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Cleaning up in the New, New Economy

A Father's Day dispatch from CNET's Michael Kanellos recounts how a recovering tech-news junkie deals with his new (temporary) role as a stay-at-home dad.

The new job had begun, and I was already behind the curve on the first day. I didn't bring the required data sheet, I showed up late, and I had no public breast-feeding experiences to share.

Welcome to the life of the stay-at-home dad. My wife and I had our first child this past January, and, thanks to the Federal Family Leave Act, I am currently on a three-month sabbatical to take care of Emily. Rather than ease into the assignment, I decided to attend the informal mother's group the first week.

To answer the first question, yes, people still stare. Although the caretaker dad has become a more common fixture in society in the past decade, most people seem content to view you as a well-intentioned, yet dangerously inept novelty. You're someone who might feed his infant daughter fun size Snickers bars and watch reruns of Hogan's Heroes all day.

Nonetheless, it's a worthwhile experience. What will be more memorable, I asked myself, watching my daughter learn to stick her toes in her mouth (a genetic inheritance from my side) or breaking a story about a discovery continuance in Rambus v. Micron Technology?

Besides that, an entire world exists outside the office, I've discovered, and it runs by its own rules. For those of you contemplating a temporary career change, here is a primer:

• The Internet has gone to the mall. Call it the New, New Economy. With the downturn in technology, cafes and bookstores are populated with former executives milling about killing time.

So far, I've met a former controller at a dot-com, a sales manager at a start-up clinging to life, a developer at an auction software company expending mandatory vacation days, and someone who was a venture capitalist for about ten minutes. During a class on infant first aid, one guy ended up interviewing another for an accounting position.

Additionally, I also ran into an operations manager who believes he works at Silicon Valley's last surviving incubator. What's their secret? They specialize in medical devices, not computers.

• The housekeeper is a lonely hunter. For years, my brother and I wondered how our mother could veer into monologues about the angle of the couch or Victorian desserts. But now I understand. While taking care of an infant, the day consists of maintaining a one-sided conversation until someone else comes home. It's like one of those POW movies where the grizzled veteran teaches the new prisoner how to stay calm under pressure.

Emily's a good conversationalist for a 5-month-old, though. Currently, it's 9:30 a.m., and we've gone over the daily agenda, improvised a poem on sterilizing bottles, and sung four songs: "Twisting the Night Away," "We are Santa's Elves," "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)," and bits of "Aqualung." You'd be amazed at the number of tunes you remember.

• It is also more difficult than it looks. Hats off to you, mom. You're absolutely right. Nobody appreciates all the little, time-consuming tasks you perform. Feeding, cleaning, wielding the Pledge Grab-It dusting mitt, and folding the laundry: it's all harder to juggle than it looks, as if anyone noticed.

"It came to me in a flash of inspiration," I told my wife one morning, "Two words: Tamale Pie."

"It sounds like you are doing great," she said, " But I do have to get on a conference call now about our numbers this month."

By the end of the day, you're craving a cocktail. Even fermented mayonnaise would do the trick.

• The tech world has nothing on Graco. If PC executives want to find a way out of their current slump, they should get down to Target or some other superstore. Infant care specialists such as Evenflo, Graco and Avent have perfected the art of selling superfluous amounts of equipment at exorbitant prices to repeat customers.

Is it possible to spend over $100 on a high chair, a piece of furniture crafted from molded plastic and a few screws? Try $159.95 for the Prima Pappa from Peg-Perego, Italy's finest. That's on a clearance markdown from $200. Don't even ask about the Viking Plus Sport Stroller with rear wheel suspension from Emmaljunga.

Marketing techniques abound. On average, stores sell four different brands of wipes, and each brand markets four different kinds (scented, lightly scented, unscented and scented with aloe) for a total of sixteen different types of disposable cloths designed solely to wipe a young one's rear. To top it off, these wipes all come in slightly different dimensions, 7 inches by 8 inches versus 6.75 inches by 8.5 inches. Is it so that a competitor's refill won't fit into another company's plastic repository tub? None dare call it conspiracy.

No doubt, the field remains competitive at high-tech. I can imagine a senior vice president at Huggies presenting the 2002 line to the board: "Sometimes an industry comes to an inflection point, gentlemen," he ominously bellows. "With the new stay-tight fasteners, we have taken the controls on the freight train of history, and Pampers is on the track."

I have to admit, though, the quality and engineering on most of these products is nothing short of outstanding. The Prima Poppa features four-seat angles, seven seat height, a five point restraint system a NASCAR driver would envy, and it folds up with the flick of the left foot. Would I rather have a new Pentium 4 computer or two cartons of wide mouth refills for the Playtex Diaper Genie Twistaway Disposal System? Just guess.

• Jack will rule the world. Every era has its popular first names. And for the class of 2018, that name is Jack. Although it is hard to explain why, it might be a twisted stock market-related homage to General Electric's Jack Welch. For girls, the name of choice has become Sarah, who married Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments."

• One can always depend on the kindness of strangers. Most people in a big city spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to avoid making eye contact with strangers. Not so with a baby. Suddenly, people want to speak with you or help. Two mothers in one store made sure I bought the right kind of food. Watching me try to maneuver with the baby in a front carrier, a middle-aged woman came over and took my groceries out of the cart and put them on the conveyor belt.

"I have a son graduating from eighth grade tomorrow. He's going to go to the High School for the Arts," she said. "So I am feeling sort of sentimental."

Conversely, I find myself telling them about things that can make her laugh (gulping noises) or helping them clean up their own baby's spit up. It's liberating, this freedom from conventional embarrassment.

And the day I get my own feeding story, you'll be the first to know.