Being a Stay At Home Dad

Normally, on this blog I have written very little about my personal life, keeping it strictly to things related to books, politics, and the occasional technical problem.

Two weeks ago, I came across this article by stay-at-home-dad Charlie LeDuff in Men’s Vogue courtesy of Judith Warner’s New York Times blog Domestic Disturbances.

I don’t normally read Men’s Vogue. In fact, I didn’t know that Vogue even had a magazine for men until I came across the article in question. Whatever. LeDuff’s essay is about his experiences being a stay-at-home-dad (SAHD) to his daughter after giving up the life of an ambitious globe-trotting journalist. It’s okay enough with the exception of a few things and this in particular;

You have to decide if the child is more important than the stature, the action, the money. If she is, you must accept it and get on with the routine.

There is a rather large misguided notion packed into that sentence: that being a stay at home parent (SAHP) has to be an either/or construct. So that if you choose to A) work outside the home then hiring a nanny or sending your child off to daycare means you are materialistic and don’t love your child as much as stay-at-home-parents (SAHPs) do, or if you choose to B) be a SAHP, then you are doing the most Noble Work Possible and if you don’t like it (or think otherwise) you are a horrible person.

For LeDuff, being a SAHD was a choice, like it is for many middle class and upper middle class parents. Good for him. He has the privilege of choice in this matter. He made the choice he felt was right for him, his newborn daughter, and his wife.

For my family and me, it was a choice, too. One that fits my temperament. I’m more of a homebody than my wife who is a university professor. I also had a job I didn’t mind giving up. It’s not that I disliked Technical Writing. I enjoyed many things about it. It just wasn’t a career I was strongly attached to. Mostly, I looked at it as a good (and relatively easy) way to make a nice living. (I said relative. I’ve got family members that did jobs like cement finisher and iron worker. As far as I’m concerned, though my job required more education, my job was easier to do day in and day out than those jobs.) Maybe it’s my having come from the working class, but I have always viewed it as a combination of luck and privilege to land a job/career in something you really love. For most people work is simply work, and a personally-rewarding career is a luxury.

My wife, son, and I also happen to live in a place where you can live comfortably off the single income provided by a tenure-track professor position. That is not the case in high cost of living places like Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, or Boston. I don’t know how LeDuff and his wife are doing it. Maybe they have one of those impossibly tiny rent-controlled apartments in New York City. Maybe they’re only going to have one child. Most couples in major cities have to work to simply keep up with the cost of living, or one (or both) of them has to have a high-paying job (real estate, finance, medical doctor, lawyer, IT manager, etc.).

For most two-income parents, staying at home isn’t an option. They work because they have to. So putting the kid(s) in daycare is necessary to help them make ends meet. Or one parent works part-time, because they need that extra income or the health insurance benefits.

LeDuff derides the children he sees at the playground with nannies by calling them “Little Lord Fauntleroys.” His resentment of their apparent wealth and his judgment that their mothers and fathers are bad parents couldn’t be more apparent. But he misconstrues two things: being a parent and performing child care. They are not necessarily the same, though SAHPs do both.

When my wife was working on her Phd, we placed our son in daycare for about 20 hours a week so that she could write her dissertation. We had considered a part-time nanny, but the even the cost of that was prohibitive for us. One thing we learned very quickly though was this: the experienced nanny is better at child care than the new parent. They knew how to feed, clothe, bathe, and play with a newborn. They also knew more than we did about dealing with illnesses, often knowing CPR. Why? They were professionals. To dismiss them is also to devalue their work, and the sacrifices they are forced to make within their own families in order to support those families. There are numerous books written on domestic labor, like this one: Domestica: Immigrant Workers Caring and Cleaning in the Shadows of Affluence (full disclosure: the book’s author Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo was my wife’s dissertation chair at USC). I will admit that being married to a sociologist helps me to be more aware of these kinds of things than many people probably are.

(I should note that LeDuff doesn’t even broach the subject of being a single parent. For the single parent, the choices are next to nil. There are mere survival issues, custody issues, etc. So LeDuff is probably smart to stay away from that topic and keep to his narrow little world, lest his papier mache arguments are burned by the flames of angry single parents without the privilege of choice.)

Setting up stay-at-home-parenthood to be something noble akin to sainthood (whether LeDuff is aware of this) is ridiculous. It creates a standard that’s impossible to live up to. Parenthood is challenging enough without setting up unrealistic expectations. As rewarding as SAH parenthood is for me, I think there is little that is saintly about raising kids. It’s your job. It’s your responsibility. You brought that child into the world, so you are responsible for taking care of that child until they are able to fend for themself in the world.

I enjoy my role as the SAHP. I consider it lucky to be in a position where there was a choice. What I do find uncomfortable is when people find out I’m a SAHD and they say things like “That’s fantastic!” or “Good for you.” I understand why. Us SAHDs are still enough of a rarity to merit that kind of encouragement. Though no longer unheard of these days, SAHDs are considered to be breaking new ground as far as the kinds of things men can do in the eyes of society. But those people who are so complimentary toward me would not make those same exclamations if they were speaking to a woman. A friend of ours, who has recently become a SAHM, talked about the disheartening shrug she sees many SAHMs make when in various situations they answer the question, “What do you do?” by saying, “I’m a stay at home mom,” and give that shrug, as if that’s all they do. Because the conversation usually stops after that anyway. No one asks follow-up questions to a SAHM. But if the woman has a job they are likely to ask follow-up questions about the woman’s profession or field of work.

A lot of this wouldn’t be such an issue if the pressures of providing health care through employment were addressed or workplaces were more family-friendly. It would also help if we weren’t so catty about judging people for the difficult decisions they make in their attempts to balance life, work, happiness, and survival.

With LeDuff, we are reading yet another example of a member of the middle class who relishes his privilege without even recognizing he has any privilege at all. Those looking for an example of stay-at-home-parenthood should look elsewhere.

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