Balance has nothing to do with being still. Hell probably involves sitting on a see-saw that doesn’t move.
There are three days remaining until school starts for me, for the first time in over 10 years. People carp about college. Not worth it. Scam. Hustle. Degrees are meaningless. A worthless piece of paper. It’s easy to say that when you have a degree or three and they haven’t severed themselves from the Starbucks wi-fi long enough to get you a job. I’m not so sure. I’ve seen degrees matter. I’ve seen their lack matter. It sure as hell matters to me. I am about to re-enter “civilization” for the first time in over two years. The civilization that is marked by elbowed ribs and thumbed eyes, adults in cargo shorts and Dr. Who t-shirts making six figures and not being able to afford rent.
In this civilization, being a stay at home parent puts you in a stark minority, though I suppose that might depend a bit on geography. It has certainly been the case for me. I have been the lone housewife, at parties and (oh God) “functions,” listening to the positioning, the jostling, the clandestine wedgies being given in the guise of clever anecdotes. I honestly don’t know if TV shows are about people, or the other way around. This is the civilization. The civilization whose members continue to be forced into defining a greater measure of their personal value by what happens when they’re not at home. It’s been easy for me to see it from over here, the switching of places where we feel valuable. It’s been easy to become dedicated to a family this way. To say, and mean, that jobs don’t matter, that money doesn’t matter, that we could do with SO. MUCH. LESS and still love and laugh and shore up our foundations with each other’s help. It’s been easy because my boss has been my family, and my paycheck has been cashed in hugs and thank yous. It’s been easy to settle into the idea that a college degree really isn’t important. And certainly, fundamentally, it is not. If I look at my family and find myself saying that “I cannot do this without a payday that comes from a job that comes from a degree that comes from college,” then I am no kind of Father. I need to be able to look at them and say “I can turn them into Gods, and the only thing I need for that is us.” We are meant to be our own greatness – the state does not confer it. But also I won’t homeschool them on a dirt floor if I can help it. This is balance.
Even when a degree is admitted to have some importance, it is only to say that the degree carries too much weight where a thing like “earning power” is concerned. To pursue it is just a hunt for a bigger paycheck, a sign of base materialism. It is a generally agreed upon bad kind of ambition. Another imposed contradiction where we are to never, ever settle for less, yet still keep a saintly aversion to desiring anything more. I am a Father. I cannot teach my children about ambition with that kind of ambiguity. Further, people are often far too proud of their poverty. It’s useful to say “I re-shingled my roof for 7 bucks because I had to.” But to continually say “the dirty scraps of your affluence are my caviar” is regressive humility. Stand as an exemplar, not an example. Of course society is replete with those examples, of people who have the degree – the degrees – and as the saying goes: nothing to show for it. The reasons are far too diverse to put a diagnosis on that. Anything from abject laziness to a shift in worldview can make that college education seem wasted, but I think there’s a lot less evidence than people realize for an argument that a college degree is a worthless scrap of paper. Alas, it is a world of hyperbole out there, and unlike balance, hyperbole is an exercise in forced stagnation.
My excuses are not stagnant. They are leaving me. The second child is starting kindergarten in the Fall. Times have changed a ton since the salad days of patriarchy and, incidentally, happy marriages. Nowadays, having an open schedule from 9:00 – 3:00 five days a week means that keeping the laundry done and house clean won’t be good enough. And ohbytheway, I don’t recall the oppressed women of our recent past complaining about having to do all the yard work and household repairs on top of the usuals. Dad came home from work and did all that. I wonder how many stay at home dads have handed the keys for the shed or garage or workshop to the working wife and said “evenings are tight and weekends are short, but that fence won’t mend itself while the grass magically shrinks.”
With the task looming over me of finding a job, suddenly that meaningless degree, that useless piece of paper, has a cacophonous absence. Two years of fathering, two years outside that fold of casual acceptance, two years of exposing people’s limited social range by answering their probes with “I’m a stay at home Dad,” has taught me a bit about what goes on out there. I have always been cynical. Now I am cynical but careful. A considerate skeptic. These conversations with people that start, every single time, with “what do you do,” get awkward very quickly. They’ve invited me to go mountain climbing and I’ve come to base camp in a speedo and snorkel. They expected pants at a minimum, and could have dealt with that. Because people can handle being confronted by different experiences, but only if they’re pretty much the same. I’ve seen “pretty much the same.” I’ve sat at the donut shop with my five year-old, surrounded by glowing laptops and nattering keyboards, watching the mute quest for ever more, evermore, go on and on and on. The Boy just natters at me while sitting on my own laptop, nothing mute about him, his soul stowed away on a rocket ship to the future. But it’s still a future that knows the difference between ever more and evermore, and solely loves the latter. All I know is that this can only go on if we are careful and we do things right, which I think we are.
I sit here on Skype sometimes, midway between my parents and my children, staring at my beginning and my end without even turning my head. Tenuously anchored in my role as infinity’s fulcrum. The weight of literally everything is on my left, and there it is again on my right. Suddenly everything I do must be done by degrees, because like I said up top, balance has nothing to do with being still. Balance shifts the best weight to the best place. Sometimes imperceptible, sometimes epochal, always essential. You can’t just drop an anvil on one side and expect someone else to clean up the mess. So I move. I shift the weight. A long time ago, that shift put me in the Army. On April 4th, it will put me back in school. While I may not want a degree any more than I want a cubicle, I can at least see that degree doing what history asks of me, which is to shift the balance and raise my children toward the future by degrees, while my parents settle back. Shel Silverstein knows where this is going:
The Little Boy and the Old Man
Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the little old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.