The Shriver Report – Of Babies and Men: A Stay-at-Home Dad Reflects on Stewart Friedman’s Baby Bust

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Of Babies and Men: A Stay-at-Home Dad Reflects on Stewart Friedman’s Baby Bust

O'Keefe_V_Pic with Daughters

“What is the point of this again?”

That’s the question my thirteen-year-old recently asked on a gorgeous afternoon as she flew through the trees on a zip line about twenty feet above the ground. Teen daughter’s angst one, weary father’s plan zip (literally).

I had been trying to find an outdoorsy adventure to wow my two daughters. The trip thrilled my ten-year-old, but my teen’s surprising reaction led to a gentle accusation: “Dad, I think you wanted boys instead of girls.”

“That’s not true,” I assured her. Then I had to smile to myself about the long road to my daughters’ very existence. When my wife, Michele, and I met back in college, having children was not in our plans. Michele never saw herself with kids because she knew that as a physician she would never have the time to be the stay-at-home mom her mother had been. And I certainly did not see myself as a stay-at-home father at that time.

These thoughts reverberated as I read Stew Friedman’s new book, Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family. The book analyzes a survey of male and female graduates of the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania in 1992 and 2012. Among the striking conclusions is that in their sample, “the rate of college graduates who plan to have children has dropped by about half over the past 20 years.” The sample is rather privileged, but Friedman’s research is consistent with other studies documenting a “baby bust” for Millennials—both men and women.

There are several negative reasons for the bust, but two stand out: Millennials can expect to work about 14 more hours per week than Gen Xers did at their age (hello 24/7 “smart” phone access), and student debt continues to grow (hello soaring tuition and dwindling aid). On the other hand, a key positive reason for the baby bust is increasing gender role flexibility (goodbye pressure to equate parenthood with fulfillment, especially for women).

For Friedman, a related benefit of increasing gender flexibility is the emergence of the stay-at-home dad, which he likens to women’s “new knight in shining armor.” As a veteran at-home dad, I am flattered but also ambivalent. Like Friedman, I applaud the fact that Millennial men feel greater freedom to “provide” for their families via childcare and domestic work.

The word “knight,” however, implies that I somehow saved a “damsel” in distress (not to mention there’s no “knight” equivalent for at-home mothers). You might say a “knight in milk-stained pajamas” rescued a “damsel with multiple degrees,” but even that is riddled with contradictions.

“Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” language is probably more appropriate here, though I would say Michele and I have been leaning “on” each other for years to make our family and work lives, well, work.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” language is probably more appropriate here, though I would say Michele and I have been leaning “on” each other for years to make our family and work lives, well, work. In this sense we have been Millennials in Gen Xers’ clothing, but we remain extremely grateful that we’ve had the luxury of the at-home option.

Ironically, much of our mutual rescue story involves plans gone astray. After college, Michele and I raced to terminal degrees and started working – she in a medical residency, me as a full-time Lecturer at the University of Michigan. Only a few years later did we think seriously about parenthood, and for a variety of reasons (mainly financial), I decided to become a stay-at-home dad.

My plunge into at-home parenting was more cannonball than graceful dive, but that’s another story. In fact, so much “Dad out of water” absurdity ensued, I recently finished a memoir about the journey that I hope to publish soon. A chapter on my firstborn’s colic is titled “Take This Onesie and Shove It.”

Though Michele and I gradually changed our initial “baby bust” mentality, the work/family balance problems facing Millennials need to be addressed, even for those couples who finally feel liberated to opt out of parenthood by choice. The reason is that childless (or “child-free”) couples are still likely to end up caregivers someday—for their aging parents.

Friedman offers helpful strategies to increase flexibility in work hours and decrease debt. I agree that flexibility is essential for meeting the inflexible needs of both babies and elderly parents. My at-home arrangement has been invaluable as siblings and I face a divorced mother in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and a widowed father-in-law who needs frequent long-recovery heart surgeries. (For decades, my father-in-law worked on a Ford assembly line in a world of fixed gender roles, so my comical caregiving scenes with him feel like an “Odd Couple” remake from different eras of masculinity.)

Such absurd gender moments always constitute a “first” for me, which brings me back to that zip line. Shortly after my teen’s “pointed” question from the trees, we saw a plaque in a nearby boutique that read: “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” I pounced and used it to justify the zip line; she smiled begrudgingly and continued texting. Weary parent ties game.

I realize now that as an at-home dad of two daughters, I do something for the first time virtually every day. (Recently I watched a full episode of “Say Yes to the Dress,” for example.) And I like to think all those little experiments are baby steps toward increasing gender role flexibility in the world my daughters will inherit—a cultural process that sometimes seems to move at the speed of Godot.

In similar terms, Friedman outlines a system of experimentation towards the end of his book, with the goal of furthering “the idea that men and women can and must have freedom of choice in how they live, work, and contribute to making the world better for the generations to come.” In my mind’s do-over, that’s what he and I yell to my dead-eyed teen as she zips through the trees.

Vincent O’Keefe is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph. D. in American literature. His writing has appeared in The New York Times “Motherlode” blog, The Huffington Post, Brain, Child, and The Good Men Project, among other venues. He recently finished a humorous memoir about a decade of at-home parenting.
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