Relying on your wife for financial support isn't emasculating, but it can be infantilizing sometimes.
"Daddy," my 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter Olivia said through a febrile haze, "Everybody bosses you." I nodded in agreement. "I boss you, and Maddy bosses you, and Mommy bosses you," she continued.
"You ain't whistling Dixie, Pumpkin," I said. Between coughing fits, snot-frothing meltdowns, and attacks on her twin sister Madeleine, the kid had delivered a number of startlingly perceptive pronouncements during her bout with the latest preschool plague.
I've been a stay-at-home dad since my daughters were four months old and my wife returned to work as a family practice doctor at a community clinic. Being a parent, and having the luxury of sharing almost every moment of my children's early life, has been the most intense and rewarding experience I've ever had. My resentments have been fleeting, and the only regrets I have are my daily parenting failures, which my kids have been willing to forgive, so far.
The sense of achievement in childrearing is sometimes obscured by the daily indignities a parent must suffer. But consciously, at least, even when I'm feeling the most oppressed or impotent, I don't feel like less of a man because my wife provides the roof over our heads, the groceries in our bellies, and the clothes on our backs, while I alternately mind the children and struggle to earn enough to pay the preschool tuition. I just feel like less of an adult.
Being stuck at home with two sick kids recently reminded me of how servile my role at home often is. Quarantined and cranky, we had worn each other down to raw nerve endings; but being the parent, I had done the best I could to act like a reasonable adult. My daughters didn't extend me the same courtesy. They screamed complicated orders that I just couldn't get right. I brought them the wrong shoes, poured the milk when they wanted to do it themselves, flushed the toilet without permission, tied the sashes wrong on the garments of tiny panda bears, and committed countless other transgressions that required intensive damage control. I was walking on eggshells for a week. So when my wife came home from work one night and said, "Hey, could you..." I fired ocular death-rays that shut her down mid-request and put a chill on the rest of the evening. I didn't feel like my masculinity had been infringed upon by the indignities of my role at home; but rather, I felt like a petulant 10-year-old longing for a modicum of self-determination.
I recently had the surreal experience of appearing as a character in a bestselling book by The Atlantic's Hannah Rosin. Rosin interviewed me for a series of articles she was writing about "breadwinning wives," and later used some snippets from our conversation in The End of Men. In it, she portrayed me as a sad sack who is "wistful" about my past in the working world, and "defensive" about my masculinity. I responded in an essay where I insisted that, far from being an emasculated wretch, I'm happier and more secure about myself than I've ever been. Naturally, spending most of my time with 3-year-olds can be frustrating; but when I take the long view, I realize that I've doing the absolute best thing I can for my family during this time, even if it has involved a lot of mindless drudgery.
In reading a conversation on this site among the writers of the excellent DadWagon website I noticed that many of the commenters were upset that these men didn't admit to being depressed that their wives made more money than they did. Nathan, Matt, and Theodore copped to personal shortcomings and professional disappointments, but didn't provide any evidence for the popular theory that men who make less money than their wives feel like they have either failed to live up to their gender expectations or been denied their manly birthright. Despite being out-earned by their wives, they agreed, they are still men.
My wife and I have been together for 20 years, and for the last ten of those, she has made at least double the money I have. My work history is eclectic: I've had jobs, gigs, and businesses, mostly in the fields of construction, teaching, and, more recently, writing; but I've never had what you would call a "career." Like the DadWagon guys, I sometimes wished I could make more money, and even thought I deserved to. But, while the knuckleheads on the construction site were quick to point out that I should feel like less of a man (whatever that means) because my wife made more money than me, I never connected any wage-angst I felt to gender.