Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The SAHD-vocate

Usually Americans aren’t very jealous of their Swedish cousins.  Except for a couple of weeks every four-years when the winter Olympics come around.  Then, the Swedes rule.  No one is better at cross country skiing and then stopping to shoot stuff than the Swedes (unless you’re Norwegian or Finnish).  But I’ve recently become very jealous of Sweden’s child-leave policies. You see, in Sweden, working parents are entitled to 16 months paid leave per child, so long as at least 2 of those months are used by the ‘minority’ parent (usually the dad).  So, Dads can get 2-14 months of paid leave per kid, depending on how they work it out with their spouse.   

Sure, guys can take a bit of unpaid leave in the U.S.  Six-weeks or so, depending on your state and employer.  And maybe even a bit of it could be paid with very generous employers. But most men don’t take it—either because they can’t afford it, or they don’t want to lose the momentum of their careers.  I was in the latter category.  When Jack was born it didn’t even occur to me that I should really take real time off.  I could barely keep my career on the track I wanted working 10 hour days, and I had to cut way back when Jack was born.  No way was I about to take any real leave.  That’s not to say I didn’t spend a lot of time with him. Jack’s mom and I both kept him with us all day long, while trying to maintain our work as well.  But it wasn’t quite the same.  I never turned ‘it’ off just to be with my son with nothing else to do.  And after a few months, when he was no longer happy sitting in boring meetings, we got a nanny and went back to work without him (though it was agonizing at first). 

Before Jack came into my life, I knew guys—especially from other countries with more liberal polices—who took considerable paternity leave.  I thought they were pansies.  I knew a dude from Sweden who seemed to take years off as they had kid after kid after kid.  How could you sacrifice your career for such a whiny little poop machine? 

As of this week, I’ve been a stay-at-home dad (SAHD) for three months.  And I think I get it now.  I think I get the value of taking paternity leave or even quitting your job to stay at home.  And not just a week or two vacation time, but some real hardcore and deep time with the baby.  And I have a new respect for SAHDs and SAHMs out there.  Seriously, this is the hardest, but most rewarding, job I’ve ever done. 

While I was still working, I always tried to be a very involved dad to Jack, and I like to think I was pretty good at it.  I held him, changed him, napped with him, played with him, etc. every second I got.  But I have to be honest, I was still never really comfortable having him all day long for several days in a row.  Now, I think I’ve got it pretty well figured out, and I can’t really imagine life any other way.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about the science of love; while writing that post, I thought a lot about hormones and how they influence our behavior.  In particular, baby-cuddling and other such interactions ‘stimulate’ certain hormones (oxytocin being the main one), which express themselves as feelings of love.  The more interactions, the more love and the more comfortable you get with one another; the more addicted you get to one another.  That’s not to say I didn’t love Jack before, or that I don’t appreciate an hour or two break from him every once in awhile.  But I think being a SAHD for these past few months has fundamentally changed me even more than I was changed after Jack was born but I was still working—and I was already pretty changed then. 

In science, we sometimes talk about hysteresis, whereby a system depends not just on its current environment but on its past environment because it can exist in more than one possible state. But once you get to a state, you’re stuck there—at least until something pushes you away from that state.  There are many examples of hysteresis in physics, biology, and economics—I think love and child-rearing is another example, particularly for men.  Three months of constant barraging by these love hormones all day every day, and I’m a different person.  I can’t go back.

Although being at home has been hard because of the circumstances that got me here, I will be forever changed because of this time I’ve been home with Jack.  My brain is now officially wired differently.  If someone were to offer me a well-paying job in my field that started tomorrow, I’d take it for financial reasons; but there’d be more than a little bit of remorse in losing this precious SAHD-time Jack and I have had together.   

I really wish everyone could have the opportunity to take this sort of time with their young kids.  To put their careers on hold, but be able to jump right back in.  To be able to afford to do so financially and emotionally.  And, if you can afford to do so, I would strongly advocate it.  A week, a month, a year.  Take whatever you can.  If every dad could be a SAHD and every mom a SAHM for at least some extended period of time, I think the world would be a happier place.

P.S. As I wrote this post, I had a considerable amount of guilt for the situation in which I’ve found myself.  This is because as a result of some very unfortunate circumstances that I created, I get to spend all of this time at home with Jack and blog about us and take him on adventures (like to the playground and the Home Depot) while his beautiful and loving mother has to work extra hard to take care of both her innocent and adorable little parasite (Jack) as well as her bigger, balder, and dumber parasite (me).  I hope that some day I'll be able to make it all up to her.  Or, better yet, maybe we could move to Sweden so that both of us could spend time with him.  All we gotta do is learn to ski.

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