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Dad's Dilemma: Homeschooling Roles for the Full-Time Breadwinner
Moving Beyond "Mystery Dad" and "Activities Dad" to Genuine Fatherhood
By Marc Porter Zasada
When you and your wife decided to homeschool, perhaps you imagined that your own life would expand. You anticipated a new role within the family, in areas more poetic than your paycheck and your help with the homework. You expected more than just nicer kids and later hours for read-alouds. You expected, well…time for heart-to-heart talks and heady projects in which you would play buddy, mentor, and coach.

You thought fatherhood would now kick into high gear. Perhaps you have been a little disappointed. Since homeschooling began, the wife and kids seem to have an agenda more mysterious than that offered by the school. Gone in the minivan, they have unknowable adventures, learn un-trackable truths, and although there are books scattered on the living room couch, there are no report cards to examine, no themed essays to praise, no construction paper projects to help glue together - little, actually, to connect you with their education.

Yes, you have your special activities with the kids: those late nights reading "Little House on the Prairie," the bike rides on Sunday morning, sandcastles at the beach -- but these seem like trifles.

Because you are gone for 9 or 10 hours (or more) most days, you still feel left out. Worse, when you are at home, you find yourself cast more often in the role of "support services" than buddy, mentor or coach.

It's the dilemma of homeschooling dads like you - indeed, the difficulty every fulltime breadwinning male has in defining his role and staying in touch with his children - that I would like to discuss in this rather lengthy article.

I should mention immediately that your difficulty is usually (but not always) less than the difficulty faced by the typical breadwinner whose kids are in school - but it reflects the problem faced by men in the broader society now that Americans are the very hardest-working people on earth, now that we put in longer hours than the Japanese, and now that we divide life obsessively, almost fanatically, between work and home.

Yes, some men do homeschool while their wives work. Some have created complex part-time schedules or work out of the garage and try to share in daily life. But the vast majority of homeschooling dads, well over 90% in up-to-date surveys, work full time (or more) outside the home while mom handles both home and homeschooling.

Recently, a working dad posted the following cry for help on a parental-support website, slightly paraphrased: "My wife lives for my daughter and my daughter lives for my wife, and I am starting to wonder: when is it my turn? I feel like all that I am is a means to an end. I go out into the world like a cave man, bring home meat and drop it at their feet; my wife looks up and says 'thanks honey,' and goes back to the child. Oh, she'll ask me about work and all but her attention drifts and I can tell she is far away…"

His issues cannot be addressed by easy bromides like "Set aside time for helping with math" or "Schedule one-on-one activities with your wife and each of your children once a month."

We need to address this man's pain as directly as possible - and find a role for that noble beast: The modern, full-time, breadwinning dad.

The Problem for Modern Fathers

Let's start a bit obliquely by asking why the bulk of modern novels, even those written by men, feature heroic mothers and dysfunctional fathers. Let's ask how it came about that the bulk of modern television shows and children's books concern wise moms and foolish, often comical dads. Few would disagree with the proposition that Dagwood Bumstead, "Father Bear" in the Berenstain Bears, Homer Simpson, Dick Van Dyke, Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter books and Ray Romano are the rule rather than the exception in the media. Indeed, a recent University of Massachusetts study concluded that this trend is deepening: the media Father is usually incompetent, his advice is bad, and he is often portrayed as a somewhat peripheral member of the family. When this rule is broken, we are pleasantly surprised.

How did this happen? Is it just a 50-year Hollywood fad? Or are "clownish fathers" - clumsy in the home, narcissistic in their hobbies, helpless with their children - the symptom of larger historical forces?

In his landmark 1992 book, "Iron John," author Robert Bly made a bold assertion: The role of "mother" has been complicated, expanded, and often enriched since the industrial revolution, but in the last 150-odd years, the role of "father" has been damaged almost beyond recognition.

The reason has nothing to do with feminism, but with the changing nature of work.

Although men have always worked, reasoned Bly, before the mid-1800s few men disappeared all day long to work at mysterious, complicated jobs that they could not explain to their children. Indeed, with the rare exception of, say, merchant sailors and court bureaucrats, children were mostly raised seeing their fathers work, and most often working beside him. A man taught his children to fish, plant, manage animals, repair fences, fight with swords, trade, dig ditches, write music, rule kingdoms, paint houses, tailor clothes - and while at work to spit, swear, and argue politics. When boys were old enough to be useful, at age eight or nine, they were already working beside dad in the field or the shop.

Although the jobs were often different, the same could be said for mothers and daughters. Indeed, for tens of thousands of years, a man and a woman's relationship with their children was not something separate form their life's work, but actually centered on their life's work. Boys and girls learned to be men and women by working alongside their parents: it was that simple.

Today, I earn my living as a consultant who helps technology companies create partnerships and expand co-branding opportunities within existing markets. Got that? Now let me try explaining this work to my eight-year-old. Let me try taking him to work with me and teaching him my trade. Or if that's impossible, suppose I bring home moral lessons from my workplace: Suppose I explain how Phil has rightly been sidelined by Tom in order that the project in Atlanta can proceed without Phil's interference.

If I love my work, how can I bring home that love to my children? And what if I hate my work, what if I drag myself there and back each day as so many men do? Bly explains the situation perfectly:

"[Does father bring home teaching to the children in the evening?] What the father brings home today is usually a touchy mood, springing from powerlessness and despair mingled with longstanding shame and the numbness peculiar to those who hate their jobs…when a father, absent during the day, returns home at six, his children receive only his "temperament" and not his "teaching." If the father is working for a corporation, what is there to teach? He is reluctant to tell his son what is really going on. The fragmentation of decision-making in corporate life…the prudence, even cowardice, that one learns from bureaucracy-who wants to teach that?" (Iron John, 1992)

Meanwhile, the father has been away from home all day, and he is unaware of the home's complex agendas, it's daily successes and failures: how the last baby bottle got lost, how the eldest has spent all day building a magnificent twig fort in the backyard and ignored math, how the father's own failure to get the brakes fixed on the car has inconvenienced his wife.

When he tries to get involved in home issues, dad's efforts are often out-of-synch, slightly irrelevant, even comical - just as his wife's would be if she tried to get involved in his work issues. Perhaps he blusters and criticizes when he hears of the family's day: From his point of view, all these vicissitudes may seem minor compared with the struggles in the workplace. Whether he appears an overeager fool or an insensitive, narcissistic fool, may not matter that much in the long run. Either way, he is a troubling mystery to his children: remote, inarticulate, perhaps slightly ridiculous, and certainly no role model.

Sometimes, a mother may have some understanding of this problem, and may try to promote her husband's image as hero: "Now, now, children, don't bother your father when he's tired. He goes off all day and fights fierce battles so that we can have this beautiful home and eat." This is nice, but both dad and his battles remain abstractions.

Hollywood may mostly have it right.

Beyond "Mystery Dad" We have just learned about the most common kind of breadwinning dad; for want of a better term, let's use Bly's label and call him "Mystery Dad." He is the man who disappears each morning and comes home each evening with nothing to show for himself but a paycheck and an attitude….

"Hey, wait a minute," you may interrupt at this point, "that paycheck makes all the rest of it, including the homeschooling, possible! I work long hours so they can have a good life!"

And I may reply: "True, my friend, but let's get something straight before we move on: Life is unfair. Yes, the paycheck makes all the rest possible. Yes, the paycheck fills your mind with daily drama, and keeps you up at night. But in the eyes of your children, the paycheck is the very least important aspect of your personality, and the very last thing they will remember about you when you are gone. Just about half the world's novels and plays, and three quarters of the world's religious texts were written to explain this simple point to you, but you still don't seem to get it."

So let's say you accept this argument, and you don't want to be "Mystery Dad" anymore. Let's say you really yearn to define a different role for yourself in the home. What do you do? Some other possibilities immediately present themselves, which fall short of quitting your job and plunging the family into poverty:

You could be "Activities Dad" or "Specialty Dad." You could be "Fix-It Dad" or "Dad, the Homeschool Principal" or an all-time favorite, "Bluster and Noise Dad." Or, like many homeschooling dads you could be, well, "Support Services Dad." Let's look at these possibilities in some detail, as each is often overtly promoted by the homeschooling community, and presents certain advantages and disadvantages.

Activities Dad: Most full-time breadwinners, especially those with the longest hours, maintain a relationship with their children by taking them special places and doing special things. One psychologist calls this role, charmingly, "Disneyland Dad." There's nothing wrong with this role, long adopted by divorced fathers, and of course many kids, homeschooling or otherwise, associate their dads with "doing things:" baseball, hikes, car trips, roller coasters, ice cream parlors.

"Activities Dad" works well for mom, because it avoids fundamental role conflict, and well, gets the kids out of the house. But within the psychic life of the child, this time with you may be all glitter and little gold. Dad may not be involved in the fundamental aspirations, religious yearnings or daily life issues of his children, only in their "free time." Activities Dad is nice, but he is not enough.

Fix-It Dad: In this common role, dad is the one who, well, fixes things: not just the leaky faucet, but the conflict between Fred and George about their new toy soldiers, Jimmy's trouble with chapter 11 of the math book, little Nancy's tardy project for the writing class. As soon as he gets home from work, Fix-It Dad is right there with advice and solutions, and often the problems have been saved up for him during the day.

Fix-it Dad's own problem, the thing that drives him crazy just about every day, is that while everyone wants him to fix the immediate problem, they definitely do not want him involved in the long-term issue. So, while he's needed to help with that tough passage in the piano workbook, mom rightly does not want his proferred advice about getting a new piano teacher. The kids don't want lectures about procrastination, don't want him re-organizing their priorities and well…Fix-It Dad often lives in a state of perpetual frustration. At work, he plans ahead to avoid "brushfires," but at home he has no role except putting them out. Fix-It Dad is nice, but he is not enough, and he is often unhappy.

The Homeschool Principal: At the other end of the scale, many Christian homeschoolers promote the idea that while mom does the day-to-day teaching, Dad should play the role of principal, overseeing the process. I suspect that in real life, this rarely occurs, and that when it does it causes problems. Any system that separates responsibility from authority is bound to cause friction: If mom has taken on the vocation of homeschooling, let her set the homeschooling agenda.

As a side note, this idea often leads to a rigid "school-at-home" approach with metrics and deliverables, so that dad can review the children's progress in some measurable way. And while this might promote the authority of the father in the eyes of the children, how may kids really like their school principal? The "Homeschool Principal" is rarely nice, and is usually a dysfunctional fiction. Count me out.

Bluster and Noise Dad: "Just you wait until your dad gets home," remains a common refrain in many homes - with calamitous results for fatherhood. If you have let yourself fall into the role of the father who is inevitably irritable, exacting, and disappointed by your children, if you have become "the enforcer" on behalf of your wife, you are almost certainly on the road to unhappiness: Real authority never needs to shout.

This is a larger subject, well covered by others; but let us just say that "Bluster and Noise Dad" is not allowed to be nice, and suffers for it.

Specialty Dad: In an effort to solidify his role as mentor, Specialty Dad has focused his relationship with his children on a single hobby: Football, sailing, woodworking, canoeing. If dad isn't at work or cutting the lawn, he's out rebuilding that '67 Mustang with the boys. Although this strategy may work for a time, that time tends to be brief, and unless we are talking about a genuine apprenticeship, or a deeply-involving long-term project with a genuine goal (see "Massive Project Dad," below) the relationship is usually unstable. Many men have experienced that disturbing day Johnny loses interest in baseball, and they have nothing left to talk about. Specialty Dad is nice, but he is narrow, and he is perpetually at risk.

Support Services Dad: In this common model, dad spends his evenings helping out by building bookshelves, washing dishes, folding the laundry, helping with the violin practice, or whatever it takes to keep the daytime homeschool operational. His role is not central to any particular aspect of homeschooling or to any particular section of his children's minds.

Just as he works to pay for the good ship "Homeschool" during the day, he keeps its engines oiled at night.

Yes, every fulltime breadwinner should pitch in with the housework, but left unchecked, "support services" can consume any semblance of "quality time." A breadwinner who has become "Support Services Dad" is very, very nice indeed, but in the long run, he may be giving up that other title, "Father."

When Dad Takes the Role of Father

Yes, life is a balancing act, and it will be your responsibility and sometimes your joy to play all the roles above, to one degree or another, during your time as a homeschooling father. Support services are needed, math help is needed, and mom does require a break when you take the kids as "Activities Dad." But as a breadwinner, your time at home is severely limited, and you do run a grave danger of allowing just one of these scripts to become your only speaking part.

The modern breadwinning dad needs a personal strategy for full engagement with his children. He needs roles in which he can play "father" in the deepest sense of the word. Let's look at three possibilities:

Mythmaking Dad: I am a religious person, and I take the Biblical dictum about "teaching your children as you sit in your house and as you walk along the way" quite seriously -- but I also believe there is a deeper level to "mythmaking" than simple religious instruction or family attendance at religious institutions.

I believe that as a father, you have a responsibility to consciously create the basic memories and experiences which will underlie your children's relationship to the universe: their "mythos."

Let me give you a simple, non-religious example. For many years I have had a ritual with my children in which we take the classics of children's literature - Peter Pan, Treasure Island, and yes, Harry Potter - and read them outdoors at night. We lay out sleeping bags in the backyard, and I set up candles around the book, which is propped up on a rock. Each of us takes turns reading, and the texts somehow blend with the sound of the wind in the darkling trees and the rush of clouds in the night sky overhead.

I know that my kids will never forget these evenings with their father, and never will they forget being children told tales in the night.

I create this experience quite consciously and lovingly; as I also make sure that I take them for moonlit hikes and walks in the rain. We have a subscription to the opera together (Magic! Mayhem!), and we never miss Shakespeare in the park (Murder! Poetry!).

Mythmaking Dad tries to be the owner of deepest drama.

There are churches and synagogues and mosques and ashrams, all with full schedules of classes ready to win the hearts and minds of your children, but only you should take them to a mountaintop at dawn, and talk seriously to them about G-d. Only you should explain to them how to balance religion with life on earth. Only you should tell them of your own efforts to find that balance.

Another day, perhaps, you will take them to Ellis Island, where you will have prepared long, and only slightly exaggerated tales about your immigrant parents, and their parents, and their parents before them. Perhaps you will emphasize the strange mixing of races and bloodlines that brought your children into being. Believe me, those tales will be burned into their brains at a very deep level, and will give their lives heft and meaning.

I believe that fathers have a natural role as storytellers and mythmakers in their families, a role they often avoid out of some kind of misbegotten embarrassment or because their own fathers lost the thread. Mothers can take this role too, of course, but I think it is often a man's natural talent and certainly his natural responsibility to inspire his children with the mysteries of G-d, nature, and human history.

There are many institutions out there ready to relieve you of this responsibility: Not just churches but museums, planetariums, and movie studios - but ultimately, only you have the power to plant a myth really deeply in your child's soul. No priest, no rabbi, no mullah, no Steven Spielberg has that power more strongly than you.

The power of the Mythmaking Father must be exercised, however, or it will atrophy and die. And the opportunities to exercise that power must be created, must be wrestled out of the numbing triviality of daily life. But mythmaking is pretty much just as available to the fulltime breadwinner as it is to a stay-at-home dad - perhaps more so, because time with you is naturally special to your children. Use this advantage. Rise to your role.

Mentor/Coach Dad. Much is made in homeschooling circles about the need for fathers to be "mentors," but one hears little practical advice on how fathers can actually achieve this role. Even when you have escaped the dead hand of the school, there are again many professionals ready to step in for you: Sports coaches and music coaches, writing teachers and art instructors, math tutors and religious tutors of all possible stripes.

Unless you happen to be a genuine expert in something that interests your children deeply - perhaps you are a concert violinist or a doctor with a daughter ready to follow in your footsteps - your chances of competing with professional coaches is low.

Hobbies are nice (see "Specialty Dad") but don't fit the bill. My father and I learned to sail and canoe together, and those were special times, but I would not say he was my outdoor sports "mentor," partly because these activities had no long term goal which he was helping me achieve. Neither did he coach me in organizing the training departments of government agencies, which was his profession.

For most of us, a radical strategy is needed, and here I would like to propose a model which has worked for me as a breadwinner and homeschooling dad over the last three or four years. I call it:

Massive Project Dad. We have already established that we fulltime breadwinning males are no longer family fishermen, who can take our kids out on our fishing boats and teach them to fish. And yes, most of our jobs are complex, and impossible to teach to kids.

But we have learned something absolutely crucial in our working lives, which has allowed us both to support our families and to know, from time to time, the salty taste of accomplishment. We know how to take on a large project and carry to completion, no matter what. We know how to build skyscrapers, run electrical cabling, bolt together ships, create industry-wide cooperation programs, sell cars, make cars, paint cars - in every case, a large project that simply must be completed, and completed well and completed on time, no matter what. Call it "father energy."

There is plenty of "mother energy" in the homeschooling movement: Nurturing, organizing, cajoling, educating. What might "father energy" be? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the same energy that drove me in the workplace might be just what I had to offer to my children, and might be a road to the full engagement I had long sought with my children. Perhaps I could become Mentor/Coach Dad if I simply worked with my kids on massive, important, long-term projects that they enjoyed. Unlike a "hobby," each project would have a clear goal, and would be a genuine quest.

This is not an original thought, of course, but a well-established homeschooling practice. Some families build houses together from scratch. Others learn to fly airplanes or win national spelling bees. Our massive family projects have arisen naturally out of our own personal interests - my son and daughter's bar and bat Mitzvahs (believe me, massive); large-scale theatrical productions (big casts, light trees, sound systems, the works); and lately, national competition in the sport of horse vaulting, or gymnastics on horseback (hours and hours in the sun: Goal, to win!).

I won't dwell on the details, but each of our projects has required planning, practicing, arranging, arguing, suffering, reveling, cajoling, and begging - in other words each has demanded that kind of dedication and long-term drive which requires me to be "Mentor/Coach Dad" plenty of the time, no matter what other professionals were involved. And because these have been our massive projects, we have largely been in control of the schedules, so they have been available to me as a breadwinner.

Basically, I believe in massive projects because I know how to do massive projects. It's something I can pass down. It's my own "father energy," injected directly into the homeschool. If men like to go on quests, well so be it - but take the kids along, too!

Yes, okay, "Massive Project Dad" runs an undeniable risk of becoming "Captain Ahab." Indeed, in a recent workshop I gave on this subject, a woman told me she hated her own father because he "turned everything -- the simplest school science project -- into a massive undertaking." And sometimes the kids do worry about the gleam in my eye at the beginning of a new undertaking…but this is a risk I run gladly.

Getting There From Here.

I entitled that last section "When Dad Takes the Role of Father" as a deliberate provocation. I think that in today's confusion of roles and responsibilities, many men have grown slightly uncomfortable with the full meaning of the word "father" and its mythmaking overtones. Often, I think we prefer to be a "nice, supportive dad," and let our wives raise our children. After all, most of us are pretty darn tired when we get home from work, and our courage has been sapped by everything from back taxes to health insurance premiums.

But if we are to break. out of the "incompetent dad" stereotypes of the media and the narrow home-life roles assigned to the breadwinner, if we are not to spend our best years "pretty darn tired" and then go into a tiresome retirement waiting for phone calls from our busy children, we must regain our courage, and find ways to engage deeply.

You may have your own solutions to the problems I have outlined here, and may reject the models I have offered. If so, I'd like to hear about it, as I am making a collection of modern dad strategies.

Without a doubt, I know it will take an enormous effort to be Mythmaking Dad or Mentor Dad or especially Massive Project Dad in the modern world. The hurdles are high. Indeed, the whole culture militates against these models. Your boss will be unhappy when you stop staying late at the office. A dozen professionals will step forward to say they are more qualified in any field you name. And you definitely risk a certain eccentricity: Your children may not at first understand when you take them for a moonlit walk and tell them tall tales. They may not want to build that sloop and sail to Tahiti with you. Your wife may look askance when you tell her you won't have time to help the kids with their math because you're taking them to Ireland to look up the family name. Your friends may be troubled when you ask them to help recreate 17th century Paris for your full-scale production of Cyrano de Bergerac. And your neighbors, who already think you are dangerous for being a homeschooler, may call the cops when they see the chinchilla farm you and the kids are laying out in the backyard.

Perhaps you will be able to explain to them about mythmaking and full engagement and "Massive Project Dad," and perhaps you will not. But men have always faced life or death challenges in fatherhood - why should we have it any easier? Go ahead, your kids are waiting.

Marc Porter Zasada and his wife have been homeschooling their four children for the past nine years. He invites responses to this article to, and a collection of Marc's recent essays can be found at