“I’m Dave, Olli’s dad.”
This is the way I introduce myself to people I meet now. It’s different from the way I used to introduce myself. “I’m Dave,” used to be followed by, “I’m a designer.” Or, “I work in startups.” And, “I work for X.” For the last 15 years my career was a large part of who I was, a peg I hung my hat on. After my son was born, that identity stayed intact for a while. I usually mentioned, “I’m a dad” secondarily, after some casual conversation.
Then, when my son turned about a year-and-a-half old, my wife and I switched places. She went back to work full-time and I became the primary caregiver. I was now a stay-at-home dad.
I was excited to spend more time with my son because I felt like I was missing big moments in his life while I was at work. Up until that point, weekday time together was relegated to an hour or so before bed. Most of our time spent together was on the weekends and I’d notice the difference in his affection towards me after extended time together.
For the first few months of full-time dad-ing, the sudden influx of quality time felt like a novelty. After a while, things started to feel normal in this new role and we found our groove together. This intensive routine of being with him almost non-stop developed into a relationship that was closer and more complex than before. I became more intertwined with his rhythms, and my parental instincts grew with it.
While I’m happy with the way my relationship has blossomed with my son, this life change has shaken up my identity in ways I never expected.
I still do design work, now on a freelance basis, but “designer” is no longer the linchpin of my identity. In fact, it’s shifted a lot of my interests to a second tier, which leaves me struggling to say exactly who I am at the moment.
I know I’m not alone in this reevaluation of self because I overhear bits and pieces of these conversations about identity, worth, and self-perception discussed by groups of moms at playgrounds, parks, and indoor play spaces.
These groups of people form along lines of likeness — moms gravitate towards each other, nannies tend to cluster in groups. Mostly my conversations in these places are brief encounters that hover in the safe zone of children’s milestones, small talk like: How old? Potty trained? Preschool? Daycare?
I’ve yet to come across a dad cohort.
I recognize the difference between my conversations and those that start to veer towards breastfeeding issues or the pains of childbirth. But it can feel alienating.
I don’t have it any harder than any other stay-at-home mom, I just don’t seem to have the same support network they do.
And when I talk to fathers who work full-time, I sometimes encounter an unrealistic portrayal of what it means to be with a child every day. Like I’m scamming the system and making out like a bandit.
The other day a friend commented that “it must be so nice to be off for the summer.” He quickly clarified that he made this statement in reference to not having to go into an office every day. It was an honest slip of the tongue, but it’s not an uncommon sentiment.
Looking after a child is hard work, and watching after them full-time invades every part of your focus, brain, and time. A summer day doesn’t dissolve the monotony that can accompany watching a child for hours or the anxiety caused by tantrums.
When I was working full-time, I had a solid sense of who I was, who I should be and where I should be. As a stay-at-home dad, I live on uncertain ground. Somewhere between the moms in the park and the working dads I know.
I’m happier now than I was before, but decisions aren’t so cut and dry, and the direction doesn’t seem as sure. There’s not a well-defined path ahead of me.
While the relationships I had have grown more distant with my new focus, the relationship I have with my son is way more fulfilling than I imagined it could be. He’s gone from a standard love to an extension of my heart outside my body.
I beam when he’s happy and I hurt when he hurts. The goods are tethered to the bads but the bads create opportunities to learn and grow, and that growth means a more developed and engaged human. That is much more satisfying than the work I used to do.
Yes, being a full-time caregiver is hard. And yes, I’m still figuring out what it means to be “Olli’s Dad” and a stay-at-home dad in a sea of stay-at-home-moms. But the reward is so much greater than the wins I used to score when I was simply “Dave, a designer.”
This story originally appeared on Apparently.