As we continue our exploration of the different working arrangements modern parents choose, we've been reflecting on the need for more male voices in this discussion. This week, we're sharing a reflection by history professor and father of three, Jordan Stanger-Ross, who has come up with (and coined a name for!) a flexible way of working that will alarm the night owls among us. And stay tuned next week, when we share the thoughts of an expectant stay-at-home dad.
My colleague Jim inadvertently changed how I organize my life. Jim teaches in my department at the university, but I don’t know him especially well. We don’t often discuss our work. When eating an apple, he consumes it entirely, including the pit, stem, and core. And, one summer evening in the dull orange-toned hallway outside our offices, he gave a sad mutter, only half addressed to me, that sort of broke my heart. And as a result, I made a radical adjustment to my alarm clock that now defines my parenting: I’m the dad who works from 5:30 AM to 2:00 PM (DWWF5.5-2) so I can pick up my kids after school every day.
On the summer evening in question, my wife, Ilana, and I had popped up to the university with our daughter Eva, then only two years old, to retrieve mail from my wood cubby in the departmental office. It was fun in those days to take Eva up to work, because the campus was populated by thousands of feral rabbits (an infestation later eradicated by the administration) and we lived nearby. Eva—a late walker—was toddling down the hallway when she practically stumbled into Jim. He had on, as he often does, a tired look, the face of a long day’s work. Eva, as she always does, had on her tight curls and eyes that smile. Jim looked down and slowly remarked, “What an age. I’d give anything for just one moment with my children again, when they were young.” It is the kind of thing a person might say thoughtlessly: “I’d give anything.” But when Jim spoke the words—not to me in particular, but rather letting them fade into the special kind of emptiness that fills a university hallway when the students are away—he seemed to mean them. It seemed like he really would give anything.
Jim wasn’t alone. I’ve heard it often and elsewhere: time flies. I’ll never forget my first drop-off, Eva in a line of colorful backpacks by the beige school wall. Once the kids start school, you enter a time warp that spits out a high school graduate, eager to move out and on to real life.
I wasn’t down with that. Not at all.
I can’t remember a time before I wanted to be a father. As a kid—even during my little-sister-torturing early teenage years—I always loved younger kids. As I grew older, I realized that this was a selfish love. As a camp counselor, I found that I could draw from kids and gain a kind of energy that I couldn’t find elsewhere. I could experience them without judging them. And, if I turned off a part of myself, I felt enlivened. So, when it came to my own kids, I couldn’t let time slip past. I felt like I had waited a long time to be a dad, even if, in fact, I hadn’t waited as long as most (Ilana and I were only 29). This experience wasn’t going to flit past while I was busy elsewhere.
Once the kids start school, you enter a time warp that spits out a high school graduate, eager to move out and on to real life. I wasn’t down with that. Not at all.
No, I wanted to slow the clock. The trick, I decided, was to get them every day after school and to spend long afternoons in their company. Head to the beach. Hang at home. Shop for and cook dinner. Not for the benefit of my kids—many of our friends have theirs in after-school programs that seem great—but rather for myself. I wanted time. But how could I stop every day at 2:00 PM to make school pick-up?
Not working, working part time, taking it easy at work—these were not options for me. It’s not that I rejected those possibilities: rather, I didn’t give them a moment of thought. Not because I love my work (I don’t really know what that term means when applied to a job, although I trust other people when they say they experience such feelings), but rather because professor work is just kind of what I do. Reading, writing, teaching, grading, grant-fund applying, department-meeting: this is the stuff of my days. Due to a lack of imagination on my part—my parents were both professors, so I went into the family business—I can’t really imagine my days filled with anything else.
Another priority: to support my wife in her demanding and amazing career as a midwife. Unlike, say, history professor, midwife is the kind of job in which deadlines are not extended. She’s needed . . . precisely . . . when . . . she . . . is . . . needed. As in now. This means that, at least in theory, I need to be available always. School drop off and pick up. Hebrew School runs. Swimming lessons. Ilana can often do all of these things. But it is always a possibility that she cannot. And so, at least until we have raised a kid big enough to babysit, I needed to be on-call as well.
So, I wanted to parent as full time as possible, go full throttle history professor, and be available whenever the pager went off. I needed to steal time. The answer, I decided, was DWWF5.5-2. Set the alarm clock alarmingly early. Stumble down stairs, ideally to a decent espresso rig. Get to work while the kids and Ilana were still sleeping. Be available for the morning routine, if needed, but otherwise work at home until nine or tennish—for me that’s writing time—and then go to work for teaching, meetings, etc. And then, at 2:00, turn into a pumpkin. Or maybe it is the computer that does? Anyway, I set as hard a line as possible: if it is after 2:00 PM I can’t make it. Or at least I can’t promise to make it unless I know the pager is quiet. DWWF5.5-2.
Having a job that allows me to set my own schedule—and in particular one in which curmudgeonly idiosyncrasies are widespread and tolerated, if not outright valorized—helps to make this choice possible. I don’t know how many other jobs permit similar self-scheduling, but it seems to me that the option is increasingly common. Surely most of my brothers in home offices could consider a similar schedule.
I’m conscious too that it may easier for me as a man to draw this kind of line at work. I can wear my dad-duties as a badge of pride in the workplace—isn’t he enlightened for declining a meeting for school pick-up!—whereas my mom counterparts may feel the opposite burden, to prove that being a mother doesn’t compromise their commitment to work. I’m not sure what to do with that irony, if indeed my most meaningfully feminist life-choice (to support my working wife by contributing domestically) is also an exercise of male privilege, except to acknowledge it.
I can wear my dad-duties as a badge of pride in the workplace—isn’t he enlightened for declining a meeting for school pick-up!—whereas my mom counterparts may feel the opposite burden.
My schedule does generate some friction at work. DWWF5.5-2 does bump up against university culture, at times. For example, I was recently invited to a session for prospective leaders on campus, that is, for people who could be envisioned as part of the administration. The message there was pretty clear: if you want to play leadership roles, you can’t set your own schedule. You’ll need someone else to shoulder childcare. Many women in the room expressed concern, but the message struck home for me too: you can’t be a DWWF5.5-2er and move into university administration. Even if I had wanted that route, it’s just not something I can do, not, at least, until the kids are grown.
Is it working? Has the clock slowed? Will I gaze mournfully, in 10-15 years, at passing toddlers? The jury is still out, I suppose. With our third child, Avi, only 5-years-old, and Tillie, at 11, still delightfully more interested in an afternoon with her pops than taking-in the local mall-scene, I’m still immersed in little-kid energy. I’m right in the midst of it all. Still, I can’t imagine that a decade from now I’ll feel it somehow slipped away from me. Being a dad is so central to my every day that I can’t imagine feeling that I missed it, that I’d give anything to go back. When the kids are grown, I think I’ll be ready for that adventure too. Then maybe I’ll turn off the alarm clock, stay up as late as I like, have breakfast with Ilana, and head out the door with her at the start the work day. I think I could get pretty used to that as well.
#MINDRPAPA Jordan Stanger-Ross is an associate professor of history at the University of Victoria and the father of three awesome kids.