Stay-at-home dads are becoming more commonplace in our society, and more accepted too, but it still strikes many people as being just a little odd.
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I remember one [former] co-worker who, when he learned I was planning to leave my job to stay at home with our newborn daughter, came to me and said it was wrong for the man to stay home because that was a "woman's job."
I tried to explain to him our situation: My wife had a good job and had been at it a long time, and I was just beginning a new career and made a fraction of her income.
He replied that he worked two jobs so his wife could stay home and I should do the same. At this point our conversation was interrupted and never resumed, but he made his point.
In many societies, men and women have gender-specific roles defined by tradition, heritage, culture, religion and even by law. In our great American melting pot, we're going to encounter people whose upbringing taught them roles for men and women that differ from our own personal heritage.
My co-worker gave a voice to what is still a common belief among many people: that gender should dictate roles within the family.
In America until the 1970s, men were considered to be the primary wage earners and women were expected to be the primary care givers for the children in a "typical" American household. This was in an age when men usually earned more than women, even for the same jobs. Women weren't expected to pursue a career and were even discouraged from entering many career fields, and most of the jobs that were available to them didn't offer a wage capable of supporting a family.
My parents began their family in the traditional pattern, but it didn't last.
After the kids were born, Mom decided to go to college, so my dad worked nights and stayed home with us during the day. My mother began a career after she graduated and never went back to being a housewife. I grew up knowing that Dad was every bit as good a parent as Mom.
American society has changed, as have gender roles. It is no longer ironic that I should be the better cook while my wife is better at bringing home the bacon. Women can have a career. Men can cook. Either can be a parent.
Like my father, I am good at being a stay-at-home dad. I keep my kids fed, play with them often and tend to their wants and needs as best I can. I speak to them, sing to them, read to them. When they're good, I praise them. When they're bad, I scold them. Happily, it seems that I am praising them most of the time. I also clean the house occasionally and do most of the cooking. It is a good arrangement, with which my wife and I are both content.
I did not have to become a stay-at-home parent. I could have continued to work, and used a portion of my salary - a rather large portion - to provide day care for my kids.
For many people this is not even a choice, and many kids spend daily hours in day care or preschool while their parents work. That choice may be easier for some parents than for others, but it comes at a price: surrendering time with your children to somebody else.
I may be hypersensitive to the issue of spending time with my children, because I have a grown child from a previous marriage. I tried to be a presence in her childhood and succeeded in varying degrees through the years after the divorce, but I've never been able to escape the belief that I could have served her better had I been there all along.
The fact that I am a man who chooses to stay at home with his children may seem odd to some. That doesn't matter. What does matter is that I am at home for my kids, and these kids know that I am always here for them.
Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and longterm Juneau resident.
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