My Wife had grown accustomed to the phone calls. Those calls I would make between 4:30pm and 4:45pm more and more often. The ones that started with, “I’m sorry,” followed by my sigh and, “I’m going to have to stay late again.” Five o’clock was approaching too quickly. There was too much that needed to be done by the end of the day, which meant that the end of the day was going to stretch on past five until who-knows-when. Such, I thought, is the life of a salaried employee in corporate America in the 21st century.
As I reached for the phone, it rang. I glanced at the caller ID. It was my Wife, hopefully not calling to make sure that I was leaving on time. With luck, she was calling to tell me about something entertaining or wonderful that one of our three-year-old boy/girl twins had just done. As a stay-at-home mom, she was always good about letting me know when something exciting had happened at home, like a new word spoken or new feat achieved. Those were the calls that recharged my batteries on these too-long days.
“Hi Sweetie!” I said as I brought the phone to my ear, mechanically inserting some cheer into my voice to start the call on an up note before delivering the bad news.
She said just four words, but they would soon change my life forever. “I got the job!”
“Congratulations!” I heard myself cheer, my mind zooming off in a million different directions at once and then rushing back to the here and now.
She paused. “There’s just one catch. They want me to start next week.”
My heart sank. I stammered. I wasn’t sure what to say. My Wife had been waiting all summer for this call and it was beginning to seem unlikely that it was ever going to come. We had planned for her to stay home with the twins until they started elementary school, but then her dream job working for her alma mater had opened up and she felt compelled to try for it. This was not the kind of position that came along every year. The last person that held it stayed for a decade. Knowing this could be her only shot at the job for a very long time she had gone for it, not even sure if she would be seriously considered. Now it was hers! But what about the kids? It wasn’t like her parents or mine lived close enough that they could just pop over and watch them for a couple of weeks until we figured out childcare.
Filling the silence on my end of the line she stated, “This could be my career job. This could be where I stay for 25 or 30 years.”
“I know, but…” I trailed off. “Can we talk about this when I get home, tonight? It’s getting late and I still have a lot to do before I can leave.”
“Of course, Sweetie.” She said understandingly.
Before hanging up I added, “Hey, I love you… and I’m proud of you. Well done!”
That night, after putting the twins to bed, we sat down to try to figure out how we were going to make this work. We had kicked around some childcare options during the summer, but landing the job had seemed like such a hypothetical that we wanted to be careful not to get overly excited.
My wife got straight to the point. “I checked on the childcare offered at the university. It’s an option, but it’s presently full and there’s a waiting list. That’s okay though, because I think I’ve figured out the solution.” Then, she said the words that I will never forget, “We could trade places. You could stay home with the kids.”
Suddenly, I am 12-years-old again sitting on the back porch with my Dad in rural Ohio. The sun has just set peacefully across the corn fields that stretch on for miles. The crickets are chirping. My Dad is explaining to me, my older brother and younger sister that in the months since his father’s death he has come to realize how much he regrets having worked two jobs during our early childhoods. He says that his Dad – who had died of a massive heart attack on the assembly room floor of the automotive plant he worked at for 40 years, just one week before retirement – had spent his life talking about the things he was going to do after he retired; the things the two of them would do together. My Dad announces that he feels like he owes it to himself and to us not to repeat what he has come to see as his father’s mistake. He is done with telling us about the things that we will all do someday when he doesn’t work so much. “I’d always felt like I needed to get ahead,” he says. Then, in a voice heavy with remorse he adds, “No amount of money was worth the time that I won’t get back with you guys.” He concludes definitively, “I’m quitting my evening and weekend job to spend more time at home. We can get by. It’s the time with you guys that matters.”
I snapped back to the moment. Without another thought or second’s hesitation I stated with determination, “Let’s do it.”
It has been a year-and-a-half since that night and I’ve never looked back. We were able to convince my Wife’s alma mater that she was worth waiting a few weeks for, so I could give proper notice to my company – a company that I cared about or would not have struggled through all those long days and sometimes nights and weekends to give it my best work.
My kids are four now and started preschool last fall. We made the decision to put them into a cooperative preschool so that I would get to participate in this milestone with them. Even better, I had them at home with me for a whole year, last year. I will forever cherish that time – and this time – with my children. I never thought that I would get to have such a close relationship with them as I have grown to, that I could share so much of myself with them as I get to, or that my heart could be filled with such joy by an opportunity that I didn’t even know I wanted until it presented itself to me.
I am grateful to my Wife for the gift she has given me. Like I was, she is a salaried employee. She still has some late evenings, but fortunately for our family she took a lesson from all late nights she saw me put in during our children’s first three years and has drawn very clear boundaries for her job. She is using some of her vacation days to work at the co-op. She’s making time for the important things.
My Dad and I have spoken many times about my decision to stay home with the kids. He is wildly happy for me. He’s pleased that I value the time I gained with him when he started spending more time at home to the extent that it made me make a big change in my own life.
If there is one thing that I’ve learned from this whole experience, it is this: We only get one shot at being parents and our children only get one childhood. There are no do-overs, but it’s never too late shift our priorities, change our course and become more like the parent we dream of being.