I’ve been a father for over 10 years, but I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for much less time. After my oldest son was born, I moved from full to part-time status at work. Four years later, we moved cities when my wife took on a new job. She was pregnant with our third child and it just made sense to move into full-time parenting.
Two years ago, I flew through Heathrow airport in London. On my arrivals card, I listed my occupation as stay-at-home dad.
The Customs and Immigration Officer, who was trained in the finer art of welcoming visitors to the country — or friendly chit-chat as normal people call it — made the comment that he had never seen that occupation listed before. I had to admit that it was the first time I could remember offering it as my profession.
I cannot be the first stay-at-home dad to have passed through this particular immigation officer’s booth at Heathrow. I suspect that stay-at-home dads are disproportionately well-represented in the class that can afford to travel the world. It might be hard for many men to give up being the breadwinner, but it is a hell of a lot easier to do it when your high-powered wife is bringing home plenty of bread. I count myself fortunate to be in that position.
Still, it speaks to something that it took me five years of not working to finally put my occupation as stay-at-home dad. Any other career change would have been immediately reflected in my answer to that question. I’ve moved from student to journalist and trekking guide to website producer in my career. Since I quit paid employment, I’m pretty sure I’ve filled in a few forms using the term “unemployed” instead of stay-at-home dad. Which, when I think about it, it is quite strange.
It speaks to how much what you do defines you as a man. As you can see from my list of jobs, I hardly had to descend from the corporate stratosphere to stay at home. Achieving high status was never a career priority for me. Perhaps that made it easier for me to shift into the domestic wilderness, but still, having a job is clearly quite important to my male identity.
In contrast, when my mother recharged her career as her house emptied of children, I remember she rewrote her resume with “raising five children” as her primary career achievement. There was an element of feminist rebellion in this, but clearly, I am nowhere near there yet.
I still find calling myself a stay-at-home dad awkward. My discomfort doesn’t make it any easier when I have to answer the question, “What do you do?” I’ll often couch my answer in the phrase, “Right now, I am a stay-at-home dad.” Perhaps I’m doing this in the hope that will give the inquirer license to delve into my distant past or just talk about the weather.
My discomfort not withstanding, many other people are quite unsettled when confronted with the stay-at-home dad response. Maybe, like the immigration officer, they have never actually heard it before and are simply taken unawares. I’ve tried using the term “Kid Wrangler,” but apparently, this is an instance when joking should be left aside.
In this case, the “what do you do?” conversation often turns into a discussion of my wife’s job.
Still, this is better than meeting someone who launches into an over-enthusiastic affirmation to the news that I am a stay-at-home dad: “Oh, that is great, good for you. I’d love to be able to do that.” I’ve always been a little suspicious of unfailing optimists. Life is not that perfect. So the parenting evangelist is my current social bête noire. They really tap into my insecurities, because I immediately go into my glass half empty mode; No, it is not that great. It’s hard work. I am constantly questioning if I am a good enough. Which is nothing new to many mothers out there.
Recently, I was engaged in a conversation with Anne-Marie Slaughter, who seems to operate in the rarified space as a post-modern Renaissance woman discussing everything from the gender roles to the geopolitics of the Russia and the Middle East.
In 2012, she made waves by explaining “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in an article in The Atlantic.
During our chat, Anne-Marie told me about the idea of lead parenting, which she is incorporating into an upcoming book. She proposed the term “lead parent” as an alternative to stay-at-home parent, which by definition implies some sort of lack, limit or otherness. For that reason alone, it is a good start.
Still, I haven’t started calling myself a lead parent yet because until her book Unfinished Business is published this September, I figure that I’ll just have to explain what the term means, and that will just delay the inevitable.
We discussed her husband, Andrew Moravcsik, who is the lead parent in their family. Of course this opened up many avenues of conversation and it is only now, as I write this, that I see one line of conversation we missed.
Andrew still works. So when he is asked what he does with his life, does he say he’s professor at Princeton or a lead parent? What about when he is in an obviously child-centered situation like at a school or sporting event?
I suspect I know the answer.