I walk in the front door to the smell of…what is that? Chicken?
“Vegan tacos with roasted cauliflower and homemade chipotle mayo!” my husband announces proudly, bringing a spoonful of steaming lentils toward my mouth.
“Mmm,” I say appreciatively. It’s ridiculously good. I’m ravenous after a full day at work where I haven’t been able to graze all day long—as was the norm during my maternity leave, which just ended a couple of months ago.
I look around the spotless living room. Even the piles of toys have a deliberate order to them: balls in one area, books in another. Freshly folded laundry is stacked neatly at the end of the couch, and my 15-month-old daughter, Piper, is playing contentedly at her Little Tikes kitchen.
It’s a working parent’s dream at the end of a long day. And yet, I can’t help but feel a bit…annoyed.
Let me start by saying how lucky I feel to come home to a happy child, a clean home and a warm dinner. I’m beyond thankful to have a husband who supported me wholeheartedly when we made the decision to move across the country for my career. The move was temporary—a year-long internship—and it made the most sense for him to stay home with Piper while I completed this final step toward my PhD.
In truth, our family’s decision for my husband to stay home was a pretty easy one. We had talked at length about our preference to take turns at home (either full- or part-time) until Piper and her theoretical future sibling are both in school. Even if this is a pipe dream, I feel fortunate that we’ll each have at least one year at home with our daughter. At the same time, even though it was a conscious decision on our part, I also recognize our privileged position—coupled with some vigilant budgeting—that allowed us to make this happen. Not all families have the opportunity, support or resources to make this kind of arrangement. (I also realize that having one parent stay home isn’t what every family desires nor is our type of nuclear family representative of the vastly diverse range of families in Canada.)
That being said, more and more Canadian families are making decisions like ours. According to Statistics Canada, stay-at-home dads accounted for only one in 70 families with an at-home parent in 1976. By 2014, this proportion had increased to about one in 10. These numbers reveal a shifting landscape of family life in North America, reflected in everything from Vicks NyQuil’s “Dads Don’t Take Sick Days” ads to the way fathers are portrayed in TV and film (think Phil Dunphy or Mr. Incredible compared with Al Bundy).
So, yes, I’m thankful that my husband is part of the 10 percent. Even so, as he gives me a hello hug, the niggling feeling of irritation continues to rear its ugly head. You see, my husband has transitioned seamlessly into the stay-at-home role in a way I never really did. He makes weekly meal plans, complete with intricate grocery lists. He has colour-coded toddler-group schedules posted on the fridge. And he never seems to get bored or frustrated, even when he’s wiping down the floor under the high chair for the gazillionth time. (Note: My husband claims that he does, in fact, fight waves of resentment mid-wipe, but the fact that he hides it so well still gives him the upper hand to my aggravated groans.)
Not that it’s a competition or anything (it’s not), but when it comes to stay-at-home parenting, my husband wins. Every. Single. Time.
Don’t get me wrong: I cherished the year I spent at home with Piper and found it profoundly rewarding in many ways. But I always felt a bit awkward and inadequate in the stay-at-home parent role. The introvert in me avoided playgroups (if not like the plague, at least like the common cold). I fell down the rabbit hole of Google far too many times, left either convinced that Piper had contracted some rare disease or stressed out about how to achieve that elusive perfect blend of attachment-based, authoritative and helicopter-free parenting. It wasn’t atypical for my husband to come home to find me frantically folding the laundry I’d been getting around to doing all day, dinner half-prepped among the lunch (and breakfast) dishes, with Piper mid- or post-meltdown.
It was a far cry from the calm I walk into today, where, at last, Piper looks up from the plastic dishes she is pretending to wash.
“Mama! Mama!” she cries, toddling toward me with a huge toothy grin on her face. She wraps her little arms around my legs and I pick her up for a sloppy kiss. But our reunion is cut short when she turns toward my husband and starts pointing excitedly at his head.
“Dada, ha!” she squeals, squirming out of my arms and scurrying in the direction of her bedroom. I turn to my husband in confusion.
“Dada, hat,” he explains. “She is going to get her hat for me to put on. It’s our new thing.”
I see. So, they have things now.
In moments like these, I feel like the sous-parent, and it’s a tough pill to swallow. It used to be my husband asking whether “baba” meant “ball” or “bird” or how Piper liked her avocado cut up. Now I’m the one who doesn’t know if she can go down the big slide by herself or that she likes to collect acorns at the park. I didn’t even know that “ha” meant “hat,” for goodness’ sake.
My husband must notice me bristle because he quickly adds, “She’s been calling for mama all day. She misses you.”
Though this reassures me that my daughter hasn’t completely forgotten about me, it also makes me feel guilty. Like many working moms—and there are a lot of us in Canada—I’m grappling with trying-to-do-it-all-but-never-feeling-quite-good-enough syndrome. I’m also pretty sure my guilt is intensified by the influx of messages out there that say mothers should feel guilty for going back to work. In truth, even though it’s tough to say goodbye to Piper every morning, I also love cultivating the professional side of my identity again. So, maybe I’m actually feeling guilty for, well, not really feeling that guilty.
The feminist in me loves the message it sends when I tell people that my husband is a stay-at-home dad—and rocking it at that. It sends the message that fathering matters. It sends the message that women’s careers matter, as do their pay cheques. Women continue to earn less than men in this country, and this wage gap undoubtedly starts in the home. In an article published in the Journal of Family Communication, Caryn Medved, who researches stay-at-home dads and breadwinning moms at Baruch College in New York, argues that “redefining fatherhood to more fully embrace nurturing is essential to feminist gender equality.” In other words, although it’s unlikely to solve the complicated issue of pay inequality, stay-at-home fathering is a step in the right direction. Sharing domestic duties is not only good for women’s wages but also good for the family unit: Research suggests that the more involved fathers are in child-rearing, the happier the family. But I don’t need a study to tell me what I see before my eyes: The strong relationship between Piper and my husband is undoubtedly good for Piper and has deepened my relationship with my husband.
But the same feminist in me also cringes when my husband is praised excessively for doing things I was simply expected to do during my year at home (“He made dinner again?” people coo. “You’re a lucky woman!”). It’s the epitome of what Tal Peretz, a sociologist at Auburn University in Alabama, calls the “pedestal effect,” where men are put on a pedestal for adopting feminist beliefs or taking on tasks that are traditionally done by women. It’s true: My husband is made out to be a hero for playing with Piper, making her nutritious meals or giving her hugs and kisses. I know this is uncomfortable for him, too (“Isn’t that just what parenting is?” he asks). And I know it’s not all fun and games for stay-at-home fathers. Many continue to face stigma and condescending comments about their decision to stay home and grapple with existential questions and identity crises in a society that places value on men for their pay cheques. Many stay-at-home fathers also feel pretty isolated. My husband is typically the only man at playgroups and, even though he says he’s fine with it, I wonder if it would be nice for him to have another guy to chat with between snacks and circle time.
Putting aside these musings for now, I follow Piper into the hall, scooping her up before she makes it back to my husband. I decide to try out this hat “thing,” grabbing and putting on the hat that was intended for my husband’s head and making (what I think is) a funny face. The whole spiel lands flat as Piper looks at me blankly. I’m just glad my husband didn’t witness this failed interception—another reminder of my inadequacies.
I know I should give myself more credit: I was a loving, fun and conscientious stay-at-home mom. I continue to be these things as a working mom, too. And in my defence, staying home with the newborn version of Piper was a lot different from staying home with the toddler version (both of which have their strengths and challenges). My year “off” was also coupled with writing projects and a dissertation to write—oh, and healing from a little something called childbirth. These things often took precedence over vacuuming and elaborate meal planning.
Again, it’s not a competition, but still.
As family life in Canada continues to shift and evolve, the full-time, stay-at-home parenting role will probably continue to become less common. Parents (my husband and me included) will construct their own creative combinations of part- and full-time work, both inside and outside of the home. As this happens, I hope that the decision about who stays home (and when and what this looks like) will be less about gender and more about what works best for each unique family. And I hope society will continue to evolve along with families to support these various decisions and arrangements.
Later that evening, after vegan tacos are devoured (they did not disappoint), dishes are done, baths are taken and teeth are brushed, my husband kisses Piper goodnight and I carry her into her room. I put on her diaper and massage her little body with lotion, flaring my nostrils to make her erupt in laughter (our latest thing). We read Goodnight Moon and I sing her a repertoire of lullabies while she nurses. When I carry her toward her crib, she rests her heavy head on my shoulder—an action she reserves mostly for me—and I find myself already nostalgic for this moment, all too aware of its fleetingness.
“Love you, sweetie,” I whisper, laying Piper gently into her crib. She looks up at me one more time before closing her eyes without a peep. I slip out of the room, close the door gently behind me and pause before heading out to the living room to hang out with my hubby for the evening. And for just a second, I revel in the knowledge that, in the battle of the bedtime routine, I nail it every time.
Amy Green is a writer and PhD candidate in counselling psychology at the University of Calgary who is passionate about promoting mental health and wellness for women, parents and families.
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