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One Man And A Little Lady: A Dad Stays Home


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ONE MAN AND A LITTLE LADY: A DAD STAYS HOME

For the longest time, I sang my daughter to sleep with that lullaby. Thing was, I kept flubbing the last line until my wife set me straight. It's "dew," she said, not "doom." That explains why it was she, not I, who came up with the brainstorm that launched me on one remarkable year.

It was May, 1989, and my firstborn, Maria, had just reached three months. Soon, my wife's maternity leave would expire. So, our little family faced some questions, routine ones today for two-income couples: Would we hand over our bundle of unblemished hope to a day care center? Or to a babysitter?

MR. MOM. Neither seemed right, for we each craved a big hand in raising Maria. We also wondered if keeping two incomes was worth the bother. Sitters in our Brooklyn neighborhood get $5 an hour, minimum. That's at least $250 a week, $1,083 a month, $13,000 a year. All this left us with a dilemma: Would my wife, a social worker, quit her career to care for Maria? Or would I quit mine?

Then it struck my wife: What if we each talked our bosses into letting us work part-time? While I worked, my wife would stay with Maria, and vice versa. That way we both could pursue careers, stay solvent, and--best of all--enjoy lots of time with Maria.

After persuading my BUSINESS WEEK boss to cut my workweek--and pay--by two-fifths, I felt a burst of enthusiasm. And pride: I was the magazine's first Mr. Mom. But it didn't take long for anxiety to set in. Had I made a colossal blunder? What good would it do Maria if I spent more time daddying and less time editing--only to daddy my way out of a paycheck? Had I crossed a line, visible only to my employer, and entered some danger zone?

For good or ill, by Labor Day I was taking my first wobbly steps on the Daddy Track. Probably the worst moment came that first week, when I took Maria for a vaccination. As we waited, I wondered if I should use the pediatrician's phone to call my boss, whom I had promised to confer with daily. But then the doctor asked for Maria. The vaccination set off a wail that neither formula nor apple juice (diluted) nor any comforting would quiet. With baby bottles sticking out of my pants pockets and the operatic Maria clutched to my chest, I struggled to write the doctor a check--and worried whether I'd ever get a chance to deal with my boss that day. Lesson No. 1: One job a day was all I could handle.

At the office, where I didn't have to learn a new job, life proved a lot easier. Yet a few times I was dumbfounded. Once I encountered a colleague, a true gentleman of my father's generation, in the men's room. "Well," he asked, "are you spending your free time reading the World's 100 Great Books?" Uh, yeah, if you rank Ernie's Bath Book with The Old Man and the Sea.

At home, I slowly got the hang of things. One day I remember with special clarity. It was last Aug. 3, a Friday. Maria and I had left early for the beach, where I found a pay phone for my morning call to the office. With Maria on my shoulders, I gazed at the ocean and talked over the day's top story, the invasion of Kuwait. Terrible news, of course, but for me, all the world's elements that day seemed in perfect equilibrium: career and family, work and love.

TIP THE BALANCE. If only the world could stop turning. Along with a reorganization of my department at BUSINESS WEEK, the news that my wife was expecting a second child in a few months made it clear to us that we couldn't keep up our balancing act. Within a month, my wife had quit her job, and I was back working full-time.

Some people say I'm still on the Daddy Track. For it was my year with Maria that tipped the balance in my hardest career decision ever -- turning down a promotion that would have left me with even less time for Maria and Timothy, who joined us on Feb. 19. As economists like to put it, the opportunity cost seemed too high.

Now, it's one thing to make a decision and quite another to be sure it's the right one. So I still wonder: Have I sailed off into my own sea of doom? Will I regret the opportunities I've foregone? So far, I can report, so good.Robert Barker in New York


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