Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why I don’t want to be called a ‘stay-at-home dad’

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.

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Anonymous said...

I was going to suggest full time father too.

Now here's the problem (and for the record I'm a work at work dad with a sahm wife). If I'm having polite conversation with women at work and they ask what my wife does, it's a bear trap if I say she's a full time mom. Right away I'm suggesting to these coworkers that my wife is a better mom because she devotes more time to it - and you don't do that.

For all the mothers with young kids who didn't easily choose to go back to work, I'm opening the wound.

It's probably less sensitive for men.

Chris Routly (Daddy Doctrines) said...

I couldn't agree more. "Stay-at-home dad"/SAHD has seemed like the best option, since "Mr. Mom" and "Househusband" are downright insulting. I've never liked it though.

I'm often tempted to call myself a "work-at-home dad" when asked, even though I now do very little freelance work. I figure that since I DO consider caring for my child my full-time job it's not dishonest, even if I know part of the appeal is that people hear it and assume that if I'm running a home business I'm not a jobless bum, yadda yadda yadda.

I've been trying to use "full-time dad" more often recently, but the alliterative quality of "full-time *father*" probably gives it a better chance of gaining traction. Consider me sold.

Witch Mom said...

I like the "new" term! I think both full-time moms and dads could get a lot of mileage out of this one.

Lily, aka Witch Mom

chicago pop said...

I like "full-time father." But I'm OK with also using "stay at home dad," even if the acronym is unhelpful. I think the "signified" can alter the "signifier" more effectively than the other way around; the more stay-at-home dads/full-time fathers become a commonplace, the less difference the lexicon will make.

Beta Dad said...

I'm not crazy about SAHD because it sounds like a sentence--like I've been grounded. Someone ordered me to stay at home.

But, like digraph, I'm not comfortable with FTF either, because it could be misinterpreted as self-righteous by any "part-time" parents. We need a neutral term. I just don't know what that is.

Carlos Lopez said...

I agree that "full-time father" can be off-putting. I do full time paid work but still consider myself a full-time father because I consider being a father an integrated part of my identity. What about primary caretaker?

Scott said...

Thanks for the post, Jeff. I'll try "full-time father" the next time someone asks me what I do at a cocktail party. So far I've been getting lukewarm results off "nothing" and "feed the cats." said...

What about homemaker??

I've been a homemaker for at least a decade and a half. It took me the first few years of taking care of my kids and wife to figure out that SAHD was a BS term. I don't just daddy. If anyone reading this does just daddy, well -- can you spare me some of your servants? I make a home for my family and myself, keeping in mind that a house is not a home. Though I do plenty of “handywork”. I know this blog is about "daddying" but that is only part of what is really done. What about cooking, doing laundry, washing the floor, stove, bathroom, dishes, and most other flat surfaces? Tracking the budget? Managing schedules. Looking into whether "energy star" means anything? I haven't read about anyone with kids old enough to do the "soccer" thing. Can we spell chauffeur?

If the gents reading this are still young enough to not be taking care of your own parents then consider this -- you will. You will bury the dead. Write, read and abide Wills and Trusts. Sit with the surreal sick feeling as your own mother asks if she knows you. All while doing all the normal daddy stuff.

If you have enough time to be think about the "fairness" of parenting, enjoy it, it won't last. Kids are soooooo easy when they are still babies and toddlers. Just wait until you have a teenage daughter flailing her arms shrieking at the top of her lungs that she hates you because you mixed up team Ed something with the other loser (oh sorry, guy). It hurts. Remember King Lear “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” Even if they are thankless for just a while it still cuts. But you will forgive just as quickly.

Is there a job called Family Maker? That sounds good too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this. Although I appreciate the need to come up with a good descriptor of your job, I have finally come to the conclusion that as long as you have balance in your life and you love what you do, who cares what label helps other people put you in a box? Here's my lengthy descriptor that I give people- I work part time for a school, have my own business that I run from home, and I take care of my daughter full time. I'm not sure what the label for that is, so I gave up looking for one.

Jeff said...

Thanks everyone for your comments.

I agree with digraph, Beta Dad, and Carlos that the language of 'stay-at-home' vs 'full-time' taps into the binary of employment labor/domestic labor and all of the uncomfortable tensions about which work should be done by whom that our cultural history has handed down to us. That's why I found using the FTF label intriguing. Its difference gives it the opportunity to pull that history to the surface some in everyday situations. If FTF or some other identifier became standardized over time, it would probably be worth changing the label again to keep things churning.

Jay Palter said...

Great piece. I'm very interested in the whole professionalization of parenting, in general.

As for names, I've suggested "primary parental unit" because it connotes that unique role that is more often played by mothers and women. I guess this is kinda link "full-time father".

I have also had suggested to me "Domestic Engineer, RHB" for those who like titles with letters.

I'm looking forward to following your observations more closely in the future. Thanks!

Nicole Feliciano said...

Let's hope full-time father sweeps the nation.

John said...

I love full-time-father/dad!