Confession: When I read stories about men who stay home with children while their partners work I feel a twinge of jealousy. I am not jealous because I want to work instead of staying home with my son—I have absolutely no desire to trade places with my husband—but because it sounds so very feminist, and my relationship sounds so very traditional.
When new acquaintances ask me what I do, I cringe internally. The term stay-at-home mom has never sat well with me. Homemaker sounds like I spend my days vacuuming and baking chocolate chip cookies. Homesteader is a little too crunchy and misleading since my stead consists of a small front yard garden that provides only a fraction of our produce and stocks our pantry shelf with a few jars of jams and pickles. But each of those labels describes a piece of who I am.
Even knowing the truth of the labels, I want to tack on chapters’ worth of footnotes when I respond, “I stay home with my son.” I’m a stay-at-home mom, but I have a graduate degree. Or I’m a homemaker, but I completed a competitive international internship. Of course I never actually say that because it would (1) be awkward and (2) serve as a flashing sign advertising all of my insecurities. Even knowing that, I have to fight the urge to fill in the blanks lest the person I am talking to fill them in for me.
When my husband Neil and I were in graduate school, I came across the philosophy of Equally Shared Parenting and was immediately sold on the idea. The concept is simple: partners equally share the responsibilities of all areas of the household, including child raising, bread-winning, housework, and recreation. It seemed so very progressive and modern—like feminism in action.
Five years later, my life looks nothing like the life ESP promotes. Neil goes to work every day and provides all of the income for our family. I stay home with our son, cook at least six nights out of seven, do most of the laundry and more than half of the housework.
How did our reality stray so far from the ESP ideal? I have asked myself that question countless times and never found a satisfactory answer until I learned to question the premise. Maybe it never was our ideal. In theory, it sounds great. Who would not want to equally share life’s responsibilities with his or her partner? But if that theory were actually applied to our lives in a rigid way, I believe we would be less happy than we are in our current arrangement.
The truth is, I love staying home with my son. I love the slow pace. I love watching my son discover the world around him. I love going on long walks in the neighborhood. I love growing food in our front yard and preserving it in the kitchen. I love that when Neil gets home from work, the two of them disappear into our son’s room while I turn on All Things Considered and relax while fixing a meal for our family. I eventually hope to create a balance between my home life and my professional life, but for now, my home life is my professional life.
As much as I love being at home, my husband loves going to work. He has found a job that uses his degree, challenges him intellectually, and contributes to creating a better world. Before our son was born, Neil said that if the situation were reversed and I had a job that I loved and he was floundering to figure out his future, he would have gladly stayed home while I financially supported our family. After being a parent for several months, he confessed to me that he no longer thinks he could stay home, though could might not be the operative word. Of course he could stay home—he is loving, kind, competent, and responsible. But he knows that he would not enjoy it, just like I know that I would not enjoy going to an office forty hours a week during our son’s first years.
Our relationship looks traditional to passers-by, and of course it is in the sense that my husband is the breadwinner for our family while I am the primary caregiver for our child. But it doesn’t feel traditional. It feels like we are listening to each other, being honest about what brings us joy, and supporting each other and our family in the best way we know how.
Like the time I wanted to do an internship in West Africa that started less than three months after we got married and Neil encouraged me to take the leap. Most of our family and friends thought it was insane, but he thought it was important.
Or when I came back from said internship knowing that I did not want to pursue a career in international development—the very future on which I had staked my graduate school career—and he chalked it up to a good life experience and spent hours brainstorming futures that were a better fit for my passions and skills.
Or when I wanted to learn more about farming and growing our own food, he encouraged me to volunteer and intern in our new city garden even when the pay was minimal (read: non-existent).
We only get one shot at this beautiful, crazy, confusing life, and I think it is well established that we can’t have it all. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat just thinking about how hard it will be to get back into the career game years after completing my degree with little to no experience. But then I remember that I am happy. Happy with my marriage, my family, and the life we are living.
People will make assumptions about my life; that’s just human nature. But by constantly explaining away the traditional roles of our marriage (even if only to myself) I am perpetuating the idea that a real feminist would do it differently. A real feminist’s husband would cook. A real feminist would be rising in the ranks of her profession. A real feminist would only do exactly half of all household chores. And it goes on, and on, and on.
I need to stop making excuses for the life I have chosen.
I am a stay-at-home mom. I am a homemaker. I am a feminist.