Thursday, January 03, 2008

Going in Reverse

An engineer once told me that the reason cars make that strange-but-cool noise in reverse gear is that they aren't designed to move that way. At least not very fast or very far. Going in reverse, for automobiles, is a limited proposition. It's designed strictly for short-term, utilitarian maneuvers.

I only mention this because, through Daddy Dialectic, I've learned that the label "reverse traditional" applies to my family. Which means, if my flippant analogy holds, that the clutch should be dropping out any minute now, and I should have a nasty kink in my neck from driving in a constant shoulder-check position.

Fortunately, this analogy has no application. We're a "reverse traditional" family, but we're not going backwards. And I'm not sure that we're the reverse of anything that was ever really traditional. But if we buy into the myth -- nicely taken apart elsewhere on this blog -- that the postwar, middle class, male-headed household is "traditional," then it does make some sense to consider ourselves reversed, inverted, flipped, or perhaps even commutative.

The novelty with us is a combination of the gender of the primary breadwinner, together with the fact that in the current global economy we can get by on one income -- my wife's. It's for this reason that she prefers the more media-savvy label, "X-treme reverse traditional," as if this family type comes with bungee cords and a reality-TV crew. But this rubric really just highlights how little money I make when compared to my wife, the upshot of which is our current household dispensation. This situation just so happens to support a family model that calls for daddies to be dialectical -- the opposite of what they thought they were.

In some ways things really have just inverted. My wife and I find ourselves doing the figurative equivalent of parental cross-dressing. She brings home the bacon. I fry it up in a pan. And then I never ever let her forget she's a woman. Sometimes it's as if we had simply traded the chores, anxieties and desires of the single breadwinner model.

Spot's mom, for example, worries all the time about losing her job, but especially about losing her (and our) health insurance. A common fear for everyone, but one magnified by the knowledge that she's carrying not just her load, but the financial weight of the whole family. The psychological result can bear an eerie resemblance to the irritable and pensive father of yore, sitting alone in his armchair after dinner, mulling over a bad day at the office, ignoring the children and snapping at his wife.

For my part, it can be challenging to muster the courage required to throw my identity entirely into child rearing. Partly because I know I may have to shift gears abruptly and scramble to find my footing in the job market, and partly because, even if I remain a full-time dad indefinitely, little Spot will eventually leave the nest, and take a good chunk of my sense of purpose with him. Now I have reason to ponder, in a much more personal way, how many intelligent and hardworking mothers have struggled to master anxieties over their dependency, their yearning for self-development, and the squelching of their ambition.

But in other ways, the template hasn't flipped. Instead, like a kaleidoscope, the same crystal grains are arranged in new configurations. My male identity persists in some ways that generate new dynamics and potentially new parenting benefits in the context of at-home-daddom.

I recognize, for example, that I'm not nearly the social networker that my wife is, or that most moms appear to be. At the same time, while I certainly try to emulate the feminine model of parental sociability, I also appreciate the independence that comes more naturally to me, and spares me the pressure of constantly judging myself by the measure of others.

I also don't feel guilty about trying to have a life apart from dadding, and this in turn seems to stem from the more masculine-gendered aspect of my personality that wants to engage in the world, to pursue lasting achievements and accomplishments. (Is a well-raised child not a lasting accomplishment? asks the rabbi in my head, dialectically.)

But apart from these aspirations, I have an intuition that it is to Spot's benefit, as well as to myself and my marriage, that I maintain elements of my pre-dad career interests and activities. Junking these all in the pursuit of a chimerical ideal of perfect parenthood -- something which mothers often feel overwhelming pressure to do -- has no attraction for me.

These dynamics among at-home-dads may represent a blend of more conventionally masculine gender behaviors within the relatively novel context of full-time parenting, with unexpected and possibly beneficial results. But there is no doubt about the fact that the "extreme reverse traditional" family model exacts a particular toll all its own. It is less flexible than the proliferating varieties of work-life arrangements that typically require two full-time incomes in order to support a family.

The equally-shared parenting model, unlike the reverse traditional, can allow either partner to change roles, stay at home, go back to work, change careers, go to school, or suffer unemployment while the other picks up the slack. Whatever a partner's dissatisfaction may be in a reverse traditional model, in contrast, they're going to have to nurse it for a while.

Unless the breadwinning mom loses her job. Which could always happen, anytime. It just happened to one of my wife's coworkers. Then everything changes, and we shift from the reverse traditional to equally shared anxiety model.

But if one thing is becoming clearer as I go along -- and Daddy Dialectic has contributed enormously to this realization -- it's that no one family model suits everybody, nor should it. What's important is creating the social framework within which creative and equitable family models can be supported through all the twists and turns of life and employment. Each model is inevitably accompanied by its own dissatisfactions.

That is a standing dilemma of modern life that parenting really brings home, and where wisdom is most called for: there is no one perfect arrangement, and yet no given arrangement is perfect.


Electronic Goose said...

Nice post.

Anonymous said...

I agree - this post has some great insight.

Since I became a father, I often struggle with feelings of guilt for not being satisfied with just raising good kids. I feel as though I am being egotistical for wanting to keep up with other projects outside of the home and office. I rationalize them by seeing them as part of my personality, and things that I feel I must do to be happy - making music, art, etc.

I imagine that most stay-at-homers get these same feelings of guilt for wanting to hold on to some of their extracurricular goals and accomplish more than just parental success.

ED said...

The female half of a reverse-trad family here - you say some of my own thoughts here.

I love the idea of the flexibility of the ESP family, but it also has more overhead. We give up that flexibility - but actually come out ahead in terms of finances with just my income - we're in the very rare situation that (a) my husband can *not* support the family on his income, and (b) when I work full-time, we *lose* money if DH works as well. This is due to child care for twin toddlers, taxes, commuting costs, extra health care costs (with two employers, extra fees apply no matter how we do it) and increased grocery costs (no time to cook or shop cheaply). It adds up to just over his total income.

We also have the added detail that I enjoy my work as a paid hobby, and DH saw his job as a necessary evil - bland, boring, and undesirable.

chicago pop said...

We're in the same situation economically. And it does seem rare, which is why I'm glad to hear from you. The only difference is I was rather more fond of my "career", such as it was, than your husband. But like you, my wife loves her work, which is fortunate.

Anonymous said...

We're also in the same situation as you, Ethel. DH didn't really like his job, whereas, on average, I love what I do. And I make more than he did. The decision was relatively easy in that regard. The advantage I've found with DH staying home is that it has allowed him to pursue career opportunities he would not have had working full-time. He's getting his PhD (ok, not much progress there on the dissertation front, but we're working on it), and he is teaching. The teaching, especially, would have been difficult to pull off had he been working full-time.

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