by Luke Smithson
Luke Smithson runs his gelato shop, grows squash, and paints in order to stay sane. He and his wife live in Salt Lake City and share 8 children and 5 grandchildren. His favorite movies are Stalker and Wings of Desire. His favorite television show: Community. He is currently reading Biocentrism and Funny Times.
I must admit that when Stephen Carter first asked me to write about being a stay-at-home dad, my gut response was “NO! Don’t do it!” Following is my more nuanced answer.
I had my first encounter with gender roles at about age fourteen when we were having a family meeting about duties around the house. My five sisters were arguing that Dad didn’t do enough housework. I countered that it was unfair to expect him to work all day at school without any help from us and then expect him to do more work when he got home. Besides that, my sisters’ sense of “fairness” didn’t seem to motivate them to help me, the only boy, shovel snow, take the garbage out, chop wood, or do any of the other gender-related jobs that I was saddled with. But at least we were questioning some cultural expectations about gender.
When I married my first wife, she made it perfectly clear that she needed to earn a living. During our first three years of marriage, we both worked part-time and had the first two of four children. Then she got a full-time job, which meant I stayed at home with the kids. I brought most of the money into the marriage through an inheritance, investments, and various projects. During the summers she wasn’t working, I built two homes and four cabins—and I painted occasionally. Those were the only times I felt any sense of accomplishment or self-validation, mostly because my efforts produced tangible results. The rest of the time I felt as if I were constantly being interrupted to deal with children. I saw them as a distraction and failed to appreciate the blessings of raising kids. I failed to optimize what was the best opportunity of my life to enjoy my children’s youth. I genuinely ache for the moments I can no longer have with my children, and I mourn the times when I’d become impatient or angry with them over things that didn’t matter. What a stupid, selfish idiot I was.
On top of that, I spent a lot of time apologizing for being male and bending over backwards to be the so-called “liberated, progressive, sensitive male” in order to not upset my so-called feminist wife. I did everything I could to be nice and accommodating. But frankly, that was probably all just an act, an excuse for my being too weak-willed to stand for anything other than my own selfish agenda. Apologizing for the heritage of a patriarchal society is a step forward, but failing to have the courage to take a stand for yourself is two steps back.
While my first wife loved her children and cared for them very well, she had her own issues with gender identity and roles. Even though she was a sensitive mother, she resented the role of motherhood that her culture and religion expected her to fill, resisting any validation they offered. Instead she pursued validation through her professional life—something she could do only with the help of my inheritance and the fact that I was staying at home with the children.
She resented my staying with the kids; she resented the financial help we received; she resented not being able to have it all—to be a professional writer, teacher, and mother. I, on the other hand, resented my isolation and lack of validation in the community and the Church. I resented not having time to pursue my own interests as an artist or not having traditional validation. And then my own foolish behavior undermined my chances for any kind of validation. Over thirteen years, I grew lazy and insecure because I never truly chose what I was doing, whether raising children or pursuing personal interests. Once again, what a stupid, selfish idiot I was for failing to choose what was right in front of me.
Then, in 2001, when my youngest was about to start first grade and I was no longer needed at home during the day, and when I was consumed with my father’s illness, my wife finished her PhD and left me for someone else. Frankly, I don’t blame her. I was a selfish jerk. I plummeted into a severe depression, and before I emerged, she had retained custody, control, money, her job, employability, security, a new house, and a new housekeeper—everything a traditional male usually has in a divorce situation.
When people marry, they enter a bond of trust. Each person provides different things to the marriage—money, emotional security, sex, companionship, intimacy. This makes both partners vulnerable, which is part of the risk and reward of marriage. Our culture erects social institutions to support marriage when it succeeds, though to a lesser extent when it fails. Until recently, women have been extremely vulnerable both in and out of marriage. For each year they stay out of the workforce to raise children, they become more economically marginalized.
When one person breaks the marriage covenant, child support and alimony are an attempt to address this injustice. There are also many cultural and social supports for women in this situation. However, our current laws and cultural institutions do not support men raising children. Until our laws and society improve, male homemakers are actually more vulnerable than women in a similar situation.
But even if those things change, there’s a more fundamental disconnect here. Everyone needs to belong and feel useful. Men specifically have a need to provide; to do something; to fix something. When women communicate a problem, what do men want to do? Fix it! Whether this is a social construct or genetic, I don’t know. But I do know that as I lived in that stay-at-home-dad situation, I became a less powerful and capable person. Not because I was a stay-at-home dad, but because my position made it much more difficult for me to create ways to validate myself. At the end of a day of changing diapers and wiping runny noses, it’s hard enough for women to feel a sense of self-worth and accomplishment. But they at least have a cultural expectation and support system. Men who stay home to raise their children do not have that support. They are alone and suspect. My in-laws thought I was lazy. No one respected me; neither did I. My children did not and still don’t respect me as a provider.
If a man cannot fix something or provide, he is useless.
I’m now married to someone who enjoys being a mother and grandmother. She finds joy and validation in that role. She counts on me to be a righteous priesthood holder, to be a provider, a leader. She tells me this, and I am honored to live up to her expectations. And when I do so, I do not feel as if I’m better than she is in any way. Rather, I feel more powerful as a person and feel respect for myself. Both of us were the economically vulnerable person in our previous marriages—the homemaker. Now the two of us are working harder together every day, in and out of the house, than we ever did in our previous marriages. This is mainly the result of having to make up financially for all those lost years when we were out of the workplace.
We both put in extremely long hours running our gelato business. Sometimes I get to make art. But none of that brings me the satisfaction I get from having a good relationship with Elizabeth and our children, both mine and hers.
So, to those men contemplating similar situations in your marriage, proceed with caution; be aware of the kind of dynamic you are creating. You are making yourself vulnerable in ways that our culture and our legal system do not support. And you need to be a very strong person to deal with that.
But despite the legal and cultural pitfalls of being a stay-at-home dad, if you ever have a chance to postpone your career in order to raise kids while your spouse works, DO IT! Anyone who pursues a career instead of raising children is a fool. Though you will work as hard as the professional person and experience as many disappointments, you will find more joy and satisfaction in life through raising children. No amount of freedom, uninterrupted sex, or vacations in Italy or the Bahamas will be as rewarding as spending Thanksgiving with your dysfunctional family and ungrateful children. Nothing is more rewarding than the moment your children stop being ungrateful and say, in one way or another, “Thanks, Dad, for everything you did for me.” The greatest joy in life comes from having a child in college who calls you up just to tell you about his or her week. Why would anyone want to give that up just to make money or have a career?