The Life and Times of a Stay-at-Home Dadby Natalie Jacobs May 1, 2015
A quick Google search of the phrase “stay-at-home dad” will turn up a strangely academic Wikipedia page, two articles in The New York Times, two features from The Atlantic, an entry in Slate’s “Best Laid Plans” series, an op-ed in TIME, and a slideshow from Parents magazine. The oldest article of this set of first-page Google results is from December 2013. Research has shown that the number of stay-at-home dads has been on the rise since the late 1970s, with the biggest jump occurring from 2000-2009 (the Pew Research study, released in 2013, only covered through 2009). There are plenty of reasons men want to stay at home while their wives serve as the family breadwinner, and everyone has an opinion (especially online).
If stay-at-home dads are now having their day in the media sun, then writer Joshua Braff was a stay-at-home dad well before it was en vogue. Shortly after he completed an MFA program in creative writing at St. Mary’s College of California, he and his wife welcomed their first child. At the time, Braff a couple of short stories published in literary magazines and he was gestating his first novel. His wife was the CEO of a start-up in Silicon Valley.
“I was a stay-at-home dad since before it was seemingly invented,” Braff, who’s eldest, a boy, is now 14, says. The Braffs also have a daughter who is 11. “I cannot turn the tv on now without seeing suit-and-tie dads or dads with Baby Bjorns.”
When his son was six-months old, after his wife returned to work from maternity leave, Braff began working on his first novel, “The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green.”
“I was empowered by being a father and forming my own family,” the contemplative man says over the phone. “Then I went and wrote about my childhood.”
Braff, who is the elder brother of actor/writer/director Zach Braff, gave his first novel a young narrator – a boy from a strict Orthodox home in New Jersey. The boy struggles with Hebrew school when it takes the place of football practice and a tyrannical father prone to outbursts of violent rage.
“As a writer,” Braff says, “it’s fun to riff and not worry too much. ‘Jacob Green,’ I remember thinking of it as a patchwork where I could make the chapters as short as I want or I could make the chapters complete ping-pong dialog, or maybe I’ll just use a quote or a definition from the dictionary. It was being free and breaking from the rules. … I thought ‘I’m going to go riff’ and I found myself writing a very personal tale.”
Though the book is billed as fiction, Braff readily admits that there are a lot of parallels between Jacob Green and the young Joshua Braff. With his second book, “Peep Show,” the lines between himself and his characters were a little less precise, but the book was still personal in a lot of ways.
“The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green” came out in 2004, followed by “Peep Show” in 2010. This month, Braff will release his third book, “The Daddy Diaries.”
Around the time that “Peep Show” came out, the economic crash was in full swing and Braff’s wife Jill found herself ousted from the tech company she had helped create.
“We had one of those discussions about what we should do, which often involves one of us getting work and making ends meet,” Braff says.
The family was living in Oakland and Jill was offered a job as an executive at the Home Shopping Network in St. Petersburg, Fl. So the family of four – the two kids entering 5th and 2nd grades – moved across the country.
“I wrote about my marriage and my wife’s life as a busy executive,” Braff says of the beginnings of “The Daddy Diaries.”
In the novel, the main character, Jay, begins his life in Florida by opening a new notebook, “#79,” and jotting notes about what a pelican on the beach might be thinking. “I wrote about the intricacies of raising children, alone at some times,” Braff says about his real-life journaling, “and coming to a place where I didn’t have friends and where I was ruminating and observing, as I do in my work.”Such a transition is ripe for a writer whose work comes from deep contemplation about the complexities of his real life.
In Florida, there was the new physical environment, but also the people. And then, of course, the kids. In the novel, those constraints manifest as a house located on a street built below sea level (therefore prone to flooding); self-indulgent golfers and a Florida beach babe with lots of money and a husband who’s out of the picture; and a son who won’t say more than two words to his father. “The Daddy Diaries” chronicles this time period in thoughtful though sparse detail.
The Braff family’s time in Florida lasted three years but it seems to span less than a year in Joshua’s fictionalized account. “My form is take the truth and then I can turn right or left whenever I want to, or name anybody anything I want to. That is a very freeing form in contrast to nonfiction.”
Perhaps because the book is labeled a novel, Braff is comfortable getting into the very personal details of a life uprooted. The book is at its best when the reader is invited into the most difficult parts of this father’s life – from a regrettable outburst of harsh words spewed at his depressed son to a compromising situation with a naked woman in a bathroom overlooking the ocean. Even the mundane events of the school drop-off and pick-up routine are sociologically interesting. Maybe a stay-at-home mother would find herself in similar situations, but having a male perspective changes everything.
The mom decides she wants another baby, the father silently wonders if he’s up for the burping and the diapers and the late nights. The wife struggles with corporate dynamics and a rigorous travel schedule, the husband grapples with creative motivation and pride in his work. While Braff and his “Daddy Diaries” are very honest about the father’s struggles, he never asks for sympathy.
“That’s how we can say yes to so many things,” the mother says in a tender scene where she explains to her daughter over the phone why she will be traveling for a few more days. The father is there to embrace the daughter’s disappointment and check for monsters under her bed.
As the title suggests, “The Daddy Diaries” follows the form of a diary, so nothing is dwelled upon. Things happen, the family has issues, but they survive. The reader gets only the bits that the character has time to write down, but the candor makes the reader feel equipped to adequately fill in the blanks.
“The Daddy Diaries” will be released on May 5.
Later this month, Braff will be presenting his book to the Jewish Book Council in New York. Delegates from the San Diego Jewish Book Fair attend this event annually to learn about new books and authors to bring to San Diego during the annual Book Fair in November.
For more information on Joshua Braff and to order “The Daddy Diaries,” visit joshuabraff.com.