Around the time my son turned 3, he developed a knack for delivering brusque commands. One of his favorites was “Go away,” and it was usually directed at me. He made a good dictator. Ordering me out of his presence, he would marshal such imperious body language—a Mussolini in Toughskins—that I almost found myself obeying him.
Still, I couldn’t blame him for his bullying. We have an idiosyncratic arrangement in our family, one that places me right in the child’s face all day long, the kind of thing that could put any kid on edge. You see, I work at home.
Working at home makes me one of the luckiest men alive. I know this because everyone keeps telling me so. I don’t mean just the people who tell me how blessed I am to be able to watch my son “grow up before my eyes.” What I mean is that working at home has come to figure in the public imagination as a kind of soft-core career fantasy.
Once a week or so I get a piece of email spam promoting the opportunity to get rich working at home. The headline is almost always something like “Work in Your Underwear!” The offer conjures up a kind of nirvana designed to appeal to a wide range of audiences: anyone who hates his job, anyone who hates the whole idea of a job, anyone who hates the whole idea of pants. Working at home, in these pitches, comes across as a clever con played on all of respectable society.
But what those who have made a fantasy of working at home fail to take into account is the problem of “Go away.” There is no going away when you work at home—at least none of the workaday going away that most of us grew up expecting from our fathers. Even if your dad didn’t do hero’s work (where’s the heroism in busting your butt to catch the 7:10 express and get to the office before the boss?), going off to work every day set him apart in an important and estimable way from your homebound childhood self. And you don’t have to be tradition-bound to wonder if something is lost in not going off to work every day. You just have to be an anxious parent.
So it was that—around the time my boy started telling me to go away—I began thinking about the ways fathers leave and return, their presence and absence. I began thinking, in short, about whether it would be better for everyone if I took my son’s advice, gave up my work-at-home routine and went away every morning. My son, my thinking went, deserved to learn the same lessons I learned watching my father go off to his job and waiting for his return. For it was that watching and waiting for my dad to come home that gave me my first dim understanding of the world of work.
I clung to routine as a kid, as I still do now, and no part of my daily schedule in those days—the park across the street, the ice cream truck, the Bozo Show—was as important to me as my father’s return home at 6 each night.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my father’s job, like most jobs, was a bitch. He had the inevitable bosses to answer to, but he also had younger, better-educated men at his heels and a staff that fought fiercely for its right to do crappy work and do it slowly.
I learned all this later, from my mother, because my father betrayed none of it. When he came home at night he always looked like the same man who had left the house in the morning. His necktie was still knotted in a firm Windsor, his shirtfront almost as smooth as my mother had pressed it. You could even still catch a bit of that morning’s aftershave in his wake. But the one thing which indicated that he had put in another killing day at work was the emery-rough stubble of the 5 o’clock shadow that lined his cheek and chin in the evening.
We had a nightly act, the two of us, almost a parody of a father-and-child reunion. It began with my father walking in the front door, an American dad home from a day at the office. From around some corner the small son, me, would come charging. I’d make a running leap in his direction, and he would bend slightly to catch me and haul me in, wriggling. A standard scene, maybe even a bit maudlin, smacking of Rob and Richie Petrie. But the key moment for me came when, over my feigned protests, my father would scrape his stubbly cheek against my smooth one. The embrace was abrasive and delightful, and underneath the welter of sensation seemed to lie a few slowly emerging truths about the gap between men and boys. Boys stayed close to home, in their safe domestic orbit. Men went out into a larger world but always came back. And when my father came home, it was as though I could feel the roughness of a world beyond my understanding on his very skin.
It was those embraces that I thought of when my son started telling me to go away. The more I thought about it the more I feared that at some level I was doing my son an injustice by staying home—by not going away, as he urged. I worried that I had become an interloper in my son’s domestic world. It was enough to make me wonder at times if I shouldn’t make my living some other way, if I shouldn’t find a job that required me to catch the 7:10, put in my eight hours and be back home in time for supper.
Every day my dad ventured beyond my circumscribed world of home and park and playground, and that in itself made him seem larger than life to me. It’s no wonder that I waited for his return home. He brought back to me, as a present, some understanding of that larger and more dangerous world that was as yet off-limits to me. Work loomed in my childhood imagination as something mysterious and nearly awesome. I sometimes fear my son will grow up thinking of work as a guy in his shorts in the basement pacing back and forth and occasionally tapping on a keyboard.
And so the question I asked myself over and over, as I loitered and moped in my home office, was, “What the hell am I doing here?” I have become the Omnipresent Father. And the problem with the Omnipresent Father is that his presence around the house only calls attention to his essential uselessness in the domestic sphere.
It wasn’t until I became a father that I fully understood the superfluity of men. Most of us hover on the periphery of the family fold, needed more in theory than in fact. My wife is at home most days, too, doing writing of her own, keeping the house running and keeping the kid happy—and doing all of it with a smooth competence that makes me feel alternately grateful, proud and useless. I find myself occupying the house, haunting it, without really belonging_. Who is the guy pacing in the downstairs office?_ That’s Dad_. What’s he doing here?_ I’m not sure.
But playing the 6 o’clock father is no answer for me. As much as my father’s routine intrigued me when I was a boy, I’m glad I don’t have to do it now. I’ve had bosses, I’ve had commutes to the office, I’ve had jobs that made me grind my teeth in my sleep, and I don’t want to go back. I’ve found my own way now, even if it’s not the fantasy portrayed in those spams I find in my computer’s mailbox. My work matters to me, just as my father’s mattered to him. The boy’s just going to have to get used to having me around.
In the meantime, we maintain our uneasy joint occupation of the house. While I’m working he’s usually off with my wife in some other part of the house, but some days my son will wait in ambush for me outside my office door. If I venture out to rifle through the refrigerator, he will pounce. “Are you finished working?” he asks. He wants to play, and most of the time I sure as hell don’t want to work. But for his sake as much as mine I often make a show of respectability and tell him I’m too busy to play right now.
Every once in a while he will break away from his mother, go on the offensive and invade my office. He will ask me to spin him around on my swivel chair or to make the printer spit out a few pages of type or to make my fax machine whir and buzz. Office fun. The other day I held him in my lap, and the two of us spun around on my chair together until my son broke down into a fit of giggling. And as the all-too-familiar walls and bookshelves turned into a blur, I felt my own equilibrium dissolving a bit. And finally the questions that had been bothering me—questions about absence and presence and which best expresses devotion—stopped making the slightest bit of sense to me.
Later he asks to play what he calls “the working game.” I let him take my seat at the computer keyboard, and I walk out into the hallway so I can knock on the office door. From inside comes a small voice trying to sound authoritative: “Come in.”
I walk in to find him furrowing his brow, staring intently at the screen, typing furiously. The first time I saw him do this it took me a second to realize that he was trying to effect his best impression of me. He types out a long stream of gibberish, and I ask him what he’s doing.
“Working,” he says in his most serious voice. I wonder if one day he will remember all this.
I know only one thing: I’m not going anywhere; I don’t care what he says.
Andrew Santella (http://www.andrewsantella.com/) has written for The New York Times Book Review, Slate, GQ and other publications.