“Stop fighting over baby Jesus!”
I uttered this imperative not to break up students wrangling over a theological point that should have been settled by the Council of Nicaea, but because my children were squabbling over a plastic nativity set. It was a typical dad moment, except for the timing. This exclamation happened mid-morning on a weekday when I was, as usual, home with the kids.
At its best, being a stay-at-home dad resembles Marx’s idyllic description of communism: I raise children in the morning, work on the house during naptime, and philosophize in the evening. At least one high-flying friend has told me it sounds ideal—I get to be with my kids all day while writing about a wide range of cultural, political, and philosophical issues. And sometimes it is. But the downside of getting to have it all like this is that I have to deal with it all. If some days have a delightful blend of productivity and playing with the kids, on other days the dishes are piled high, my home improvement skills aren’t up to the task, I can’t make a column flow, and the kids won’t stop squawking at me and each other.
Staying home to care for young children is an all-of-the-above experience: exhausting and exasperating and heartwarming and fulfilling. And it is not what American culture expects of me, especially as a conservative man who might be thought to revere the mid-century family model of a working father and stay-at-home mother. But my conservatism is central to my willingness to undertake this role, and I am not alone in this. A recent New York Times profile of conservatives pushing for a more expansive pro-family agenda noted that its subjects (including colleagues of mine at the Ethics and Public Policy Center) do not all fit that 1950s-magazine-illustration model of family life. And for my family too it makes sense for me to stay home and work part-time. We don’t want to put our children in daycare just so I can spend a lot of time in an office.
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Families’ ability to adopt unconventional arrangements stems partly from the push for more flexible hours and work-from-home options that pro-family conservatives have rightly cheered. But it goes beyond that by flipping the cultural expectations regarding who is the primary breadwinner and who is the daytime caregiver. To be sure, I split the difference on this—I was working at home long before it was cool, and I can include things that sound like a career when people ask what I do—though I suspect that a lot of people aren’t immediately sure how much prestige and cash value to assign to writing and think-tanking.
Nonetheless, while some of these details are opaque from the outside, our family is obviously not sticking to the old mid-century script. To their credit, and contrary to what stereotypes might suggest, the Christian conservative circles I run in have been understanding and supportive of us. I’m sure it helps that they approve of the work my wife and I are each doing, but the deeper reason is that they value having a parent at home with the children, whether it be the mother or the father.
In contrast, we have found that people who measure others based on more worldly criteria (e.g. how much money they make) tend to be more critical of us, even if they consider themselves liberal feminists. Materialistic standards of success encourage both men and women to prioritize career over family. A mindset that disparages stay-at-home mothers for supposedly wasting their potential is not going to turn around and honor stay-at-home fathers for wasting theirs. And women who have accepted worldly measures of success for themselves are unlikely to respect a husband who sacrifices worldly accomplishments to better care for children.
For stay-at-home fatherhood to be a palatable option, our culture must value parents caring for their children at home as much as it values parents making money outside the home. The occasional stay-at-home dad will be respected only if the culture already respects the stay-at-home mom as much as the girlboss.
Though there is certainly a strain of machismo on the Right that looks down on fathers staying home with their children, that attitude is less influential than the productivity-obsessed mindset that looks down on anyone staying home for the kids. In our culture, the issue is not so much whether childcare is unmanly; rather, it is that the pursuit of wealth and status induce disdain for dependence and the interruptions it inevitably and inconveniently imposes on our lives.
Being a stay-at-home parent involves multiple forms of dependence. First, the neediness of small children is demanding. It punctures illusions of autonomous individualism and impedes the pursuits of money, glamour and worldly pleasures. But second, not only are children dependent, they create dependence in others. The absolute dependence of a newborn also makes her mother more reliant on the help of others. And a parent who chooses to stay home with the children often becomes financially dependent on the other parent.
Such dependence is abhorrent to a liberal culture that prizes individual autonomy, which is why our nation continues to professionalize the care that was traditionally provided by family and community. For example, we teach young girls that caring for their own children at home means that they are “not working” and are caught in oppressive drudgery, while caring for other people’s children at a school or daycare is real work that is economically important as well as liberating and empowering.
Yet this effort to increase autonomy creates its own forms of servitude. Obviously, it contributes to an expansion of the service economy, with the same labor that used to be done at home being perceived as superior because it is now part of the market and is adding to the GDP. Rather than personally caring for those we love (and who love us), we are encouraged to free ourselves of the personal sacrifice that such intimate care involves and instead provide for them through the market.
Against this perverse perspective, we need to champion both policies that support parents and a culture that respects parents as caregivers in the home, rather than only praising their labor when it is calculable as part of the GDP. Households were traditionally places of both care and economic productivity, and we should seek to maintain them in, or return them to, those roles. The household should be understood as an integrated economic unit, rather than being divided between external economic productivity and internal consumption. And laws should support the strength of that unit, rather than making it easily severable in the name of adult autonomy.
A perspective that prioritizes the good of the household as a whole also resolves many of the more traditionalist or conservatives concerns about working mothers and caregiving fathers. It is not that mothers and fathers are interchangeable, but that the good of the family may sometimes push them to take on different tasks from those of the 1950s ideal. The complementarity between husband and wife plays out in many ways, and it is a mistake to reduce it to who is doing which chore or leaving the house to work in an office. The differences between mommy and daddy do not disappear because daddy does the dishes and is home more during the weekday 9 to 5.
Different families have different needs, and I don’t view my family’s arrangements as a model for many, let alone most. What is clear is that our nation’s leaders should stop trying to push parents who stay home with the kids out of the house. I don’t want subsidized childcare if it is just a way to get me to drop off my children with strangers so I can add a little more to the GDP than I do now. As a stay-at-home parent who, for obvious reasons, does not feel the need to be liberated from patriarchal shackles, I think the implicit economic push against parenthood is exploitative, rather than freeing. Parents should be respected for parenting, not for how much money they make, or how prestigious their job is.