When We Talk About Choice, Let’s Not Forget Dads

I’m a working mom. I am lucky enough to be able to work from home with my 15-month-old and for my daughter to be home with us for a good portion of the day. I was lucky enough to be able to work from home with her for her first two years before finances forced me back into the work force for her second two years. Working from home was a choice. Having to work at all is not, but I think I’ve made the best of things.

So much of politicized motherhood is framed, as you may have noticed, within the context of choice. Particularly the choice, if one can call it that in most situations, to go back to work or not. Choice CAN play a role in whether a mom decides to be a SAHM or a WAHM or a working mother, and I love to see moms doing what they feel is best for their families and for themselves. But I also know too many people for whom the choice was no choice at all. People like me who looked at a dwindling bank account and said, “I guess it’s time to put on my big girl panties.” And people like friends of mine who wanted jobs but simply could not find work. Or moms who wish they could work at home but can’t find a way.

It can end up getting very political – and nasty, too. There is plenty of debate as to whether women should stay home with children, and whether that’s a better choice or just one choice. Talking heads ask whether daycare bad for our babies – with it naturally being  big mean mama’s fault/feminism’s fault/etc. that baby is in daycare in the first place – or whether not being in a structured learning environment might actually be bad for our babies. What working mom hasn’t heard “Oh, if you were more frugal, you wouldn’t have to work” and “If you hadn’t been negatively influenced by X, Y, and Z you’d find some way to stay home with your children.” What SAHM hasn’t been asked “What DO you do all day?”

But this post isn’t about moms. It’s about dads. Way back when I had to drop my daughter off at daycare for the first time and I was simply sick with sadness, I thought a lot about how for some moms the choice to work or not IS a choice along the same lines as the choice to breast feed or not or to practice attachment parenting or not. But in all the choice rhetoric, you know whose voice is missing? That of fathers. When I went back to work I found myself miles away from my still so-very-little child wondering what she was doing that day. Did she miss me? Had she fallen and scraped her knee and thought longingly of me as she cried? Was she laughing, dancing, spinning and falling, and having a gorgeous time without me. It was heartbreaking.

And it was exactly what my husband has experienced five days a week, every week, since we became parents. There was no choice for him. He makes more money than I do. I have the breasts for nursing. It wasn’t even an option. And yet in his ideal world he would be home with the children instead of missing out on all the ages and stages that go back too darn fast.

He has been missing that good stuff that SAHM moms don’t want to miss or working moms are conflicted about missing or that we all can’t imagine missing for the entirety of our children’s existence. In all the talk of choice in parenting, he had almost none.

I’d love to see more options for fathers, frankly. Let them make some choices, too, and reap some more of the benefits of parenthood at the same time. Flex time arrangements. Better paternity leave options, or some split parental leave that families can use however works best for them. I don’t, however, know how to make any of that a reality.

Like I said, I’m a working mom and some days that gets me down. When it does, I think about my husband walking to the train every morning after waving to our daughter through window after window until he can’t see her any more. And I ask myself why those talking heads never talk about working dads versus SAHDs. And why we’re not thanking the fathers of our children more often for making that sacrifice, which is absolutely a sacrifice, without even being able to frame it as a real or imagined choice. And why hardly anyone ever acknowledges that spending 8 hours a day away from their kids can be just as heartbreaking for dads.

Because when mothers have to make the tough choices, I think many of us tend to forget that there’s a father there (or another sort of partner!) who in many or maybe most cases wasn’t even offered a choice at all when his child was born. And so after a day or a week – maybe a little more or maybe even no time at all – he was already missing those magical moments that we moms make the most of for as long as we can.

So let’s hear it for the dads who wish they could be SAHDs! No matter how many hours you spend out of the house every day, you’ll always be full-time dads as far as I’m concerned.

2 thoughts on “When We Talk About Choice, Let’s Not Forget Dads

  1. Just because one person makes more money doesn’t mean that person should automatically be the one who works. The more important thing is a) can you get by on the money brought in by whatever combination of And yes, nursing can make things harder in the first few months, but pumping can work well for some folks (in our case, my wife works at home, so that makes the nursing part a little bit easier — but when she’s working, she’s working, not doing childcare). The big problem with taking these roles as givens at the beginning, is that it can really make it harder for the mom to re-enter the workforce later (which also makes it harder for the father to take on more at home).

    Also, while there are some jobs where it’s probably a non-starter, for a lot of folks, Equally Shared Parenting is an option – that means, having some kind of split (not necessarily 50/50) of work between both parents, and possibly some additional childcare, whether family or outside. I really recommend the book “Equally Shared Parenting” for all parents, whether or not they are striving for an exact 50/50 balance of responsibilities. It’s got some great ideas for how to talk to employers or potential employers about flexible arrangements, how to balance household responsibilities, and so on.

    Society could do a lot more to encourage more involvement by dads, but dads also need to take advantage of the resources already available (such as taking all bonding leave available to them, whether paid or unpaid). At a lot of companies, there’s a lot of social pressure on men to not take even the leave that’s available to them. And, while for some families, having both parents home during the early months isn’t a financial option, a lot of people who could afford it choose not to make use of unpaid leave that (for most employees) is available through FMLA.

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