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The Boston Globe

Magazine

Perspective

Lament of the stay-at-home dad

My lifestyle was hard enough. Then came the attack ads.

Illustration by John Jay

If not for the yard signs, I wouldn’t have known there was a mayor’s race. We moved to Northampton two years ago and hadn’t followed local politics. Then my wife, a doctor, said a patient had dismissed one of the candidates as “just a stay-at-home dad.” All of a sudden I was very interested. I’m a stay-at-home dad, you see. I take this stuff personally.

The candidate in question was David Narkewicz, 45, who spent six years in the Air Force and seven as a congressional aide before staying home to raise his two daughters. He once called being a stay-at-home parent “the most challenging and rewarding job I have held.” His opponent, a retired guidance counselor named Michael Bardsley, called it “the luxury of not working.”

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“You have no recent career experience in the last almost 15 years,” Bardsley said at one debate. “If you were applying for a comparable job in the private sector, very likely your resume wouldn’t get you to the first round of interviews.” He took out an ad with a picture of Narkewicz on his bicycle and captioned it: “I Like the Idea of the Bike. It’s the Training Wheels That Bother Me.” Get it?

Stay-at-home mothers have been trying for centuries to debunk the claim that what they do is not work, and I second everything they’ve said. The constant vigilance, the endless mundane chores punctuated by moments of terror – the project of coaxing your fragile little beloveds along takes everything you have.

But I’ve also come to believe that stay-at-home fathering has challenges all its own. From where I sit, there are good reasons that there were still only 154,000 of us in the United States in 2010, compared with 5 million stay-at-home moms.

The sentiment behind Bardsley’s comment and that of the patient is no small part of it. I think both would have said their concern was not that Narkewicz stayed at home, but that he lacked political experience. That doesn’t quite fly, though; the guy had been on everything from the PTO to the City Council.

It felt to me as if what they were really saying was that a man just doesn’t belong at home raising children, that there’s something weird about it in a way that isn’t the case for moms. I’m familiar with that view, because I see it in the averted eyes of people when I tell them what I “do.” I hear it, subtly, from relatives and former colleagues. I sense it in myself – a bit of embarrassment here, some misgivings there, an ever-growing itch to revive a dormant career.

I could shrug all that off as cultural bias. What really worries me is when I sense it in my kids.

My daughter is 3 and my son is 13 months. Our days together have been more of a joy than I can begin to describe. But has there ever been heartache. Neither transitioned from the breast to the bottle without days of long, screaming battles. Though only the girl has the words for it, both cry at times for their mommy as if her presence were their oxygen. My 3-year-old has gone through phases where she clings to any adult female around, holding her friends’ mothers’ hands and asking them to pick her up.

I don’t know what it is I’m not giving them, but I know I don’t have it. There’s plenty of reassuring research on the value of stay-at-home fathering, but I can’t dismiss the preferences of my children. They know what they need.

That’s life, of course. You don’t get everything you need. To parent is to fail – to fail to give your children all they require for perfect happiness and health. To be a stay-at-home dad, though, is to fail in a peculiarly tormenting way. It feels like trying to hammer in a nail – the most important nail in the world, the nail that will hold up your house – with your hand.

Or so I think on the bad days.

So when I heard Bardsley criticizing Narkewicz’s decision to stay home, it wasn’t just Bardsley I heard, it was a whole culture: my parents, my in-laws, even my wife and my children. It activated that part of my brain that says, “You shouldn’t be doing this.”

But this time, there was a vote. My town would have its say. Thumbs up or thumbs down.

I devoured every article I could find on the election. I argued with friends. I went to a debate at the junior high school. I experienced the election in ludicrously personal terms and invested in it far more than it deserved.

Narkewicz got 70 percent of the vote, and he takes office on Tuesday.

I’m glad he won. And I envy him the luxury of working.

Alexander Lane is a freelance writer. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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