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Why It Can Be Hard Being A Stay At Home Parent: A Historical Critique

It can be pretty hard sometimes being a stay at home parent. For the last 200 years, our culture has made a strong contrast between the family sphere and the economic sphere. Before the Industrial Revolution such ‘spheres’ were not so sharply contrasted.  The very term ‘economy’ has traditionally meant ‘household management.’ The conventional practice for centuries was for the house to be a place of production. As one historian writes about the role of women in the early American life,

During the years when farm households which were self-contained productive unities prevailed, the economic and productive interdependence of all members of a family diluted the meaning of women’s economic status. Women depended on men to buy and work the land and produce grain, but men had no bread without women baking it. Women’s economic dependency was one strand in a web of interdependence of men’s and women’s typical work (p. 22).

So, while the husband and wife had different jobs to do around the house, both of them typically where there. The implications for this were obvious: both the father and the mother were around to help raise the kids. During this time, it was considered the father’s primary duty to train and discipline both boys and girls. It was his responsibility to ensure the children received the proper education (both religious and secular). In fact, this period actually undermined the role of women raising children (a practice I find ironic with today’s standards but still unfortunate). Nevertheless, later generations would discover, the father’s involvement in his children’s lives is vital for their overall well-being.

However, during the Industrial Revolution this all changed. The nature of the work required in the factory and the prevailing idea that it’s the man’s job to provide for the family drove fathers from their homes in flocks. No doubt, such a dynamic economic life had many benefits for the family and society at large. Take, for example, the rise in the standard of living throughout the 1800’s.

There were some drawbacks of course. As the historian, John Demos wrote, ‘now, for the first time, the central activity of fatherhood was sited outside one’s immediate household. Now being fully a father meant begin separated from one’s children for a considerable part of every working day’ (p.52).  For those men who did succeed in providing (for many did not), the conflict between the two spheres increased. ‘How much time could or should, a busy father spend with his family’ was a question many were asking (p. 54). One woman wrote to her relatives,

His own business, and then that dumb committee, take every moment . . . Every eve’g he is out either at caucus or drinking wine with the Gov. at some gentry folks. So you see the evils consequent upon being a distinguished man (p.54)

The traditional view was that work/economy was good and fulfilling, but it had its proper place as subservient or in service to the family’s mission. When the relationship between the family and the economic spheres was honored, there was no need to drastically contrast the two, for the economic made it possible for the family to flourish as well as allow families to have an exchange of goods that mutually benefited each other. Such subservience also meant it would be a grave injustice to value the economic sphere over that of the family sphere. But this was precisely what our culture has slowly done. The family story for the next two hundred years is a fascinating but tragic tale of how the family is slowly abandoned for the bright lights of the economic sphere.

While a majority of today’s conservative thinkers blame the 60’s for the shrift in our culture’s mores, one can already see the seeds of the 60’s in the social and political practices of the 1800’s.  This thesis, of course, could not be proven in a short blog post, but I mention it here to help explain why it is tough today to be a stay at home parent. As the men where leaving the home to go work for the bread, the women stayed home to ‘tend to the house.’ It now became fashionable for the women to be the primary parent. The responsibility for training, disciplining, and educating became her responsibility.

Noble as this was (and is), our culture began to view such an ‘occupation’ as less than ‘worthy’ to the economic sphere. As Demos reports, now the economic sphere became mystified. It was a wild jungle, the last frontier. Yet, it was a men only club. It was a men’s club because the world was a harsh and vile place. No place for a civilized women, for they were pure and wholesome. They were angels and if they got involved in the economic sphere, their souls would be tainted.

These types of arguments worked for a short time. Meanwhile, the culture kept increasing the idolization of the economic sphere and kept undermining the family sphere.  Many women began to become jealous of the man’s world, wondering why they get to have all the fun. Furthermore, if women were angels and men vile beasts, why on earth should we have the beasts governing the angels?  I’m not sure how the men didn’t see that coming!

Do you see it? Already in the early 1800’s our culture was on a path towards the abandonment of the family. It was not that women where abandoning their children and men where not in the blame. Rather, it was the whole culture abandoning the children. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not putting the blame per se on either gender. I am blaming them both. Not because many parents had to go outside the home to work, I already said how this could be noble. Rather, I blame both of them because the great majority of both genders bought into the philosophy that the economic was of much greater value than the family sphere.

Consider by the time the Depression, men were to be ‘imprisoned’ by our cultures emphasis on the self-made-economic-man. As Joe Dubbert explains,

Men had assumed that their status in business and their success on the job endeared them to wife and family. But to their families, men were virtual strangers whose importance revolved around activity away from home. Once the paycheck was deposited, it was a common feeling that family responsibilities had been met. When the paychecks stopped coming in or decreased in amount, a man was suddenly accountable and scrutinized as to his failure and his problems. Instead of a home being place where a man could find comfort and love in a time of need, a man often found that home had its own routines and relationships quite unknown to and very separate from him (p. 224)

By the time you reach the 1990’s little girls are being told they can do whatever they want. They are told that motherhood is just one path that they can follow (see Manning up, Ch. 2 by Kay Hymowitz). Stay-at-home moms began to be looked down upon. The career is the most important thing. So much so, that, as Jen Twenge writes, the government should provide childcare, because women are not going back to the domestic house. “Hell, no!’ she boldly says (p. 206).

So, what do we have here? The father is no longer parenting.  He wants to leave the home to go to work or he sits around and plays videogames and it’s not really ‘manly’ to do ‘woman’s’ work anyways. Furthermore, the mother is no longer parenting because she desires to leave the home and go to work. So who is left to raise the children? Government daycare! More likely, it’s going to be the neighborhood gangs and T.V.

Well, that is just scary.

Consequently, it’s difficult to be a stay at home parent, for our culture says you are making such a great sacrifice: ‘Good for you,’ people say, in a condescending way.  What are stay at home parents sacrificing, I always wonder?  Notice the inherent economic preference as the working assumption in the ‘sacrifice’ comments. Regardless, this is the predominating mindset of many Americans.

Can you blame me then for having a rough day yesterday? I was struggling internally all day with the idea that I am a failure (a fairly rare experience).  In my marriage my wife and I both work, but we do it at opposite times. This way our kids always have a parent nearby. However, because my wife works during the day, I get the day shift.  In our culture that makes me a stay-at-home-dad I suppose.

So, despite the fact that I wake up three hours before my kids to work on my business and do research and do further work while they sleep and after my wife gets off work, despite spending several nights a week serving pizza and beer to pay my way through collage, I was still struggling, because I am not supposed to have the day shift. I am supposed to be out in the wild world and my wife at home during the day, right?  I kept telling myself it won’t always be like this. But how do I know that?  My wife is in the medical field, she is more likely to get a better job. What if we need the money and my business in not doing well? Whose career is going first? Perhaps the government will raise my kids (just joking)? Who wants to stay home when the vast open world is there to be conquered? Or, at least that is what I have been told.

When my wife came home I told her how hard I was struggling. We ended up going to out to eat because I just didn’t have it in me to cook. As we were getting ready to leave the restaurant, an older woman came up to my wife and said, “Your children are so well behaved. I am simply astonished. You are doing a great job raising your kids. Wow! Look around, they are the only ones sittings still.” Ironic, I thought.  At this, my wife smiled and thanked the women. As we got into the car, my wife looked at me and said, ‘Good job. That women just gave you one of the best complements a parent can get. Looks like you are not a failure after all.’ Of course, we both were complimented, but I understood what she meant.


Brandon Wall is a counselor in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:


Dr. Bing Wall is a therapist specializing in marriage and relationships and issues facing single adults with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa.  To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.  For more information about Dr. Wall click here.

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