My husband, kids, and I were driving home from the park a few weeks ago when my son pointed at his friend’s house. “Is Jack’s daddy staying home today, too?” he asked. I said he probably was since it was a federal holiday and most people didn’t have to go to work.
“Are all the daddies staying home today?” he asked.
“Mmhmm,” I replied, only half paying attention to his question. And then it dawned on me – in his worldview, all daddies go to work and all mommies stay at home to take care of the children. That’s the way it works in our family, as well as most of his friends’ families.
I attempted to explain to him that yes, daddies were staying at home today, but so were some mommies who didn’t typically stay at home. I mentioned to him that in some families the mommy always goes to work and the daddy always stays at home.
“Mmhmm,” he replied – this time, only half paying attention to me.
While my point – that not all families look like ours – might have sailed over his head, it’s a conversation I want to keep having with my sons.
My family might as well be on the cover of a Land’s End catalog. We’re both white, my husband works in a professional field, and I stay at home and love to knit, bake, and sew. We're involved in our church, and our two strapping young boys enjoy playing catch in the backyard. There isn’t a golden retriever, but only because my husband is allergic to dogs. We might not have any modeling experience, but our family certainly has that quintessential all-American look about us.
Except for the fact that we really aren’t the all-American family.
Families have evolved over the past several decades, moving farther away from the 1950s Stepford suburban model that my own family still happens to resemble. Fifty years ago, nearly three-quarters of children were born into their parents’ first marriage; today, less than half of children are, with a larger number being born into single parent, cohabitating parents, or re-married households.
Parents today also have fewer children than they did in the 1960s, are older when they have their first child, and mothers now have far more education. But perhaps the most noticeable difference is that more mothers are working outside of the home.
In the 1970s, when record keeping of mothers in the workforce first began, less than half of women with children under the age of 18 worked outside of home. While the media – and our society’s collective memory – has glossed over the fact there was still a sizeable number of working mothers then, the numbers pale in comparison to today’s figures. Now, over two-thirds of moms work outside of the home, and in 40 percent of families, they're the main breadwinners.
While my own family’s arrangement is certainly on the more traditional side, with my husband bringing home most of the bacon and me doing most of the frying, it doesn’t mean I think it's the best choice for everyone. I want my kids to understand that, too.
I worry that because my children will grow up thinking the working father/stat-at-home mother family is normal, they will also infer that it is preferable. This isn’t a far jump to make; in fact, 75 percent of Americans don’t think the best situation for children is when a mother works full time outside of the home. Although more women than ever are pursuing careers, our society still raises an eyebrow when mothers drop their kids off at daycare.
Because I do most of my socializing with other stay-at-home moms who are available for playdates during the week, my kids have mostly been exposed to families that look like ours. Occasionally a father might show up for library story hour, but for the most part they live in a women-and-children-only world. With very few examples of different types of families in our day-to-day lives, I have to spell it out for them.
When my son asks if we can go over to Jack’s house on a Wednesday morning, I point out that we can’t, because Jack is at daycare. “His daddy and his mommy go to work, just like your daddy does.”
When we swing by my husband’s office, I tell my kids, “Did you know that Daddy’s boss is a mom? She has kids and she goes to work!”
When my son sees a picture on our fridge of him at daycare, I tell him, “You used to go to daycare when Mommy was at work!”
My overly upbeat observations about women in the workforce are typically met with a “Yeah, okay, Mom” attitude.
Nevertheless, I feel like they are important to vocalize. Not only do I want my boys growing up to be men who respect women’s career choices, but I want them to know that they have choices, too. Currently, only 16 percent of dads stay at home full time. Only a quarter of those do so primarily to take care of family; the rest staying at home because they're unable to find work, disabled, retired, or in school.
Being a stay at home parent has been a challenging, rewarding, and satisfying move, and I hope that my boys would see it as an option for them as well.
There are other types of families I hope they will grow up seeing as normal – families with two mommies or two daddies, families with one parent, families with lots of children, families with none, families where the parents’ skin colors might not “match.” But simply being exposed to different configurations isn’t enough for kids to intuitively know that these differences are acceptable, especially when their own family might differ substantially. They need conversations, too, opportunities to ask questions and work out their own feelings. They need to hear it from their parents.