Before you read this I think it is important for you to know that I do not have a job. I don’t work. I don’t own any cardboard signs or permanent black markers and I have the full use of all of my limbs, but still I stay at home. My wife wakes and gets ready for her day amid a flurry of emails and missed calls and is off to work while I sit on the floor with a cup of coffee and NPR. The fact that my coffee is cold and I can’t hear the news over the screams of my three young children should not ruin your image of being a stay at home father, although it occasionally ruins mine. When I am out with my male friends they often start complaining about how their wives complain about staying at home with the children until they remember that I too am sitting at the bar at which point they glance awkwardly, cough, and order another round. I have raised my three children from their respective infancies and I have found a way not only to survive, but on occasion, to thrive. Society’s expectations are different on a father with small children than on a mother with small children. So, when my two year old wets her pants while we are standing in line at Lowe’s, I am able to play off of everyone’s assumption that surely I am just giving mommy time to get her hair done because why else would a man drag a small child to a home improvement center on a Saturday. But, I know how to take care of her and I am not undone by this little incident and neither is she. The people behind us, on the other hand, will need to watch their step.
I know what it is to spend every day with my young children for weeks and months on end without a real break. I know what it is to tend to and worry about sick infants, babies, and toddlers all the while taking care of the older and younger ones of the group. I have been spit up on, thrown up on, pooped on and peed on, bled on and sneezed on so much that I wear a medical bracelet that simply reads “biohazard”. I have been so tired of holding my discontent nine month old son that I let him chase me around our kitchen island. My daughter has been so stubborn at times that I have had to step outside to contain my anger and so bored at other times that I have found Candyland suspenseful. I have been up at night, on airplanes, and on road trips with children who for no apparent reason want to scream and cry causing me to slowly pluck all of my eyelashes out just to maintain my sanity. My children have thrown outright uncontrollable temper tantrums in the book store, restaurant, mall, pet store, relative’s homes, car, church, park, doctor’s office, airplanes, and coffee shops that I no longer have any pride left, just a dull sense of being human. For being a more reserved person I have been exposed to the world against my will like a woman who has had her skirt blown over her head by the wind. I have been and will be undone in public by my children.
None of these circumstances are rare; every parent has endured the travails of small children. But, as the primary care giver I have experienced as a man experiences that are more common to women. By nature and by culture women have been and remain the main care givers to children. Mother and child together are not only common but iconic images. We see them together in art, media, and at the grocery store. A motherless child is pitied differently than the more common fatherless child. A mother who has abandoned her children is vilified differently than the more common absent father. A mother and child are supposed to be together so when they are not we wonder if something is amiss.
Any relationship that challenges the common cultural norms of the society in which they relate will always be open to suspicion. A father that stays home with his kids while the mother goes off to work is one of those relationships. Men are providers while women are care takers. If a woman who has small children is working it is assumed that she needs to, not that she wants to. And if she wants to, then the questions concerning her true motivations as a mother are just as suspect as the motivations of the father who would prefer to stay home. Fathers are suspected of shirking their real responsibility as much as the mothers are, but both in ways specific to their gender. Fathers fail as providers where mothers fail as care givers.
Being a stay at home father is about more than the ability to take care of small children. It is about the cultural assumptions of the society in which we live, the marriage that produced the children, and our ability to negotiate those potential tensions. It is about combating the stereotypes of what it means to be a man and occasionally losing those battles. And it is, above all the questions and tensions, about being a father.