Noe Valley Voice June 2009

Lessons Learned as a 'Stay-at-Home' Dad

By Olivia Boler

Take a walk down 24th Street on a weekday morning or early afternoon, and chances are you'll see babies and children on their way to Noe Courts playground or heading into Peasant Pies for a snack. The kids are probably with their moms or nannies, but more often these days, a father is the one pushing the stroller. According to Noe Valley author Jeremy Adam Smith, the stay-at-home dad is a trend that is only growing.

Smith's first book, The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family, published by Beacon Press and released the first of this month, is both a study and a contemplation of this trend.

"It's about what happens when men stay home taking care of the kids, and mothers are the ones supporting the families, and what has made it possible for men and women to switch roles," says Smith. The book combines interviews of fathers from around the country with a look at the social evolution of parenting.

Not surprisingly, Smith has had a stint as a stay-at-home father. For one year, he was the primary caregiver for his son, Liko, who will turn 5 in July.

"In 2005, I deliberately scaled back on work," says Smith, 39. "I left my fulltime job and took on some consulting. Being a parent was still very novel then. My son was a year old, and I wanted to know, Who is this little guy?"

Smith had been a deputy director at the nonprofit Independent Press Association. His wife, Olli Doo, went back to work as a teacher, and Smith found himself embarking on something he describes as not "special or exceptional. My attitude was, This is a temporary thing that I'm doing. I thought of it in terms of skill acquisition. I thought, It'll be good to bond with my kid for a little while, then go back to work."

His new role had definite pluses. "Liko and I learned how to eat, sleep, grow, and play together, and I gained new confidence in taking care of him and being a parent. I was also able to get to know other parents on the playgrounds, and build a new community for my family," Smith says, adding that he wouldn't trade that experience for the world.

But the shift in family dynamics triggered some huge internal changes and challenges for Smith and Doo. "It was a struggle for Olli, being separated from Liko," Smith says. "And I struggled with the daily minutiae and stress of responding to his needs. It changed my view of relationships between men and women and how family life is structured."

There was also the response from the couple's families. "For a lot of our relatives, what we were doing was strange and exotic. Some were very hostile and said we were being irresponsible. But amongst our circle of friends it was not a big deal."

Smith asked himself why this was so and started to do a lot of reading--during Liko's nap time of course--about the history of the family and American family life. "I read two hours a day for six months. At the end, I had a realization that for my grandfather's generation, and to a lesser degree for my father's, the definition of a father's [duty] was breadwinning and a mom's was to take care of the kids."

He also began writing about his experiences. One of the fathers he befriended while taking Liko to the playground offered the phrase "stay-at-home dad." Smith googled it and found a series of blogs written by other stay-at-home dads. "I realized there were a lot of guys having similar struggles. And I thought, I can do this! So I did."

He started his own blog, Daddy Dialectic (www.daddy-dialectic.blogspot .com), from his home on Castro Street. "It was a real challenge to write about this stuff at first because I was writing about myself," Smith says.

Soon, the blog evolved into a group blog, with several contributors, and Smith began working as an editor at Greater Good magazine. He also wrote pieces for the San Francisco Chronicle and London's Guardian, and the June 2006 issue of the Noe Valley Voice.

He now sees the early blog entries as a training ground for The Daddy Shift.

"Some of the things I wrote early on in the blog proved to be wrong both empirically and through my own experience," he says with a laugh. "Like, in the first entry, I say that being a stay-at-home parent is a luxury of the affluent, but it's actually not."

Smith discovered later in his research that most families with one parent at home do so because of economic necessity. "The lower down the economic ladder you go, you're more likely to see families with a stay-at-home parent. It all has to do with the cost of childcare. Subsidies aren't available here in the U.S., and that's why one parent stays home and parents often get trapped into one role, either breadwinner or caretaker." With unemployment rates rising, Smith expects even more fathers will be the primary caregivers for their kids, especially if their partners are still employed.

These days, Smith says, "It's true for a lot of guys my age that parenting roles can be negotiated, depending on the proclivities of the individual parents. That's different than it was for past generations, but it creates a lot of challenges. Fathers are facing a lot of pressure about their roles, and it's a confusing situation."

Smith's own situation could be changing soon. He expects to be laid off at Greater Good this summer, though he'll continue to work as a co-editor for two books, The Compassionate Instinct and Are We Born Racist?, both to be published in 2010.

"Since I started working at Greater Good," Smith says, "Olli has been Liko's primary caregiver. When I get laid off, Olli will go back to work running a preschool. I'm definitely looking forward to spending time with Liko again. I'm not looking forward to possibly starving and being homeless!" he jokes.

Whatever the future brings, his hours on The Daddy Shift--both the book and the childcare--will have been well spent. "[Shared parenting] is a good thing and it's new, and we don't quite know how to finesse it, but we're getting there."

Cover to Cover Booksellers at 1307 Castro Street will host a launch party for Smith and The Daddy Shift on Saturday, June 6, at 7 p.m. Copies are also available at Phoenix Books, 3850 24th Street.

Excerpt from

The Daddy Shift

by Jeremy Adam Smith

"Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't affair," writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This is equally true of life in cities. It is also true of parenting. All three are intricate worlds unto themselves, containers of consciousness, definers of perception; but we are never quite able to hold them in our senses. As soon as we wrap our minds around nature, cities, and children, they exceed the limits we think we've set for them.

When Liko was fourteen months old--after I had been taking care of him for two months--San Francisco seemed to shift constantly in and out of focus, and so did my son, as he scrambled up the ladder of a baby's developmental stages, and I scrambled to follow him. The babble from Liko's mouth sharpened into words, the syllables flashing like sunlight on windows. We'd cross the street and on the other side, he'd seem suddenly older....

Every month or so, we'd take the F train downtown to the Museum of Modern Art, where once Liko demonstrated new speed and mobility by racing across the gallery and knocking over a six-foot sculpture of a paper airplane--which I caught just before it hit the floor. Summoning as much dignity as possible before a score of shocked museum patrons, I set the giant paper airplane back on its dais, took Liko by the hand, and walked at a stately pace into the next gallery.

On cool, sunny afternoons I'd put Liko in his backpack, and together we'd hike to the top of Twin Peaks, the mammarian mountain that swells at the center of San Francisco. Sitting on a rock, he'd survey the city like a wide-eyed prince, and each time he seemed to understand a little more of what he was seeing. "Clouds," he said, pointing up. "Bridge," he said later, peering at the fog-touched Golden Gate Bridge. I had feared that he'd never start talking. Now, I felt a little tremor of excitement with each new word.

Through these urban adventures I struggled to understand what the hell I wanted out of life. My desire to take care of Liko warred with a drive--augmented by financial need--to claw my way to the next stage of my career. I had wandered off the beaten career path, babe in arms, and I wasn't sure how to find it again, or if I even wanted to.... On playgrounds, I seldom spoke with other parents, because I didn't feel like one of them. I certainly didn't call myself a "stay-at-home dad" or anything like that. In fact, I passively resisted every category and could hardly bring myself to describe to strangers who I was or what I did. I was alone with Liko on a mountain, looking down at everything, and at that point I didn't want to come down.

Published with author's permission from The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family, by Jeremy Adam Smith (Beaton Press, 2009).