My family has just moved from Cincinnati, Ohio to Lexington, Kentucky. Along with figuring out how to move all of our stuff from point A to point B, there have emerged a variety of pesky other tasks to be completed that have stretched out the moving process by an extra couple of weeks. One of these tasks has been a full reworking of our basic insurance policies.
During just about every application process the agent on the phone has asked what I do. Now, my wife is the breadwinner for our family and it’s my responsibility to care for our two kids – three-year-old Pip and 18-month-old Polly. So, generally, when people ask me this question my reply has been “I’m a stay-at-home dad.” But this time, I wanted to try something different.
I’ve never really liked the phrase ‘stay-at-home dad.’ This is in part because in the parenting forums my wife and I frequent at-home parents are known by acronyms: SAHM for moms and SAHD for dads. When one reads this out loud - as we do from time to time – a mom is “sam” and a dad is “sad.” While this is obviously an unintended slight, and not a subtle commentary on the worth of a father who is the primary caregiver in a family, it still rubs me the wrong way.
Another reason for my discomfiture with the term ‘stay-at-home dad’ is that whenever I use it in one of these over-the-phone conversations the first reaction I get from the person on the other side is often a reassuring statement of some sort meant to show me that they think what I’m doing is okay. Women frequently tell me how they didn’t work when their kids were young and how great it is to have a parent taking care of the kids instead of a day care worker. Men usually say how they could never do what I am doing.
Both statements are nice and innocuous in and of themselves but I can’t help but feel that they would not find it necessary to reassure me if I told them I was a doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc. Those positions are acceptable because they are ‘work.’ The ‘stay-at-home dad’ floats in a more squishy and nebulous categorization that I have come to feel undervalues and even denigrates the labor involved in taking care of children.
My sensitivity to the label ‘stay-at-home dad’ was recently heightened after reading a chapter on the professionalization of motherhood in a book entitled Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples. Co-written by an anthropologist and an economist, both from Macalester College, Glass Ceilings is an academic look at the ‘opt-out’ phenomenon occurring among certain highly educated and professionally successful women. It examines why some of these women choose to leave their jobs, how they spend their time as mothers, and what some of the longer term economic repercussions of these choices are.
A key point in the authors’ argument about professionalization was how little ‘at home moms’ were actually at home. The authors found that the mothers they interviewed were extremely active, usually as managers and programmers for both their own kids and entities such as public and private schools that serve much larger communal populations.
This point correlated well with my experiences and got me thinking about the ‘professional’ nature of my own caregiving. Taking care of our children is not something I do because I can’t do anything else. Guiding their physical, emotional, intellectual, and social development is the job I happily choose to do. I could be working in a ‘real’ job, but then I would have to pay some other professionals – daycare workers, teachers, nurses, coaches, cooks - to do all the work I am doing now.
With all this labor and responsibility, there should be a better descriptor for me than ‘stay-at-home dad.’ I tried out a couple of different combinations and the best one I came up with was ‘full-time father.’ This phrase feels better to me for a couple of reasons.
First, it employs a common term from the world of paid labor – 'full-time' – and thus carries with it associations of ‘work’ instead of the supposed leisure of the ‘home.’
Second, beginning the phrase with ‘full-time’ sets up the listener with the expectation of a job or career. Following this with ‘father’ presents them with a bit of a curveball, one that perhaps can jostle some of the latent Mr. Mom images that seem to trail along with the idea of a ‘stay-at-home dad.’
Lastly, ‘full-time father’ gets me out of the SAHD acronym and gives me a nice alliterative phrase that sounds like it could show up as an occupation choice on one of the forms from the US census.
Which brings me back to the insurance agents. I spoke to six of them last week. Two didn’t ask about my occupation. Four did. Each time I was asked I replied as casually as I could, “I’m a full-time father.” The first time this phrase felt good and solid, though a touch unfamiliar, as it rolled off my tongue. Each successive time I passed it off with a bit more confidence.
The overall effect wasn’t substantially different – two of the agents talked about their children and one said that he could never do what I do (the fourth just kept plowing through his form) – but I don’t expect this change in title to be a magic elixir. It may be that the only real difference emerging right now from my use of the term ‘full-time father’ is an increase in the level of comfort I have with my own identification. And, for the time being, that’s enough to keep me using it. At least until someone else comes up with something better.
Interested in stories about our family or just some thoughts about being a parent in this day and age?
Take a look at my blog at http://www.postindustrialparenthood.blogspot.com/
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