Meet Ben Werner, he’s a stay-at-home dad/trophy husband married to a military wife and the whole family is now stationed and living in South Korea.
Stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, flip, feet hit the wall, push off, my body is surrounded by bubbles as if I were immersed in a champagne cocktail.
Weekly, I pull my body through thousands of meters of pool water and wonder, Why?
I am a trophy husband—a glistening piece of arm candy while attending formal and informal Navy events with my Lieutenant Commander wife.
Some of the other spouses may judge, but who knows—we say hello, but that’s about it. Periodically our paths cross, while I’m out for a run, shopping at the market, or grabbing an Americano while they hold coffee dates to plan shopping outings and social events. They don’t tell me about great sales, fun new shopping finds, or what their kids are up to. I don’t discuss batting averages, pitching rotations, or what my kids are up to.
Then again, perhaps the rarity of my status makes it difficult for them to fit me into typical military cliques. I’m married to a naval officer, but I’m not military. I’m a man, yet I’ve carried our babies enough to develop De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, also known as “mother’s wrist” or “mommy thumb.” (I wrote this while balancing our 4-week-old in my arm at my wife’s salon while her hair was done.) I am a stay-at-home dad, sure, but not really by choice as is often the case with the wives. My status is simply part of the deal accompanying an active-duty family member to Busan, South Korea—a country where I’m not even sure the concept of a stay-at-home dad exists.
Even back in the States, though, stay-at-home dads are pretty rare. A recent Pew Research Center study estimates we number about 2 million, according to analysis of data culled from the 2012 U.S. Census and from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
The Pew study does optimistically state that our ranks are growing. The number of stay-at-home dads today is double the 1989 estimate; the first year reliable stay-at-home dad stats were collected. Great, except we’re a nation of more than 300 million, so perhaps 0.6 percent of the population qualifies as a stay-at-home dad. A stay-at-home dad, defined by Pew, was any father who doesn’t work outside the home and lives with his children aged 18 years or younger.
I’ve never met another military spouse stay-at-home dad, but my friend Terry, a federal contractor, did about a year’s time as a stay-at-home dad. He smirked when recalling doing some freelance work for federal clients while dodging the cleaning lady. When I asked him about the playground, he just rolled his eyes, explaining how he’d kind of nod hello to the moms and nannies but that was it. He had nothing to say to them. Usually he’d just watch his daughter play.
I know the nod hello followed by the silent watching of kids climbing over playground equipment. The only difference, in Korea, even if I had something to say to the moms with their kids, I couldn’t—rarely do they speak English and I can barely muddle through a “Hello.”
My one stay-at-home dad bonding moment was with a Canadian. We were searching for a diaper-changing table inside the massive Busan’s Shinsegei department store. Among the multiple restrooms dotting the nine floors and a basement of shopping, not a single changing station was found in a men’s room.
I’m not sure what moms talk about during such situations. Maybe there’s no discussion since most women’s rooms have changing tables; many even have smaller kid-sized toilets and sinks. We talked about the onset of the NHL season and compared strategies for navigating the Shinsegei’s confusing elevator system.
Not finding a changing station was a tough break. I’m a trophy husband, sure, but behind the glamour is a brain charged with family navigation and procurement. I memorized a list of coffee locations cross-referenced with publicly accessible restrooms, categorized according to cleanliness and baby-changing table access.
Aside from watching baseball after the kids are off to school (with the time difference, night games in the U.S. are live in the morning in Korea), a big part of my day is spent drinking coffee and finding restrooms. I also ensure my wife is apprised of the latest news concerning the football team at her alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy. My triple option offense tutorial was warmly received, I think. She said, “Thanks, I got it.”
So, when accompanying my wife out and I’m asked what I do, I sip a champagne cocktail, consider the truth of my days—getting dry cleaning, paying bills, swimming, watching baseball—and say, “I’m a trophy husband.”