Four years ago, winter was charging into my Albany, New York, neighborhood, so I dug through my closet, searching for my favorite black puffer coat, only to find it flaking to pieces on the floor.
“You can’t wear that,” my wife insisted, peeking over my shoulder and shaking her head. “You need a new coat.”
I was a stay-at-home dad who worked part-time as a social worker, so my income was minuscule compared to my wife’s salary for her state job in communications. I loved spending my days cuddling and cooing and bonding with my 4-month-old baby boy, but I hated spending a cent because I made so little.
My wife urged me to buy something that would last, pushing me toward a $300 gold North Face puffer online. It wasn’t that my family wasn’t doing fine financially, but the moment I clicked to confirm my purchase, my mind spiraled into darkness. I told myself I was a leech on my wife’s income, that I added nothing of use to civilization.
I told myself I was a leech on my wife’s income, that I added nothing of use to civilization.
There are many things American society deems valuable for men. We are supposed to be providers, making the bulk of the family income. Supposed to take charge, dominating others in the workplaces, the sports field, the gym. Modern American mythology reveres men who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, creating something from nothing, not men who nurture their families. Not men who spend nights pumping their baby’s legs back and forth to relieve gas. Not men whose backs hurt from babywearing their kids. Those are the tasks normally left to people who rarely receive credit, the people our entire economic system depends on to do the work men don’t want to do: women.
And women are often the last thing men want to be perceived as. So even though I cherished my time with my son, I could not respect myself for not having a career.
When the coat arrived in the mail, I was overwhelmed with humiliation. Every time I put it on, I felt like I didn’t deserve it. I placed my baby in his stroller, roaming our neighborhood’s side streets on the verge of tears, sensing people staring, judging me for wearing something so nice that I didn’t earn.
Of course, I understood that I was probably just getting a glimpse of what women have been enduring for years. Questioning your self-worth is a common feeling at-home parents feel, regardless of gender. In a society that doesn’t value your work, you feel worthless. Although more fathers are stepping into stay-at-home parenting, women still carry the brunt of the load of childcare, and they are often the ones internalizing the disrespect.
Of course, I understood that I was probably just getting a glimpse of what women have been enduring for years. ... In a society that doesn't value your work, you feel worthless.
While there are many positive examples of at-home parents on TV and in movies today, it’s the stereotypes that haunt us. The portrayals of perfect workhorses, keeping a pristine home with dinner on the table by five; the inept housemom, lounging on the couch all day, eating bonbons like Peg Bundy, while her man lugs away at work; or the codependent helicopter mom, exemplified by Beverly Goldberg, begging for snuggies from her schmoopies, yearning for her love to be acknowledged.
Even though fathers have their own stereotypes to contend with — of being bumbling fools who can’t work a diaper, for example — the at-home mom tropes were the ones I found myself competing with. Whenever I was burned-out trying to clean one room while my son dumped buckets of toys in the next, I knew June Cleaver would still have energy to spit out platitudes and juggle laundry loads. If I dared think of complaining about how I couldn’t use the bathroom without my baby on my lap, I reminded myself I should be thankful to get to be with my son while other men toil away at nine-to-fives. The entire time, I just wanted acknowledgement from my wife and son; I wanted snuggies from my schmoopies.
So when I bought that coat, I was trapped with the worst thoughts I had about myself. And, if I’m really being honest, I knew that the expectations of me in my own home were lower because I was a male. I may have done most of the face-to-face caretaking, but I was more of a spot cleaner than a homemaker, leaving the intense mopping and scrubbing to my mom-in-law during her frequent visits. I only cooked a couple times a week, so my family survived on leftovers. My son had a daily diet of “Little Baby Bum” on YouTube.
My wife constantly reminded me that if she was stuck at home with a newborn she would lose her mind worse than I did. Me being the at-home parent was always the only choice we had: Day care was crazy expensive, and my wife made significantly more money than I could in my profession.
Yet no matter how empathetic my wife tried to be to my situation, she also slipped in comments every now and then about how many at-home mothers were strung thin and didn’t get relief. Their significant others strolled in from work and didn’t lift a finger. Meanwhile, she took on a good proportion of caretaking, did a bulk of the laundry, often cooked, bought new clothes when they outgrew the old ones, and was a better cleaner than I’d ever be. She’d laugh when she reminded me I should be happy she helped at all. It was a joke, but I knew it was true. I should be grateful, and that just made me feel more guilty.
Staring directly at my distorted thinking, I became a chronic liar. Strangers on my street would ask me what I did for a living, and I’d exaggerate the number of nights I social worked each week. Most days I spent on the couch with watery eyes, rocking my baby and scrolling my Facebook timeline, envious of friends who radiated success, earning accolades at their jobs, taking their families on lavish vacations that they paid for with their hard-earned money while I wiped spit up.
This mindset couldn’t continue, and luckily, as a social worker, I knew where to turn. Within a month, I threw myself into therapy, bouncing my baby on my lap as a therapist fed me prompts to question my self-harming thoughts. I opened myself up to attending playgroups, where I bonded with a community of caretakers, many women, but also other stay-at-home dads who had experienced similar feelings of shame. Their empathy helped me realize I was OK. Everything was OK. I was doing a great job.
I began scheduling time for myself, realizing that taking breaks allowed me to be more on for my son so we could sing together and read together and share giggles. I dove into a side hustle that I loved — writing — which turned into a decent income, allowing me to quit my social work gig and still contribute to my family financially. Eventually my wife and I welcomed a second child into our family: a baby girl.
My confidence blossomed, but I still felt messed up because I knew that at least part of my newfound pride was based on other people seeing my part-time writing job as valuable. It wasn’t that I had truly grown comfortable with my role as a stay-at-home father — it was that I’d picked up another job that I felt made me more important to society. If I wasn’t working or caring for my kids, I still told myself I wasn’t doing enough, so I didn’t know how to relax. But in those moments when my kids nuzzled up against my chest and dozed off, everything felt all right.
Recently I was at a festival with my wife, watching our kids boinging around a bounce house. Another couple came by and attempted to awkwardly chat it up with us, asking what we did for a living. My wife answered first, then they looked to me. “I’m a stay-at-home dad,” I said, offering a slight smile, as I realized the words didn’t have the sting they once did. I felt my wife’s hand resting on the small of my back as we both watched our kids leaping, jumping, hurtling toward us.