My wife returned to full-time work in early December, and since we were only able to find half-time childcare for our two-year-old, I’ve been working freelance part-time and spending my afternoons as the primary parent. It’s been exhausting, rewarding, terrifying, and exhilarating. A quick summary of my experience thus far follows.

I earned less on an annualized basis in January and February than I ever have in my professional career. Even combined with my wife’s salary, our earnings were probably 10% below what would feel like a “sustainable” level. We had saved up a 5-month cushion, however, so we’ve only modestly drawn that down, and March-April are looking better; with projects that I already have lined up, I expect to be around or just above our break-even, and our combined annualized earnings should be close to where they were last year. Since kiddo will start full-time childcare in April, I expect to be able to improve on that a bit going forward.

Emotionally: A roller coaster. High points have been a deepened relationship with my daughter, and the flexibility to respond to her schedule. If she wants to play in the gym for an hour after school, or even just goof around in the car pretending to pull monkeys off of the roof for 20 minutes before getting into her seat, I can roll with that. Even when I take her to school, I can usually spend an extra 10-15 minutes to read her one or two books in the classroom before I leave. We don’t need to fight about my priorities over hers. I am grateful for her “poor short-term memory” as well; even if she wasn’t happy with me yesterday, if I can do good character voices for the books she wants to read, come up with fun games, and be engaging today, all is forgiven. I feel selfish at times; should I be providing more for her financially, but doing less playing? Should I be setting more of an example of “responsibility” and that her interests don’t/can’t take precedence so frequently? On the other hand, I hope that the daily reinforcement that she is my number one priority, always, will somehow pay off when teenage years hit/other challenges come up and she wonders if her parents understand or care, even if she doesn’t remember the particulars of hiding from dinosaurs, pretending to take splinters out of my fingers, or checking the buckets on the maple trees for sap. There are also moments of at least some external validation, like when her pre-school teachers said “Every little girl should have a dad as dedicated as you,” that maybe make up for the lack of “prestige” associated with this work.

Operationally”: I don’t feel like I’ve really “found a rhythm”. I have multiple small longer-term projects that I’m not getting done (including marketing/outreach to prospective clients, professional development, and reading/writing), my exercise consists primarily of walking the dogs and playing with the kid, and the house is a mess because I’m trying to maximize the time that I get paid for when I’m not responsible for the kid. But three months in, we’re still afloat, she recognizes all her letters and most of her numbers, and asks for me nearly as often as her mom.

Net assessment: Personally, it’s been worth the challenges and stress. If I can continue to bring on sufficient client work to make this financially viable, with a little bit of cushion, I’d love to keep it up until she’s in kindergarten. Being able to (even occasionally) decide to pick her up early from school and have Daddy/daughter time feels more important, and as I think about the next 30+ years of my career before retirement, I don’t think “missing out” on 3 years of more conventional advancement is a huge price to pay for that opportunity. I wish more Dads were free and able to spend this kind of quality time with their kids. I also wish that high-quality early child care were available enough that we hadn’t been forced into it. Reading a bit about the mental health challenges facing men, though, besides early childcare, I do wonder if a better society would be one that normalized Mom as primary caregiver for the first 1-2 years (during prime nursing stages), and then Dad takes from age two to four or five. At the risk of stereotyping, even men without STEM degrees tend to be good at horsing around with their toddlers, coming up with gross motor games, and doing silly voices. If childcare were viewed as more prestigious (and it seems like it could be— what parent doesn’t take pride in a high-achieving, competent child already? Why wouldn’t they want to be a direct contributor to that success in a more-than-biological sense, if it ), perhaps it would be possible to hire dads or father-figures to be more involved. Should they want to without payment? Maybe. But if it would improve adult outcomes for kids to have more engaged dads, there’s a reasonable economic argument to pay for the service.


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