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Don’t call him Mr. Mom

My wife and I are both grad students with one major difference: she gets paid. So while I got a place to live out of the marriage deal, she got a share in my pile of student loans. My wife is a research scientist (fancy, right?); I write articles and study unknowable “humanities” type things. So guess who’s more likely to be the main provider for our family? It’s probably not going to be me.

I knew this early on in our dating relationship. If I attached my identity and self-worth to the amount on my paycheque, this might really bother me.

While fatherhood is (hopefully) still far in the distance for me, the question looms: who will stay at home with the kids? My wife will likely have a higher income, better benefits, and better long-term opportunities. And let’s face it, I can read books and write articles from home.

We often hear about the shifting landscape of parenting, that women are taking over as the primary income earner and men are settling into the role of primary caretaker. This is not really the case. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann takes a closer look at what is actually going on.

While the numbers show the amount of stay-at-home dads has more than doubled in the past decade and a half, this is hardly more than an ant doubling in size. Weissmann cites out of all American married couples who have children under the age of 15, the number of stay-at-home dads has shifted from 0.3 per cent to 0.8 per cent.

These statistics are exaggerated, says Weissmann, as they don’t account for children born out of wedlock (which make up over half of births to women under 30). He goes even further: among two-parent households with working mothers, the percentage of men as primary caretakers has actually declined in the past two decades.

In Canada, the numbers are largely the same. In 1976, out of all single earner families with a stay-at-home parent, one per cent were dads. Now, men comprise 12 per cent of stay-at-home parents. It’s a huge increase, but it still highlights the disparity that exists.

But the statistics, on every side, are misleading for our generation. The paradigm of single earner households with one parent as primary caretaker doesn’t really exist anymore. The landscape of parenting has changed. The increase in the number of unmarried parents, the need for two incomes, the growing opportunities for women; we don’t live in the same world as our parents once did. Raising children requires a different sort of partnership.

I encountered an example of this kind of partnership in James and his wife Skye. The two recently made the big move from Australia to British Columbia for the sake of their oldest daughter’s educational needs. They left family, friends, and an entire way of life. Skye had been enjoying life as a stay-at-home mom while James ran his own business as an electrician. With the new transition, Skye is entering into a full-time graduate degree program, and James has decided to stay at home, caring for the needs of their three children.

James was always involved with the kids, he says, but up until now it mostly meant following his wife’s instructions and playing on the floor. Now, he tells me he has swapped shopping for cables with shopping for groceries, and now bargains behaviour, not contracts. He used to be able to start a project, see it to completion, and revel in the finished product.

James says being a dad is sort of like being in the movie Groundhog Day. By the time he’s done feeding the kids and cleaning the house, the kids are hungry again and the mess has reappeared.

One of the biggest issues he has faced, he says, is downplaying this transition, making too little of what he was leaving and too little of what he was taking on. As a stay-at-home dad he is no less busy, and certainly no less stressed.

Although he didn’t come from hardship, he likens his present moments of frustration to the Israelites looking back to Egypt, failing to recognize that in spite of the difficulties of the present moment, they have seen the glory of God.

“This is such a gift,” he says as his youngest son, Solomon, falls asleep in his arms. “We drop the girls off at school in the morning, and then I look at him and say, ‘It’s you and me, buddy. What do you want to do today?’”

According to James, the hardest part of being a stay-at-home parent is not letting the small things ruin his perspective. “It sounds simple, but as a parent there are so many little things trying to get in the way.”

James talks about how he tried to be “Mr. Mom” for the first couple of weeks he stepped in as primary caretaker. (The National At-Home Dad Network is actually trying to do away with this term altogether, finding it shallow and offensive. The 1983 movie may be a keeper, but clearly, the expression isn’t.) But James tells me, “It was far too stressful!” Skye is the planner, he says, always conscious of time, multitasking and organizing to keep a neat schedule.

James says he struggles with the simultaneous demands that come with having multiple children at home and is often found running to the school in order to pick up the girls on time.

Skye doesn’t see this as a flaw, she says, because it is precisely his haphazardness that allows James to be fully present and engaged with the kids, leading to more spontaneous adventures.

Both James and Skye get flak from their parents back home. They want to know when James is going to get a job, finding it unimaginable he could be happy and fulfilled as a full-time parent. When I ask Skye and James about the future, they say they have intentions to both stay at home on a part-time basis. “I think the kids get the best deal that way,” says Skye.

As I look at the little boy asleep in James’ arms, I can’t help but feel optimistic about being a parent someday. It made me want to go home and be a better husband, and practice good partnership now.

Flickr photo (cc) by  lmnop88a

This article originally appeared in the November – December 2013 issue of Converge magazine