You are about to hear a question.
It may amuse you. It may shock you. It might make you angry. It will definitely confuse you.
I get it. I felt all of those things the four times someone has asked me the question. I was at a park with my daughter the first time I heard it, a lovely, sunny day.
“How long has her mother been dead?”
I found out that day that if you are confused enough about something you hear, it can help to blink slowly in disbelief. For some reason, blinking slowly seems to wash away stupid in the ears the same way it washes away irritants in the eyes. Someone should look into that, because there might be a Nobel Prize in it.
With the birth of my son it became: “How long has their mother been dead?”
At first I thought it was just me. My mother died when I was ten. “Maybe,” I thought, “I just have that dead parent vibe.” But then I talked to other dads. I saw the question listed on an at home dad poll of the oddest questions you get with a high percentage of men getting that blink inducing question.
So the reaction to seeing a father playing with his child on a weekday afternoon, loving her, enjoying her antics, meeting her eyes when he talked to her, engaged in all she did, and smiling at the very thought of her… was to assume that the only possible thing that could cause it was one of the most tragic events that can befall a family.
This article is about how that question is really the least of it.
My wife and I made the decision that I would say at home on economics alone. Her paycheck was more than mine. Childcare would literally be the entirety of one of our paychecks. The math was clear that one of us could stay home with the kids, work part time, and we would actually have more money! It was an obvious choice that I should be the one to stay home. There are a dozen other good reasons that a parent should be home if possible, but the first one that brought us into this was the basic math.
So what is this ‘being the parent at home in the day’ thing like?
It is the most challenging and singularly rewarding endeavor in which I have ever been privileged enough to engage. This time with the kids is a gift from God that I am deeply thankful for… even as I prepare to potty train my son.
Which is why I would like everyone to focus for a moment on the misconceptions a father deals with when he decides to take on this challenge. To explain why one of the biggest terms used by society at large to describe at home dads is wrong. Parenthood does not fit in a pigeon hole. It does not exist in soundbites. It cannot be explained in a tweet. And that leads to some terms being misleading. It also leads to people saying some foolish things when they see something outside of their comfort zone.
But first let me get out of the way something you may be wondering. How did I answer that question at the beginning? What did I say when asked four times a nice euphemism for, “You’re a guy! To get you to parent someone must be dead!”
Well, here are the responses, in chronological order:
“She didn’t, I am a stay at home dad. She’s at work.”
“She’s at work, I take care of them in the day and work overnight.”
“I just called her and did not use a Oujia board so unless Verizon expanded their map she’s good.”
Leaned in and just went, “Shhhhhhhhhhhh.”
Clearly, I am at the amused stage of reaction.
People say they ask it because, “You’re just so good with them!” As if that isn’t a complete double down on the original line of thought that the only thing to make a good father is a dead wife. But that is the general thought. For a father to rise to the base expectation of being a Dad, it must require a heroic situation.
At home dads with their kids get one of, or a combination of, four reactions:
You are some kind of Hero!
What odd turn of events caused this?
Where is mom today?/So are you babysitting today?
I left out one reaction because it is too big for this: That to be a stay at home dad you must be lazy. If someone wants to describe five minutes with young children as lazy… go ahead. I honestly lack a response to that much stupid in one sentence. And frankly, I have never had to deal with that. But many others have.
Let’s look at each reaction.
It’s normal to be with your kids. You get this more than half the time, and that’s an encouraging sign.
You Are Some Kind of Hero!
On the trying to be nice side, you get people who act like you invented a life saving heart operation… because you do laundry. They speak with the halting admiration reserved for musketeers charging, people stepping foot on the moon, or a man performing CPR to save a kitten.
And at the end of the day, we are just a parent. Doing what all parents should do. I just happen to do it as a Dad.
When my daughter was born I read some books on being a dad. One was by Dr. Meg Meeker called Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters and had three very important take aways: Be the man you want her to marry; You are her first love; and She needs a hero. That hero part was not about doing laundry. It was about something far deeper and more meaningful.
To be a parent is a heroic effort. Any mother or father going into that breach with their whole heart is a hero. But that doesn’t mean that a dad is special because he takes care of the kids, and does the chores that need to be done, because he is physically present. Those things are part of the experience and not the experience itself. He is special because he is a dad. He need only to live up to that gift.
A dad is a hero when he loves his wife and his children with all that he is. Moms and dads are heroes because they find a way to donate all that they are to each other and their children while still being uniquely themselves. The heroism comes from the love given. Because that love is what reflects God’s love for his creation.
Bottom line, I do laundry, don’t fold it well, clean the house, and keep everything mostly nice. The fact that I do that with a Y chromosome does not make me the Pope performing brain surgery on an orphaned chipmunk.
What Odd Turn Of Events Caused This?
A father with his kids… Cats and dogs must be living together!
This is the realm where the question at the beginning lives in all its regal, blink inducing splendor. The idea that there must have been some unimaginable tragedy to cause you to be a stay at home dad is pretty common.
I’m not going to pull sexism on this one. It frequently happens to moms too.
Yes, the stay at home dad shocks people more.
But what really shocks them is the willing loss of income.
“How do you do it? What about money? You must be rich!”
Trust me, most at home parents are not rich. Not even close to rich. But many people are amazed when either parent is at home. And for dads, the only natural reason he could be there is the death of his wife.
The core of this is the total disbelief that a parent would want to stay home when they could have a job, put a child in all day care, and be, essentially, child free for many hours a day. Because, who really wants children in this day and age?
Where is Mom Today?/So Are You Babysitting Today?
Did you know? According to the federal government’s most recent census, a dad taking care of his kids is classified the same as anyone else, even non-relatives taking care of them?
He’s not a parent! He’s a babysitter!
By far, the thing a father is most accused of is merely babysitting. You’re ‘giving mom a break!’ or told something equally dismissive of your irreplaceable role in your children’s lives. This is where the term primary caregiver comes from.
Dads felt the need to defend that they were not babysitters. They had to, somehow, highlight they were just being a parent when the term “parenting” did not satisfy. He had to be babysitting so mom could ‘have a break.’ Maybe, in their minds, mom is on a fainting couch in a dress from Gone With The Wind while the husband takes the kids to play on the swings. Sure, it’s sexist, but at least it’s assumed that she’s alive in this scenario.
So we end up with the term ‘primary caregiver.’ I know, it is a legal term. It is also a term that reflects nothing in reality.
Think about it for a moment. In a relationship where you have a mother and a father fully engaged in parenting their children; what exactly determines primary and secondary caregiver? In a home where the mother and father live together and work together to raise their children, who could possibly be considered primary? But someone needs to be ‘primary caregiver’ and stay at home dads latch onto this. I even fell into the term for the first year because it was all anyone used in the definitions.
But it is an empty term based on a non-existent reality.
My wife and I parent equally and differently. We keep them fed, clothed, amused, educated, and provide for our children at different times. We love them all of the time. We care for them all of the time. We don’t count percentages based on some legal definition of care giving. My wife should never be called secondary just because I make sure they eat when the sun is in the sky.
She does not walk through the door only to have me throw a kid at her yelling, “Your turn! I put in my 51%!”
When a kid needs changed she does not look up from her book and say, “I put in 49% this week. You need to do that one.”
Parenting is not equally divided. It can’t be equally divided when done right. Parenting is a constant 24/7 effort for both mother and father. I am one of two constant parents. One of two people who can not and will not turn off their love for each other or the kids for even a second. One of two irreplaceable parts in a larger working whole.
Allow me end by going back to the first time I was asked the question at the beginning. I was asked and I answered it with my usual humor of having heard it a million times. And after double downing on the ‘I was so good with my own children’ line, she attempted to restart the conversation on what she thought was a better note:
“I’m sure you’ll be happy when they go to school and you have more time to yourself.”
“Oh.” I smiled. “We’re homeschooling.”
David Nicastro is a dad who homeschools his kids in the day and works in a library overnight. He sleeps little but somehow manages to hallucinate even less.