When I decided to quit my IT job four years ago to stay home with my son Carter, and then later my daughter Sadie, I knew I’d go back to work someday, just not when. My wife, Debbie, was building a successful business as a realtor, enough so that she could support the family on her own, and I was bored and frustrated with my job in corporate America. The choice was obvious. Instead of hiring a nanny, I would take care of the kids, and when I didn’t need to be at home anymore, I would go back to work.
I assumed this would happen when both kids were off to school full-time. The summer after I first started staying home, I went to a stay-at-home-dad’s convention at a local community college. The group organized itself on the internet, of course. Dads from all over the country convened at the suburban campus of low-slung, institutional modernist brick buildings to share war stories of diaper explosions and temper tantrums. We listened to seminars by childcare experts on what a wonderful thing we were doing for our children. Mostly it seemed like an excuse for many of them to get away from their families and drink beer for a weekend, and while I skipped the social events, it was nice to meet other guys in my situation and hear some reaffirming words about my new choice of vocation.
During one breakout session, the discussion leader, a founder of the group and veteran of 18 years of at-home parenting (a full tour of duty through high school graduation), claimed that once kids start school, they need you at home even more. “You can’t go back to work then,” he said. “What if one of them gets sick? Who’s going to pick them up from school and help them with their homework?”
I left that day thinking that guy was full of shit. He probably stayed at home less out of concern for his kids than from of an allergy to work. Of course you can go back to work when your kids go to school. What are you going to do for eight hours a day when they’re gone?
By that time though, just a few months into it, I’d found plenty of things to do during the day, especially when Carter was napping. I read and I wrote. I blogged and fooled around online. I worked out and ran errands, and I certainly wouldn’t have minded more time for any of those. Maybe that grizzled old dad wasn’t lazy. He’d just stumbled onto something: staying at home is a hell of a deal if you can get past those first few, maddening, pre-kindergarten years.
What my wife Debbie and I have realized though, is that those past four years were probably too good to be true. We took advantage of an economy that helped Debbie’s business grow beyond anything we imagined when we set up this arrangement. For a while we assumed we would be able to pull it off through both kids, but the catastrophic changes to the economy over the last half of the year made us nervous about having our eggs in one basket, especially that particular basket. One evening this December, after Debbie lost a deal because a buyer couldn’t get a loan, she and I looked at each other and knew. I had to go back to work sooner than planned.
I say that I assumed I would go back to work one day, but I’m not sure I ever knew what kind of job I wanted when I did. I left my career in IT out of protest against that line of work altogether, not just because I wanted to raise my children. I worked for just six years after college as a software designer, but already grew disillusioned with what I saw as the monotony and emptiness of corporate life. I promised never to work there again, and left thinking that I could turn our family decision into a career change as well. I thought I deserved something to “fulfill” me, whatever that means, and started on a new path of writing and graduate school that led to what you see on this website today.
Of course, my new diaper-clad bosses had something to say about how quickly that new career progressed, and by the time we realized I needed to go back to work this winter, I faced a bleak job market with a four year gap on my resume. I applied to writing and editing jobs, trying to massage my peripatetic background to look like that of a seasoned journalist’s, but I was met with deafening indifference. Those jobs are hard to come by in the best of times, and no one was going to take a chance on a career-switcher like me now.
The first person I called when I started looking for work was my manager from my old job. I had taken care to stay in touch with him, kept the bridge intact for this very reason. He promised that after the new year, his team would have an opening, and I carried this in my back pocket while I flailed around for more appealing work. But as my imagined options dwindled, I finally resolved that I’d be returning to my old career. The job did open up, and four years after I had walked out of my job for what I thought was for good, I walked back into the same company, the same building, and the same team to work with many of the same people. Four years of thinking I had left that life behind to make a new one were over. I was back where I started.
We visited my parents over the holidays. They still live in the same house where I grew up. They have renovated the place a little, changed the furniture in my old bedroom to turn it into a guest room for instance, but certain things can’t change. I had spent the week puttering around the house, obsessing about my job search, repeatedly checking my email to see if anyone had responded to my resume. As we packed up to leave at the end of our visit, I walked back through the house to make sure we hadn’t left anything behind, a stray toy or a forgotten scarf in a closet. Everyone else was outside, loading up the car. The house was quiet, and as I moved from room to room, I was overcome by the melancholy that had been hovering over my shoulder ever since I realized I’d have to go back to work. The sound of my shoes scuffing on the carpet, the floorboard creaking underneath as I stepped into my old bedroom, the way the sun cast its grey winter light on my view of the street through the window all reminded me of living there as a kid. Things were simple then, and at that moment as an adult, my life felt more complicated than ever. I wanted it to be simple again. I hurried back outside before I started to cry.
Adjusting to the new/old routine of work hasn’t been the hard part. When I think about my job four years ago, the routine parts—like walking to work, stopping for coffee, taking long lunches to read or study for grad school—feel like they happened yesterday. But the specifics about work—the meetings, the project milestones, the day I told my manager I was leaving—all feel very distant. I’d long since stopped caring about those things or thinking of myself as someone who does, even before I left.
The hardest part has been learning to think of myself as a different kind of person, because this time bailing out isn’t an option. I need to become the best worker I can, put my energy into being the best at what I do, because I’m in this indefinitely. I don’t have the energy to switch careers again. At one point in my life, with just one child and money to spare, it was feasible to try starting a new life, but now with a bigger family, bigger bills, and more responsibility, I need to accept that certain doors have closed. There was a time when I could have become that journalist or that editor, but that time has passed. It’s time to live with the choices I have made.
After I agreed to take back my old job, I had two last weeks at home before I could start. A couple of those days, Carter stayed home from school with a fever. This would have been frustrating before, but sentimental mess that I am right now, it was fine by me. I tried to fill every moment with Carter and Sadie with significance, thinking about how it was going to be my last as a stay-at-home parent.
One afternoon I poked my head in the room to check on him while he was napping. He likes to listen to music as he goes to sleep, and a song called “Riding with No Hands” by a kids’ musician named Ralph Covert was playing. Most of Covert’s music is silly stuff about dinosaurs and puppy dogs, but this song was clearly geared toward parents, a sappy acoustic guitar ballad about growing up and learning to do big kid things. This time I did start crying.
Through all this sadness and stress and worry, I’ve been troubled about why I’m so upset about going back to work in the first place. How incredibly selfish of me to complain that I have to work, that I have to get a job to support my family when so many people are losing jobs they desperately want to keep. How incredibly shortsighted of me to claim sadness when I got to stay home to raise my son and enjoy the first few months of my daughter’s life. How spectacularly ungrateful of me to feel like I settled for a high-paying job at a good company within walking distance of my house.
Some friends who have been kind enough to listen say there’s nothing wrong with searching for a calling, but I take heart that I’m mature enough now to ask myself that question. When I was applying for jobs, I thought the hardest thing to explain to some interviewer would be how stay-at-home parenting taught me more about myself. I’m more mature now. After four years of trying to redefine myself through my work, I understand that the work is just a means to an end.
Four years is the longest I’ve done anything since I was in college. That’s troubling from a career perspective, but my sadness isn’t coming from changing jobs or careers again. This time it’s about the end of being a certain kind of person. Much of what I felt watching Carter sleep and listening to that song comes from simply watching him grow older, regardless of what I do for a living. Letting him go to preschool full-time was a tough transition too, one that I haven’t fully appreciated until now because it happened at the same time Sadie was born. That time of my life with him is over, no matter how I spend my days, and now I’m sad that I won’t get to do the same thing with Sadie.
I want to be okay with this. I need to be okay with this, because I have no other choice. But I also need to find a way to retain some of that person I’ve been for the past four years with the new person that I have to be now. I understand this choice and accept it on a practical level, but I can’t process it emotionally. I’m ending one of the happiest experiences of my life to go back to the scene of what had been one of the most frustrating.
I know this time will be better. I have a better attitude about work and responsibility in general. Having children will do that to you. I have every reason to believe going back to work is the right thing to do, but after being burned and burned out once before, I’m still apprehensive. I don’t have to be happy about this right away, and for now I’m okay with that.
During my first week back, I was overwhelmed by the memories of place again. I ate my lunch in a cafeteria on the 8th floor of the office building, next to a bank of windows overlooking the south branch of the Chicago River. As the tables filled up, I listened to the sounds of other employees fixing their meals in the cantina—the beeping of a microwave timer, the slam of the refrigerator door—and I was reminded of when I worked there before. I remembered how I used to take long lunch breaks in that same spot, hiding from work, plotting my escape. I felt like I was going to cry again, and I needed to get out of there. But this time, I finished my lunch, went back to my desk, and went back to work.