Standing Tall As A Stay-At-Home Dad

by Justin Rosario

As a stay-at-home father of an autistic son and a neurotypical daughter, sometimes it feels like I’m a Rodney Dangerfield skit; I get no respect, no respect at all. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve been subjected to relentless sexism and when it comes to political discussions, it gets even worse.

The decision to be a stay-at-home was easy for my wife and I. Of the two of us, she had, by far, the greater long-term stability in her job. I worked in retail management (no pension, no job security, random hours), she was an administrative assistant in the federal government (great pension, real job security, set hours). Also, being inured to the screaming of children after 20 years of working in toy and video game stores, I was more suited to the task. So when we decided to start a family, we chose to forgo spending one of our entire salaries to pay for daycare and I joined roughly 1.9 million other men as I embarked upon my new career as a full time parent.

It was difficult at first because people, mostly women, kept asking me if I was babysitting. They got a peculiar look on their face when I politely informed them that I was a stay-at-home parent. Despite a growing number of men becoming primary caregivers (either by choice or circumstance), just 8% of the population thinks this is a healthy thing. 

That peculiar look from women got even more peculiar (and suspicious) when I “intruded” on the playground, (almost always) the only male in a sea of women. I understood it, though. I’m an intimidating 6’2″, not at all slender man hanging around their children. The suspicion eased up over time but the isolation didn’t.

But this mild irritation was nothing compared to what I had to put up with from my in-laws and the abuse I still, to this day, get online. My wife’s mother and stepfather are conservative and me being a stay-at-home father did not sit well with them. My mother-in-law spent 4 entire years asking when I was going to get a job before she gave up. One Christmas, when our kids were still babies, she bought me a vest, the kind you wear withe a nice shirt and a tie. When I looked at her askance since I’m not the suit and tie type, she told me, in all seriousness, that it was for “When you start going on job interviews.”

This is a woman who votes Republican and is a big believer in the traditional theory of family, namely that it should look like a Norman Rockwell painting even if you have to fake it. She couldn’t adjust to the idea of a man doing “women’s work.” In a similar vein, my son Jordan is almost 9 years old and she still thinks he’s going to “grow out of” his autism, so facing a reality that differs from her preconceptions is not among her strong suits.

But this is nothing compared to the abuse I get from other conservatives online that find out that I’m the primary caregiver in my home. Remember, the right is the political movement that allegedly worships “family values.” But just like so much of their philosophy, that is facade. Like my mother-in-law, they love the image of family but have nothing but contempt for the work that goes into making it a reality.

Consider this: The United States is 1 of only 9 countries (out of 198) in the world that does not mandate paid parental leave of any kind. The other 8 are Suriname, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Niue, Nauru, Palau, Papa New Guinea and Tonga; countries with a combined population and GDP slightly larger than your local Walmart. That means places like Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea, Congo and Nicaragua, countries we Americans smugly consider to be savage hellholes, take their societal obligation to parenting more seriously than the “enlightened” (and infinitely more wealthy) US.

America’s casual dismissal of parental leave is a direct reflection of the right wing disregarding parenting as “work.” To them, if it does not make money, it doesn’t really count. To a one, when a conservative finds out that I am a stay-at-home, they tell me to “get a job.” Every. Single. Time. It’s reflexive, they can’t stop themselves. Part of it is an attempt to insult me as a man (as in, real men don’t change diapers) but the philosophical underpinning is that raising children possesses no intrinsic value to society. You’re only worth the money you earn.

As a worldview, this is incredibly toxic. For a group that claims to place a premium on “family values,” they spend an awful lot of time and effort weakening them by forcing parents to choose between paying the bills and raising happy and healthy children. Sure, some can do both but others need help and conservatives are fiercely opposed to providing that help.

Look no further than the visceral hatred Republicans have for school lunchesfood stamps and Medicaid, all programs heavily utilized by single mothers. What part of their pretense to “family values” condones cutting children off from proper nutrition and medical care just because their mother doesn’t make enough money? Why do Republicans regularly demonize single mothers struggling to do right by their children? Shouldn’t they want to help them be the best parents possible? Yes, if they considered good parenting to be in the best interest of society. But they consider punishing “loose” women to be far more important.

For another example of how the right works against their vaunted “family values” is their war on a living wageOnce upon a time, families could not just survive but thrive on one salary. One parent could work and the other could be actively involved with their children’s education and school community, a known metric for increasing academic achievement. Increased academic achievement is also a decent metric for determining how productive a person is later in life. So even from the “money is all” point of view, making sure parents can be involved in their children’s success is a net positive for the economy.

But these days, Republicans have done their level best to make raising a family on a single salary next to impossible for anyone not in the upper-end of the middle class or above. Again, money over parenting is the rule. The party of “family values” has, in fact, put a price tag on those values and it’s a basement bargain.

My family is lucky enough to be able to (just barely) afford to live on one salary (plus my part time work as a writer). But we sacrificed buying a home and a new car and vacations and the like to raise our family in the manner we chose. Those sacrifices confound and confuse our conservative family members who insist that we should be home owners and we’re “doing it wrong” because we’ve placed family over the accumulation of wealth. The materialism and lack of respect for parenting is appalling.

The good news is that after 8+ years of raising healthy, happy, and well-adjusted children, the in-laws have finally accepted that we’re doing a good job and that maybe, just maybe, me being a stay-at-home dad is not the end of the world. At the same time, the country at large is starting to remember that raising our children is not just something we do when we’re not working, it’s our main responsibility as parents. We can see this reawakening under the renewed push for maternity leave by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (although who knows if Trump will remember his campaign promise a week from now?).

In the meantime, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, ignoring the insults and abuse laid in my path. It’s easier than you’d think. Every night, I get to put my smiling children to bed and I know I’m doing right by them. What could possibly mean more to me than that?