TIME Parenting

A Stay-at-Home Dad Reports on the Mommy Wars

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msderrick—Getty Images/Vetta

I can assure everyone that at-home parenting doesn't involve yoga pants and bonbons--or its male equivalent, whatever that might be

As a stay-at-home dad married to a working mom, I often have a front row seat at the unfortunately titled “Mommy Wars.” Strangely, I feel like a secret agent that identifies with both sides, though at different times.

Two scenes from the trenches illustrate my divide.

Scene One: My wife is talking to a new acquaintance, but the conversation turns ugly when the woman learns my wife is a working mother with a grueling schedule. With an air of maternal superiority, she declares, “Oh, I could never leave my kids to be raised by a stranger.” To which my wife replies, “Neither could I. That’s why my husband stays home with them.”

It is the perfect rebuttal for a smug stay-at-home mother ready to pillory a working mother. But later my wife regretted saying it because that isn’t how she really feels about other working mothers or parents. We recognize that for many, the financial ability to choose to stay home isn’t an option. We also know many dual-income (and single-parent) families that are raising happy, healthy children.

Scene Two: I’m at a party and start a conversation with a working father. Before he gets around to asking what I do for a living, he begins complaining about his stay-at-home wife: “I don’t know what the hell she does all day. It must be nice.” I cringe, awaiting the awkward question that comes next, “So what do you do?” I smile and say, “I’m a stay-at-home dad.” Before I can suggest an alternate view of at-home parenting, we are interrupted and go our separate ways.

That father articulated, however, what I hear or read some working moms say about stay-at-home moms, and it always makes me shake my head. I can assure everyone that at-home parenting does not equal sitting around in yoga pants eating bonbons (or its male equivalent, whatever that might be–sorry for the visual).

Part of the problem is what each side focuses on regarding the contradictory nature of at-home parenting. On one hand, it is an incredible sacrifice of one’s time, identity, career and retirement income. On the other hand, and in many cases, it has become a luxury, and fair or not, we often associate luxury with laziness. So some working parents focus on the perceived luxury and laziness of at-home parents, while other at-home parents focus on their own sacrifice and the perceived selfishness of working parents. But I would guess that a working mom being called “selfish” stings just as much as a stay-at-home mom being called “lazy.” After all, both are sacrificing for their families, but in different ways.

So how to make peace? One way is through more empathy. For example, at-home mothers ought to acknowledge the tremendous pressures on working mothers—not only the pressure of breadwinning, but of the enormous backdrop that centuries of sexism have put in place behind motherhood. The cumulative effect of all those “Super Mom” expectations—like the myth that even if a mom becomes the family’s breadwinner she should somehow remain its bread baker—is often a stew of wildly unfair feelings of guilt, self-doubt and stress for working mothers.

In addition, those Super Mom expectations continue to relieve men of the responsibility to increase their levels of involvement in childcare, a key cause of the Mommy Wars in the first place. In an ideal future for my two daughters, society’s expectations for mothers would decrease in direct proportion to their increase for fathers. While that process is sure to be long and arduous, an increasing number of men I know do understand that childcare is difficult, important and not just the purview of women anymore. This is good news for the caregiving front.

On the breadwinning front, however, many men—especially those in powerful positions—still seem to stand on the sidelines quietly observing the Mommy Wars. While I don’t want to start any Daddy Wars, I encourage all men—not just fathers—to join women in their quest for the usual range of desirable employment options: affordable, high-quality childcare, paid leave for all parents and more flexible schedules, to name a few. After all, even men and women without children have aging parents and other family problems such policies could alleviate.

For everyone’s benefit, let’s turn the Mommy Wars into a War on Family Obstacles. For women, that means striving for a more empathetic mindset. For men, that means less secrecy and more agency in the fight for more family-friendly workplaces.

Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. He is working on a memoir about gender and parenting. For more visit www.vincentokeefe.com.

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