There is little doubt that women have made a great deal of social progress in the past 30 years. We have found ourselves in higher, better paid positions and by our own hard work and merit we are achieving success in any field in which we direct our energies. There is also increased acceptance, and even appreciation for the working mother. But there is an obstacle that we haven't fully considered, let alone surmounted. It's the role of the father.
This is topic that I am very near to, since I am the proud wife of a stay-at-home dad. When I tell people this for the first time, I get a broad range of reactions. The best ones are from other working mothers who understand the drawbacks of putting a child in daycare (recognizing of course that economic necessity gives many families no other option) and appreciate the (unfortunately necessary) cultural flexibility it takes to achieve such an arrangement.
Equally appreciative are those of both genders who feel we are making an elaborate statement, deliberately altering our lifestyles to… "fight the man". The worst and/or most interesting reactions have ranged from awkward pauses, to cynically pitying smiles (as though I were somehow being taken advantage of). These reactions have even come from my co-workers-- a supervisor once insinuating that my husband was incapable of holding a job. Paradoxically, when I was pregnant no amount of reassurance would convince them that I wouldn't immediately cast aside my career and dive head first into the blissful domestic realm of motherhood once my child was born.
Don't get me wrong, there are many, many people out there who are entirely neutral to my family situation. And they should be. In fact, if you continue to read this article, and happen to find it evocative and/or interesting you should ask yourself why that is since, in a perfect world, a stay-at-home dad would simply be taken for granted (their existence, not their importance).
However, as the Drug Store commercials suggest, we do not live in "Perfect"--- and nether does the state of social equality between parents--- as I quickly learned when family and friends would look immediately past my husband when asking if they could hold my child. If my husband turned and offered permission himself, he would be gently chided since such things were obviously my "jurisdiction". Quentin has also had to hear time and again by those unaware of our arrangement how he should always listen to me regarding how to raise our child since parenting is "all about the mom". But parenting shouldn't be all about the mom—it should be all about the parent.
I suppose, as a working mother, and primarily earner for my family, I'm somehow obliged to express some secret regret for my lifestyle. I'm supposed to tell you how pained I am to leave everyday for work, or how exhausted I feel fighting against the ever-present maternal pull to instead take on an "unnatural" role. The scary part is, I know you'd believe me. Yet, long before my daughter was born, my husband I knew, nay took for granted, that he would be the one providing full time care for her. It was one of those logical situations that took very little stretch of the imagination to make sense.
After all, I'm considerably more career minded than Quentin, was earning more at the time of our decision, and have always since girlhood fantasized about what I would be when I grew up. While I was dreaming of college and making my Barbie dolls discuss economic recession, my future husband was making quilts, cooking meals for his family and imagining what his own family would be like someday. His talents and energies have always leaned more towards the home front and for this I am constantly grateful (he is hands-down the superior chef and bookkeeper in our relationship).
It is often claimed, particularly around certain May holidays, that the role of the stay-at-home parent should be exalted above all others. We are given glossy pamphlets and heart-warming speeches about how much a mother would earn if she was paid for the myriad of tasks she lovingly completes on a daily basis. She is a chef, a housekeeper, a bookkeeper, a therapist, nurse, a child-care provider, a CEO, and the list goes on and on. We are told to appreciate all she does.
When the media is feeling particularly warm, fuzzy, and socially progressive, they'll even suggest the father has something worthwhile to contribute besides wacky after-work hi-jinks, periodic sagely wisdom and a regular paycheck.. Parenting magazines, such as, well, "Parenting" discuss how despite working all day, fathers should be allowed (on occasion of course) to take over the child-rearing at least on special occasions like the weekend and Father's Day. I suppose this valiant effort towards egalitarian parenting should be commended, but the assumption is always the same—dad works, mom stays home (or works part time). There is very little, if any recognition of the stay-at-home father.
As much as we elevate the traditional mother, one has to wonder why working mothers are so readily accepted (in most cases) while fathers, once placed into the domestic sphere, are so often ignored— or worst yet, portrayed at incompetent or comical figures.
This crosses my mind when for the third time Quentin has to field a call from his mother reminding him with what I can only imagine she believes is subtlety that "most people believe men who stay at home and don't work do it because they have no other choice".
It's pained me more than once to come home to my husband looking disheartened, full of self-doubt because his mother, or father, or brother have suggested that I don't really want to be working mom and that he has given me no other option. To them I'm a ticking time bomb of passive aggressiveness working until I can bear the resentment no longer and then, subsequently leaving the love of my life for some working father-knows-best with a pipe dangling out between his perfectly straightened teeth.
I love my little girl and make a point of spending as much time with her as humanly possible. I play with her, read to her, comfort her and appreciate every precious moment she is in my arms. But if I hadn't married a man who from the start told me he was domestically capable, the thought of having a baby wouldn't have crossed my mind for at least another five years. I have been and always will be a career minded person. StilI, I truly believe being a stay at home parent is one of the most important, hardest jobs anyone can take in this society and that no one should be barred from such an important calling.
I am under no illusions that societal expectations will suddenly change overnight, but if we are truly proponents of gender equality-- if we truly believe that the traditional tasks of motherhood are serious and worthy work, if we truly want our daughters to have no path barred to them, we must teach our sons that they are just as capable of care taking, nurturing, and managing a household as their female counterparts. By aiming suspicion and contempt at those who would aspire towards these goals, we are not only devaluing the domestic role—the very foundation of our society, but devaluing the parents who worked so very hard to raise us, and depriving both our businesses and our children the individual most qualified for the job.
But to my husand and I, this debate matters very little as he holds our little girl, and we sing her to sleep.