The Christian argument for more stay-at-home dads
I was just about to start my parental leave, one frigid night around New Year’s, when my wife and I went to a neighborhood bar for the brief kind of date we could get with a baby and a toddler at home. One of our down-the-street neighbors was there, the guy with a truck and a tiny vintage car. I told him I would be spending the next few months taking care of our baby daughter, so he might see me around more, pushing a stroller.
“Okey-doke, Mr. Mom,” he said.
Not only did I take this as an insult in the moment—that’s “Mr. Dad” to you, thanks very much—but it stuck with me, especially in the early weeks, before the baby and I got eating and naps and walks down to a science, when we were crying at each other and altogether helpless, and low on the pumped breastmilk I could not replenish, and I was the only less-good-than-mom, stay-at-home dad I knew of in the zip code while the mom cliques packed the coffee shops and the library play zone.
I forget when it was, over the course of the months at home with my little charge, that I started thinking of the Desert Mothers. These were the women ascetics who began fleeing to the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the years after Christianity became the religion of Rome. They inhabited a community of men, mainly; and for the women who partook, excellence was associated with masculinity. “According to my nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts,” Amma Sarah once boasted to a pair of male sages. To a group of monks, she said, “It is I who am a man, you who are women.”
Notwithstanding Pope Francis’ repeated anxieties about “gender theory” and blurry lines between sexes, we inherit a long legacy of Christian gender-bending. Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux, among other medieval saints, referred to Jesus and Paul as mothers. Anselm prayed to Christ, “Are you not that mother who, like a hen, collects her chickens under her wings?” Bernard, who once received a vision of drinking milk from the breast of Mary, counseled the men of authority in his time to give milk, too. “Learn, you who rule the earth,” he wrote, “let your bosom expand with milk, not swell with passion.”
Why, then, should I be so ashamed to be called a mother? What would it take for “Mr. Mom” to sound like a compliment? Why did I not boast to my neighbor, “It is I who am a woman, you who are a man”?
Gender-bending, Christian or otherwise, is not a symmetrical affair. Amma Sarah’s claims assume that the desert is no place for a mere woman. Anselm elsewhere affirms the superiority of the masculine and the male identity of God; he understands Jesus’ femininity as a signal of humility. Our culture tells us that being a tomboy is understandable, but a mama’s boy ought to be reformed. Among transgender people today, who all face elevated risks of violence and harassment, trans women report higher rates than trans men do.
During the six-or-so months that I was home with my daughter, I think that in the end I did better than just provide a lousier version of mom.
The cultural pressure from this asymmetry prevents many of us from doing what we should—prevents men, for instance, from taking caregiving roles, from imitating the loving hen that Anselm sees in Jesus. These pressures result in concrete challenges: I am afraid this is going to have to do with money.
Day after day, as I was trying to model for my daughter the mechanics of crawling on the carpet, I was being paid. I am a professor at a state research university, which has to compete with the lavish benefits at tech companies for talent. It is also not practical to bring in an adjunct to teach just half a course, so the university offers an entire semester’s parental leave. Our first child was born between my first two semesters on the job, which was then just a temporary position, and I worked through his first months without interruption. When the second baby was coming—on my wife’s urging, and reluctantly, because I wasn’t sure I could continue to exist without my job—I told my department chair that I would be taking the university up on its policy. My wife stayed home in the first months, and then it was my turn.
While people in other comparably wealthy countries might not bat an eye at this arrangement, several months of paid parental leave is vanishingly rare in the United States. Ours is the only high-income country in the world that does not guarantee paid leave for new mothers—and it is an outlier, also, among much poorer countries. Most countries in the world allow such leave to be taken by either parent.
If it is not merely cruelty, perhaps the refusal to pay for family-based care is the consequence of a well-meaning idea—that care of loved ones should be protected from the rotten market so it can remain pure and worthy of special respect. Paid care work in the home is common, but usually it has been delegated to an underclass, defined by race or citizenship status, which helps prevent its wages from being sufficient to entail the dignity such work deserves. When the social contracts for labor were codified in the New Deal, domestic workers were denied rights to union organizing and overtime pay. Any existing economy for care has to remain invisible to protect the illusion of purity.
In the end, this was another source of pride for me: I got to do some extra shadow work while she made her breakthrough.
Catholic understandings of sacrificial motherhood reinforce this. The mother must be ever at the foot of her children’s crosses, expecting nothing in return. Even a Catholic thinker as radical as the priest and philosopher Ivan Illich feared that making an economy out of gendered care work would only worsen the subjugation of women in the futile pursuit of “unisex economic equality.” Writing in the early 1980s, Illich objected to calls among feminists for paid housework—the so-called “wages for housework” campaigns.
One leading advocate of wages for housework was Silvia Federici, the Italian activist and philosopher who is now a professor emerita at Hofstra University. In her 1975 essay “Wages Against Housework,” she wrote, “By denying housework a wage and transforming it into an act of love, capital has killed many birds with one stone.” The economy depends on care work to produce and sustain its workers, but businesses and the state avoid paying that cost by transferring it to the workers themselves and their families. Not paying for care requires women to depend on the wages of the men in their lives, while placing the whole family’s pressure on men to keep up their wages. It amounts to a layered cake of dependency with employers at the top.
Despite their disagreements about the remedy, Illich and Federici share a common analysis of the origin story for this arrangement—in particular, the point of transition from medieval feudalism to early capitalism. The crux of this bloody period was a process by which the enclosure of land into private property drove working families from lives of communal subsistence to hired production. The basic economic unit was no longer the family but the wage-earner. Roles of authority that women held in the older regime, such as midwifery and herbal medicine, became rebranded and persecuted as witchcraft when male professionals began demanding wages for the new versions of that work. The roles available to women became fewer. Capitalism removed them from direct involvement in remunerative production and relegated them to its necessary but unrewarded substrate—what Illich called “shadow work.”
Federici’s rhetoric in the 1970s pointed toward rebellion, toward an escape from housework. But more recently she has changed her tone—from “refusal” to “valorization,” as she puts it, recognizing the strength and solidarity that can come through care work. All along she and her comrades spoke of housework, not housewives, knowing that if it were paid for, care would attract more takers than just married women. Illich feared that pay-for-care would turn gender into a commodity, but the feminists said that this has already happened. They wanted to live out their gender from a posture of self-determination rather than constraint.
Paid family leave is an obvious pro-life, pro-family policy, practical enough that nearly every other country in the world requires it.
Wages matter. The bishops like to say that federal budgets are moral documents; the household budget is one, too. We signal respect with how we distribute—and to whom we entrust—scarce things like money. On days when I was bored and frustrated and chronically grumpy in baby-land, when my sense of self seemed most remote, I found some solace in thinking that at least I was being paid.
During the six-or-so months that I was home with my daughter, I think that in the end I did better than just provide a lousier version of mom. Yes, I played the imitation game with pumped breastmilk, and, to be clear, real-mom still fed her through the night and at lunchtime. I sometimes wished I had my own milk to offer, and so, I suspect, did the baby. But I also found that because I wasn’t working, I had the time to bring my daughter along for activities of a more guy-ish sort than I typically attempted—house repairs, minor carpentry, hacking old computers, experimental vegetable gardening. Ironically, as Mr. Mom, I turned out to be more conventionally dad-like than usual. We also did a ton of laundry and dishes and cleaning.
The tasks of care that at first felt like gender-bending, like reversing the gendered expectations I had been trained on my whole life, turned into opportunities for skill and pride. My little girl and I mastered a rhythm of naps and walks that kept us both sane and smiley. We made it work. We were good. But it also wasn’t forever. When the time was up, I was more than ready to go back to the office, and my daughter was soon a star at her new day care.
While I was home, one of my wife’s coworkers left for another job. While remaining no less Ms. Mom, she swung into action, working late nights and weekends, and spun the challenge into what I (quite objectively) regard as a visionary reorganization that bucked outdated structures in her industry. She ended up with a raise and a promotion that would not have been waiting for her had she been the one at home all that time. In the end, this was another source of pride for me: I got to do some extra shadow work while she made her breakthrough.
Mothers experience a penalty—both in their perceived commitment to their job and in their salary—whether or not they have paid parental leave.
Mothers experience a penalty—both in their perceived commitment to their job and in their salary—whether or not they have paid parental leave. Fathers sense this, which is why the majority of us do not take leave even when we have the option of doing so. In many workplaces, workers intuitively know that taking leave for child care will signal that they are not dedicated enough to their jobs. In aggregate, mothers see pay increases for each month they continue to work while their partners take leave.
Paid family leave is an obvious pro-life, pro-family policy, practical enough that nearly every other country in the world requires it. Ensuring that both parents get and use it is even better. But how could we get there?
One of the more imaginative ideas comes from Senator Marco Rubio. He proposed last year that new parents should be able to borrow Social Security benefits for a few months from their future selves—a glimpse of retirement in middle adulthood, paid for with a few months’ less retirement later on. My ageist tendencies, of which I am not proud, delight in the prospect of robbing from one’s own golden years. Ivanka Trump approves, too.
It surely is not necessary, however, to chip away at an essential benefit like Social Security to carry out nonoptional care work. Like public education and clean water, access to care should be something we have every incentive to use. Another set of proposals, coming from Democrats like Senators Cory Booker and Sherrod Brown, would restructure the Earned Income Tax Credit to provide refunds when members of the family perform care work. Unlike Senator Rubio’s plan, their definition of care includes not just new parents but also those taking care of sick or elderly relatives.
It surely is not necessary to chip away at an essential benefit like Social Security to carry out nonoptional care work.
There is good reason for broadening the paid-leave frame even further. Years ago I remember reading an anecdote in the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s study The Time Bind, the story of an office where the only father who took parental leave was the one so socially isolated by racism that he was not privy to the cues that discouraged the other men from doing so. The story is also a statistic. Only 14 percent of fathers who can take more than two weeks off actually do so. One way of alleviating such pressure is simply to universalize the policy: Everyone gets the same opportunity for occasional long-term paid leave, for whatever reason. Some could use it for child care, others for self-care. It sounds generous, but it is not crazy. No less than the Society for Human Resources Management—that is, the experts on this kind of thing—have an “open leave” policy for their employees.
We can argue about what the right legislation should be; and we should do so much more, because the question is interesting and important. But first take to heart what we are talking about here: care as a commons, not a luxury. While the end of feudalism had its virtues, its horror was the transition to a world where common land was no longer a given, where one could go hungry without recourse to a garden or gleaning. Care should be like what that older world offered—a kind of work and reward available to anyone willing to do it, for anyone who needs it. Fathers should not have to fear retribution for being caregivers, and mothers deserve the economic respect they have long earned but rarely received.
Now, as I watch and help my daughter grow, I see in her (and in myself) the work of our months together. We shared the kind of care every human being at some time, in some form, had—the care for one who cannot help oneself or begin to repay it. Yes, there was bending involved; I am bent in her direction. I hope that someday all fathers will have the chance to imitate the motherhood of Jesus.