It took them awhile to arrive at their eureka moment, but Shelly and Chad Howat decided they needed to do something about the way in which they were living their drive-through lives.
As the parents of two young boys – and with more children a definite possibility – they both were working in high-pressure jobs. Chad was the principal of St. Clement of Rome School in Metairie, and Shelly was an attorney specializing in health care and employment litigation at a New Orleans law firm.
Their oldest two sons – Luke, who is now 4, and Michael, 2 1/2 – were in day care. Nathan, now 6 months old, was still a glimmer in their eyes.
Long school hours
As a principal, Chad worked far more than the 7 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. time span suggested by the regular school day, often needing to attend night meetings for school and parish activities.
Even working reduced hours, Shelly still had a busy schedule at work, and that often meant she would be eating dinner alone with the kids. On some nights, she could sneak in a late dinner with her husband after the children were put to bed.
They began talking about an idea that would make a radical change in their relationship with each other and with their kids: What if Shelly continued to work and Chad stayed home to care for their children?
“It definitely was a slow-growing idea,” Chad said from their home in Lakeview, where the three Howat boys were taking an early-afternoon nap. “I think it was something that neither of us prepared for.”
Priest brought up the idea
Actually, it was a priest friend who raised the possibility of Chad staying home with the kids, maybe just for a few years until they reached school age. Part of their thinking was that it might be easier for Chad, a principal, to rejoin the work force in the future because of the annual hiring cycle.
“That planted the seed, and then we got down to looking at budgets and schedules,” Chad said. “It was just a better fit for Shelly to work and for me to come home.”
So in June 2014 – after four years as St. Clement principal – Chad became a full-time dad. The decision was not without its challenges and still is a work in progress.
“Probably my family and her family thought this was a little odd and thought, ‘Chad, have you really thought this through? Are you really staying at home preparing meals and shopping?’” Chad admitted. “But they’ve also been supportive, verbally at least, even if they think it’s maybe a different arrangement.”
“They were very supportive,” Shelly added. “They just wanted what was best for us, and this was a decision we thought about and prayed about for many months.”
There have been sacrifices all around. For Chad, it has been giving up, at least temporarily, a job he had prepared for and loved. For Shelly, it has been taking on the role of the sole monetary provider for the family while her husband spends more time with their children.
“I loved my job and we both enjoyed our work,” Chad said. “It was a difficult job to walk away from because it was very fulfilling and satisfying. But the flip side is that it was very time-consuming, and with both of us working, it wasn’t a very healthy life. What it really came down to was how could we have a healthier family life where the children weren’t in day care all day?”
Chad says Shelly actually has made the more difficult sacrifice.
“I think it’s probably more difficult for her because I think she has the expectation that it was her job, her role to take care of the kids,” Chad said. “Mine was more of a professional decision to give up a job at the height of my career.”
Sharing in the sacrifice
Shelly thinks of it more as a shared sacrifice.
“It’s a sacrifice for both of us,” she said. “The situation we’ve worked out is for the best for our family.
“With Chad’s hours before, we were very busy. With two, full-time working parents, that wasn’t a good balance for our family situation.”
The biggest revelation Chad has gained from shifting roles has been finding out more about himself.
“I used to think I was a patient person,” he said, laugh-ng, “but I think all parents say that. It’s a cliché, but in the modern American family, you just make it work. You do whatever it takes – changing jobs, moving, whatever it is – to make sure the family is the focus, especially when the kids are younger. That’s really the prayer and revelation to all of this. People are making the sacrifice to have that kind of family life.
“We are the ones who are there for them, so we are instilling the values that we want in our children. We’re not having the arguments with somebody else about what’s expected of the children. We certainly hold them to higher expectations.”
Shelly and Chad already have decided the kids will attend Catholic school. They won’t be home-schooled, even though Chad could handle that assignment.
“We don’t know where, but at some point they’ll start school,” Chad said.
A busy schedule
So what does the day’s schedule look like for the Howat men?
“As my sons can attest, I know just about every playground in the City of New Orleans and whether or not it has morning or afternoon shade,” Chad said. “I’ll go anywhere.”
There’s the small park off Perlita Street near the Sisters Servants of Mary convent, one near Christian Brothers School in City Park, one in the French Quarter near the Center of Jesus the Lord and another in the Marigny.
Before Nathan was born, Chad would take his two sons on his bicycle – with a baby seat in the front and the back. “We took the ferry, and one day we came back from the West Bank, and when we got to Canal Street, we caught a train,” Chad said. “They were like in hog heaven – a bike, a boat and a train on the same day. Most people are frustrated to hit a train. They were overjoyed. They got to watch.”
When he’s at the playground with the other “moms,” Chad invariably is the subject of conversation.
“When you’re biking around the French Quarter with two kids, you get a lot of questions,” he said. “But there’s also the opposite. You often find a lot of quiet time. One of the moms was talk- ing recently about washing her laundry with vinegar. I didn’t have a lot to add to the conversation. There’s not too many guys. I don’t know if it’s because the other guys are at home watching baseball.”
“He’s very domestic,” Shelly says, “but he still doesn’t do laundry. That’s my job.”
The way the Howats have arranged their schedule, Chad gets some time to himself on the weekends.
“I get to go golf,” he said. “Cutting the grass almost feels like a day off.”
Chad was always fairly handy in the kitchen, but now he has become more proficient in throwing things together quickly.
“It’s a little odd, but I’ve always been a little domestic,” Chad said. “I know my way around the kitchen, but I’ve gotten a lot better. When I have to put something together fast, it’s macaroni and cheese and fish sticks.”
Chad and Shelly don’t know how their sons, when they grow older, will react to their parents’ shared sacrifices. But they are hopeful.
“I guess I look back on my own experience as a child, and my mom stayed home with me, so I always had the benefit of having a parent at home,” Shelly said. “Many families have two working parents, and that works for them. For me, this is something I wanted for my children, to have somebody home for them. I think they’ll look back and treasure the adventures they had with their dad.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.