Every stay-at-home dad has been in this scenario. Someone says, “What do you do?” or “What’s your job.” You respond “I’m a stay at home dad.” Or feeling especially good about things, “I’ve got the best job in the world. I’m a stay-at-home dad!” For the record I’ve made both of these responses on multiple occasions but this response always bothers me. There is something about the idea of our children as jobs that bothers me. Sure we put in tremendous effort to raising our kids, any stay-at-home parent does regardless of gender. For dads there is an additional societal pressure to show enthusiasm for what we do because it is something that is not fully accepted yet. Frankly, we live in such a career centered society I don’t even know if it’s particularly acceptable for moms to stay at home anymore, aren’t they supposed to do everything?
Why do I sometimes feel the need to be so upbeat about being a stay-at-home dad and yet present the juxtaposed image of my challenging career in fatherhood? Because the pressures of dominant culture, externally and in my own head, can be a real bitch. I’m sure almost every stay-at-home dad has experienced some form of disapproval when a stranger learns that you are with your child all day. Unfortunately, I’ve found this often comes from members of the baby-boomer generation or earlier.
Here’s an example. My son was about six months old and I was carrying him in a harness on my chest on a walk to pick up something from Target. We ran into an elderly neighbor who made a bit of small talk and asked what we were up to. “Just heading to Target for some toothpaste,” I said. She was taken aback and immediately said, “Shouldn’t his mother be doing that?” It’s one of those times when you wish there was some sharp response that you could produce and walk triumphantly away. I had nothing. I was so floored all I could manage was, “I am his father.”
There have been a few other incidents like this I have experience both personally and with other dads. And then there is the expectation factor. Society still expects us (men that is) to be the bread-winners. Sure we have grown more excepting of women taking on the breadwinner role but the message is still our there that our primary value as men is to provide monetarily for our family. Perhaps we have not valued the role of the stay-at-home parent more generally. Anyone who has watched a few seasons of Madmen can see that. But for most of our history we’ve been devaluing women in that role and now men are getting their turn.
Whether the pressure comes at us externally or is in our own heads I think that a good number of us try to overcompensate in order to validate what we do, the role we play. I have often felt the need to say to the world, “No I don’t go to work, I stay at home and raise my kid and yes I am damn proud of that.” So to give weight to the work we do we tend to language the role of caregiver as a “job”. But frankly, it is not. Child rearing is the duty of every parent whether they are at home or at work. Stay-at-home dads are simply fulfilling the role which many women performed for centuries, even millennia. Those of us who are stay-at-home parents have either chosen, with our spouse, to raise our children under a particular ethos or we have been forced into the role by the tyranny of economics. What we do is of great value to our children so perhaps we can live with that and let go of the fact that we are cooking the bacon and not bringing it home.