Don’t Make Me Slap You with a Dirty Diaper: Let Me Tell You a Bit About Being a Stay-at-Home Dad

“Oh, so you’re the househusband.”

You need to know that I’m not prone to machismo, and that I’m perfectly comfortable with the current role I have in our household. Nor am I overly concerned with political correctness, as my wife will occasionally note with a cringe. But I had no idea how to respond to this statement, delivered at a party by a man I’d never met, who turned out to be the brother of a friend of a friend.

“Yes, I suppose I am. And you must be the designated jackass of the party.” While the first sentence was spoken, the second stayed, thankfully, in my head. I’m not even sure he was aware that he was being both pathetically anachronistic and vaguely offensive, as though he had turned to the one black person at the party and said, “Ah, so you’re the Negro friend.”

In my household, I do all of the cooking, and probably the lion’s share of the cleaning and laundry. But it’s always been like that, even when I was teaching literature all day and spending hours every night lesson planning and marking papers. The cooking makes sense – I’m a former chef and my wife struggles with basic kitchen fundamentals, like how to use a knife. The cleaning and laundry come down more on me primarily because I have a lower tolerance for filth and clutter than my wife. So in many ways I was already an unconventional husband before I left my job to take care of our second son. I’m absolutely happy – nay, proud – to be unconventional; I was simply unprepared to have both my vocation and identity reduced to the belittling compound noun ‘househusband.’

I’ve always found the tendency to equate what people do for work with who they are somewhat distressing. The standard “So, what do you do?” conversation opener we dish out to fellow airplane passengers, for instance, seems a sizing up of education, economic status, and interests that is pigeonholing and simplistic. I’m frequently tempted to lie. “I’m a paleontologist,” is often a consideration, but then you run the risk of the person saying “Really? So am I!” Which would result in some awkward fessing up. You could always go with “I’m an assassin,” which obviates the risk of collegial connections and pretty much guarantees that they won’t be hogging the armrest, but somehow my conscience has always stood in the way. It’s just that for most people what they do outside of work is more revealing about their personalities and predilections than what they do for work.

So what do I do for work? Everything you would associate with the old-fashioned image of a housewife. I get the kids up in the morning, make breakfast, get their teeth brushed, get them dressed, go over any homework, make sure they have what they need for school, and take them there.

Two days a week (and until recently 5 days a week) I have our two year-old with me. We go to the zoo and the park. We wrestle and roughhouse. We garden (or I garden while he pops cherry tomatoes in his mouth and plays with his truck) and cook together and set up train tracks and make tents with sheets and go grocery shopping. Then we pick his brother up from school and the circus act begins, as I try to simultaneously keep them entertained and prepare dinner. The TV is allowed on at 5:00, and believe me, it’s a relief to everyone. When the wife comes home the table is set and dinner is nearly ready and the pressure, by her mere presence, is largely lifted from me. I also freelance as a writer, editor, and, of course, blogger, penning articles and press releases and whatnot during naptimes and in the evenings – if I’m not simply too spent by that time. It would seem that being a househusband is much the same as being a housewife, although those terms are generally shunned these days.

To be fair, the brother of a friend of a friend in question was English, and ‘househusband’ seems not to be such a pejorative term in Britain; although, despite roughly 1.4 million British males staying home to care for their children, it is something that I’m sure is still looked at somewhat askance. Perhaps the poor man didn’t know that we in the US are more euphemistically inclined and don’t say ‘househusband’ or ‘housewife’ anymore (stay at home dad/mom are preferred), just as we don’t say garbage man, stewardess, barmaid, or corporate lobbyist anymore, the current politically correct terms being trash collector, flight attendant, bartender, and whore, respectively.

In doing a bit of reading for this article I came across WikiHow’s 11 steps for “How to Be a Good House Husband,” which I thought at first was parody, so closely did it resemble advice from a 1950’s woman’s magazine.

Number 3: “You are now the “homemaker” of your family. Being the homemaker, it is your responsibility to make it a home. Ensure the cleanliness of the home.”

Number 4: “Maintain a great Appearance…. [Y]our wife or significant other would love to come home to see you looking good — not dumpy and unkempt.”

Number 6: “Plan ahead, with the aim to have a delicious meal on the table when your spouse gets home from work…. Having a great meal ready for your family is a good way to let them know that you have been thinking about them. A good meal can be an expression of love and a warm welcome home.”

Some further tips: “Tell your Family, ‘I love you’.” “Men especially benefit from looking at fine art, going to concerts, reading good books and other high culture activities.” “Learn to clean effectively, and thoroughly.” Excellent advice, no doubt, but if you dared proffer similar admonitions under the heading “How to Be a Good Housewife,” I’m fairly sure you’d get your ass kicked from here to the National Organization for Women’s head offices.

I suppose that if I were to examine why I was so taken aback by the label, I would have to concede that, while I think what I do is more important than say cutting business deals for BP or opening restaurant franchises or selling pharmaceuticals, the fact that most of the people I come in contact with wouldn’t agree wears down a bit on the self-worth. When “I’m a stay-at-home dad,” is the answer to “What do you do?” the conversation immediately grinds to a silent stop. People just don’t know where to go from there, so my standard answer is writer/editor, which opens up avenues of discourse. I’m certainly not ashamed to be a stay-at-home/work-at-home father, but I was, in retrospect, annoyed at being called out on being one.

So to the brother of a friend of a friend, I offer this: Yes, I am the househusband. I am the primary caregiver for our children, the one who makes it to parent-teacher meetings, the man on the monkey bars with his son, the guy with nappies and wipes in his backpack, the cook, the shopper, the comforter and, when my wife is away on business, the one who kisses the kids on the head, tells them he loves them (picked that one up from WikiHow), and sings them to sleep. And you know what? I’m really very good at what I do. You know what else? Despite the frustrations and the fiascos, the odd looks and the pointed questions from people like you, I wouldn’t have it any other way. When the time comes, I’m fairly sure I won’t be lying on my deathbed thinking, “Damn, I wish I hadn’t spent so much time with my kids.”

14 thoughts on “Don’t Make Me Slap You with a Dirty Diaper: Let Me Tell You a Bit About Being a Stay-at-Home Dad

  1. I’m a 24 yr old man, fresh out of college, with a really great job that I worked really hard to get. And I have to say I am extremely jealous of you. I have always wanted to be a stay-at-home husband/father, and have always openly admitted so. Aside from all the things you mentioned, it would be great to be able to have a regular workout schedule, read books between chores and taking care of the kids, and just generally knowing that your house is always in order. Plus now that you are raising your kids as opposed to the baby sitter, the tv, or the other kids at school, your family will most likely be more wholesome in the end. I’ve always told my girlfriend that I wanted to be a stay-at-home husband, and she detests the idea of being a stay-at-home wife because of the social stigma associated with it. Unfortunately, I will probably end up making more than her with my job, so for now, the idea is off the table for me.

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    • It’s tough when both parents need to work. The problem in the States is that childcare is so expensive that much (if not most) of the second salary goes to paying it. When I was teaching full time and we had a nanny, about half of my salary went to pay for childcare.
      If you can, look into working from home. It’s tough when you’re also taking care of a child – you have to work during naps and at night, but I think if it’s at all possible, then spending the early formative years with your kids is a great thing.
      Thanks for visiting and sharing your comments, James.

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  2. Love this post. I’m a part-time work-from-home mum who also works as a writer and editor (and blogger). So I do roughly the same as you – get kids up and to school (they’re a bit older than yours); shop, cook, clean; and write. Having a Spanish husband means I probably do more than my fair share, as bathing and tidying are the only chores he can manage. If I’m out and he’s in charge, he takes the kids straight round to his mum’s or to a friend’s house. I hope it doesn’t sound patronising if I say I admire you enormously – and thanks for the stat re hhs in my home country, I had no idea there were so many!

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    • Thanks, Fiona. Yup, it’s hard work, but I think you’d agree that it’s immensely rewarding. It was interesting – when I was doing a bit of research for the post I first ran across 200,000 as the number of stay-at-home dads in England, from an article from 2005. Then I found a later article that put the number at 600,000, and finally a current piece that claimed over 1.4 million. The number of men taking over the role of primary caregiver is skyrocketing, which will inevitably change the way we look at families and gender roles. Actually, the process is already very much under way. It’s uncharted territory in many places, so it will be interesting to see how things develop.

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    • Well, you know LTPM, I was more surprised than angered. And it did force me into a bit of introspection to figure out how I felt about the whole househusband role. And what I found is that I feel great about it – it’s just the way in which some others perceive me that gets me down, and to be honest it doesn’t really get me all that down. I don’t think this guy was an asshole, I just think that he was a bit clueless. And that’s just not my problem. But if you want me to put you in touch with him so that YOU can punch him in the face, just let me know.

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  3. It’s personality, not gender, that influences what work/play fits us.
    Care giving at its most intense can devour us, but it can also supply rich and diverse inspiration for both creativity and spirituality.

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  4. Nicely written! As a housewife and writer myself, I completely relate to your experience. Even with all the challenges, it is still the best “job” I’ve ever had. There’s no replacement for the valuable time spend with my child. You’re doing great work my friend! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to lounging on the couch & eating bon bons 😉

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    • Thanks for your comments, hahk! It is indeed a great job. In what other occupation could you sit around doing bong hits and playing video games in the middle of the day? Cheers!

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  5. I think some personality types are better suited to being a stay at home parent than others, irrespective of gender. In my house, I’m the one who is better suited to the job – Hubs doesn’t have the patience. But I expect in my sister’s house, her husband will be the one that stays home.

    I don’t know why in this day and age we still have to make a big fuss about it.

    Frankly I think whatever each family chooses (stay at home mum/dad, full time daycare, whatever) is their own business! We all try to find the balance that works the best for us, and it would make everyone’s lives easier if we could all recognise and support our differences!

    Being a stay at home parent is hard. Being a working parent is hard. Just being a parent is hard!

    But you are so right – I will never wish that I spent less time with my kids!

    Great post.

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    • I completely agree, boringyear. In our case, I think either of us would be good at home, but it so happened that my wife made more money than me and is more intent on her career. I think that’s great. At some point I may rejoin the ‘regular’ workforce, although in all honesty I’d probably rather stay home and write.
      “It would make everyone’s lives easier if we could all recognise and support our differences!” That is true for pretty much every aspect of human existence, but sadly, it ain’t so. And while inroads have been made in certain areas – gay marriage for example – it seems to be becoming even less so.
      Well, thanks for the comments and the support – they’re much appreciated.

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