About a week ago, something happened to me for the first time: I was dismissed because I am a stay-at-home dad. It stung then, but why I’m still thinking about it is much more interesting.
Last Thursday (I think), I was scrolling Twitter, and I came upon a compelling thread about gender and children’s activities. One mom relayed an interaction where (presumably) boy moms were sharing what spring/summer activities their sons would be participating in. Mom A said baseball. Mom B may have said soccer. And mom C said ballet. Upon hearing mom C, the rest of the moms asked, in unison, “And your husband is okay with that?”
At this point, another tweep chimed in with his thoughts–that a boy should be in sports. And when challenged about what he thought of girls, he claimed to only care about boys. Now, I’d love to delve into his thoughts a bit more, but now is not the time. Maybe someday, I’ll get into it.
Anyway, it was at this point that a bunch of parents began responding. Things were said. Language was used. For some reason, I decided to weigh in too, as tactfully as I could. My basic argument was: 1) No activity is categorically, and inherently good or bad; 2) If a child enjoys the activity, it’s worth pursuing; and 3) If a child is growing and developing, it’s also worth pursuing.
After a little bit of back and forth with the aforementioned gentleman, in which I was making a compelling case, it happened. He reared back and delivered a zinger.
What did he just say?!
I’m not really taking advice from a stay at home dad.
I was livid. My adrenaline kicked up a notch, and I was looking for some earth to scorch. I wish I could say I calmed down and kept my cool. I didn’t. Others have let me know that I handled the entire exchange really well, but I disagree. I labeled him a misogynist, impugned his character, and even went so low as to imply that my kids would be more successful than his in the future. Was any of that true? I don’t know.
This is Twitter. No one really knows anyone. Therefore, I felt it improper and inappropriate to judge him off a few pithy comments. Whether I was right or wrong about him was irrelevant, really. I felt it unfair to assess him based solely on a few utterances. So, I did what decent folks have to do from time to time. I owned my error and apologized. Once I did, I was done.
The thing is, I kept thinking about the exchange, and what he said to make me so irritated. Then, I tweeted:
As you can see, it struck a chord with a good amount of folks. People who valued parenthood. People who appreciated the stay-at-home’s role. People that just wanted to voice their support. It was pretty cool to see, actually. But, here we are, about a week later, and I’m still thinking about this encounter that resonated with so many. Why? Because I think it’s a big deal with broader implications for American society that I will discuss via four major problems.
You ever get into an argument or debate with someone, and you’re staying on point, delivering premise after premise to support your air-tight conclusion? Feels good right? Well, what happens when your opponent abandons the same strategy, realizing the fault in his/her side of the debate, and decides to come after you, or your role? They attack your person, not your position. How does that feel? Infuriating, right?! Yeah. Well, that’s what we call an ad hominem argument.
This strategy looks to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. The idea is that if an idea is uttered by someone who I can somehow discredit, then his/her ideas must also be discredited too. While occasionally this can prove valid (think an expert witness in court who is found out to be a fraud), it’s generally a fallacy. Why? Because ad hominems are diversionary tactics that attempt to shift attention away from the matter at hand, and onto something else, by way of a particular person.
That is exactly what happened in the circumstance. I was making a thorough, rational argument. Rather than continue to similarly engage, my counterpart hit low, attacking my current social role. Simply put, the competitor, and rationalist in me became fired up. As far as arguments go, that’s a dirty play. If this were basketball, that would be a foul, and I’d be at the line shooting two! Luckily, I was engaged with a group of some other smart men and women who saw through my opponent’s tactic. Still, in the heat of the moment, from a competitive standpoint, I couldn’t let him get away with it.
In many ways, this was a microcosm of a significant issue I see in today’s social discourse. When we don’t agree with someone else, we’re too quick to go low. We’re too quick to find a way to discredit an idea, whether it makes sense or not. We’re too quick to shift attention away from ideas, our discomfort, or the disagreement. And that’s counterproductive.
Once my counterpart opted to take the ad hominem route, he needed to find something that would somehow discredit me. Some way to show himself (and maybe others) that what I had to say didn’t matter. He decided to key in on one of the few bits of info presented in my Twitter bio–that I am a stay-at-home dad. So, what does all that mean?
Well, it means that if he’s trying to show my ideas are insignificant via my person or role, he had to pick something that he felt would accomplish this. Which further suggests that, in his estimation, being a stay-at-home dad is insignificant. Put another way, because I’m a stay-at-home parent, my thoughts were not worth considering. Why? Because, from that perspective, a stay-at-home dad couldn’t possibly have anything to offer.
Never mind that I have degrees from Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois. Or that I’ve worked in an undergraduate leadership program at Northwestern University. Or that I worked in some of the most dangerous and impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago, getting low-income, first-generation high schoolers into college. Or that I currently consult for a charter network in Chicago where I’ve helped generate $500k in fundraising, and increased enrollment. Or that I write for Chowhound, a CBS website run by TV Guide. To him, that information, while not readily available, was also inconceivable and inconsequential. Sorry for the resume rundown. Just had to get all that out there!
Think about it, though. In today’s culture, how often do things like that go down? How often do we underestimate someone because we think we know enough about them? Probably too much. The truth is, our interactions with others are pretty limited. Only a select few get to see us in near entirety. People are dynamic. People have nuance. People have complexity. Sure, I stay-at-home with my kids now, while they’re young. But I consult and write whenever, wherever, so I hustle when I can. Yes, I stay-at-home with my kids, but that doesn’t mean I lack perspective, experience, or a brain!
That leads me to the next problem. Why would one think highlighting being a stay-at-home dad is something dismissive? Based on watching my mom interact with folks growing up, my own experience, and the experiences others have shared with me, it’s because staying-at-home is still seen as less-than far too often.
Is there a reason why? Kind of (though it’s not a good one). Our society is set up to recognize people’s value via compensation. In case you were unaware, in the United States, stay-at-home parents do not receive compensation. In that way, it’s easy (though not accurate) for the more obtuse members of American culture to dismiss the value a stay-at-home parent provides. Therefore, it’s not be too far a leap for such a person to assume that the stay-at-home parent has no valuable skills or capacity. They’d be wrong, of course, but I can see why they may believe it.
Because of this, stay-at-home parents are too often seen as lazy, incapable of finding work, or unemployable altogether. This inaccurate view depicts stay-at-home parents as drains on society, rather than the stimulus they can be. But this all speaks to a larger problem in the United States shared by many of the caring professions.
For example, nurses are sometimes seen as medical professions too lazy, or not smart enough to be doctors instead of the smart, dedicated individuals who are more interested in patient care than specific technical expertise (which, they have, by the way). Teachers? What does the adage “those who can’t do, teach” convey? That teachers are incapable of providing any real value. Never mind that every American child spends at least 6 hours with a teacher for 12-13 years.
So, it should come as no surprise that stay-at-home parents fall victim to this same mentality–that if you are engaged in the caring for others as your primary job, you are somehow less-than. The reality is it takes patience, skill, dedication, and capacity to effectively raise and care for human beings so as to ensure they become the fullest versions of themselves, and productive members of society. Pretty important, right?
As a continuation of the problem directly above, there’s also a gender element that probably needs to be addressed. Do I know, with 100% certainty, that the exchange I’ve outlined was making gendered implications? No. I do not. When the gentleman told me, “I’m not really taking advice from a stay-at-home dad,” was the “dad” part important there? After all, intentionally using “dad,” the gendered term for parent is different than simply using the gender-neutral “parent.”
From my perspective, using the former in an intentionally gendered way carries with it additional connotation. Sure, as a man who identifies as such, I am called “dad.” But, in using “dad” in a gendered way to reference a stay-at-home parent by way of devaluing another, it suggests something emasculating. Not only does a stay-at-home parent have to deal with the undervaluing of his or her role, as previously discussed. A stay-at-home dad, also deals with the social implications of taking on a role stereotypically seen as (inappropriately) reserved for moms.
Now, I’m not asking for pity. I’m simply suggesting that stay-at-home dads have to deal with an added wrinkle of going against type. You see it every time someone sees a dad with his kids and playfully suggests that they are “babysitting;” or someone asks, “Are you here by yourself?” when they see a dad out with his kids; or when a dad shows up to the doctor’s office with his two sons, and they say, “Oh, it looks like a boys day;” or when a dad walks into a public men’s room to change his kid’s diaper only to find no changing table. Here’s the deal: I’m not babysitting. I’m parenting. I’m not here by myself. I’m here with my kids. Every day is a boys day, ‘cause I’m raising my two sons. And for the love of all that is holy, put changing tables in men’s rooms. My kid need to be changed!
Again, do I know that gender was at play in the particular interaction I relayed in the beginning? No. Given the context of the greater conversation, gender dynamics did seem at play, though. Regardless, I think there’s a real elephant in the room when a dad stays at home, and it would be a wasted opportunity not to explore it further here. The bottom line? Men can raise children, just like women can win that bread! And saying that a man shouldn’t stay home is akin to saying a woman shouldn’t go to work. It signals an inaccurate and demeaning incapacity. And that brings up a whole other set of unfortunate issues concerning the judgment and shaming in the stay-at-home moms/moms that works outside the home decision (which is outside the scope of this piece). From a greater societal perspective, this gender stereotyping is problematic, and should be curtailed–for my generation, all the boys and girls of the next generation, and the generations that come after.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, being a stay-at-home parent can still be met with dismissive looks and belittling comments. What’s more, being a stay-at-home dad is still not even close to the norm. And while I just encountered explicit negative judgment for the first time (but almost certainly not the last) the truth is, stay-at-home-moms have had to deal with being overlooked, undervalued, stereotyped and dismissed for a long, long time. That is a shame, and it needs to stop.
In our house, the decision around stay-at-home parenting was intentional, with purpose, and rational, so let me be clear on something: It’s not failure. It’s not something to belittle. It’s not weakness. It doesn’t make me less of a man. It doesn’t make me any less intelligent or capable, particularly where it concerns the growth and development of my kids. The same can be said for all the other stay-at-homes out there, mom or dad. I realize staying at home is not for everyone. I’m not saying it should be. But for some of us, it is. I just ask that we be taken seriously.
Big thanks to everyone who showed their support over the last week. Your kindness was felt and deeply appreciated. Take care!
Greg is a husband and stay-at-home dad to two great little guys. He recently launched a lifestyle platform, philosophyofdad.com, where he shares his thoughts and experiences as a husband and father at home. Greg also freelances for Chowhound and consults for charter schools in Chicago. He's very tired.