We live in an era where the secret to popularity is being unpopular. Need I trot out the President of the United States as proof? The man is president precisely because he is unpopular. It’s what made him popular. There is a sizable portion of the electorate whose sole motivation for voting a particular way is that it pisses off a lot of other people. I should know, I did exactly this myself. I voted NDP in the last Alberta provincial election just to see the hordes of infighting conservatives that blanket this province simultaneously detonate in self-righteous bewilderment. Totally worth it.
More typically, unpopularity begetting popularity is the domain of populists, most of whom currently feel at home in right-leaning political parties. And there’s no quicker way to ingratiate yourself to those who wish society had stopped evolving circa 1953 than by being politically incorrect. Pissing off progressives is meat and potatoes for conservatives and an irresistible treat for the disenfranchised looking for someone to blame.
This is far from just an American phenomenon. Examples abound worldwide. Even we supposedly benign Canadians have popularly elected unpopular politicians at several levels of government with more surely to come in the new year. Not one, but TWO Ford brothers were elected thusly. Alberta will undoubtedly vote Kenney and his band of merry nostalgists back into power in May, a last laugh at my expense. One could even argue that Trudeau is a product of this same phenomenon but in reverse with him being so excessively politically correct that many vote Liberal just to piss off conservatives.
Politics aside, being unpopular is also a trendy hobby for regular folk like you and me. More than a few of you tilt toward the batshit crazy side of things, racking up likes on social media by sharing egregiously unpopular memes and trolling comment sections. But even the benevolent among us enjoy a mischievous dalliance with political incorrectness now and then; a tiptoe through the wildside tulips to keep others from getting complacent with our good-naturedness.
Those of you who, unlike me, are not titans of social media, might not fully appreciate the popularity of this Unpopular Opinion game. Every few weeks, a hashtag on Twitter or a Facebook meme makes the rounds asking readers to share unpopular opinions. Reddit has an entire subs dedicated entirely to this pursuit.
Many such unpopular opinions are amiable enough with gleeful pranksters commenting on the legitimacy of Hawaiian pizza, for example. There are always plenty of contentious remarks relating to pop culture franchises with cult followings like Star Wars and the like. And, yes, there inevitably exists a veritable cesspool writhing with every politically incorrect social viewpoint imaginable. Nonetheless, with a modest amount of care, the Unpopular Opinion game is a guilty pleasure that’s hard not to scratch.
Here’s my unpopular opinion. Well, one of them anyway. It is by no means witty or insightful but rather a head-first leap into the rock-strewn, deep-end of the politically incorrect swimming hole.
“If you can’t be bothered to raise your kids, you shouldn’t have them in the first place.”
I know! Isn’t it delightfully fifties-ish? A flashback to a pearly-white golden age of men being men and everyone else being all the better for it. An impetus for Conservative wet dreams full of Leave It to Beaver reruns, women in the kitchen, and smoking cigarettes at your office desk.
To a stranger, it’s an unsurprising sentiment coming from a middle-aged, white guy. To those who know me, it’s (hopefully) a bit of an eyebrow raiser. To me, it’s a brash judgment that I fundamentally know is unfair but one that I just can’t shake from the moldy recesses of my mind.
As a stay-at-home dad for more than ten years now, I’ve always felt I earned some leeway in thinking this way. As if my chosen parenting situation conferred upon me a special virtue with which to critique others’ choices. I was, after all, walking the walk. Surely this gave me a hall pass for blanket judgements.
Those judgments came quick and frequent. No sooner had I announced I was quitting work to become a stay-at-home dad, myriad opportunities to judge arose. First in queue were many of my coworkers, mostly men with older or grown children, who lauded my choice and proclaimed that I would not regret spending so much time with my children. High praise coming from men who themselves did not do similarly nor would they now, if given the chance. I knew my decision was still far from the norm, but the false acclaim irritated me.
It didn’t take long for my judgements to gain factual support. As I settled into my new career, it became obvious that not only were men not doing this, but neither were many women. I would regularly push my daughter in her stroller to the various community playgrounds and parks near our home to get some fresh air, exercise, the chance to play, and, presumably, encounter other parents living the stay-at-home lifestyle. Instead, I found nothing but empty public spaces. Over the space of several years, I can literally count the number of other parents with children I ran into during work hours on a single hand. It was only upon joining a parent-tot playgroup, in a neighbouring community, that I finally met other at home parents.
I would meet more when my children entered school but together we remained by a significant minority. One thing was clear. Having kids was an undoubtedly popular pastime; raising them, decidedly not. As this reality further sunk in, I questioned why people were even having kids. Not out loud, of course. And certainly not to their faces. Just inside my head, as good Judgie McJudgiefaces do.
To my cynical eyes, most parents seemed dead set on spending as little time with their own kids as possible. Oh, the moms would take their yearlong maternity leave and, sure, most dads took a bunch of holidays to help out right after birth. But beyond that, it seemed like most everyone couldn’t wait to get the hell away from their little, sentient creations.
And by no means was this entirely a financial necessity. This was particularly true of my peer group and many in my neighbourhood, a decidedly successful and monetarily secure lot. I knew all too clearly what I had walked away from in terms of income and I was equally aware of what my wife made, she being in the same line of work I had left. Listening to families with dual incomes equivalent (or surpassing) my wife’s suggest they “needed” to work sent the judgement center of my brain into alight. In my mind, they didn’t “need” to work, they needed to re-evaluate priorities and spending habits.
When disruptions to employment did surface, and lords knows in Calgary that happened often over the last few years, I would covertly roll my eyes as otherwise wonderful people would lament having to let go of their nanny, dial back a second home renovation, and/or postpone a lavish vacation. It all seemed so entitled.
This was especially true of the nanny nonsense. In my mind, why did they have a nanny in the first place? Why have kids and then hire someone else to raise them for you? If career and money was that big of a priority, why not just forego having the kids. There’s eight billion people on the planet. We’re hardly suffering a shortage of humans.
By the time I reached peak judgement, I was genuinely disgusted with many of my friends and neighbours and our society in general. Everyone seemed so completely self-absorbed and void of basic sense. We were all rich by any global measure and we couldn’t bring ourselves to set those paycheques aside for even a few years of child-rearing. You can make salient arguments about working when the kids are in school full days, but those 0 to 5 years? How can you determine you want children and not be bothered to parent them during those years? It boggled my mind.
I even saved an exceptionally toxic dose of my self-righteous ire for those parents who did stay home but spent that time complaining about how they needed to get back to work. They needed adult conversation. They needed a sense of self. They needed a career, either back or anew. It drove me insane. I felt like they were at once kindred souls but also traitors. I couldn’t understand their reasoning and what was to me, pure selfishness.
Sure, I knew being a homemaker was sometimes a thankless job. It could be draining being alone so much and having two little beings “no” constantly. I was also well aware that I was sacrificing a lot to do this. I knew I would eventually make myself obsolete in my chosen profession. Which I ultimately did. But that was a reasonable cost, wasn’t it? I was raising our offspring. Was anything more important than that?
Apparently, yes. In fact, almost anything was more important than that based on what I was witnessing around me. So I secretly stuck my nose up in the air and convinced myself of my own martyrdom and resorted to smiles and nods as others extoled their desires to “get out”.
Then a funny thing happened. My kids grew, started school and eventually reached a point where they spent six plus hours a day away from me. I professed elation at the time, thinking life would be pretty awesome with so much freedom. I could relax, do better at keeping house, and I’d have all this time to help out with, well, everything.
But with each passing grade there were fewer volunteer opportunities at the kids’ schools. And with each passing year there were fewer requests for my assistance. They were becoming ever more independent. They had friends to play with and solitary pursuits they enjoyed. They even learned to read for Christ sake. If it weren’t illegal for children to drive, I’m sure most days they wouldn’t need me at all.
I found myself completely alone with nothing to do besides keeping house. I’ll let you in on a little secret … it ain’t rewarding work. Then one day I learned I was nothing.
I help coach my kids’ hockey teams. I didn’t set out to do this, but circumstances sucked me in like a blackhole and there has been no turning back. “Coaches meetings” are a time-honoured tradition whereby the volunteer dads coaching each particular team scurry off to the local watering hole to talk about pretty much everything except coaching. It’s a fun outing and often a needed exercise for people who have otherwise never met.
My sons’ team this year has a coaching staff who are mostly strangers and so our first coaches meeting was a great opportunity to get to know each other a bit before embarking on our six-month hockey journey together. The beers arrived, then the nachos and wings, and we finally we took turns sharing what we do for a living. As expected, I was the outlier. Each of these men, these dads, had a job, of course. I was just a stay-at-home dad; a stay-at-home dad of a nine and an eleven year old.
When your kids are babies and toddlers and pre-schoolers, being a stay-at-home parent is a job. Nobody refutes this. But by the time those kids are pushing double digits, any pretext of “job” has left the equation. What I was doing was no longer earth-shattering or even strenuous. I shuttled my kids to sports and, in this case, volunteered my time to help coach. Exactly like these guys were doing. Only they did this in addition to their jobs. By contrast I seemed lazy. A twenty-first century Peg Bundy with a penis.
As the beers were refilled, conversation eventually broke up into smaller groups. Two across the table from me and two beside me, both duos talking shop and sharing tales from work and life. I sat alone. I had nothing to add and nobody was interested in how I cleaned the house or did the laundry. I even found myself ashamed of my blogging. I was just a stay-at-home dad to school-aged children with no war stories to share.
The walk home from the bar that night was one of the loneliest I’ve ever had. I felt like a complete non-entity. I had given up everything I was to be at home with my kids and they had turned around and grown up and took that away from me. I was bored. I had no career. I had no passions. I had no future. I was … nothing.
I was also an asshole and had been for some time.
I now understood what those women were feeling. I understood what drove them back to work. I still believe we are too quick to return to our adult lives after our children are born. I really believe we could sacrifice a bit more to be with them those first few years rather than shipping them off to daycares or hiring nannies. In the grand scheme of things, five years is a short time. An amazing, invaluable time … and oh so short. Why do we so willingly dodge it?
But the desire to return to work? To be something. To contribute. To participate in something meaningful, something beyond household chores? That’s a very real need and one I judged far too readily. I still feel lost. I still struggle to find a path forward. One without my kids as my raison d’être. It’ll have to be a new path for the old one, the one I quit, is no longer passable.
I don’t regret the choice I made. I hope it has done my kids some good and when they are all grown up, I hope they will be grateful for the childhood I provided them, mistakes and all. But it’s time for me to be something again. I wish I’d been a little more compassionate to those who realized this need before I did.