You’ve heard me mention my friend Haniyyah on here a few times. Well, Saqib is her brother-in-law. And as a former stay-at-home dad, he tells a pretty interesting story about overcoming unexpected unemployment, an infant son that needed open heart surgery, and the cultural pressures felt of staying home while his wife continued to work. And despite the challenges they faced, he found himself with the best job he ever had.
THE BEST JOB I EVER HAD
Four weeks before our first son, Abdullah Yusuf Shafi, was born, we found ourselves in an interesting situation. I had lost my job as an accountant at a corporate retail company. Within a few weeks, Ayesha was due to go on maternity leave from her position as a high school math teacher at a small private school, unpaid. Not exactly the situation we had planned for when we would have our first child.
What we thought and hoped would happen was I’d find a job during Abdullah’s first few months and Ayesha would return to finish teaching the school year after 12 weeks of leave. Three months would be enough time to get it all sorted out. What ended up happening, however, was only half of that. Ayesha went back to teaching, but I was still without a job. Again, not exactly the situation we had planned for.
What resulted, however, was something incredible. I got to experience something most fathers never do: being a stay-at-home dad. There I was, a typical guy who thought he’d always be the one working in the house with Ayesha staying home with our kids (or at most teaching 9 months out of the year) doing the exact opposite of what I had imagined: I was the one staying at home! When it started, I had no idea how long it was going to last. What I did know, however, was I was due for the experience of a lifetime.
Beginning parenthood together
Technically, my stay-at-home fatherhood started before Abdullah was born. Ayesha actually went on leave just a few days before it was time, and I was at home there with her when she did. This helped us experience things together pretty much from the get-go. I was able to help her ease into things.
Once Abdullah came into our lives, I got to continue to go beyond what most fathers are allowed to do in being home during those first few weeks of learning how to take care of a newborn. Although most dads adjust totally fine, it’s usually mom who is the go-to gal for the special needs. And it makes sense, since after the baby’s born, dad goes back to work within a week or two max, restricting him from being able to see all the daily changes that take place because he’s back in the office. For me, not the case. I was at home for the ride while I continued to look for work.
When Abdullah reached seven days old, he went in for his first checkup. His pediatrician performed the normal checks babies are supposed to get at one week old. Aside from his weight being a little low, she looked worried when she listened to his heartbeat. “I’m hearing a murmur in his heartbeat. There could be something that needs attention with his heart, but I’m not sure. We’ll have to schedule an ultrasound for him to have so we can see.” A murmur? And something with his heart? We were worried, but we took it in stride and scheduled an ultrasound appointment a few days later.
When we went in for his ultrasound, we found out some news that changed our lives. After a lengthy procedure of taking pictures of Abdullah’s heart, I received a phone call from the pediatrician. “Abdullah has a hole in his heart. A large hole, I’m afraid. And he’s most likely going to need surgery to close it. There may be a possibility that he will be rushed for emergency surgery to Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn. But they’re going to need to take him to ER and keep him under surveillance until they decide.”
As seven day old parents, this was a mountain to bare on our hearts, to say the least. Here was our first baby ever, and within just a week of having him in our lives, we found out he needs surgery. And not just any surgery. Open heart surgery.
His hole was called a Ventricular Septal Defect, VSD for short. The hole is an opening in the septum, the wall that seals off the chambers of the heart. This causes blood that circulates around the body and through his heart to leak through the different chambers in his heart. Most babies’ VSDs are small and in a muscular area, they close up within little time after birth. Abdullah’s, however, wasn’t. It was large and was in a membranous area of the septum, which meant his heart was leaking and mixing blood through its chambers at a much more intense level. With the need for attention on his heart so critical, he needed to be rushed to ER to monitor how his heart performs in case it was prone to congestive failure.
After a few hours of ER, we were moved to the ICU. Abdullah was hooked up to IVs, wires, and monitors. Our families came by for support. We were told we might have to take Abdullah to another hospital that night or the next day for emergency surgery. They monitored his heart and blood oxygen levels closely until the pediatric cardiologist on call showed up. After what felt like an eternity of waiting, the cardiologist arrived and the first thing he asked made our hearts sink. “Who wants to go home?” They found that Abdullah was okay and was ready to go home, again. Although his hole was indeed large, his heart was performing quite well for his body. So he needed surgery, but not right away. Not that night. Just eventually. We were relieved. But still taken shook up. There was still a lot to face up ahead.
The cardiologist instructed us to schedule checkups with every week to two weeks, basically on standby for surgery at any moment, and were not allowed to take Abdullah out or have visitors. We had to watch for signs of Abdullah losing oxygen, sweating, or going blue in the face. It was a lot to take in as new parents. But somehow, we found the courage to get through it. I’m not exactly sure how, but I think I have an idea.
When your kids need you, you find the courage and strength to do anything for them. We learned this very early on from our jump into parenthood. Because it was for Abdullah, we found the strength we needed from within ourselves to face the road to fixing his heart condition. As difficult as this time was, though, being at home as dad played a huge role. We were able to get through this time together. I’m sure if I were working, we would have been able to manage just fine. But me being there at home made things much easier on us all. For Ayesha, for Abdullah, and even for myself.
As Abdullah grew over the next few months, things were going much better than initially feared. He actually was doing completely normal as if he never had any problem at all. He ate well, slept great, and learned things very quickly. He never showed any signs of heart failure or loss of oxygen in his blood and his hole actually was restricting. Not closing, but still, it was something huge. Eventually, we adjusted to his heart condition and were able to focus more attention on enjoying the journey of learning parenthood. And the best part? We took that journey together, allowing me to be equally capable as Ayesha of taking care of Abdullah.
Changing diapers? I was down to do the dirty work. Bath time? I’m there to help and clean up afterward. Need to go shopping for baby items? Let’s go to Meijer or Babys R Us together. With the only main exception being nursing, I was just as capable a parent as Ayesha. I felt great. And I’m sure Ayesha did, too. Because nearly everything we experienced as new parents we experienced together. It did wonders for our own relationship, as parenthood does for all couples, but in our own unique way. “Is this what fathers in countries like Canada, Gemany, Italy, and Norway who get weeks of paid paternity leave feel like?” I thought to myself. I’m not sure, but man, it was awesome!
As the 12 week mark approached, though, the “babymoon” period ended and I was still without a job. So we had to make a decision: what to do when Ayesha went back to work?
One option was daycare. At the school she taught at, they offered it just for staff parents at a very reasonable price. This setup was ideal, because Ayesha would be in the same building as Abdullah and during breaks could check in on him. However, during unemployment, every expense adds up. We could have Abdullah go in everyday with Ayesha, but was it wise to do while I was still looking for work?
We ended up making a part-time arrangement with the babysitter. Abdullah would come in only a few days a week and the other days would stay home with me. This would help us with our savings for a bit and would help Abdullah begin to get out of the house, experience new things and new people, and time away from mom and dad. But besides those reasons, there was me, too. I actually wanted to keep him at home. I mean, why not? I was with him at home for the first three months of his life, right? Besides the nursing limitation, I was just as capable of taking care of Abdullah as Ayesha was. Besides, you can only job hunt so much throughout the day. As long as I balanced out my time properly, it made complete sense, so we went forward with it.
On my own
I remember in high school and college guys would jokingly praise being a stay-at-home. It’s the easy route! Stay at home, watch TV on the couch with some potato chips, while mom goes and earns an income. I wish I could go back in time and tell the guys. It isn’t anything like that at all. I was on my own with a three month old baby. All day. No mom, no help. Just baby and daddy.
Gone was the comfy life from the first three months both Ayesha and I were home. When we could take turns with things, or how diapers were changed easily with two people. I had to do everything, and it was from 7am to 4pm. But I got used to it. And pretty quickly, at that. Babies are very interesting in that they can be adopted into a schedule pretty regularly. He’d wake up around the same time daily, drink milk and take naps on a regular schedule, even play at certain set times. It was like a 9-to-5 job, only much more fulfilling. And much more fun. Babies are a lot of fun, and most fathers don’t get more than a phone call or text message on the goofy things they do at home while daddy’s at work. For me, I was experiencing all of that straight up.
And since I’m a photography guy, I made sure to take lots of pictures and videos along the way.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though. This interesting time had its fair share of hurdles, too. For Ayesha, it was difficult to go back to work. Sure, she would take Abdullah with her two to three days out of the week, but she wasn’t able to experience the parenting I was able to at home with Abdullah. Babies grow and change so much every day. From the time Abdullah was around four months old, Ayesha had to witness that growth many times from behind a whiteboard and lesson plans. It wasn’t easy for her to hear from me that I saw him roll over here, or grab a toy for the first time there, or even sit up for the first time.
For myself, I still had the difficulty of finding a job, again. I managed to put in my time of job hunting both on days of staying at home with Abdullah and days when he went for daycare with Ayesha. But the economy has been unforgiving lately, and the days with a gap in my resume were adding up. When I began to take care of Abdullah at home, it was January 2011. I was unemployed in a difficult economy, for four months. As Abdullah grew and time flew by, so, too, did my time not working.
This was growing to be problematic. The need to find work was growing each and every single day, and so, too did the pressure. “Should I continue to do this?” I’d ask myself. “How long will this go?”
Interestingly, the most difficult aspect of stay-at-home fatherhood wasn’t caretaking or unemployment. It was actually dealing with the social stigma of our situation.
Culturally, I grew up with an Indian background while Ayesha grew up with a Pakistani one. End of the day, they’re the same thing, at least for us who were both raised here in the US. A term that usually combines the two is Desi (pronounced DAY-see). In Desi culture, it’s your typical patriarchal setup. Man goes to work, provides for family. Woman stays at home, takes care of kids. But during this time, there we were doing the exact opposite. I was at home as caretaker, and Ayesha was going out as bread winner of the household. Needless to say, people within our social and cultural circles had a hard time understanding our situation.
Some people disapproved outright. The thought of a father staying at home was unacceptable. They suggested that Abdullah go full-time to daycare and I devote time at home 110% to job hunting. The cost, they felt, would be justified in the extra time I got looking for work. They must have felt, based on cultural norms, that it wasn’t appropriate for me to stay at home “doing nothing.” But I wasn’t doing nothing. I was taking care of my son. And maybe that’s something that people from my culture have a tough time understanding.
I don’t blame them. Back home, this type of situation rarely ever happened, if ever. And if it did, I don’t imagine women going out to work. So then men really do “do nothing.” But in different cultures, or maybe more accurately, in recent times, this type of situation is a reality. Something manageable and therefore doable and done by people. As we made it work, people that disagreed began to see it wasn’t as bad as they thought it was.
Others, we found, played into the cultural clash unnecessarily. “Oh, man, you must be going through so much,” people would tell Ayesha. “You have to work, your husband’s out of a job, and your son has a hole in his heart. You must be miserable!” They didn’t say it exactly like that, but that’s the message they delivered. That because the culture they grew up in (or really, their parents did) could only look at this situation as undesirable, they themselves assumed it as such without looking at things as they were, (let alone asking how we were). But Ayesha and I weren’t… miserable. We actually were doing just fine. In fact, we adjusted to our situation and started to enjoy it.
Sure we had some difficulty adjusting and had to live a little bit tight on finances. But doesn’t everybody have some degree of tribulation in some aspects of life?
Ideally, I would have liked to be the one going to work while Ayesha stayed home with Abdullah. But things didn’t pan out that way. So what did we do? We adjusted the way we deemed best for ourselves, and worked toward a solution. Overall we were happy because the way we were living was something we decided to do together. And that’s what was important. Just because you didn’t meet a cultural ideal, doesn’t mean your life will be terrible. It’s up to you to adjust to your situation and make the best of it.
Plus, for us, there were actually many blessings we found in our situation. Ayesha would be home at 4pm everyday. We got to split up taking care of Abdullah throughout the week. I found extra time to do some paid video and photography work that I liked to do as a hobby. And who can forget, she’s a teacher. Winter break, spring break, summer break. When she had them, we would have more time together at spending time with each other and with our son (don’t mention teacher institute days or late night parent teacher conferences to her, though).
Not everyone made things difficult, though. Our families and friends were super supportive. They offered their help and guidance along the way. Especially our parents, all four of them, who balanced supporting a situation that is culturally undesirable for them and helping me on my quest to find a job. God bless them all. But by far the best support to help us get past cultural stigmas for us came from our faith. Culturally, we’re Desi, but by faith, we’re Muslim.
Islam values family ties very deeply. Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, “The best among you are those who are best to their families,” urging people to be excellent parents, sons, daughters, and relatives. In addition to testing our exercise of patience, I feel that maybe God’s plan was for me to face unemployment so I could have experienced one of the most crucial jobs I’d ever have in my life: to be a stay-at-home dad. In His divine wisdom, it was as if He allowed me to learn how to be the best to my family in a way beyond the average father can, letting me be closer to my son than I ever thought I’d be.
And divine wisdom it had to be. Because the nine months I ended up experiencing as a stay-at-home dad was one of the best things that ever happened to me as a person, husband, family member, and servant of God. And for that, I’m ever thankful.
Back to normal?
A little less than a year later, things are much different.
After Ayesha’s school year came to an end, Abdullah scheduled a few weeks before his first birthday. The operation was a success. Now, a few months later, he is fully recovered with his heart’s hole closed up, ready to live and grow up for the rest of his life. We are so grateful.
I found a job. I now work a full-time job Monday through Friday in Ayesha’s old hometown, the Metro Detroit area, hooked up by her father, a 30 year employee at one of the big three auto manufacturers. After 25 years in Chicago, I left the Windy City to work in the Motor City. Ayesha decided to take leave from teaching and stay at home with our little dude for at least a year while he recovers from surgery. And I’m no longer a stay-at-home dad. My time in that role is now over and the plan that we initially had before Abdullah was born is finally in play.
Looking back at what we went through and to where we are now, do I feel like life is so much better, now that things are “normal?” Not at all. After being a stay-at-home dad for a few months, I realized that there is no one set way for normalcy in life. Everything has the potential to be normal. It’s just up to you to make it that way.
And I did.
In fact, it was weird going back to work with Abdullah now in my life, because I had never had worked a full time job with a baby at home. I never knew what it was like to leave him all day. Now I’m the one getting text messages and phone calls about what he’s up to. Now I know what Ayesha must have felt like when I stayed at home! But as I did before, I’m adjusting again. My new job is going great and things in Michigan are good. My work-life balance is great and I get to spend a lot of time at home with Ayesha and Abdullah after work and on the weekends. God continues to bless us.
But it’s not the same. I miss being a stay-at-home dad.
Planning my daily schedule to take care of him. Warming up a bottle of milk and putting him down for a nap. Watching him learn new things all day long. Playing fun games with him and making him laugh. Taking him for a walk or to a checkup if Ayesha couldn’t leave work early enough. Just being with him all day. I miss it tremendously. I used to tell Ayesha, “I wish other dads could experience what I do.” And it’s true. Because in my time unemployed, I found that I was never actually unemployed at all. I had a job. I took care of my son.
And no matter where I go and advance in life to, I know being a stay-at-home dad was the best job I ever had.