to take the classes too. She didn’t.

He figured by the time his sons were in middle school, he could go back to his career. But his older son suffered from ADHD and was sent to a special ed school after he became violent one day at the regular public school. Our Mister Mom worked with him endlessly that summer, taking him to a Buddhist camp, then an Outward Bound camp, then a trip to Vancouver. The next year, he was admitted back into the main public school, and has been getting nothing but A and B grades since.

Later, Mister Mom volunteered at his sons’ schools, running after school classes teaching students to do art in the style of various modernists. The moms asked him to be President of the PTA. They said nobody wanted to do it, because the meetings lasted four hours. He agreed to be President, but on the condition he could run the meeting properly – following Robert’s Rules of Order, with motions, debates, and votes. It worked, but he heard endless complaints.

He felt like the Mom’s Club always shunned him. One mom got cancer, and every mom was there for her, bringing over meals for her kids – and our Mr. Mom was there too with his meals. But when he had a heart attack a year later, nobody helped him out with his family. He couldn’t use his leg for a long time. They sent flowers, but nobody thought “his kids are missing their caretaker.”

His biggest issue with his wife is that she spoils the boys when he’s trying to establish rules. She never follows his lead.

A year into our interviews, he wrote to tell me his wife was divorcing him. This was hard to take for him, but at least he figured that he would take the traditional mother role in this – his wife would move out, while he stayed in the house with the boys. However, she pressed for the house and custody of the boys. This is being litigated, so I don’t want to reveal anything more.

I was never really sure what to learn from his experience, what to take away. His was a lonely journey.

I guess I include it because I can imagine men might be able to read this and think, “Boy, he wasn’t treated fairly.” And I just hope that the next time you hear of a stay-at-home mom who's husband divorces her after she spent 18 years raising his kids, we have just as much compassion for her. Because a guy being put in this situation is a rare thing, while women every day are put in this situation, and we barely notice – since it’s not a new story. We've heard it before, we tune out.


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