Friday, February 3, 2006
Carlisle dads stay home with the kids
Ten years ago, a man in the neighborhood between the hours of nine and five would have been part of the lawn crew, a mailman, or maybe an over-65 retiree. Now, throughout Carlisle, at-home dads have entered the mix, arranging play-dates, chauffeuring kids to activities, volunteering at the school, and doing all the jobs, including laundry and grocery shopping, formerly consigned almost exclusively to women.
And if you think there's still a stigma attached to not going to the office in the morning, forget it. The prevalence of home businesses and high-tech early retirees means that today's at-home dad is usually there by choice. Many Carlisle families are redefining "success" as maintaining comfortable lifestyles while balancing the time each parent spends on kids and community involvement.
There are many reasons families choose this path, but three factors seem to be instrumental in making it possible for an increasing number of dads to be at home. They include better pay and promotional opportunities for women; high-tech riches, often gleaned during the Internet bubble years; and improved Internet access, making work from home much more practical.
Internet brings flexibility
Mike Bishop of Kimball Road whose kids are six, eight, and ten years old, works from home trading stocks. He says, "Bringing cable to Carlisle was a big factor in allowing me to do that." He was something of a pioneer when he dropped out of the corporate world ten years ago, and points to the death of his mother as a turning point that made him take a second look at his life. He was leaving the house before his daughter was up and returning after she was asleep. "I'd had a good corporate run, and I'd had enough," he says. He decided to work from his then-Sudbury home, originally funding start-ups. Four years later, he and his wife Liz, who also has a flexible work schedule, built their home in Carlisle.
Freedom has arrived with Internet access, agrees Jay Luby of Woodbine Road, who also manages investments from home. "In the investment world, I have access to any information a trader has. There are an incredible number of jobs where people have flexibility [to work at home] because of the Internet." Jay also says money he received in 2001 upon the sale of a company he co-founded was instrumental in allowing him to leave the fast-paced life in which he was used to traveling for weeks at a time. His wife Carolynn was interested in a job as Network Computer Manager at the Carlisle Public School, and Jay's decision "allowed her to take a role in something she liked." The Lubys have a freshman and a senior in high school.
Walter Hickman of Concord Street retired from his company, which made audio editing equipment for Hollywood, five years ago. He stayed home with his two boys, now six and eight, so his wife could start her own business in software training. This is Hickman's second time around; he also has two grown children (throughout their childhood he was working "paying the mortgage") and four grandchildren. He maintains a home business in computer repair and says he is aware of dozens of at-home businesses in Carlisle. "It's staggering," he says. "It's the trend."
The two-income household
Kevin Brown of Hutchins Road, whose kids are now in second grade and kindergarten, was able to leave work two years ago thanks to the financial stability of a two-income household. Both he and his wife Natalie worked as semi-conductor sales engineers. They felt strongly "kids need someone here to answer questions, talk about things, and be involved in the school" and had decided that one or the other would stay home once their youngest started kindergarten. "I suspected it would be me," says Kevin, noting the difference in personalities. "I love to putter and enjoy seeing things get done around the house. My wife takes a lot of satisfaction out of work." He adds, "It didn't hurt that she made more money, but that didn't drive the decision."
First months can be tough
Brown admits the first year and a half at home were "kind of tough." He wasn't really plugged into the network of play dates and parents covering for each other. Some parents were reluctant to drop kids, especially girls, at his house. "In this day and age, society has taught us to be careful. I wish it were different times." He learned to schedule play dates, especially for his daughter, in which "mom came in for coffee." Hickman echoes his experience. "The most difficult part was not being a mom. I was looked at differently by the moms. It takes more time to be accepted." He recalls being confronted by an incredulous mother wondering, "Don't you work?"
Volunteer work was the road to acceptance for both Brown and Hickman. Brown's youngest started kindergarten this year, and he was free to devote more time to the school. "Being a school volunteer helped me be accepted, or get to know the right people." This year he co-chaired the CSA Gift Wrap Sale and is involved with the CEF/CSA Auction. He has also coached baseball, a game he played through college, done lunch duty, tutored math, co-taught (with Hickman) an electricity workshop at the school, and helped out with his daughter's Daisy troop. Next year he joins the CSA Board as fundraising chair. "I'm not afraid to get involved," he laughs.
Hickman, a former physicist, has also found that "People are comfortable now that they know me" through his volunteer work at the school. In addition to the electricity class, he assists with math workshops and Destination Imagination. He is also part of a parent group to drive the teaching of science. "Internationally, we are so far behind," he says.
Getting out of the house
Luby had weathered "previous interludes between jobs" and knew it was important to prepare for being at home by finding ways to get out of the house. He set out to accomplish three goals: 1) engage with the volunteer network, 2) develop skills beyond investments, including playing the piano, and 3) get a dog because "she always, always, always wants to go for walks." He has served on the Carlisle Conservation Foundation, the board of the Carlisle Mosquito, has volunteered with Trinity Church in Concord, and has coached various sports teams.
Since Bishop had interactions with business associates through meetings, he avoided the feeling of being isolated at home. In fact, he found the lack of a set work day caused him to overload, tying up even his weekends. "It took a while to figure out what I could and couldn't do." He also found volunteer work a useful avenue for "getting to know the culture of Carlisle." His involvement included president of the Red Balloon Preschool, Cub Scouts and volunteer work at the Carlisle School. "I love this town," he says, noting he never felt at any time part of "Lonelyville."
Knowing kids, providing a role model
Getting hold of these dads for interviews was tougher than if they had been working. They say they are surprised at how busy they are. Said Hickman, "I have a new appreciation for what it takes to be a caregiver. I marvel at moms who do jobs and also take care of kids." Bishop says, "I forget how families do it with one or two jobs." Even without commuting time or travel, "We're so incredibly busy." My own visit to the Brown household had to be postponed because one of the kids had been sick — and it was dad who had stayed up all night.
But whatever the drawbacks, these dads say they wouldn't change a thing. Compared to when he worked, "Our life is completely different," says Brown. "I see how close our family is. We've created balance — there's a lot more harmony." His being home "allows my wife not to worry. It's more of a team effort. It allows her to be better at doing her job." His wife Natalie is still home in time for dinner at six, after which the family takes time to play games together, read, or help with homework. Being home has "allowed me to get very close to my son and daughter through this hectic time of young birds spreading wings." He adds, "It has allowed me to be a good role model to both my kids. My daughter sees being a strong woman at work is not bad. My son sees a man in an untraditional role and that's okay."
Hickman contrasts his parenting today to his former experience as a traditional dad and says, "I just love being involved. It's very different. I now have a whole different appreciation for the value of being a parent." He adds, "Most dads miss out. It's just an exceptional experience to be as involved as I am in the boys' upbringing."
In addition to being "at school a lot," Bishop is able to make breakfast for his three, meet the bus, and be with them on early-release days and days off. "It would be hard to replicate how much I know them if I were only spending time with them on weekends. As it is, I see a lot more daily life with its ups and downs." Where he used to routinely travel several days a week, he says, "Now if I'm gone a day I feel like I'm missing out."
Luby handles most of the day-to-day, including grocery shopping and "90% of the driving, sports, appointments " While he says he always took his responsibility to the kids seriously, with his heavy travel schedule "I couldn't get to know the kids as well. Now I can be involved in a comprehensive way." His wife Carolynn notes, "He's much more in touch with the kids, who their friends are. Because we have boys, that definitely helps." She adds, "The best conversations are in the car driving somewhere," and now that Jay is the driver, "He's having those conversations every day."
Carving out their own space
Being at home has allowed the dads to grow, and pursue interests they otherwise never would have had time for. Luby, for example, loves to travel, and finally has the flexibility to do it. He has traveled on his own to Russia and India, and soon will arrive in Egypt. Family travel has also become easier, with trips to Alaska last year, and Peru and the Galapogos in the future. In addition, Luby enjoys getting together with friends to play golf.
Brown's time at home has allowed him to get into hobbies he has always loved, such as woodworking, vegetable gardening and landscaping. He has taught himself to build furniture using shop equipment inherited from his and Natalie's grandfathers. In addition, he enjoys being a volunteer fireman. "It's like being part of a team. It's my time to be with the guys."
Since leaving the corporate world, Bishop has added beekeeping, chicken farming, and maple syrup production to his resume, with his kids' help with the honey, eggs, and syrup. He says, "These are fun projects I don't think I would have had the time or the energy for [when commuting to work]." He also notes that he hadn't touched a tennis racket in 20 years. Now he plays regularly both to stay in shape, and to teach his kids the sport.
Fortunate dads love what they do
So should every dad who can, stay home? Those with egos tied up in the corporate world, who need easy socialization, or who don't enjoy home activities may not find it a fit. Hickman says it would be harder if he were young, "If I were thirty years younger I would worry how people look at me." But he points to the growing trend of home businesses and admits that attitude may be "my baggage" as he started work in the early 1960s "when all the women were home." Bishop says, "It's not for everyone. There're not hundreds to interact with (as in an office)." He adds, "It's not easy being out on your own with no corporate protection" and calls this "the cost of freedom." But, he says, "I have great flexibility, no commute, and no meetings or bosses. It works for us - I would never change it. I can't imagine commuting again, or being gone all week." He says that in the time he has been at home, "It's become more accepted, definitely" and points to the "two-thousand internet bubble" as a turning point when it became commonplace to work from home.
Brown says he tells dads who ask him about staying at home, "If you send your kids to private school, don't do it," because he feels the school volunteer network is so necessary for social support. His love of involvement with the kids and the school may be an inherited trait, "My dad was a high school teacher, and there's probably a part of me that's a frustrated teacher." While the role of at-home dad may not be for everyone, "I've enjoyed it from day one." And fear of acceptance? Brown says he's experienced the opposite, "A lot of guys are envious." He adds, "I think they should be. I love what I do."
Luby agrees. "How fortunate I feel to live the life I do," he says. "I strongly recommend it to anyone who can afford to do it."
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito