“What a cute baby!” the middle aged woman exclaims. “Are you babysitting her today?” I smile politely and shuffle my daughter from one arm to the other. No, I respond, I don’t babysit her – I’m her father. This is a sentiment I encounter nearly every time I venture into public with my child. People don’t expect a young man to be spending the majority of his time with his child. Instead, the expectation is that I will be working. Miriam is 12 months old. She and I spend our days together napping, eating squishy bananas and teetering slowly across the living room from couch to coffee table. This is my work, and if I had to guess, this description would probably fit many parents who stay at home with a pre-toddler. I change her diapers. I feed her a bottle. We dance to Led Zeppelin, Sigur Ros, and Macklemore. I (try to) put her down for naps. Things all parents do. However, as soon as we enter a public space, be it a coffee shop, grocery store or park, most comments assume that I am taking a day off work to spend time with my daughter. These comments are not bad, but they disclose a financial priority. The undertone of every comment is that as a man, I should be working to support my child. The presupposition is that my vocation is away from my child. When my wife is out with Miriam on the weekends, she encounters none of these questions, even though she is the one sacrificing her time with Miriam during the week to have a full time job. Why then is it a cultural oddity that I should be the primary caregiver for my child, and why is our culture so reticent to talk about fatherhood as a vocation?
I work in retail on weekends, but during the week I take care of my daughter. This is my vocation. My wife works full time to support us financially, but she practices her vocation the three days she is away from her office. The idea of vocation is not married to the idea of a job, or perhaps more accurately, to the idea of employment. Our family has, somewhat unintentionally, eschewed the traditional paradigm of white, middle class America. Perhaps it is because our culture has conflated the idea of work and vocation, stymieing creative modes of parenting, work and vocation by promoting outdated and problematic family models.
My wife and I have had many discussions about how to best take care of our daughter, how to pay our bills, and how to spend as much time with Miriam as possible. For us, it makes sense for me to be home during the week rather than pay to send Miriam to daycare. These discussions may be foreign to many parents who have higher paying jobs, are single parents, or are unable to maneuver schedules in order to have a parent at home. This is in no way to suggest that our arrangement is made for everyone. It simply works for us.
In terms of the culture at large, it would seem we’ve made a misstep. My vocation is one in which I am repeatedly told that I am a stranger. Advertising and media constantly remind me that primary caregivers are women. In magazines about parenting, women are the target audience. In commercials for children’s food, clothing, and toys, moms are portrayed as the purchasers. This does little to challenge the choice I’ve made to be a stay at home dad, but it is a constant reminder that I am a stranger to my vocation. I am told by the media, corporate messages, and subtle societal hints that I should be working for wages, not changing diapers. This seems to me as latent sexism grounded in the myth of the nuclear family as a self-sustaining unit of production. I am no more qualified to be the breadwinner than my wife is to be the primary caregiver, and assumptions of either diminish the equity of both.
Another aspect of the vocation of fatherhood is loneliness. Since the majority of my daughter’s peers are either in daycare or spend their days with their mom, I have trouble relating to and connecting with other fathers. The vocation of fatherhood is, like any other vocation, one of service, and yet since becoming a dad I have had difficulty articulating what fatherhood means for me vocationally. Often times I feel lazy, like I’m not doing enough to benefit my daughter. Later that same day I feel more stressed and busy than ever. Honestly, I’m not sure how close I am to figuring out what it means for me to be a father.
I do know one thing: humans are made to work, but employment should not define us. I work at raising my daughter. There seems to be a cultural assumption that what we do for work is our primary identifier. This assumption runs deep, permeating our advertising, media and social introductions. When meeting someone for the first time, what is the second question you ask? A vocation is something that defines us. Our ontology is shaped by the work we do that gives meaning to our lives. And my most meaningful work is not what I get paid to do.
Andy Scott works and lives in Durham, NC, with his wife, Annie and daughter, Miriam. He dislikes summing up his life in two sentences, as it seems to do more harm than good.