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I like to be cool. That’s normal, right? No one likes to be on the outside of normal looking in unless you can make the outside look really cool to everyone else like The Fonze or vampires. Being a stay at home father isn’t the strange and uncommon thing it used to be. Most people have heard of men that are the primary care givers to their children and a few socially progressive people may even boast to be best friends with a man who has chosen to do such a thing. In cities like New York or Chicago or San Francisco it may even be cool to be a stay at home father because in the major cultural centers of our country it is cool to be uncool. But in Kansas, small town Kansas, it’s not so cool. Ya, I’m not that cool here.

We live in the largest mining town in southeast Kansas. Driving in from the West the first thing you will notice is the sign on the side of the highway proclaiming this proud distinction. The sign on the East side of town is mysteriously absent but since there are only two mining towns in southeast Kansas maybe we blushed at over emphasizing our uniqueness. No sign in either town will tell you that the mines have been closed for decades. This, I suppose, is an attempt to hold on to the title of “mining” town because if we gave up that title then all we would have is town and that’s not very exciting. If the main street slowly sinks into the abandoned mines like some say it is then we may have to lose the title of town and simply leave “mining” on the sign. That would be awkward.

The town takes its name, Galena, from the mineral that was once blown out of the ground by men who in the old photos look like they are happy, although everything you know about their lives tells you they shouldn’t be. They are young and old, smiling, and covered with what we now know to be the carcinogenic dust of lead and zinc, also products to come out of the local mines. The miner’s caps on their heads are lit by a small oil lamp hanging out if front of their face like the light of an angler fish. All of these men are long gone and the town is a testament to their absence. Driving through town, the gravestones in the cemeteries are all that is left of the heart and soul of this place. As if pitched around by waves in slow motion, the headstones lean every which way slowly sinking into the graves that they mark. Galena itself is a gravestone. It marks the heyday of the Old West when our town had a five star hotel, an opera house, and brothels. Jesse James robbed a bank nearby and is reputed to have hid out in the hills surrounding Galena. Now, the town is slowly sinking into the ground that created it and is a symbol of the Midwest as it was a hundred or more years ago.

Today our claim to fame is that the writer of the movie “Cars” is reputed to have traveled route 66 and found his inspiration for the movie from our local area. The character of “Mater”, the old tow truck that befriends the lead character in the movie, was discovered in Galena. The old truck has since been seen for the marketing opportunity that he was at the time the movie was popular. Unfortunately, the owner of “Mater” discovered that fact about ten years too late. He now has eyes and a mouth painted on him but he remains stuck on an abandoned section of route 66. Apparently the movie did nothing to highlight his plight.

Galena is filled with the typical run down and empty store fronts of towns whose glory day was four generations ago. Within the towns are old houses, mansions in their day, that still reveal the wealth that was created by the mines. Huge wrap around porches with sun rooms decorated with ornate wood work adorn these deteriorating houses. Around them are the miners cottages that now house some of the poorest people in America. A friend of mine who delivers mail in the area says that many of the homes do not have water or electricity for part of the year. It can be a dire place, but hey, “Mater” lives here, so not all is lost.

When my wife and I decided to move here over ten years ago we were struck by the sadness of the place as much as we were by the beauty. Galena is on the westernmost tip of the Ozark mountains. Oak and dogwood trees, deer and turkey, and rivers and lakes fill the landscape. The air is crisp and clean in the spring time with beautiful blue sky and amazing sunsets. Out here you can be alone if you want to be surrounded by the land that you own or you can live in town and enjoy the company of friendly neighbors. Soon after we moved here in 2002 we attended our church Spring Festival to find a potluck spread of homemade food like we had never seen before: fresh pies, steaming casseroles, deer and turkey freshly killed and turned into jerky, fish out of the local rivers breaded and deep fried. The older folks in the group were sitting in the shade slowly turning the handle on the homemade ice cream makers. A 1920’2 era tractor entertained children and adults alike with a hay ride. A horse shoe tournament was the main sporting event of the day. We felt like we had stumbled onto a movie set.

For all of the Midwest’s sadness and beauty, this is where we have chosen to raise our children and make a home. This is where we have made friends, built our home, and invested our lives in the people around us. And it is this context that I have chosen, as a man in the prime of my life, to stay home, become uncool, and raise my young children.

Shadow Boxing

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You know the stereotype: the bumbling father with a baby trying to change the diaper but inevitably creating more of a mess than he had in the first place, the young father with his tantrum throwing, leg stomping two year old handing the child back to his mother, the awkward and shifting in his seat father fielding questions from his five year old daughter about where babies come from. These are some of the caricatures often seen about fathers with young children. Somewhere in the culture of our society we have decided to mock the image of the father as a man who knows what to do at work, but as soon as he comes home he is ignorant and unable, foolish and inept. Babies and toddlers are set before him as fragile mysteries like faith and religion, things for women. As they grow he finds his footing in discipline because he is a natural authority, being a man and all, and sets the rules for the house of which he is largely out of touch. The teenage years call for tough love and it is here the man balances out the constantly crying mother lamenting the separation and loss of her babies. It isn’t until the children move out of the house that some of the stereotypes soften and round. A father walking his daughter down the isle or shaking the hand of his son as a sign of respect before the boy leaves to fight for his country. Only in old age are men portrayed as caring, loving, and respectful of their children. Only then is a man allowed to be soft towards his children. Now, after years of emotional and relational disconnection, he is supposed to be a present force in the lives of his children.

Stereotypes serve as a way to see the broad spectrum as a single whole. They reduce the complex to something overtly simple so that we may feel we have a grasp of a person or an idea. Unfortunately, as we all know, stereotypes also leave out much of the story. With fathers the general perceptions drawn are those mentioned above: disconnected, incapable, and intolerant. Men are not faulted for being incapable as fathers as much as they are excused. Men are just good at other things. Men need to be out building, selling, and sweating and when they are at home they need time to relax and watch the game without being bothered. Two things make this stereotype frustrating. The first thing is that there is some truth to it. Stereotypes are created out of observations and many men have acted in such a way so as to justify such generalizations. The second thing that makes such thoughts frustrating is that I believe it is largely untrue. The vast majority of men I know are dedicated, loving, attentive, and self sacrificing men. They love their children without reservation. They show their children they love them and are unafraid to engage in the day to day care children require.

Being a stay at home father for over ten years now, I have encountered and battled such stereotypes. The interesting, and often troubling, thing is that not only have I battled them from the culture around me but often from my own heart and mind. I struggle with the thoughts that I should be out building, selling, and sweating. I should be more stereotypically male. It’s not that I don’t feel good at what I do. I don’t struggle to care for young children beyond what is normal. Being a man doesn’t immune me to or protect me from the normal travails of parenting. The day to day routine of children can be exhausting but I know what I am doing and why I am doing it and I feel, on the whole, good at it. But, what I do struggle with is this; I am a man with babies. Beyond the stereotypes of men as incapable caretakers of children there is a perception that it’s just not right for a man to do such things. When I walk into my local hardware store with a baby on my hip, a three year old at my feet, and a five year old rummaging through the spare plumbing parts I walk in and create a mystery. “What in tarnation is a man doing in a hardware store, or anywhere but Disneyland, with three children?”. Most will wonder where the mother is and why isn’t she taking care of them. Is she sick or did she leave him? Maybe she is getting her nails done. Whatever the answer is at that moment one thing is certain; it’s just not normal. These day to day occurrences force me to struggle not with my children, but with myself and my own self imposed stereotypes.

Self perception is tricky. As much as I may want to, I can’t just change the way I perceive who I am through my own will alone. I need the observations and opinions of others. As much as I do not want to feel awkward in the hardware store, I do. I feel awkward because I am violating the social norms for men, norms that even despite my own choices, I have also adopted. To be a man and not have a job or a career, to not be financially providing for my wife and children, to not have a place or position in the professional world strikes at the core of my sense of value as a man. I am a man in every physical, mental, and emotional way but when it comes to fitting into the culture in which I live I often feel as if I am the last one standing in the game of musical chairs with the difference being, of course, that I chose to remain standing. I don’t want to sit down and if I don’t want to sit down, then why do I feel like I should?

Having spent the last ten years fighting the stereotypes I now find myself in the odd position of confirming part of it. It feels strange not to work. Wherever I go I have children with me. When people ask what it is I do for a living being a stay at home dad is never a popular answer. I don’t relish the fact that it is my wife that goes off to work everyday. And yet, I love being with my kids. I love that I have an uncommon connection to them. I like the day to day routine of playing Batman with my youngest son. And I don’t mind the laundry. I like being at home.

I am stuck between these two worlds. Sometimes the tension between them is easier to handle, sometimes it’s not. I feel fortunate to be with my children, to see them grow and change seemingly before my eyes, but to not contribute to the professional society around me doesn’t always sit well. And maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe living in the tension between the two worlds is how I fight the stereotype.

NPR, Cold Coffee, and Parenting

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Before you read this I think it is important for you to know that I do not have a job. I don’t work. I don’t own any cardboard signs or permanent black markers and I have the full use of all of my limbs, but still I stay at home. My wife wakes and gets ready for her day amid a flurry of emails and missed calls and is off to work while I sit on the floor with a cup of coffee and NPR. The fact that my coffee is cold and I can’t hear the news over the screams of my three young children should not ruin your image of being a stay at home father, although it occasionally ruins mine. When I am out with my male friends they often start complaining about how their wives complain about staying at home with the children until they remember that I too am sitting at the bar at which point they glance awkwardly, cough, and order another round. I have raised my three children from their respective infancies and I have found a way not only to survive, but on occasion, to thrive. Society’s expectations are different on a father with small children than on a mother with small children. So, when my two year old wets her pants while we are standing in line at Lowe’s, I am able to play off of everyone’s assumption that surely I am just giving mommy time to get her hair done because why else would a man drag a small child to a home improvement center on a Saturday. But, I know how to take care of her and I am not undone by this little incident and neither is she. The people behind us, on the other hand, will need to watch their step.

I know what it is to spend every day with my young children for weeks and months on end without a real break. I know what it is to tend to and worry about sick infants, babies, and toddlers all the while taking care of the older and younger ones of the group. I have been spit up on, thrown up on, pooped on and peed on, bled on and sneezed on so much that I wear a medical bracelet that simply reads “biohazard”. I have been so tired of holding my discontent nine month old son that I let him chase me around our kitchen island. My daughter has been so stubborn at times that I have had to step outside to contain my anger and so bored at other times that I have found Candyland suspenseful. I have been up at night, on airplanes, and on road trips with children who for no apparent reason want to scream and cry causing me to slowly pluck all of my eyelashes out just to maintain my sanity. My children have thrown outright uncontrollable temper tantrums in the book store, restaurant, mall, pet store, relative’s homes, car, church, park, doctor’s office, airplanes, and coffee shops that I no longer have any pride left, just a dull sense of being human. For being a more reserved person I have been exposed to the world against my will like a woman who has had her skirt blown over her head by the wind. I have been and will be undone in public by my children.

None of these circumstances are rare; every parent has endured the travails of small children. But, as the primary care giver I have experienced as a man experiences that are more common to women. By nature and by culture women have been and remain the main care givers to children. Mother and child together are not only common but iconic images. We see them together in art, media, and at the grocery store. A motherless child is pitied differently than the more common fatherless child. A mother who has abandoned her children is vilified differently than the more common absent father. A mother and child are supposed to be together so when they are not we wonder if something is amiss.

Any relationship that challenges the common cultural norms of the society in which they relate will always be open to suspicion. A father that stays home with his kids while the mother goes off to work is one of those relationships. Men are providers while women are care takers. If a woman who has small children is working it is assumed that she needs to, not that she wants to. And if she wants to, then the questions concerning her true motivations as a mother are just as suspect as the motivations of the father who would prefer to stay home. Fathers are suspected of shirking their real responsibility as much as the mothers are, but both in ways specific to their gender. Fathers fail as providers where mothers fail as care givers.

Being a stay at home father is about more than the ability to take care of small children. It is about the cultural assumptions of the society in which we live, the marriage that produced the children, and our ability to negotiate those potential tensions. It is about combating the stereotypes of what it means to be a man and occasionally losing those battles. And it is, above all the questions and tensions, about being a father.