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One Family, Two Generations Of Stay-At-Home Dads

Thirty years ago, being a stay-at-home dad merited a spot on the news. But we're still not talking much about men's careers post kids.

[Image: Flickr user George Atanassov]

My dad was fired a lot. A radio disc jockey, he had issues with authority that plagued him his entire life, and his pursuit of ephemeral success put a strain on our family.

My mother was our consistent provider. She rose in the ranks to become one of the most influential women in the radio industry, ultimately serving as president of sales at Entercom, one of the largest radio broadcasting companies in the United States.

Bucking trends and social norms of the '80s, when I was born my dad opted out of the rat race to pursue at-home endeavors, namely me. For the first year of my life, he raised me as one of those then-mythical stay-at-home dads. At the time, this idea was so groundbreaking that it merited him a feature spot on the local nightly news. Why would a man in his creative prime venture out of the radio studio and into a nursery?

I’ll let him speak for himself.

His early involvement in my life, untethered from a job that would’ve kept him away from us for extended blocks of time each day, made my relationship with him very close. When he passed away, I felt like a little piece of me was carved out and thrown away. His engagement in my development, and his early death when I was 24, changed the way I look at fatherhood and my career path.

Fast forward about 30 years. I’m a father now of two boys and the once-linear path of employment our parents had has been replaced by a web of contacts, opportunities, and lateral moves. For modern parents, the stress of unsure working conditions, lack of available paid family leave, intensified and obsessive corporate culture, as well as an unstable job market, underlie my belief that the discussion about "having it all" is entirely moot. While the media and blogosphere have touted this as being "the year of the dad," we still have a long way to go to understand how fathers and mothers fit into today’s workplace.

I stayed at home with my first son for the first nine months of his life—a choice that, while not meriting local news coverage, is still considered somewhat unconventional. When we balanced all the factors—economics, our schedules, my intense desire to be an engaged father— it was simply the correct decision for us. That early investment has paid huge emotional dividends for me. Being there put me on a better footing to go after my career with greater ferocity when I returned to the workforce because I had a purpose for achievement. Fatherhood became the lens and the subject for me. Writing about fatherhood and tapping into powerful online communities of parents broadened my career opportunities as a digital strategist as well.

As my kids grow older and I get a clearer sense of my family’s priorities, I know the game now is finding a way for these two dynamics to inform each other without being in competition. I can’t imagine a career goal more important than my relationship and experiences with my boys. But they can’t survive without my income.

I won’t lie. This modern, non-linear system is very stressful. I’m not sitting on a conveyor belt waiting for a promotion after putting in my time. There is no gold watch for time served. There seem to be fewer mentors with sage advice and a hand on your shoulder.

Now, with my second son, I work full-time at 20th Century Fox Television, and co-direct a successful parenting website I founded with a father friend of mine. I have what feels like three jobs. All of them whine in unison with varying pitches. I love working and creating outside the home, but I miss my boys terribly every day. It’s a struggle that more men should talk about.

Many of my friends play hopscotch with salaries looking for fulfilling and stable work. They never stop talking about possible moves to different companies. Almost 91% of my generation anticipates staying at a job for less than three years, and that could mean many more leaps of faith over time. We’re determined to find fulfillment in our work but the search for a better employer can lead to lower-paying jobs and constantly busying ourselves with the search for that new position. It’s no wonder LinkedIn and Glassdoor have risen as they have.

My morning routine usually goes one of two ways: The first route involves a ninja-like silence as I attempt to slip out of my house at predawn hours while my family sleeps in perfect hibernation. The second involves a hive of crying children, torrential floods of emails, misplaced car keys, and at least one noticeable stain on my clothing. Thirty years on, I still struggle, as my father did, to equalize the pressures of work and life under the weight of my responsibilities and aspirations.

Today's working parents have advantages of mobility and flexibility that my father's generation did not. However, in the place of a well-worn path, I’m constantly cutting back tall brush to forge my own trail.

If we continue to treat at-home fathers as news stories and fail to back up working dads with legislation encouraging paid leave, if we don’t empower women embarking on the careers they desire, we miss out on a fundamental cultural keystone our country sorely needs. The non-linear path becomes a circle.