I met Greg at the gym nearly eighteen years ago as we lifted twenty-pound weights: our one-year-old daughters. For this was The Little Gym, and we were new stay-at-home dads taking a mom-dominated class for parents and toddlers. We became fast friends when one of Greg’s earliest stories showed me his integrity. He calmly explained that he regularly drives for twenty hours with his in-laws for family vacations to Florida. With no complaint.
Greg and I have had the luxury of leading parallel lives ever since, with another set of daughters arriving two years later. The result? Two men, four girls, and over a decade of sporting activities. We swam, we sledded, we skated, we repeated. As the girls became teens, their interests and social lives diverged, but that didn’t stop Greg and me from continuing to meet for a beer and compare notes. Like countless stay-at-home moms in the past, we have supported each other through many hard-won milestones, including the gradual re-entry into employment several years ago.
In other words, we have been there and wiped that.
Recently, however, our firstborns left for college out-of-state, and the impact continues to reverberate. I had learned long ago the value of reading unfairly labeled “mommy blogs,” so I knew that the college drop-off, which is hard enough for mothers, can often shock emotionally underprepared fathers. (The blog posts also taught me lesser-known items to pack.)
Surprisingly, my daughter’s move-in happened efficiently and without much emotion. A crew of upper-class students helped carry our belongings and one of my daughter’s roommates moved in at the same time. As the roommate’s mother observed me unpacking various items, she said I was “obviously well-organized.” I thanked her and smiled inside and out. As a veteran stay-at-home father, I still relish meeting a high standard of care (also known as a non-condescending compliment from a mom).
In a strange twist, I teased my daughter about something missing on her desk after she set it up. There was no photo of me. By chance, she had remembered to bring framed photos of her mother, sister, and grandfather, but had forgotten me. She apologized for the mistake, but a part of me chuckled at the symbolism. Could this be one last gender role reversal of the underappreciated “mom”? As many women have lamented (and I agree), household management—especially for at-home parents—is often invisible, thankless labor.
Our actual “goodbye” moment with our daughter turned out to be theater of the absurd. Because her orientation schedule was so full, there was little time to see her after the initial move-in. (Greg experienced the same problem at his daughter’s school, so maybe it’s a common college technique.) Over her objection, we insisted that our daughter leave one of her events to say goodbye to us. Unlike my dream sequence of leisurely dabbing each other’s tears in a field of tall grass, my wife and I quickly hugged our daughter in a quad while a construction worker stood nearby. As if playing a small part on a Modern Family episode, he dutifully warned us to walk around the open sewer hole we might not see through our misty eyes.
Fittingly, the first consoling text about my emptying nest came from Greg. After I returned home and mailed my daughter a seventeen-year-old photo of me wearing her in a Baby Bjorn, I met Greg for a beer to compare notes on the college drop-off. Whereas I felt saddest on the night before the move, he shed a few tears in the college parking lot. It was especially hard to console his younger daughter, who made the trip with them. (My younger daughter stayed with a friend during our drop-off, sparing me that challenge.)
“So what is the hardest part of the transition?” I asked.
“Loss of tradition,” he replied, and then explained that both he and his daughter lamented the realization that their family tradition of apple picking would be missing one person this year. I explained that the hardest part for me has been the diminished amount of information I now receive about my daughter’s life. An incredible privilege of at-home parenthood is the chance to get to know your children in great detail. Sadly, the deep river of knowledge about her has shrunk to a shallow stream.
On the other hand, Greg and I agreed that communication between college students and their parents today has been wildly increased—but also complicated—by the rise of cell phones and social media. In other words, “to text or not to text (too often)” has become the question. I have been trying to keep texting with my daughter to a minimum; Greg decided to text his daughter the same amount as he did before she left. We’ll see how these methods play out. Also, we agree that no news from our daughters is probably good news (and age-appropriate), much like it was for our own parents who received college phone calls from us only once a week.
Greg and I also agree that the rise of Facebook pages for college parents is a mixed blessing. Yes, you can find valuable information on those pages about things like local banking and XL bed sheets, usually shared by helpful mothers. But like much of social media, there are often unhelpful doses of worry, helicoptering, and snark mixed in with the good stuff. Greg laughed as he recalled when self-doubt seeped into his wife after she read a post about something another parent was doing for her college student. Greg reassured her: “We’re pretty smart, you know. We went to college.” Sweethearts since high school, they laughed the worry away.
While Greg and I are grateful for the past eighteen years, we also take pride in being veteran (if now former) stay-at-home dads. One of my proudest moments occurred when I asked my younger daughter if she knew what the term “women’s work” meant. Her blank stare made my heart leap. And the fact that it came from my daughter who is still at home reminds me that our nest remains half full, not just half empty. Yes, an eighteen-year era with one of our daughters is over for Greg and me. But our other daughters still have three years to go, and we know they deserve the best “men’s work” we can muster.
Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. His writing has appeared at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Parents, Scary Mommy, and Brain, Child, among other venues. He is also a regular contributor at City Dads Group and has been featured at CNN Parents. He is writing a memoir on gender and parenting. Visit him at VincentOKeefe.com or on Twitter or Facebook.