Stay-at-home dads have been in the news a lot this year. Whether it’s investigations of how more men are staying home to allow their Wall Street wives to succeed, or a new A&E reality show that finally gives us the level of cultural recognition long ago awarded to pawn brokers and duck-call manufacturers, it seems we’re having a bit of a moment.
But a question lingers in the background for many Americans: Isn’t this all a bit … embarrassing?
The truth is, sometimes my wife is embarrassed that I’m a stay-at-home dad. She is afraid of what people may say or think.
But not about me. About her. Namely, she’s worried they’ll think she’s a bad mother.
Obviously nothing could be further from the truth, but while I long ago got over any notion that staying home with my kids makes me less of a man, she still has that nagging voice in her head that yells at her for not making enough time for her children and living up to our society’s expectations of a wife and mother.
She has no interest is being the primary caregiver — just the thought makes her laugh in terror — but she loves our kids more than life itself and hates how much of their lives she’s missing.
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My wife Allie and I have two beautiful and hilarious children. Penny is 5 and Simon is almost 2. Allie is a senior-level fundraiser and event planner for a New York City nonprofit. Compared with most people in the country, she earns a pretty damn good salary. Compared with the people who work a few blocks over on Wall Street, she’s a pauper. She works long hours — sometimes until midnight or later — but most nights she is able to get home early enough to spend a little time with the kids before bed.
I have been a stay-at-home dad since Penny was born. Circumstances at the time made the choice an easy one. But, regardless of circumstances, it was what we both wanted.
Allie gets visibly angry at people who imply that staying at home with the children isn’t work or that being the primary caregiver makes me “less of a man” than a guy with a paying gig. Whenever these thoughts creep back into my own subconscious, she kindly lets me know I’m an idiot — and then reminds me of all the wonderful experiences I’m giving the kids as well as all the obstacles I encounter on a daily basis, both physical and mental.
I’ve learned to hop over baby gates, high-step Legos, and give my son “the Heisman” as I relieve myself of all the coffee required to keep up with my high-octane children. Her pep talk usually leads to “I couldn’t do what you do.” Then, almost inaudibly, “and that’s why I’m a lousy mom.”
The fact that people seem to think staying at home is, well, child’s play makes Allie feel all the worse — because that makes it all the more inexcusable, in her mind, that she isn’t cut out for it. Whenever she has the kids home alone, both of our mothers ask if she needs help. Allie says it’s because they don’t think she can hack it without me around. I think they’re just being nice, that she’s being paranoid and, maybe, she’s projecting. (A little.)
Of course, Allie is wonderful with the kids when she gets home. She gives me a little breather when she walks in the door. She doesn’t just play with Penny and Simon, she changes diapers, disciplines them when necessary and helps with homework.
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But think of how differently we treat men and women here. Dads who are truly equal-parenting partners get credit for going above and beyond. Their culturally mandated role is to make money, and they have done that before they even come through the door. Everything else is gravy.
On the other hand, if Allie came home, kicked her feet up and had a glass of wine while I continued caring for the kids, that voice in her head would shout: You are a terrible mom!!!
Meanwhile, Allie’s stress at work and guilt at home have had unmistakable consequences: for a while, she started losing her hair. This may be the ultimate gender-role reversal.
Allie would be the last to say so, but she has two full-time jobs. She feels guilty when she’s not giving 100% to either. But it’s impossible to do both.
She does what she has to do to excel at her job, so she can earn a salary and we can all eat food that isn’t ramen and live with a pretty decent roof over our heads. She is always going to feel that twang of guilt, because she’s always going to miss something in our children’s lives.
But I’m here. And that’s kind of the point of marriage. You can’t do everything individually, but as a unit you have it covered. The working-wife/stay-at-home-dad unit is the one that works for us. Nothing to feel guilty or embarrassed about.
Lesser blogs at Amateur Idiot/Professional Dad.