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.”