I curl my knees towards my chest on the grey Ikea couch. It’s 4 a.m. My feet dangle off the cloth cushion, while light from the hallway filters through the cracks of our apartment door. My wife and infant son sleep in the bedroom. I stare at shadows on the living room walls. My mind races.
The thoughts spin over and over again: You are making a mistake. You are wrecking your career. You are not saving money. Your wife is supporting you. You are a failure. What made you think this was a good idea?
My son stirs and moans and my wife’s nursing bra unsnaps. He feeds and fades back to sleep. I turn on my back and take a deep breath and close my eyes but my mind continues to whirl. Another sleep-deprived day of childcare weighs on me.
Maybe I did make a huge mistake. Maybe I am wrecking my career. Maybe I am a failure. What made me think this was a good idea?
I rotate to my side again and curl my knees. Sleep seems impossible, so I resign myself to laying in place, resting my body, and scrolling through my Facebook feed.
Following my wife’s maternity leave, I resigned from my job to care for my son. Despite the significant loss of income, I felt confident about the decision because it was in the best interest of my family. We lived hundreds of miles from relatives, my job was not supportive of family life, and placing our newborn son in childcare did not appeal to us. Plus, it was my turn to support my wife’s career.
As a stay-at-home father, I anticipated the physical exhaustion from caring for an infant but I had little understanding about the emotional toll. I can manage nap time battles and diaper explosions; however, I was not prepared to encounter the larger, often more subtle, cultural forces. These forces, gender roles, define a man’s worth not by their efforts within their families but by their productivity outside the home.
Lying awake at early morning hours, these rigid roles and their narrow view of work eat away at my self-esteem. I thought my progressive views of marriage and parenting, based in partnership and equality, would assist me in navigating around them. Yet, after a few months as a stay-at-home father, a looming feeling of worthlessness circled me and proved hellbent on demeaning my efforts to care for my newborn son. I collided head-on with a psychological barrier, not of my own making, but one created by a narrow definition of masculinity that no longer makes sense in a modern workforce that relies on both genders to parent children.
Despite the fact I am prioritizing my family’s needs and enduring the grueling work of childcare, this is not enough. In my mental fog, my notions of identity turn on their head. I am confused by the strange reality of performing demanding and difficult work, work I love, yet feeling inferior and unproductive. I find myself full of gnawing doubt and fear and insecurity.
No one confronted me directly about my decision to leave my job and care for my son, but they did not have to because the subtle contempt woven into questions, comments, assumptions, and body language did most of the work to undermine my self worth. I feel naive for thinking it possible to move against the rigid gender roles still entrenched in modern America.
My wife helps me sort through irrational thoughts and dig deeper to discern the cause of my feelings. We wrestle with basic questions: Why does it matter which gender stays at home to care for a child? Why are men and women not encouraged to share the burdens of child-rearing? Why should a man feel inferior for providing childcare?
I struggle with these questions from the perspective of a stay-at-home father. I do not have definitive answers but this is my hunch: This is about ego and power. The rigid gender roles our modern society can’t seem to escape are held in place to ensure traditional masculine identity is not threatened or compromised. As long as a man’s value is measured by productivity outside the home and the size of a paycheck, men in power will not relinquish their control and participate equally in gender roles and childcare. Their definition of self-worth is dependent on holding tight to traditional gender roles.
One area this power imbalance is evident is parental-leave policies for men and women. During the life changing moment of childbirth or adoption, sexist power dynamics pressure men and women in different ways. Women, who bear the brunt of childbirth, often find themselves under pressure to exit or sacrifice their career to care for children during or after parental leave, while men are pressured to forego parental leave altogether for fear of future punishment. Even in workplaces providing policies for paid family leave, men are often given subtle cues signaling it is not okay to utilize the policy. The message is clear that stepping aside from work to care for family, even if only temporarily, is not acceptable for a man.
On my side of the workforce, as a stay-at-home father, I see the damage done by narrow gender roles. They force men and women into rigid positions not in the best interests of their family. Current and future parents need more fluid roles that allow both genders to care for their families in the ways they need it most.
In my family, my wife and I are trying to honor the fluid nature of parenting roles and not allow rigid ones to diminish the best interests of our child. It makes sense for me to stay at home with my son. My wife openly admits I am more suited for daily childcare. This has little to do with gender and more to do with personality.
I hope the future holds more flexible roles for men and women who take on the sacred role of parenting. If we want to put families first, we need fluid gender roles encouraging men and women to balance work and childcare in a way that fits their best interests. If we want to truly embrace family values, we will put parents and children first and relinquish gender roles that no longer serve us well.
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