Category: stay-at-home dads

Bread-winning and Bread-making: On Being a Provider

Michael at work. (Photo credit: Urban Bay Photography)

Michael at work. (Photo credit: Urban Bay Photography)

If you were to walk through the back door into our mudroom, you would be greeted by a row of deep red onions dangling from green stems, strung across the room like a row of purple Chinese lanterns.

If you were to continue upstairs, into our office, you’d find some usual office-y things (computer, desk, bookshelf), but you would also see a box of fluffy golden chicks gathering under the red glow of a heat lamp, as well as a bucket of pear cider sitting beside a jar of red wine, both in the throes of fermentation.

Before that, before even getting to the back door of the house, you’d have to walk by eight garden beds, several still overflowing with kale, celery, tomatoes (all kinds!), cabbage, squash. The zucchini, green beans, sugar peas, and broccoli have all been torn up by now, their lodgings cleared for a winter crop of beets, lettuce, carrots, onions, and yet more kale, cabbage, and broccoli.

Skirting the garden beds you’ll find a chicken run that extends from a coop in a L-shape along the back fence. Grape vines, now fruit-free, wind themselves through the fence of the run, and, inside, three hens loiter under towering sunflowers, waiting for falling seeds.

Under the edge of our roof, flanking each side of our patio, sit two large barrels that drink the runoff from the gutters; these barrels become engorged in the rainy Oregon winter, and then, in the dry summer, quench the thirst of the garden.

All of this fecundity occurs in the back part of our suburban lot. Much as we’d like to, my husband and I don’t live in the country. We’re suburban homesteaders, working with what we’ve got, often to the perplexity of our neighbors.

I say, “we,” but that really isn’t fair. Aside from occasionally helping with the harvest, collecting eggs, or locking the chicken coop at night, I have done nothing to make all this happen. My husband, Michael, grows the vegetables, raises the chickens, collects the rainwater, brews the cider, cooks the meals, bakes the bread – he even makes our lavender-scented soap – and, since the school year began last week and I returned to full-time work, he does this all while being the primary caretaker of our nine month-old son.

And yet, despite all he contributes to quite literally keeping his family fed and happy, to many Michael does not count as a “provider.” Or, at least, he doesn’t fit what seems to have become the widespread definition of the term.

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I grew up in an evangelical Christian subculture that was cocooned, thanks to geography, within the LDS (Mormon) subculture. In this nesting doll of conservative religions, “provider” was shorthand for the God-ordained duty of the man to work outside the home and make money to support his family. The woman, in contrast, was meant to burrow into domesticity and learn the sacred arts of homemaking. She could work hard in the house – cooking, cleaning, laundering, and feeding and clothing and caring for the children – yet her work did not fall under the canopy of “provision.” She could be a mother, a wife, a homemaker, but not a provider. She might make the bread, but the one who wins it, he “provides.”

I still catch myself assuming that this shorthand is limited to the circles of my upbringing – but now I have come to understand that this is simply not true. The connotative meaning of the word provider is fairly universal in contemporary America, even in the broader, more secular culture that ostensibly has less rigid gender roles.

Take Walter White, my favorite television anti-hero. (Because, let’s be honest, everything I am thinking about these days has some connection to Breaking Bad.) Even the scientific, nonreligious Mr. White roots his identity in this moneymaking notion of provision; his desire to provide for his family in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis drives him to earn the big bucks cooking methamphetamine.

I remember one particular scene from a third-season episode, in which Walter begins to suspect that his meth-cooking ventures might actually cost him his family. Gus Fring, his kingpin boss, knows exactly how to manipulate Walt away from his self-doubt, when he says: “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family. … When you have children, you always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”

This exchange, which proves effective and lures Walt deeper into the drug world, demonstrates the power of the provider label, and also how it is a fundamentally gendered term. Walt’s terrifying (and riveting) characterization is an extreme but potent example of how our cultural ideals and expectations of men are tangled up with post-industrialist, capitalist values.

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There is plenty of irony at work here. If Michael, earned a paycheck by cooking professionally for strangers as a chef, instead of cooking for his family for free, he would be seen as a provider. Similarly, if our income stemmed from his green-thumbed work, he could be considered a farmer instead of a mere gardener. The implication is clear: when domestic work is professionalized, only then can it be seen as masculine.

It is no doubt because of these gendered ideals that, when people inquire about Michael’s situation, I catch myself wanting to use terms like “farmer” and “homesteader” rather than the inert “stay-at-home dad,” which makes it sound like Michael just sort of lounges around the couch all day, never leaving the house. Even the acronym, SAHD, is a total downer. Most of these inquirers respond positively to the fact that he is a primary caregiver, but their follow-up questions – “Does he like doing that?” “Does he plan to go back to work soon?” – carry the assumption that, as a man, being at home must feel like an odd fit, a step down.

I recently had a friend remark that men receive undue praise for completing domestic tasks, and I agree with him in part. It is still too often an unexpected surprise when a man stands up to clear the plates at a dinner party instead of his female partner. But something shifts, I think, when that domestic work becomes full-time and completely supersedes a career beyond the home – thus pushing the man beyond the traditional sphere of provision.

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This is not to knock the breadwinners, of course – that happens to be my shtick these days. I’m well aware that my paycheck bankrolls Michael’s backyard homesteading efforts. The work I do is important, and it’s good that our culture recognizes that. The problem is that the work Michael does – which is also the full-time work of millions of women and increasing numbers of men – is viewed as less important, and for those men who choose to do it instead of pursuing a career, it’s seen as compromising their masculinity.

And yet, despite this baggage, I like the word provider. There is something raw and weighty about it, something that captures the essential significance of parenthood. The fundamental role of any parent is to provide for his or her children, whether than means earning an income or growing and preparing food or washing a load of rank diapers. I want to keep the word provider, but somehow detach it from its gendered, monetary roots. I want to reclaim it, to crack it open and fill it with new, expansive meaning that extends beyond the capitalist model connecting manhood to moneymaking and devaluing work traditionally done by women.

Ultimately, despite our cultural conflation of manliness and earning power, both breadwinning and breadmaking are inseparable gestures of provision. The money I earn? Michael makes it count. Michael turns the straw-money into edible, life-giving gold. And this, perhaps, is provision in its purest form.

[This article originally appeared at The Good Men Project.]

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Apparently I Am Destroying Civilization

A recent Pew Research analysis revealed that 40% of U.S. households now have a female breadwinner. As you can see, Lou Dobbs and Friends over at Fox News don’t take this news well:

At first, I felt a little offended by the clip. After all, I am a woman and the breadwinner of my family. But then I realized that they say absolutely nothing about me or my family situation at all. For them, there seem to be only two kinds of families: a nuclear family with a male breadwinner, which is inherently healthy and stable, and dysfunctional families with impoverished single mothers and absent fathers. (You should also watch Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, of all people, take these guys to task on that point, in this epically awesome smackdown.)

The “analysis” of Dobbs and his buddies completely bypasses the salient point, clearly articulated in the PEW findings, that the “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: “5.1 million (37%) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63%) are single mothers.” The jumbled, fallacy-ridden exchange skates over that distinction straight into apocalypse land, where the family is disintegrating, children are endangered, and men (or at least their balls) are nowhere to be found. There is no room whatsoever in their discussion for a man who chooses to be underemployed or forego employment altogether to be more present at home, because their notion of familial health depends upon a narrow, capitalist conception of masculinity: a man is someone who takes care of his family by making money.

Such assumptions about masculinity are rife in the Fox News clip – men have a “natural” or God-given role to protect, provide, be dominant, etc., and that is interpreted in exclusively economic terms; the definition of the Protector/Provider has become synonymous with earning a paycheck outside the home. Yet these talking heads seem oblivious that what they are defending as the “natural state” of humankind (nuclear family + male breadwinner) is a relatively modern, post-industrial invention.

Their high-pitched anxiety is not about what women are doing, but what men aren’t doing. In the world of Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson there seems to be no space for families or men who choose to “lean out” of the workplace and into the home, who resist the contemporary American myth of material wealth and happiness as correlative.

I’d like to add another talking man-head to the conversation — one perhaps worth listening to — who sees the domestic sphere radically different than Dobbs et al: Wendell Berry. Just this week, I read his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” – an essay that ambitiously tackles a range of Big Ideas, from technology to capitalism to the sexual revolution. He raises enough fodder for twenty blog posts, easily, but I want to discuss the section in which he advocates the need for men and women to revalue the domestic sphere:

“There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. … This sort of marriage usually has at its heart a household that is to some extent productive. The couple, that is, makes around itself a household economy that involves the work of both wife and husband, that gives them a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction. Such a household economy may employ the disciplines and skills of housewifery [or house-husbandry!] of carpentry and other trades of building and maintenance, of gardening and other branches of subsistence agriculture, and even of woodlot management and wood-cutting. It may also involve a “cottage industry” of some kind, such as a small literary enterprise. […]

I know that I am in dangerous territory, and so I had better be plain: what I have to say about marriage and household I mean to apply to men as much as to women. I do not believe that there is anything better to do than to make one’s marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman. I do not believe that “employment outside the home” is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women. It is clear to me from my experience as a teacher, for example, that children need an ordinary daily association with both parents. They need to see their parents at work; they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents. It does not matter so much that this working together should be what is called “quality time,” but it matters a great deal that the work done should have the dignity of economic value.”

Berry is describing a fundamental shift in values here, where domesticity becomes central, rather than tangential, to the identity of both men and women, and the work of home-making and child-rearing is given comparable “dignity” to outside work that rakes in the dough. Of course many people, myself included, find their job outside the home to be very meaningful and satisfying, but I agree with Berry that employment within the home is significantly undervalued in our society, and that needs to change.

In my reading of Berry, it doesn’t matter who makes the money; the money is not ear-marked as “his” or “hers.” The prominence of the “breadwinner” role is displaced by what one might call the “breadmakers,” husbands and wives who both work to make their home stable, loving, productive — whether or not they are also employed beyond the home.

julian in grass

Backyard baby.

A couple of days ago, Michael and I began talking about the possibility of him continuing to be a stay-at-home dad. We were sitting outside on our back patio, steaks on the grill, baby wiggling on a blanket on the grass, a light wind blowing through with the promise of summer. It was an idyllic moment, and I happened to be paying attention – enough to feel overwhelmingly grateful.

Then, a thought occurred to me: if Michael and I were both working full-time, this moment wouldn’t be happening. He probably wouldn’t be home yet, and I’d be throwing something easy and boring together for dinner (my culinary skills are stunted at best). We’d have only a small window of time together before putting the baby down for the night. The fresh greens on my plate and the abundant backyard garden around us wouldn’t exist, because Michael wouldn’t have time to maintain them. Our life would be significantly different than it is now and has been for months.

It has always been the plan for Michael to start applying for teaching jobs again and go back to work in the fall. But suddenly I feel the need to ask, why? Why mess with something that seems to be working for us?

Of course, it’s not easy to shirk societal values. It’s scary to choose the option that gives us minimal savings, less financial security, less status. And it’s certainly Michael who is making the more subversive choice, who will have to routinely and awkwardly field the question, “So, what do you do?” The myths about masculinity so apparent in the Fox clip are arguably more intact than cultural myths about femininity. We’re accustomed to the mother who works outside the home, but not the father who chooses to work only within it – a reality acknowledged by the Pew Research findings:

While the vast majority of Americans (79%) reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles, the new Pew Research survey finds that the public still sees mothers and fathers in a different light when it comes to evaluating the best work-family balance for children. About half (51%) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8% say the same about a father.

Of course, Michael and I are privileged in the sense that living on one income is a viable option for us. According to the Pew Study, the median family income of married female breadwinners is $80,000 annually; I make just over half of that, but that is still enough to get by on, if we choose to live simply and forego middle class luxuries like eating out, going on vacation, owning a second car, and buying new clothes, cable TV, magazine subscriptions, etc.

leaning out

John & Michael: Dudes leaning out

I know that Michael and I aren’t the only ones wrestling with these decisions. I have many friends who are choosing to “lean out” – and some of them are men. My friend who sent me the Fox News clip, John Meindersee II, recently made the choice to work part-time in the service industry in order to be more present to his family and to invest in his “cottage industry” of designing board game apps. No doubt he could be making more money working full-time in the financial sector, where he’s worked before, but he and his wife, Caity, are deliberately choosing to live by a different set of values.

And just yesterday, coincidentally, one of my favorite bloggers, Deja Earley, wrote about her family’s decision to leave her husband’s job behind and relocate across the country in order to pursue a more flexible, family-centered vision of The Good Life – even though this puts them in a more precarious position financially.

We are all new parents, we all have small babies, and we are all circling around the same questions: How to be more present to our children and loved ones? How to make a home? How to live a full life?

So maybe the talking heads are right. Maybe the social order is being undermined – not because there are more female breadwinners, but because some young families are abandoning the paradigm of the breadwinner altogether. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Why I’m Done with “Having it All”

I’ve been trying to write this post all day, in between putting my baby down for naps, folding laundry, taking a shower, breastfeeding, etc., and it’s a disorganized mess. I want to write about the idea of “having it all” and what that means, and what it doesn’t mean, and how we need a new way of thinking and talking about work-life balance. [If you’re interested, here’s a recent article by Anne-Marie Slaughter that made some waves on this topic. And here is Slaughter explaining why she’s decided to renounce the phrase “having it all.”]

But any time I start going down one direction, I begin to argue with myself and get pulled in another direction. So, I’m just going to write a disorganized post and throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks. Hopefully this won’t scare away any faithful readers who expect me to know my own mind all the time. (Hint: lower your expectations.)

On the one hand…

I’m done with the ideal of “having it all.” This post represents me killing it, for good.

Those words feel like a yoke around my neck, something I owe to my foremothers who bravely struggled for the rights women of my generation now take for granted. I want to honor their struggle, but sometimes that’s just too much pressure.

When I hear or read about women “having it all,” I can’t help but think, “Of course I can’t have it all. NO ONE WITH KIDS HAS IT ALL.”

The other day I was leaving for my writing group, and Michael looked at me woefully and said, jokingly, “One of these days you’re going to leave and never come back.”

“I have to come back,” I said. “I’m lactating.”

And that’s no joke! Every three hours or so, I have a date with either a pump or my baby, and all that pumping and breastfeeding is more time-consuming than you’d think. And that’s just the wee tip of the icy tundra of parenting. I’ve only been a mother for four months, but already I’ve had to make professional sacrifices to keep up with motherhood. (Not to mention the professional and financial sacrifices involved in Michael being with Julian fulltime.)

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan, watching

But I’m tired of feeling guilty for making those sacrifices, as if the time I spend with my baby is somehow wasted time, that I should be using that time to meet with students or write another book or go to a conference or somehow make a name for myself because BETTY FRIEDAN IS WATCHING.

If “having it all” becomes my battle cry, I’m afraid I’ll constantly be asking myself, “Am I working hard enough? Am I climbing far enough, fast enough?”

I’m also annoyed because “having it all” carries some weighty and troublesome assumptions about gender. We don’t hear much kvetching in the media about how men with high-powered careers have had to sacrifice time with their families. Nope. It is assumed that that will happen, and it’s not seen as a loss for those men, or their families. Not only does this undervalue the very real and necessary work of caring for children and keeping a home running; it undervalues the importance of children having close, intimate bonds with fathers as well as mothers.

Yet women are always at the center of this conversation, because the conflict between work and family is assumed to be a uniquely female conflict – which reveals that this conversation is ACTUALLY focused on what happens outside the home (i.e., in the workforce) and not so much what happens within it. Because if our culture really valued domestic labor, we’d be concerned that, by and large, men aren’t taking part. (Feel free to check out my earlier post on this issue.)

This concept of “having it all” seems married to a value system that privileges money and power. And sometimes I feel like American feminism has too easily absorbed the cultural values of said money-making and power-grubbing. But how can we seek both to empower women AND reject that power as problematic? (And now I am beginning to understand why this post is so difficult to write…)

The implicit message we grow up with is that what we do to earn money should be our center of gravity, rather than the people we love, or other kinds of unpaid work we do out of necessity or enjoyment (like blogging!). And the scary thing is, you can climb and climb and accumulate and accumulate – and then you retire and die. There’s always more money to be made. Even the mind-blowingly wealthy among us are busy making more money. I worry that the attitude of “having it all” means that nothing will ever feel like enough.

On the other hand…

living room

Messy living room, iPhone style

As soon as I hear myself say, “you can’t have it all,” I think about my female college students, women who are just beginning to find out who they are and who they want to be – personally, professionally, philosophically. Women who are learning to believe in themselves, to see themselves as leaders in their communities. I don’t want them to hear in these words that they have to choose between having a job they love and being a successful parent. Because you can do both, absolutely. Many women, including myself, are living proof of that. [Of course, it might mean that your living room looks like THIS for several years.—->]

[And, as an aside, my single best piece of advice for women who hope to have a career and a family is this: choose a supportive partner, someone who is committed to co-parenting, someone willing to making sacrifices and compromises alongside you.]

But you don’t HAVE to have both. You can also choose to pursue just one of these paths, or you can hop back and forth between them. You can decide to be an at-home “breastfeeding executive” (which is how one of my smart, successful SAHM friends lists her occupation on facebook). To choose this doesn’t mean you’ve failed in the quest of “having it all,” that you’ve failed your college degree, or your professors, or womankind, or God. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to earn a shitload of money. You don’t have to have a career outside the home to make a tangible difference in the lives of those who share your little patch of Earth.

And you can also choose to NOT get married (seriously, you can!), or to get married but not have children. Again, this doesn’t mean you’re betraying your ovaries, or your parents, or the species, or God. None of these modes of living is inherently honorable or valuable or “successful” than the others. There is no cookie cutter for your life.

I also think about my male students, who have grown up in a culture that tells them to define their self-worth by what they do to make money outside the home, beyond the context of their family and community. I want to tell them that success actually might look like “having less” – it might look like working less, or earning less, in order to be present to the people they love.

What I want these young men and women to understand is that having a family — whether you have a career in addition or not — will always require certain sacrifices and compromises. It means that, in the pursuit of balance, you might have to make some tough choices. And in that context, measuring yourself against a slogan of “having it all” could feel like failure. Which is why I want to jettison those words.

I want to give my students, and myself, permission to shirk the societal model of ladder-climbing, the success rubric of money and power, to choose NOT to define ourselves by what we earn and own, but by who and what we love.

So as I reach the end of my jumbled thoughts, I guess my conclusion is this:

Don’t ask, as you enter the world, “Do I have it all?” Ask: “Am I living deeply? And where am I putting my roots?”

work life balance

Work-Life Balance

[Please discuss in the comments, because I don’t even know if I completely agree with myself.]