What to Do When Your Kid Goes off to School

Matthew Koehler

For stay-at-home parents, the first day of school opens up a world of opportunities, challenges, and questions

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I sat in an empty apartment with an infinite number of things to do and places to go. A lassitudinous silence had descended on my person — the calm was unsettling and tangible. The TV had been off for at least 15 minutes but I continued to stare dully at its subdued reflectivity. The neighborhood chattered away from the partially open balcony door, beckoning.

Nothing and everything dashed frenetically between my gut and head every 15 seconds.

The potential autonomy of this moment, however, was matched by a creeping dread. I could do anything and/or nothing. I could "Netflix and chill," thus achieving an even balance between both actions.

I could also keep sitting in silence. I deserved to do that, too. I was a free man — a free parent. I thought of the generations of mothers who came before and what they felt on this day. My child, the perpetual question engine, hadn’t been in school for an hour and already I felt lost.

It was 9:45 in the morning and the apartment was utterly still.

Parenting isn’t resume material

Rushing in to fill her absence was the reality that I was technically unemployed. Of course I was still the primary caregiver, but throughout the day I was on a long break from actual parenting.

At random, my long lost resume popped into my head. Where was it? I had no idea — hadn’t seriously looked at it in over three years. Couldn’t even remember which file was the most current. Would I have to reformat it to apply for different jobs? Could I add “responsible for the lives of others” and “successfully kept dangerous individual from harming themselves” without specifying why? No doubt I would need to download another template.

Stay-at-home parents can likely attest to this predicament. The first day of full-day school is a double-edged blade; it’s liberation pure and simple. You can, once again, start asking yourself what you’re going to do with your life. Unfortunately, the grace period doesn’t last forever.

Here I was in my mid thirties and professionally jobless.

Anxiety built up like I’d been playing the first level of Tetris, and without warning had jumped to level 22. The idea of working full-time again had become distant, something other people did, but not me. The year before my daughter started pre-K, the thought of being in an office, dealing with colleagues, bosses, conference calls, and meetings, put me in a cold sweat.

Pivoting back to my Tetris analogy, society had been out there waiting for me while I’d been raising my daughter — speeding up, actually, the music speeding up and the blocks falling faster. I now needed to reengage. I needed to work. Find a path. Increase my earning potential. Keep building my resume and hone my elevator pitch to laser-like “sell sell sell” yourself focus.

I should’ve been on this the second my child was conceived.

“So, what have you been doing?” A parent asked me once at a birthday party, “And, don’t say parenting. That doesn’t count!”

He was right.

I might as well erase the past several years from my professional record and never bring it up during an interview. I’d lost economic value not working for several years — working professionally, I mean.

That parent’s comment was well-meaning, and I was praised for being a stay-at-home-dad, but he wasn’t wrong. Both women and men who stay at home to raise the kid(s) lose out economically for taking a hiatus from professional life. (Ironically, men are also often praised for their selfless “sacrifice” to stay home with the kids; it’s still more or less expected of women.)

The all-day, old T-shirt, and sweatpants period of my life was ostensibly over, and I was constantly reminded of how it was time to start thinking of my economic potential. My career. My real life. (Writing this now, I wonder what the generations of women before me have felt hearing similar comments.)

However, getting back to work, any work, really, was and is exceedingly difficult. I’d cultivated no professional relationships. Hadn’t networked in years. Presented with easy opportunities to network from time to time, I often felt lost — unsure of myself. What does someone say to build bridges out of nothing with people they don’t know? I used to do this constantly in my previous life, but my networking skills had atrophied over the years.

You’re allowed to take a moment

Back in the apartment, I wiped the sweat from my brow. I had plans for this day. You probably had plans, too. As a freelance writer, I had planned to start writing more regularly, a book maybe, or perhaps solve some weighty, systemic problem that the experts were still puzzling over and win a prestigious writing prize while doing it. You know, save the world basically.

But then I remembered a conversation I had with another parent friend. She had given up a career in print/photo journalism. A career full of “intrigue and adrenaline,” as she put it. When I asked her if she was going to get back into journalism after her oldest started school, she shrugged and said, “I could do it but I just don’t know if it’s me anymore. I’m going to take the opportunity of my kid being at school to slow down and think about my life for a minute before I jump headlong into something. Few people have the opportunity to do that, and if they do have the means, they don’t do it.”

Instead of saving the world, I grabbed a book, put my shoes on, and did what any self-respecting adult does in the morning: I got another coffee, then sat under a tree and read for a while.

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Essays and reporting. Most of this is true. Bylines around the Web. Editor of a local newspaper in the District. Got a tip? Contact me here: https://twitter.com/MattJKoe.

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