I am not just a working mom, I am a “breadwinner mom,” one of the 5.1 million (37%) married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands. Unlike most of my peers in this cohort, however, I do not just earn a higher income, I earn the sole income on which our family depends. Being a working mom still carries some social stigma – the Pew poll found that “only 21% of adults say the growing number of mothers of young children working outside the home is a good thing for society” – and personal guilt – only 22% of moms who work full-time believe that is the ideal situation for a young child. But whatever social or personal pressures I feel about being a working mom pales in comparison to what my husband faces as a stay-at-home dad.
In South Africa, John was a workaholic humanitarian law lecturer and manager of the Masters of Law course in Human Rights at the University of Pretoria. He worried about what he would do to stay sharp and productive while waiting for his work authorization after immigrating to the U.S., but exploring D.C., meeting new people, traveling, an internship and settling into married life kept him busy. When we found out we were pregnant, John was taking correspondence courses, managing the building we lived in, and walking dogs a few hours a day. We looked into several childcare options, but quickly realized that urban childcare costs more than John could earn without American legal credentials. Moreover, our parents had strong opinions on the subject, and in our heart of hearts, John and I believe it is best for a baby to be with a parent for the first year. So it was a fairly clear to us that John should stay home, but even though we both know that is the best thing for our family, it has not been easy.
First, there is the question of semantics. I refuse to call John the “full-time” or “primary” parent, because those titles imply that I play only a “part-time” or “secondary” role in my son’s life, which fuels the guilt I feel about working outside the home. I prefer to consider us “co-parents,” with John covering the 8am – 6pm shift five days a week, while I put in my time on nights and weekends. In deference to my sensitivities, John has graciously adopted the “stay at home dad” label, even though he hardly ever “stays at home” with our son – they are always out playing, visiting, learning, and exploring.
Peter Mountford’s Slate article, “I’m Not a Hero for Taking Care of My Kids,” effectively articulated the working mom/stay at home dad dynamic: while “there’s an emasculating connotation to a man taking a break from his career to raise children,” our society increasingly rewards “DIY Dads,” but moms are caught in a catch-22. Mr. Mountford explains that when he used to work long hours, people applauded his ambition; now that he is home with his daughters, he is regularly called a “hero” by strangers. My husband has had the same experience. Meanwhile, I feel judged for abandoning my baby to pursue a career, but would be looked down upon as “an anachronistic housewife” if I stayed home. Fortunately, John and I are less of an oddity here in D.C., and John has built his own community of dads who attend library story hours, visit museums, have park play-dates, and meet up for bring-your-baby happy hours.
Still, John feels a bit robbed of his right/duty to provide for his family. South Africa is about a decade behind the U.S. when it comes to gender roles (and in some other ways ….), so John struggles to defend his new occupation to his friends and family back home. Whereas I must balance my role as a mom with that as a young professional, John’s identity has become almost entirely wrapped up in our son. He claims that people he meets clam up when he tells them he’s a stay at home dad, they don’t know what to say next. That is, people without kids. Among parents, John is SuperDad. He can charm a giggle out of any kid, and has the patience of a saint.
And John is certainly not bored – our baby keeps him on his toes. It seems like I always come home to discover that both my husband and son have learned something new that day – whether to hold a bottle (my son), or get a poop stain out of the rug (my husband). Financial considerations aside, John is a better stay-at-home parent than I could ever be, so I am grateful he has embraced his important role.
I cannot sum up this post better than Mr. Mountford concluded his article, so I will borrow his words: “The reality is that no parent I know – regardless of gender – has the luxury of making a choice about how he or she will balance the demands of work and childcare. The decision isn’t heroic or cowardly. It isn’t even a decision. No, this here – this is economics.”