So stated one of our children in their autobiography assignment for school. I kept reading, curious what would come next.
“My dad usually stays home and cleans up, and takes care of the pets.”
I thought for a moment. “That’s very good, honey, but do you think you could write something else about Dad?” I suggested. “He does other stuff too, add some more nice things.”
“OK, how about … ‘And he takes care of us, because my mom works all the time.’”
Ugh, not exactly what I was going for. I tried not to show any hurt feelings on my face. “Honey, I don’t work all the time, do I?”
He thought hard and then responded, “Oh, I know, I know! How about this: ‘He takes care of us because our mom works most of the time.’” His face was beaming with pride at his adaptation of the sentence.
And so that is how it reads in the final draft he turned in to his teacher. I can’t wait to see it up in the hallway at parent-teacher conference night.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the parenting role-reversal that exists when the woman is the full-time bread-winner, and the man is the stay at home parent.
The following are a few examples from our lives.
One of my favorites is from about ten years ago, when our oldest was in preschool. It was a weekend, and we were both home. The phone rang, and my husband answered. (Yes, back then we used an actual landline). It was the preschool teacher calling to tell us about a change in schedule. A few moments later he handed the phone to me with a frustrated look on his face. “She insists to talk to ‘my wife.’”
I took the phone and listened as she went into detail about the schedule change. After the call, I relayed the information back to my husband, who was the one who really needed to know it, as he brought our child to and from the preschool.
“Strange, she absolutely insisted to talk to you,” my husband said.
We then burst out laughing as we realized it was because the teacher held to the stereotype that the father wouldn’t be involved in school schedules, and couldn’t possibly be trusted with the new information. With us, she had definitely gotten it backwards. Although we laughed about it, I could tell my husband was irked.
That was approximately 2007. Around 2009, during the time of the financial crisis, I started to notice that my husband was no longer the only stay at home dad in our children’s schools. An interesting thing happened: With the economic slow-down, many couples with children were making the choice for the woman to keep her job while the man stayed at home. It was a welcome change to no longer be the only ones we knew in this situation.
As our three children have advanced in school, and society seems to have adapted a bit more over the past ten years, a situation like above with the teacher hasn’t repeated itself. Now he gets all the texts from teachers and coaches, and I rely on him 100 percent to keep track of our kids’ schedules. To be honest, at times I am downright envious to be the parent least in touch with the classrooms.
I have been subjected countless times to the comment, from both teachers and other parents, “So, you’re the mom!” As in, “so, you really do exist.” They say it with a grin, but I don’t understand why, as it is not funny, it is hurtful, and, dare I say, sexist. I don’t think working fathers are subjected to this type of commentary when they come to a parent-teacher conference, even if it is the first time the teacher has ever met them. But for a working mother, others can’t seem to wait to rub the salt in the wounds of guilt.
Similarly, I don’t think it is likely that a mother has ever been told by a teacher on the phone, “I can’t talk to you — let me talk to your husband so I can tell him about the school schedule change.”
Another example of being stereotyped by other parents: Some years ago, in picking my daughter up from kindergarten, the only one day a week I could do this with my schedule, another parent eventually admitted to me that she and the other moms had thought for the whole first quarter that I was the nanny, since they hadn’t seen me at any other activities. Outwardly I laughed along, but inside my heart was bleeding. Ouch.
My husband and I never sat down and planned that he would become a stay at home dad, it just evolved as our family grew. We realized life was a teeny bit less chaotic, and we could keep up with all the homework and extracurricular activities better, with one parent at home full-time. I am very grateful that I have a job and career that can support my family on a one-parent income. I know many women who work not because it’s a choice, but because their families would not survive without dual income.
Do I sometimes wish the stay at home parent was me? Absolutely. Do my children seem to mind that they have their dad instead of their mom as the stay at home parent? Absolutely not. As my son concluded in his essay, “My parents are of course just parents.”
Jennifer Lycette is a novelist, award-winning essayist, rural hematology-oncology physician, wife, and mom. Mid-career, Dr. Lycette discovered the power of narrative medicine on her path back from physician burnout and has been writing ever since. Her essays can be found in The Intima, NEJM, JAMA, and other journals. She can be reached on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Mastodon.
Her books explore the overarching theme of humanism in medicine. Her first novel, The Algorithm Will See You Now (Black Rose Writing Press), a near-future medical thriller, is available now. Her second novel, The Committee Will Kill You Now, a prequel in the form of a near-historical medical suspense, is out 11/9/23 and available for preorder now in paperback and on Kindle.
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