“What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski? Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn’t that what makes a man?”
“Sure, that and a pair of testicles.”
One of the primary questions and criticisms that come up for dads at home with the kids is how a man maintains his masculinity in a role that has been defined for generations by feminine responsibility. These questions take shape in a few different ways: how do you feel your masculinity has been affected by being an at-home dad; do you feel emasculated or depressed that your wife makes more money then you; and how does the response of friends and family who have made different choices affect you? These are great questions and worth exploring for anyone that is thinking about embarking on this adventure of being a stay at home dad. I can’t answer these questions for you but I can tell you how I have come to my answers and what this new role means for me and my family.
First off the question of masculinity being tied to a job outside the house is a big one that I get from men all the time. For so long masculinity has been linked to vocation. My sense of who I am as a man is not tied up in the job that I have or the work I do. Being home raising my boys gives me more fulfillment and sense of accomplishment than I ever had in the software industry or working offshore building oil platforms. If you find your identity tied up in vocation then you are going to have a hard time being at home whether you’re a man or a woman. It takes a certain type of person and a level of sacrifice to be a stay at home parent but those characteristics are not uniquely feminine. The truth is I am as much of a man as I ever was before being at home; vocation and masculinity are not linked in my mind.
Another criticism of dads at home is their inability to provide for their family. I take issue with what it means to provide for your family. This is one area where stay at home moms have been marginalized for so long. Just because you don’t earn a paycheck does not imply that a valuable job is not being done and a contribution isn’t being made to the family. When my wife went back to work and I was no longer the one bringing home the paycheck I thought I would feel somewhat less appreciated but that wasn’t the case. I no longer see these individual roles of what I must do and what my wife must do but instead see the roles that need to be addressed in the context of family. There are decisions that we make based on understanding our natural strengths. I am much more suited to being at home with our boys, raising them, being patient, and not losing who I am in the process. My wife is much more suited to being in the workplace where she can find adult interaction and the challenge of the marketplace. She is also the one to decorate the house while I build fires and man the grill, again based on our natural strengths. Understanding what works for our family was an important step in the process of deciding what our roles within that family context would be. I in no way feel emasculated for being a stay at home dad and I know that my wife sees me as a strong man not just because I can open the pickle jar but because I can soothe a crying baby.
My friends and family have had mixed reactions to me being the stay at home parent but the more they see of our family dynamic the more they understand. People have an idea of what a stay at home dad looks like in their mind and then that image gets readjusted when they have an actual test case to view. My family has been supportive and encouraging. Some friends have had a less than positive take. They have objections based on some of the same masculinity issues as well as religious beliefs that see a man at home as lazy and ungodly. I have tried to confront those objections head on but ultimately I only have control over how I perceive my role as a stay at home dad and not how others do. I can offer our own experience as an example of a stay at home dad who feels fulfilled and still fully masculine but in the end I won’t always bring everyone around to my point of view. How others view our choices as a family hold little weight compared to how we view them.
Making the decision to be a stay at home dad was an easy one for my wife and I to make because we understood that I was better suited to be the one home with the kids. Once we made the decision that it is important to us to have one of us home, the choice in who that would be was a no-brainer. I think there are a number of stay at home dads that have not chosen their role, but had it dumped upon them and in that case it is going to be hard. Just like the stay at home moms that have had no choice but to be home with the kids, the role is going to become limiting and lead to feelings of being trapped. When you get to make the choice there is freedom and a sense of purpose in the role that I have come to love. I am a stay at home dad by choice and I wouldn’t trade this job for anything.