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Insights for modern men from a stay-at-home Dad (Bryan Hansen)

Editor’s note:  I’m glad to be back (family camping last week!) and I’m also excited to kick off a series of articles about fathers who generally feel good about life.  Yes, they do exist!  We’ll hear how they dance between their long-term relationships, being a parent, working, staying healthy, and other aspects of life.  Bryan is a stay-at-home father in San Francisco.  Today only 1% of husbands in married-couple families stay at home full-time (US Census 2012, Fig. 9).

But many Dads face the same challenges as stay-at-home fathers when it comes to parenting young children, and they are touched on below:  how to renew yourself, reflect, find parenting mentors, deal with social isolation, and find meaning.  When I spoke with him in person, Bryan exuded self-confidence, poise, thoughtfulness, physical and mental strength, and what some psychologists have described as a “mature masculine” focus on nurturing and coaching.  We hope you enjoy this interview.  Please share any comments (anonymously if you wish) – what resonated with you and why?

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Where did you grow up and what were some of the highlights of your career before you became a stay-at-home father?

I’m forty-three years old.  I grew up in Kansas.  Then we moved and I went to high school in Danville [East of Oakland].  I went to college at the University of Arizona, and then my first job was with ABC Sports.  Loved it, worked as a production assistant on college football games.  But after a while, the novelty wore off – and the schedule was grueling, lots of travel, working holidays, and was making under $30K but living in New York City.  Then I heard about my buddies from college who had moved to the Bay Area, had good jobs, and said, “I have to get myself out there.”

I worked in wireless – Nextel – sales were taking off.  Worked another ten years or so.  My wife and I got married in 2005.  In 2007 we had our first son, and at the time, Sprint had bought Nextel and I didn’t like how my job was after the merger.  I started looking for other jobs, then decided to quit.

How did you decide to become a stay-at-home Dad?  What’s your family situation now?

Around then, my wife’s maternity leave ended – she’s also in sales for [a local technology company] – it’s criminal how short family leaves are in this country.  A woman has a baby, then has to go back to the office within months.  And it’s not paid, or barely paid.  That is a critical bonding time with the baby.  You can look at other countries, like the Scandinavian ones at an extreme – they provide au pairs, there’s pad time off for the dad.

We had already decided that one of us would stay at home.  Felt it was that important to our children’s development.  I guess I never thought that it’d be me staying home.  And with what I’ve done, the first six months are so important.  After a while, it was going well with me at home.  And we could afford to live off her salary; not easy, this is an expensive city.

Now, we have two boys, ages four and six.  I do almost all the chores, except the bills.  My wife also on a usual day takes over after dinner.  That’s my veg-out time, watch a game or go online for a while.  I do the cleaning, cooking, errands during the day.  All the social planning, the school involvement.  If a parent needs to bake muffins and bring them to school?  That’s me.

How do you feel about being a man?  About your father’s parenting?

Well, you have to deal with this, if you were a second breadwinner.  But what job is so important that it’s worth doing – if you can afford not to – instead of raising your kids?

My dad was the same as yours – what I’d call a “1950s Dad” – or maybe we can coin a new word for that way of being a Dad? – the guy makes the money, provides for your family.  My Dad was often gone; tons of travel.  When he was home, it was newspaper, wide open [gestures as if obscuring his face and chest].  I’d be like, [mimes peering around the newspaper] “Uh Dad, I’m here!”

Now I’m teaching my kids how to throw a ball.  With me, the boys went from balance bikes to pedals – both before they turned four.  We went on a kindergarten Dad’s camping trip – my Dad never showed me how to pitch a tent.

I’ve been showing them things that my father never showed me, that I wish he had.  Throwing a baseball, batting, swimming, how to ride bikes.  Or when I was older, what a mortgage – personal finance – was all about.

I sometimes wonder, why on earth would he not teach me these things?  What was he doing that was so important that he couldn’t teach me?  I don’t want to knock him – he was coming from a perspective, providing for his family.  He had a successful career – excelled at what he did.  I’m not going to beat him up over it.

You seem to have a confident approach to discipline.  How did that come about?

Discipline is important.  By that I mean teaching them routines and a sense of right and wrong.  When they do something wrong, how you discipline.  For instance, when I’m at the park, I see some nannies taking care of the kids.  The kid does something bad and I see them grab the kids arm, hard like this.  You don’t know what their family background is, their temper.  I’ve seen some nannies even shake the kids they’re taking care of.  So for spanking and punishments like that, I’ve always been a believer there’s never a reason to raise your voice or hit a kid.  I do a lot of hand on the shoulder, get down on the ground, and talk in mellow voice.

I learned a lot from playing high school basketball, and then as a manager for the University of Arizona team.  You learn the manners, and learn from great coaches who teach the right and wrong ways to talk to somebody.  Especially with star players, the egos.

But I’ve also failed – also lost my cool.  I know how awful that made me feel.  Like, “Oh my God, why did I raise my voice when this happened?  I should have handled this differently.”  So what I try to do in difficult situations is: take a breath, talk to the kids, at their level, look them in the eye.  Show them respect.  I say “sir” to them all the time.  Some grownups think that’s funny but I think that’s really the attitude you have to have.

How do you reflect and renew?

I talk almost every night with my wife.  She and I have a very solid relationship.  She’s my sounding board.  We have a date night two Saturdays a month.

We also do “high-low” with the boys:  I ask them to tell me something they liked today, and then something they didn’t.  We also review the day – what we did, where, and that sometimes gives us ideas for high-low.  We might say, “We went to school, then lunch, then the park.  Oh yeah, my high was going to the park, my low was whatever.”  And so when I review the day, I might catch something like, “Oh remember when I raised my voice at you, when you spilled your drink?”  And then I apologize to the kids for that.

When I became a father, it felt like, all of a sudden I’m in this role that my Dad didn’t do, I had no prep for it.  There’s the isolation, feeling lonely, being with kids who are mono-syllabic all day long.  You’ve taken on this job and you can’t – it’s hard to express – I used to be extremely tired each day when the boys were in diapers.  As a man, I don’t think you really know how to communicate that you’re extremely tired or unfulfilled.  Or that you have spit up all over your clothing, haven’t’ showered in a while.

Now that they’re older I have a good routine.  I like to swim, three days a week.  On two of those mornings, we have a sitter so I can go to the gym.  They drive them to school, watch them.  There’s a crew of guys that I swim with, we go to the JCC [Jewish Community Center], swim 3,000 or 3,500 yards, then get coffee afterwards.  It’s guys’ time, and it’s invaluable.  Most of them are recovering triathletes like me.

I love the benefits of swimming.  On the days that I do swim, I’m much more casual with my sons, in a much better place.  Probably more relaxed, and fall on the side of humor rather than escalating my temper.

I also ride my bike on Saturday mornings, with another group of guys.  So I find it’s really important to do something regular, and that adds a social dimension.  Many of them are Dads also.

Have you ever joined a mother’s group or father’s group?

No.  We’ve gone it alone.  I’ve always seen the mother’s groups at the parks.  Went to some early on.  The first time, I’d feel welcome – you know, Bryan’s the stay-at -home Dad.  But the second time you go, all they wanted to do was gossip, kvetch.  I’m sorry but that’s what it was like.

So I stopped going to those.  We don’t have any support network, in a traditional sense.  There is the Golden Gate Mothers Group, and it’s huge.  But it’s been a zero resource for me.  Whereas many moms, they find a playmate for their kids, meet and get drinks together.  I’ve been self-sufficient.  I’d love to go to a Dad’s group.

What other family values or priorities do you have as a parent?

Doing the right thing.  Teaching the boys how to be nice to other people.  To think of other people’s feelings.  To think of how you’d want to be treated – empathy!

Some parents get so caught up in what their kids are eating, getting their shoes on to get out the door – daily grind, backpack and jacket – you know, you can lose sight of what’s important.  And as a stay at home Dad, you catch those teachable moments.  You can be there as an advisor when problems arise.

Where did you learn parenting?  Role models or guiding north stars? 

Learned from my wife – we overlapped when she was still on maternity leave, I was at home, too.  Found a great book on sleeping and routines (Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child, by Weissbluth), and another on child development (It’s a Boy, by Thompson and Barker).  Sleeping is not something we learn; it has to be taught.  The best gift you can give a kid is – not a natural diaper wipe or the organic baby food – how to teach them to sleep correctly.  Time and time again, it’s been looked at and studies find that kids that do well in college had good sleep habits.  This book taught us a lot about rhythms.  It’s also gives you a good introduction to a topic quickly, so you don’t have to read tons.  You meet people who say, “Our kids, they stay up until nine o’clock; they’re fine.”  Or friends we know, their kids are always sleeping in the stroller.  I say, “Oh really, they’re doing that great?  No, you’re kids are sleep-deprived.”

I don’t have a religious framework.  I take from a lot of different places – other guys that have children, like some of my close buddies, I like how they model their home lives, their relationships with their sons.  Couple of the guys I swim with are just outstanding human beings.  One’s a lawyer, couldn’t be more ethical, polite.

Lute Olson, he was the head coach at Arizona when I was there.  Very admirable.  We had an assistant coach, too – we went to the Final Four my senior year, so I really saw the progression of teamwork, won 30 games in one year.

In college basketball teams, it’s a family – ten players, four or five managers, four or five coaches.  Very small compared to football.  Since you went to Duke, I can compare Lute Olson and Jim Rosborough to Coach K [Krzyzewski].  Great men of high integrity.  They don’t need to pay the players.  During college recruiting, Coach K walks into the player’s living room at home, tells the mom, “I’m going to take care of your son.  He’s going to graduate.”  Coach K will tell them what a Mom wants to hear, what kind of man he’s going to be when he graduates.  He’ll have a degree, with no debt.  Then he looks at the Dad, and says, “Your son is going to be one of the best D1 players in the country.  We’re going to get him ready for the NBA.”  That’s how they get these kids – they care for the college players as people.  Care about how they hold themselves, their education, their career.  So I look at high-integrity people like that.

How have you changed since becoming a father? 

I used to be a completely selfish single person.  I did triathlons.  I was totally into myself.  There’s so much training involved.  I love that now I’m focused on family first, focused on these boys – I’m not self-centered.  It’s really opened up the idea of family for me.  How wonderful and important it is to teach the boys things.  How lucky I am to be doing this.

My stance towards money at home has changed.  I had been working for so long, getting a paycheck.  Now it suddenly feels like, “Hey can I buy this?”  Former breadwinner, but now not getting a paycheck – that’s an interesting thing.  In marriage you already have a lot of give and take going on.  Then you bring two kids into the equation.  Spending money becomes different – I rationalize things like, “Maybe I don’t need a new pair of shoes.”  That’s a big change for a stay-home Dad, not getting a paycheck.

Any other advice you would give men with young kids?

For getting through the early years – a lot of it is on-the-job training.  It’s stressful – you don’t know what you’re doing.  I try to use a lot of humor – like, “Oh my god, I just completely [messed] that up.” [smiles].  If I made a mistake – try to see it as a riot.  Don’t beat yourself up.   But the mistake is on me.  I can’t deny it.

You know, some guys I know will purposely [mess] up changing a diaper, so the woman has to change it.  She gives up and stops asking him.  I think that’s ridiculous.  But the balance is changing towards guys doing more.

One thing I love about my wife, she’s great about communicating.  I’m a typical cave man guy – I always joke, I love to bottle it up and learn to hate you.  So the advice I’d give is to talk about it – how you’re feeling.  I still have to work at it.  But the last thing you want is some smoldering disagreement.

It’s important to think of [at-home] parenting as a job.  I have buddies who say, “What do they do all day, the stay-at-home mothers?”  I feel like you should never say that unless you actually know what they do.  I say, “Dude, let your wife go away for a week, do everything yourself.  Don’t talk about it unless you really see what the job entails.”  I also hear men say the opposite:  “I’d love to do your job.  It must be easy – surf the web, ride your bike a ton.”

School at the boys’ ages lasts only three hours – Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  That’s barely enough time to cook or get groceries or take a shower.  I feel a bit bitter that people don’t appreciate the work enough.  We’ve lost the big community of people to help you with it.

When we grew up, you had the church down the street, aunts and uncles down the street.  Doors were open all the time.  Moms and Dads and PTAs.  My mom had a built-in support group to work with.

But now, and especially in a city like this, there are so many professionals, and transplants here, so we’ve moved away from traditional system.  A lot of people in search of careers here.  They get married late, have kids late, and don’t have that community of support.

Editor’s Note:  This interview was edited for clarity.  If you enjoyed this interview, you may like this report about American stay-at-home fathers, as well as several others in the New Dad series by researchers primarily based at the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

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