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.
When my wife got pregnant, there was no question that she would need and want to continue working. But we could afford for me to stay with the kids, and so I jumped at the opportunity. For almost three years, I never seriously questioned my own contribution to our family's welfare. It helped that, for the first year, I was spending naptimes, evenings and weekends finishing the addition that I had started building on our house when we found out we were having twins, eventually doubling its size to a modest 1600 square feet. Not only was I caring for the children, but I was also increasing our home equity. I was earning! Even after the addition was finished, I still felt indispensable in that I was meeting the grueling demands of keeping two helpless babies alive. Surely, no one could do this job as well as a parent!
Slightly before the girls turned three, though, things changed. We were offered two spots in our "long-shot" preschool, three months before we had planned to launch the girls' "academic" careers, and we accepted the offer rather than risk losing it by waiting. Suddenly I had two more days off from childcare responsibilities per week. My wife was working four days a week, so I really only had the kids by myself on Mondays and Wednesdays. There was no reason I shouldn't be working outside of the home.
Before being blindsided by preschool, I had a vague vision of what I would do when the kids started spending their days elsewhere. I'm not sure where the money was coming from in this vision: just that it involved me sitting in a quiet, sun-drenched study, writing about my fascinating and marketable thoughts and feelings. What the vision didn't include was pounding the proverbial pavement to see if anyone needed decks built or windows replaced.
But pound the pavement I did, and I found good-paying work for clients who understood that I would be completing their projects around my kids' schedules. I should be thankful for that, and I am. At the same time, though, it's not lost on me that, at age 45, having earned multiple degrees and taught college and even grad school classes, and actually gotten some writing published, I'm back to doing the same kind of work I did fresh out of high school. It's honest work, to be sure, and maybe even noble—although I always used to hate it when lily-palmed pencil-pushers romanticized the building trades—but it doesn't quite live up to what I had imagined would be the Next Phase.
So there's your self-indulgent whine from a man who earns a fraction of the money his wife does. I'm not "wistful" about my past as Rosin suggested; but there are times, especially when I look at my career-oriented peers, including my wife, and feel like, for lack of a better term, a loser. I have friends who talk about managing their "staffs." In my construction gigs, I am the staff, except for on the rare occasions when I pick up a day-laborer. And the fact that I'm working outside the home more now, while virtual strangers care for my children, sometimes makes the stay-at-home dad part of my life seem less like an adult occupation too. When I hear other parents talking about their babysitters—usually just kids themselves—it sometimes strikes me that the bulk of my responsibilities at home are not so different from the ones they take on for 12 bucks an hour. Being an adult generally entails responsibility and confers status; and at my age, by conventional standards, and regardless of my gender, I should be at the top of my game. But instead, I'm hustling for chump change and getting bossed around by small children.
Whether or not I qualify as an adult, though, should be of little consequence to me, maybe as little as whether I'm living up to some construct of masculinity or another. The day I'll know that I'm truly a grownup is the day I do what I need to do to provide what my family needs from me, without entertaining nagging desires to satisfy someone else's idea of what a man or an adult is.