“Dad! Wass for Bweakfass?”
Meet Amran Gowani, A Stay-at-Home Dad Breaking the Cycle of Fatherly Neglect
Welcome to the latest newsletter. Very glad to have so many new readers joining us today!
As Work/Craft/Life expands its reach, thanks to all of you, I’ve been appreciative of how many folks have connected with me about their own jobs. We all have moving stories to tell, and I’m eager to hear them. Keep’em coming!
In this spirit, we have a guest essay about being a Stay-at-Home Dad from Amran Gowani, a fellow subscriber.
In my own family, my wife Diane and I both worked—and had the help of part-time nannies and family. But, I was definitely what we called the “primary parent” since my wife’s career required a fair amount of travel and lacked the flexibility I had as an author. It was always a balancing act…and ever-changing as our girls have grown. I shared with Amran many of the same experiences he eloquently describes: the frantic mornings, the lone Dad at the playground, the mixed feelings over “missing out” on other opportunities, and the scattered moments of deep joy that I would not have enjoyed if I had been away.
Of course, no two stories are the same and Amran’s own is all the more poignant because he aims to be there for his kids in a manner that his own father had not been for him.
As you’ll read, Amran is a writer and satirist. He also has his own newsletter Field Research. It’s funny, inventive, and often quite moving. His post about talking with his kids about democracy (told in the format of a screenplay) is well worth the subscribe alone. And away we go from Amran…
It’s 4:19 a.m. The room is pitch black. Falling asleep again is a non-starter, and I have ninety-odd minutes of uninterrupted silence—pure gold. I sneak to the reclining chair in the living room. A lush, six-foot-tall fiddle fig tree looms beside me. All is Zen. For now.
Our home, a “duplex down” condo on Chicago’s north side, is situated between three elementary schools and two churches. During school hours the sidewalk outside our east-facing bay window teems with kids and their harried parents, though at the moment all is blissfully calm.
I open my in-progress novel and jump to the chapter I’m working on. I re-read, editing a word or two or fifty until I reach the blank, never-ending abyss at the bottom of the pixelated page.
The momentum picks up. A sentence I hate materializes, but I hold my nose and keep moving (the secret to writing, I’ve learned). Another bad sentence follows. They start improving with the emergence of the sunrise and car headlights through the window. Just as the words flow with ease, little footsteps thunder across the hardwood.
“Dad! Wass for bweakfass?” my three-year-old son says.
The next two-and-a-half hours are a whirlwind of controlled chaos.
My first role of the day is short-order cook. I make coffee, heat up pre-prepared pancakes, and pour bowls of cereal. We eat together as a family every morning. My wife, Felicia, skims headlines on her phone. My daughter, six, antagonizes her little brother with expert skill. I sit amongst the anarchy plotting the day ahead.
A quick look at my inbox and around our disheveled house tells me perfunctory tasks (e.g., appointments, bills, cleaning, errands) will chew up much of the childless portion of my day. The only distraction-free window I’ll have ahead will come after the kids are asleep. That means sacrificing the already limited time I’ll have with Felicia.
When everyone finishes eating, I bus the dishes. Then my wife and I prepare two defiant kids for school. We alternate between cajoling (her) and threatening (me) to get them to use the potty, dress, and brush their teeth. I pack my daughter’s lunch and backpack while trying in vain to block out the temper tantrums and ostentatious displays of independence.
My daughter’s elementary school is one block away. This is the ultimate life hack. Felicia walks her there and back within ten minutes. After, we bike my son to his preschool. Finally, we’ve pushed Sisyphus’ rocks to the top of the hill.
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Twice per week my wife and I ride our bikes to the bouldering gym. We prioritize exercise for three reasons: 1) health is wealth, 2) it’s fun, and 3) these are the only guaranteed hours we’ll spend together.
We began bouldering soon after our first date in Philadelphia, where we were both working in pharmaceutical marketing after graduating with MBAs in spring 2012.
Boredom, ambition, and a sense of adventure took us to San Francisco the following year. We each got new jobs and—now in a bouldering hotspot—rapidly improved from novice to intermediate climbers. Then, in late 2015, Felicia, my now-wife, became visibly pregnant.
At that time, I was burning out as a junior equity research analyst at an investment bank, while she was steadily ascending the corporate ladder at a large biotech company.
We were physically healthy and financially secure, but our daughter’s due date was fast approaching, and we were unprepared to become parents. Daycare waitlists were years long and, worse still, as Bay Area transplants, we didn’t have any immediate family members to help out when she arrived. We needed to call an audible.
Though each of us felt the other had a higher career upside, we agreed I should take some time out of the workforce once Felicia’s maternity leave ended. My job was more intense, and the stress made us miserable. Her job paid a higher, steadier base salary and offered superior benefits too. Over the next few years, which included the birth of our daughter, then our son, as well as a move to Chicago, we swapped roles several times. Ultimately, I took the stay-at-home parent job for the long haul. It was a practical decision, but…
Equally important, I wanted the job.
Here’s the thing: I never knew my dad.
He bailed around my first birthday. My mother had me when she was eighteen—after her father abandoned her too. It was a family tradition of sorts. I have a vague memory of once meeting my great-great-grandmother. She was likely in her early eighties at the time. In the same room stood four generations of women, with nary a man in sight. Back luck, bad circumstances, and bad decisions led them all to become teenage mothers with absentee fathers. Perpetuating a cycle of generational trauma birthing new branches of broken, dysfunctional families.
As a young child, the only men in my orbit were my mother’s brothers. They were good guys and fun to be around. But they were also high school dropouts plagued by drug and alcohol problems.
In elementary school, being the only kid without a dad at my tee-ball games was confusing. There was nobody to teach me how to swing the bat. Or even the simple rules of the game. Since my skin was tanned dark by the Miami sun, and my mom was a dirty blonde with blue eyes, I remember asking her if I was adopted.
During my teenage years, after we’d relocated to the Detroit suburbs, the only man then in my life was my stepfather. A man who went to enormous lengths to avoid being home. Long hours. Long commutes. Business travel. Whatever it took. A man who, at best, treated me like a stranger and, at worst, saw me as a competitor.
At my high school football games, when I was the only player on the team without a father, I knew the score. My confusion had morphed into embarrassment. Of course, the token minority kid’s dad checked out. That’s what those people did.
These experiences molded me. By the time I got to college I thought: Surely, I could do better than this.
At the bouldering gym, we climb fast and hard then ride our bikes home. Despite a decade of wear and tear and a seven-year hiatus, we’re both more skilled than ever. Forty is the new thirty, they say.
Shortly after nine, Felicia disappears into her corporate-issued laptop for seven-ish hours of responding to emails, creating PowerPoint slides, and Zooming into meetings. She’ll briefly emerge from her office (our bedroom) for lunch.
These days, I listen to her chats with coworkers and count myself lucky that I’m no longer in Corporate America. To navigate those white-collar bureaucracies I always had to pretend to be someone else. Put on my “person suit,” to steal a line from the show Hannibal. In comparison, scrubbing toilets and changing diapers feels like a tropical getaway.
At this stage of the day, I’ve got five hours until my daughter comes home. An eternity! With that much “leisure” time my novel should’ve been completed months ago! I start the laundry — how does it pile up so fast? I need to wash the dishes but tell myself it’ll be easy later. I vacuum instead. Then take out the trash and recycling while wondering how we consume so much. I fix the broken doorknob. Gather the errant action figures. Remove the marker stains from the wall. FFS do we need milk already? Eggs too? Luckily, my wife loves to cook, but she still needs raw materials. I create a grocery list. Tomorrow’s Costco run will monopolize half the morning.
I chop my inbox down as quickly as possible. Usually, I’m managing at least one project on behalf of our HOA, which is very much a mom-and-pop operation. A carpenter wants to meet tomorrow to inspect our deteriorating decks. Another hour is booked.
As the new Treasurer of my daughter’s PTA, I receive a steady stream of meeting invites and Pledge Drive emails with “Action Required” in the subject line. I need less responsibility, not more, but I’m helping my daughter’s school, meeting other parents in the community, and keeping my accounting skills frosty. Wins all around.
An hour passes. Felicia and I eat leftovers or PB&Js. More dishes. I switch the laundry. Find pieces of half-eaten food around the house and discard them. Then work through the latest barrage of emails and extemporaneous, time-consuming requests. Maybe I’ll have some time to write—like real writing—too.
At 2:40 p.m. my alarm buzzes. I pick up my daughter. These days she’s rarely happy to see me. I was told I had until she was at least twelve before she ignored me, but it seems we’ve produced a rather precocious little person.
If I ask general questions about her day, she’ll say it was “fine” or “okay.” I probe for specificity: What was her favorite part of the day? Who did she like playing with the most? These interrogations elicit fleeting moments of enthusiasm before she returns to baseline. I don’t press. She inhales a snack.
Sometimes, on good days, we’ll water the house plants. Or tend the garden. Or feed the five thousand wriggling inhabitants of our vermicomposter. Perhaps we’ll walk to Target and grab the milk and eggs. Or bike to the library or zoo.
But most days she’s not interested. Most days she says she wishes I worked instead, and that Mommy stayed home. Kids are genetically optimized to push your buttons. I’ve learned not to take the bait because, if my wife and I traded places, she’d say the exact opposite.
We head back to the playground. It bustles with her friends. The vast majority of stay-at-home parents in my neighborhood are moms. There’s no shortage of female nannies either. That doesn’t bother me. I like being different. As a half-Pakistani guy with an ethnically ambiguous, unpronounceable name, raised by an American mother of British/Irish ancestry, it’s not like I have a choice.
Nonetheless, it still feels awkward to be the lone dad skulking around. Not resembling my daughter, who’s half-Chinese and has a different last name (my wife’s), complicates this dynamic.
Around four-thirty, we head home. My daughter immerses herself in chapter books while my wife cooks. More dishes. My second alarm blares at 4:50 p.m. I walk to my son’s preschool. It’s twenty-five minutes roundtrip, but I prefer walking to biking because the post-work road rage frightens me. I listen to the audio version of The Economist on the way. As a satirist, there’s no better source for research and inspiration.
My son is ecstatic to see me. I savor it, knowing kids change quicker than you’d like. We name and discuss the various construction vehicles we discover on the walk home.
Dinner’s the most frustrating part of my day. My daughter eats too quickly. My son eats too slowly. My daughter’s messy. My son’s picky. Nobody sits still. My wife shows her love through cooking. Nonetheless, the kids balk at the delicious meals, holding out until she caves with yogurt or fruit. All the bartering, negotiating, and whining really gets under my skin. I get agitated and raise my voice at the kids. My wife gets agitated and raises her voice at me. In the past three years, it seems like every dinner causes some kind of meltdown.
Afterward, everyone needs a break. The kids play or read to themselves. The dishes have reached critical mass…again…and command my attention. I listen to more of The Economist while washing and straightening up. Felicia reads and sends dozens of texts. Bedtime wind-down (e.g., potty, bath, PJs, brushing teeth) mirrors the morning scramble, except everyone’s exhausted and short-tempered.
By 7:30 p.m. we’re all clean, refreshed, and in one piece. Miraculously. My wife and I alternate reading bedtime stories. On my nights, my kids love reading (mostly) age-inappropriate Marvel comics. Miles Morales, Ghost Spider, Venom, and Darth Vader are fan favorites.
After six harried years, we’ve finally instituted an incentive system to get my daughter — and by extension my son — to put themselves to sleep (i.e., do it, or never watch TV again). It’s working like a charm.
Felicia and I play the New York Times Spelling Bee. Around 9:00 p.m., with Genius level attained, we’re too wiped to watch anything. The only show we’ll make time for is Succession.
Drifting off to sleep, I wonder if I should work again. Make more money. Use all the fancy degrees I’ve acquired. Writing ≠ lucrative, after all.
But then I remember my childhood. How lonely and isolating it was. And those hectic days when my daughter was an infant, and my wife and I briefly switched roles, me working, her stay-at-home mom. How my high-paying, high-stress jobs remorselessly consumed my every waking minute. And how the incremental income went toward childcare, takeout, tax preparation, and home maintenance. Things I handle myself now.
My purpose in life isn’t to work jobs I don’t value. It’s to give my kids what I never had.
But being a stay-at-home dad is hard. I’m far from the perfect dad. I’m impatient, yell too much, and contend with heaps of familial baggage. Most days being adequate is a win. But unlike the rest of the men in my direct lineage, I’m present. Engaged. Reliable.
Being a stay-at-home dad is a privilege too. Not every family can afford to live – let alone survive – on one income. We have the luxury of financial security, which affords me the most precious commodity of all: time. Time to: play and read with my kids; schedule their extracurriculars; drop them off wherever they’re going; take them to the doctor; or hold their hand at emergency care.
Half the dads I meet tell me they’re envious. Older fathers too often express regret for not being around more when their kids were little. I reflect on the adage: Nobody says on their death bed, I wish I’d worked more.
Being a stay-at-home dad is the most challenging—and most satisfying—job that I’ll ever have.
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Hope you enjoyed Amran’s essay. Again, please check out his newsletter for more of his writing!
Next up I have a delightful profile of Jenna Wingate from the Cincinnati Zoo. She is on the care team for the now famous young hippo Fritz (and even more famous sister Fiona). Jenna shares the joys and frustrations of handling a charge, who at one-month-old, already weighed in at a whopping 170 pounds (and expanding at a rate of 3-5 lbs a day).
We’ll talk again in a week. As always. Same time, same band, same place.