Who’s the Boss?

The following questions were raised by a fellow Stay At Home Dad (SAHD) online Tuesday and there was a lot of feedback/discussion among the rest of us SAHDs. He asked us these two questions: “Do you think that a marriage with a SAHD situation somehow makes the working wife/mother feel empowered over her SAHD husband? Do you guys feel you have lost some of your status as head of the household?”. I didn’t have the time earlier in the day to compose my thoughts, but now that my wife and kids are all asleep and the kitchen is clean (for a few hours, at least) I’m going to try to put my thoughts into words.

I’m going to address the questions in reverse order. I’m not entirely sure what it means, in 2013, to have the status of “Head of Household” (HoH). That seems to be an antiquated term from more traditional times when the “breadwinner” was the husband and the wife stayed at home with their children. I’m thinking of stereotypical times like those portrayed in “Leave it to Beaver” that were played out across this country for a long time. For me, and I’m sure many others my age (I’m 41) and younger, those times are long gone. My wife and I try to partner together to run our family. Sure, it’s a non-traditional setup compared to the Cleavers but it works for us. When my wife and I were married at age 20 neither of us really knew a lot about what it would take to run our house. But we learned, together, and with the love and support and advice of our families and friends, we’ve been doing this for almost 21 years now. What I personally learned was that being the HoH was less important than being a supportive husband and father. Even before I quit my teaching career to become a SAHD my wife and I shared the role of HoH. We shared. We worked together. I learned that I got great fulfillment in serving my wife and kids, so much that I was willing to give up my career to stay home with our kids so my wife could pursue her advanced degree and career. So, I guess the answer to that question is no. I don’t feel like I lost my status as HoH because I never really grabbed at it in the first place.

Backing up a little bit, what exactly does the term “Head of Household mean? Is it the person who earns the most money? The person in charge of finances? The person who works at a job and earns money (instead of hugs and kisses!)? The person who runs the finances and pays the bills? The person who takes care of the kids? I think that term is somewhat outdated now because so many couples tend to share many of the aforementioned tasks (and there are many more). In our marriage we’ve each assumed all of those roles at different points. It hasn’t always been easy. In fact, having such a non-traditional gender role-reversal has been very difficult at times. In 2000, when I first started my now 13 year career as a SAHD, my grandfather expressed his deep concern over this choice. You see, he came from the “old school” way of specific gender roles and rules that you just don’t mess with. I wish he were still alive because I like to think he’d be pretty pleased with how it’s worked out for us. Not always smooth sailing, but we’re still journeying together.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that I feel like I’m more of the “Head” of our household because I’m a SAHD. Because of the demands of my wife’s education and career choice (she’s a doctor) I’m the one who is able to really pour myself into the daily lives of our kids. I’m the one bringing them to/from school, feeding them a snack and listening about their day once they get home, going to the park, and so on. I really know them because I’m home with them all the time. Since I’m around them so much I have the opportunity to really set the tone for their emotional, physical, mental and spiritual well-being. It’s a responsibility that I cherish and it motivates me daily to be the best father possible.

I think the first question is the trickier one to answer, which is part of why I saved it for last. To be 100% honest, I don’t think it’s the SAHD setup that makes a wife feel “empowered” over her SAHD husband. At least it doesn’t have to be that way. If your relationship is based on mutual serving or submission (I know, that’s a hot word for some people) then neither spouse would feel “empowered” if one worked outside of the home and one stayed at home to care for their family. That said, I think that the type of guy who would be willing to give up his career to be a full time SAHD is generally one who is more willing to serve. He probably values relationships with other more than being right or in control. On the flip side, the wife of the SAHD is often a highly-driven and intelligent Type-A person. Such a person would naturally be (or at least perceived to be) “empowered over” her SAHD husband because of their different personalities. Probably one of the biggest challenges for me over the years I’ve been a SAHD had been to maintain that balance in the relationship with my wife. She comes home from a job where she is in charge. There are people who are paid to listen to her and to anticipate her needs so that she can do her job better. And when she gets home, well, she’s not “doctor” here; she’s “mommy” and “sweetie”. And we don’t respond to her like her co-workers. I’m pretty certain that a similar challenge faces the working dad when he comes home to an at home mom. Only we’ve been conditioned to believe that’s okay because it’s traditional gender roles.

So to answer the first question directly, I’m going to really ride the fence. Being a SAHD could certainly lead the wife to feel a sense of “power” over her husband IF power and control are more valuable to her than a healthy relationship. In our society money is often equated with power. So, for all parents (dad or mom) who choose to serve their families at home instead of out in the work place they’re at a disadvantage right off the bat IF the working parent tries to make that power grab. But such a power grab is truly a slap in the face to the parent who is at home. It’s basically telling him or her that the only thing that matters is the size of your paycheck. And that’s total B.S. If you both agreed to the at home parent arrangement in the first place such a tactic is a really low blow. Besides, the sacrifices of the at home parent are what enable the working parent to freely go off to work each day, knowing that the rest of the family is going to be taken care of all day long. And that knowledge is PRICELESS.

That said, I believe both parents have to recognize the challenges they’re facing so that neither one feels like they’re giving or taking too much in the relationship. It’s such a delicate balancing act that constantly needs fine tuning. It’s often easier to ignore a slight shift in behavior to try to keep the peace. But the problem doing that means one person is going to feel hurt while the other doesn’t even know it. I think the keys to making the SAHD (or mom) option work for a couple are communication, forgiveness and love.

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