Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Mr. Mom"

Though the connotation of the term can rankle me, I'm a feminist.

I didn't have a great deal of choice in the matter, really. My mother was the primary breadwinner of the household when I was growing up - she was, and still is, the only female judge in the county. My mom, my sister and I are all lifetime members of the Girl Scouts. Sis earned a PhD in physics and is now working in the boys' club of hard sciences. While I definitely veered more toward the education/social science world that is populated by more women, I still plan to work outside the home and support my family financially, no matter how many kids we end up having. For some reason this feels more important to me now that I know I'm having a son - I want him to know that Women Work.

With all the decisions I've made about my education and the work I do, though, probably the best choice I made as a feminist was my choice of a mate. Because, while I joke that I didn't have much of a choice in being a feminist, most men do have something of a choice. Men have the luxury of ignoring the challenges women face just because we were born women - they don't necessarily need to deal with them head-on.

I didn't fall in love with DH because he's a feminist - that would be pretty unromantic - but over the years of living with him, and especially as we've been thinking about what our lives will look like as parents, I keep being struck by the unwavering conviction he has that the roles we'll take as parents should reflect our skills and personalities rather than some outdated notion of nature.

Which is why, when we decided that one of us was going to "stay home" (more on that later) with the baby, while the other works outside the home, there wasn't really a discussion about who would do what: I'm an extrovert who thrives on dealing with assorted people in a busy workplace, and I'm married to an introvert who just finished a years-long writing project that required patiently slogging away each day at home. Had we exchanged places, we both would have gone nuts.

So, in many ways, we'll each keep doing what we did before: DH will be the daytime caregiver for our son while I return to the office. We're both happy with this arrangement: I can go back to work, earn a paycheck, and trust that my kid is in the best hands possible, and DH gets to help mold another human being to be as interesting as he is. It feels like each of us thinks we're getting the better end of the deal, but that's how a lot of our marriage has felt already.

Stay-at-home-dads aren't as unusual as they were, say, 20 years ago - good friends of ours who are due the same week as us are planning a similar arrangement - but they're still met with reactions that raise my blood pressure. When we were talking with DH's extended family about this plan, one relative (a great-aunt in her 80s, so allowances should be made for generational differences) said, "oh, so you're going to be the mommy?"

DH's response was, "I don't think that's physically possible."

Several others - cousins our age, even - referred to him as "Mr. Mom". As these are my in-laws, and not my natal family, I restrained myself from shouting, "NO, he's NOT Mister Mom, he's DAD." I find myself getting defensive about it, angry when there's a suggestion that he should be looking for a "real" job, pissed at the implication that, while it would be fine if I stayed home, this whole gig is beneath him.

Part of the confusion from folks is financial, I'm sure. No one has asked it outright, but people wonder: how are you going to support three people on your little income, Schmei? Well, by living within our means. When we had two incomes, and then one and a half, the extra money was going to pay off debt. Now the additional income is gone, but so is the debt, so not a lot is going to change for us, really. This gives us the luxury of having one parent at home, rather than shelling out ridiculous cash so someone I've never met can spend all day with my firstborn child.

I mean, seriously, have you seen how expensive child care is in Chicago? Ridiculous.

In this economy, I honestly don't know why having a parent stay home strikes people as strange. I know plenty of people who are living on less and have had no choice in the matter. We had the luxury to choose this life. Yes, we'll have to live with our 2000 Honda for a long time, but that ride is my dream car and I want it to live until my son is learning to drive, anyway. And we won't be able to take European vacations, but we have all the camping gear we need for fun family trips. Plus with the handy/crafty parent at home, I think we're going to save money in all kinds of ways that probably haven't even occurred to me yet.

A few folks - especially my mother-in-law - have shared concern that DH will go crazy if he's stuck at home all day with our small fry. We are both legitimately worried about how we'll handle those first weeks with a newborn, but we've been talking about that and we have family who will be stopping by to make sure we haven't lost our minds.

After I return to work in January, though, how will DH handle it? I think he'll be fine.

For one thing, as I mentioned before, he just spent years working from home on his dissertation, which was a frustrating project. Now he has a new little project that will likely also be frustrating but is hopefully more rewarding in the long run. For another thing, he won't be "stuck at home". There's this rumor I've heard that babies are actually pretty portable, and we live within walking distance of more than one library, parks and playgrounds, grocery stores, and just all around nice neighborhoods. He'll also have access to our car, and much of his extended family is a short drive away, so if he needs some daytime company he'll be able to find it. And, while he'll be the daytime caregiver, I'll still be home during evenings and weekends (and if I can rig my schedule, one weekday each week) and for the first months I'll be the sole source of food, as well, so I anticipate taking the kid off his hands as soon as I walk in the door in the evening so we can nurse.

[In my mind's eye, the kid is always happy when I come in the door. I suspect that in reality he'll be cranky because he's hungry, but I'm taking my fantasy life while I can.]

Here's the other thing about going the stay-at-home-dad route: I think it will make it much easier for me to return to work when my leave is over. The idea of leaving my firstborn with some babysitter kind of gives me hives. Instead, our son will be spending his days with his father, who loves him to bits already and is already good at taking care of me, an often-needy person who doesn't always know what her best interests are.

I've spoken with other women who cried on their first day back at work. Maybe I'll cry - I'm sure it's going to be a huge adjustment - but I think I'll feel a thousand times better about the situation because my son will be in the best possible hands.

So, besides living on one income, what are the downsides to having one of us stay home? I've been thinking about this for months and haven't come up with anything, especially because the setup works so well with our personalities. As our friend T, who is also planning on being a stay-at-home dad starting this fall, said, "this is an amazing opportunity!"

That's how we feel about it. I'm excited that we have the chance to start being parents this way. It might be temporary, depending on countless factors, but for now I'm grateful that the daytime hours of the first year or so of my son's life will be spent at home with his dad.

NOT Mr. Mom.


  1. The social gender roles are crap.

    Bravo to DH to stay home... it's a pretty big thing to stay with a kid, regardless of gender.

    I'm a little jealous of him.. the concept of being a stay at home parent is awesome.. but neither my wife and I's situation will allow either of us to leave work; plus I would lose my shit after about a month (to say I get stir crazy is a slight understatement).
    To be in a situation where it makes both emotional and financial sense, and the kid gets to be with a parent rather than a stranger? More power to the both of you. I hope it works out as well as I suspect it shall.

  2. Thanks for the comment - and I can totally appreciate the shit-losing aspect of staying at home, because I'm confident I couldn't hack it!
    My hope for you when the time comes is that you can find the magic unicorn of childcare like my sister found: The daycare center where my niece goes during the day is small (8 kids!), close to where they work, and staffed by the kindest people I've ever met. If we didn't have the setup we have, I'd be looking high and low for some place similar in Chicagoland.


Be nice, now.