Imagine your next formal event. Now picture meeting a man in a tuxedo, asking him, "So what do you do?" and hearing him reply, "I'm a stay-at-home dad."
How do you respond? As a veteran at-home father (and now writer), I can attest that most men — and some women — stumble here, though progress inches along. Of the many less-than-appropriate replies I have heard while in a tux, regular suit, or just "average dad" clothes at various social events, here is the most memorable: "You must like watching cartoons."
Not exactly a having-it-all moment.
But what does "having it all" even mean anymore? By age 28, you might say I "had it all": I had earned a Ph.D. in American literature, I was teaching at the University of Michigan, and I was happily married to my college sweetheart. At my 10-year high school reunion that year, I felt I had lived up to my Most Likely to Succeed award.
Three years later, my wife and I added a baby to our "all," and something had to give — literally. Because my wife was a physician with long hours and much more earning potential than a professor, I decided to take the leap into at-home parenting. (There were other reasons, but time and money were key.)
My transition was chaotic and painful, especially since our firstborn had colic at 24 days old, cried every day until she turned blue, and seemed to believe I was trying to kill her. All the milk-stained while, I had to remind myself that the at-home option was a luxury many parents would kill to have.
Of the many revelations that washed over me in those diaper days, foremost was that if my wife had become the at-home parent and I had kept my job, I still would have "had it all" by conventional standards — for men, significantly. That is, I would have had the "all" that my father and father-in-law had: a job, a wife, and the first of multiple kids.
But as I burped my baby and boiled all those nipples, I realized that the "all" of that generation of fathers relied upon the mothers sacrificing their career for full-time childcare, whether by chance or by choice. Indeed, one person in a partnership "having it all" implies that the other person has nothing, no? During a few of my darker days in that first year as an at-home dad, I felt that sense of nothingness, and you might say my nipples boiled, too.
Gradually, however, I was able to make peace with my choice and settle into my new role. Over the years my wife and I added a second child and made many adjustments to our family life to achieve better balance. She contributes as much family help as she can, and I have learned how to keep my professional life healthy alongside my lesser parenting duties as my children get older.
Our experience has taught us that in today's society, no one person can "have it all." But if a couple can "halve it all" (to borrow Francine Deutsch's term), meaning find the healthiest balance among competing factors like career, relationship, and childcare, they might — as a couple — approach a contemporary version of "having it all."
Halving it all may not have the same romantic ring as having it all, and it may entail more work by mothers and fathers, but it can be more rewarding in the long run for both at-home and working parents. While the definition of having it all may have been tidier for the fathers of yesteryear, the messiness of having it all for today's fathers offers far more opportunities for them to have closer relationships with their children and partners. In a sense, having it all has evolved from a sport of individual (male) superstars to a team sport for both men and women.
Now, back to that progress about what people say when they meet a stay-at-home dad. Not long ago, I was in a suit at a party when an old family friend in his mid-70s approached. Though I liked him personally, he had never known what to make of my decision to become a "housemom" (his word). Before I could duck away, he stepped forward and asked in a loud, my-hearing-is-starting-to-fade voice: "Vince, are you still a housemom?"
Cue my reddening cheeks and homicidal thoughts. The presence of several men nearby doubled the awkwardness. Surprisingly, however, just as I expected to hear another belittling "Mr. Mom" derivation, he said with great excitement: "My son is one too! He's right over there — you should go talk to him!"
Most striking was not just the acceptance of his son's new identity, but the pride — as if his son "had it all," you might say. Granted, a part of me wanted to suggest alternatives to "housemom," but I stopped short. The attitude's the thing; the language will catch up.
His instinct that his son and I should talk was also perceptive, and that's exactly what growing numbers of both at-home and involved working fathers have been doing during this period of gender-role flexibility. In fact, part of having it all for today's fathers includes social support from other fathers to help them negotiate the new terrain.
One of the pleasures of such support is sharing stories of priceless moments. I recently told a fellow dad about being asked to help supervise a class at my children's school for a special occasion. My fifth-grade daughter had just one question: "You're not going to wear a tuxedo, are you?" In that moment, I relished how she remained blissfully unaware of the absurdity of her question. She even upped the ante by implying I couldn't possibly help in class without embarrassing her to an extreme, cartoonish degree.
In hindsight, she taught me an important lesson. As you strive for balance as an at-home or working parent, savor the tuxedo moments in family life wherever they occur, and whatever you are wearing. In other words, instead of trying to "have it all," try to cherish "all you have."
More great reads from AskMen:
Why dads deserve more credit in the fatherhood department
Why wouldn't dads want to spend time with their newborn children?
Everything dads need to know about having "the talk" with their kids