“So, what do you do?”
I never used to have a problem answering this question. “I’m a retail manager,” I would respond, having been one for most of my adult life. But now, it’s not so easy. I find my mind wandering when I get asked that question. What do I do?
I spend a large portion of the day building with blocks, chasing my son around a couch, playing peek-a-boo, feeding him, calming him after he falls, or crawling around on my hands and knees, pretending to be a lion out to get him.
“I’m a stay-at-home dad,” I respond, quickly adding, “for now.” Then, so the awkward silence doesn’t linger—men, after all, must be defined by their careers (it’s what they do)—I append, “And I’m working on some novels.”
I see the same pattern over and over again. The other’s eyes show confusion as they wait for my answer, then befuddlement over how to respond to an “at-home dad,” then relief as they realize I have given them an out: a way to define me by my career.
“Oh, you’re a writer?”
No. Yes. I’m so much more. Do you understand how much I do in a day? Do you get that I don’t need to be defined by a career? Can you comprehend that staying at home with my one-year-old is something I enjoy immensely?
More importantly, can you walk with me to the place where no one needs to be defined by what they “do”?
What I am doing now is exactly what I’ve dreamed of doing my whole life. I’ve always wanted to write novels, ever since I could first read them. In fact, while being an at-home dad, I wrote a novel during my son’s naps. Yes, a whole novel in around three months!
Abstractly, I always knew that I wanted to make writing my career—that I would stay at home and work on books all day. I expected to stay at home for my career, but I didn’t know I’d also be doing it as a dad. Somehow, a little one running about scattering papers everywhere hadn’t occurred to me as part of that picture.
Strangely, it is the “dad” role that creates the most awkwardness in conversations. Being a writer is a career—one that might make money, even if it is a bit eccentric. But being a dad? That’s it?
The strangeness isn’t only there in my conversations with other men, either. I once had a conversation with a woman who was a stay-at-home mom and she asked how many kids I had. When I said one, she responded in shock, “Just one? And you’re staying at home? I have four!”
I’d never realized that I needed to get into a reproductive arms race to justify staying at home as a man.
My wife, Beth, is a pastor and she also gets the question: “What does your husband do?” She experiences some of the same reactions that I do and struggles to piece together a good response.
I wonder what would happen if the situation were reversed. Would Beth get the same strange looks as a woman if she answered, “I’m a stay-at-home mom, and I write books”? To be frank, I don’t think it would be so awkward.
The gender role-related difficulties aren’t limited to social spheres, either. Theologically, I have been advised both privately and indirectly through the popular preaching of certain complementarian leaders that my decision is potentially damning. “After all, a man who doesn’t take care of his family is worse than an unbeliever,” I was told. This reference is a glossing of 1 Timothy 5:8, which is read by some to specifically reference a husband who isn’t the “bread-winner” for the family.
This understanding of a male “provider” reveals much about the bias with which some read the Bible. We can also see how gendered translations might impact interpretation.
The NIV translates 1 Timothy 5:8 as “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” By contrast, the ESV translates it, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Interestingly, the Greek does not provide masculine pronouns, but instead uses a word for “anyone” that can be either male or female. The rest of the words have a genitive plural ending that works for masculine, feminine, or neuter words.
So, a translation of “anyone” and “their” makes more sense than using “his” throughout and implying a husband as the exclusive provider. Yet, this is a passage that is used frequently against men like me who are perceived as “not providing.”
Particularizing passages like this to be gendered and referencing a husband/father shapes how we perceive men and women, including stay-at-home dads.
Questions about what it means to “provide” are also interesting. We save thousands of dollars over the course of a year because we don’t have to put our son in daycare. But provision isn’t measured merely in dollars and cents.
I am able to provide him with direct care and learning experiences he couldn’t have otherwise had. The joy I experience when I see him learn something we’ve been working on over the course of a day (like identifying his nose) is profound. This kind of learning surely falls under the category of providing.
So, I now add a new avenue to the conversations that follow “What do you do?” Instead of adding that I also write, I use the opportunity to talk about my work as a stay-at-home dad. I present egalitarian ideas on marriage and co-parenting. I explain that being a stay-at-home dad allows me to unselfishly pursue my own dreams as an aspiring novelist.
The reactions I’ve gotten to this have been as varied as they were before, but when the conversation is flipped in this fashion, I have the chance to confront the gender normativity that expects a man to be working while a woman stays at home.
These may not be strict expectations in many families. But time and time again, even talking to people who share my commitments to egalitarianism in the church and home, my life as an egalitarian surprises them.
We need to raise awareness about egalitarianism lived. We cannot declare our allegiance to egalitarianism and be done there. We need to intentionally highlight the stories of women leading, of beautiful egalitarian marriage, and of men who identify themselves most fully in the vocation of fatherhood.
I could share many more stories of my struggle with narrow gender roles as a stay-at-home dad, such as the constant discovery that changing tables rarely exist in men’s restrooms. But the point of this article is that ideas have real consequences in the everyday lives of women and men. Egalitarianism is not just for women. The biblical truth of equal calling is of enormous benefit to both men and women.