Thursday, January 15, 2015

Stay at Home Dad Thinkpieces

Over at The Atlantic, Ryan Park, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, took some time to write a thinkpiece about being a Stay at Home Dad.  (Worth scrolling through just for some delightful pictures of Park, his family, and the justice)  In the almost three and a half years that I've been a Stay at Home Dad (with about a year of part-time consulting included), I've read a number of Stay at Home Dad Thinkpieces (SAHDTP?) and Clark's is a fine example of the genre.  There are touching parenting moments (my wife pointed out that the triumph of actually knowing the important toddler indicators at a checkup is, in fact, a thing, and one that I was prouder of earlier on).  There are some obligatory observations about how it's different being a SAHD rather than a SAHM (about which more below), comparisons to Europe and especially Sweden's policy of generous family leave time, and questions about how this can impact the SAHD's career.  Park also spends some time on the ways that Ginsburg's legal career, spent challenging gender discrimination, opened doors for men to have family time as well as opening doors for women.  "Gender lines in the law are bad for everyone: bad for women, bad for men, and bad for children."

I've been seething over the piece since I read it.

It's not all bad. Park's comment that "I had prided myself on being an involved, helpful partner when I was working. But my prior contributions now felt like glorified babysitting." rang uncomfortably true. (And as we transition Sprout's nighttime routine away from an evening feeding that R always handled, I once again feel like a glorified and incompetent babysitter ... the feelings of helplessness do not go away.)  The joy he clearly has in spending time with his daughter is real, and relatable.  If he's able to reflect on & enjoy that in the evenings, I'm envious - that's a marvelous thing I so rarely remember to do.  (But see last post! I revel occasionally!)  I was certainly transformed by my decision to stay home, and I'm incredibly grateful for it, even the hard parts.

But there's so much of Park's piece that rings untrue with my experience, and elements of judgment and tone-deafness that are almost offensive.  Basically, Park spent a year after clerking for a Supreme Court justice before starting a job at a high-powered law firm.  Part of the reason he spent extra time on his job search was that he insisted on carving out time and space for his family as part of the job.  I applaud this decision (and hope it works out for him), but the only way you get this leverage as an entering associate is by first graduating Harvard Law, then clerking for a Supreme Court Justice (and, probably, be a man). Advantages that were made possible by his former single-minded pursuit. Clark writes "I feel similarly blessed to have been born at a time when I could, without apology, fully immerse myself in the joys and exertions of life as a stay-at-home dad." There's no similar acknowledgement that his year of SAHD tourism was made possible by his wife's income and his academic credentials.

I use the word tourism there intentionally, because we're getting to the part of the piece that most annoyed me.  In Clark's telling, the world is hostile to SAHDs.  Senior partners raised an eyebrow when he emphasized his commitment to family.  He was surrounded by "steely-eyed blonde mothers in yoga pants and smiling Latina nannies in faded jeans" (a phrase that's evocative, not necessarily incorrect, but still judgmental), and he felt unwelcome among "the lululemon ladies" when he told them that he was caring for his daughter while he was between jobs - 
I encountered the assumption that I didn’t want to be doing this—that my presence at the playground was the product of a professional setback. (“I’m taking some time between jobs to be at home with my daughter.” “Good for you! My husband would go crazy. Don’t worry, something will come up.” “I had a one-year position with long hours, and I really wanted to spend time with my daughter before I started work again.” “You should consider yourself lucky! My husband is in finance; he could never do that. There’s a silver lining to every cloud, you know?”)
Turns out, especially in this economy, if you phrase your time with your kid as an interval between jobs, you'll get people talking about the job & career.  In my own experience (and here Clark and I are basically trading anecdotes), if you talk to the yoga-pants moms or Latina nannies about being a dad, and focus the conversation on childcare, they're generally welcoming, happy to talk, and probably up for a play date.  I'm not even going to bother with the raised eyebrows of senior partners on interviews - I can't imagine a woman interviewing for a position at a top tier firm being willing to make Clark's admission, or being offered a job if she did.

My own experience is a world that is generally open to SAHDs.  I've gotten some strange looks in the grocery stores and learned to have my wife make the first contact with babysitters, but usually I get words of encouragement (most especially from women of my parent's generation).

I applaud Clark for taking a great year with his daughter as he advanced in his legal career.  Being a SAHD is an incredibly rewarding, challenging, and transformative experience.  It's also, even now, a difficult choice for many reasons and I'm glad he was able to make it.  That said, I didn't particularly need this thinkpiece.  I want to read Clark's essay in 2-3 years on being an associate at a big firm with a wife with her own career and the challenges of parenting.  I want that essay to be cowritten with a woman, and I want them to trade stories of job searches.  Then I want to read Clark's essay in 5-10 years on how as a senior associate or partner he's joined (or formed) his firm's parenting networks and worked to make substantive changes in hiring, promotion, and hours requirement decisions in order to make his firm and industry more family-friendly.  Mostly, I want to read the tributes written to him at the end of his career by moms and dads whose efforts to balance work and family were made easier by his influence.  Tributes like this one offered to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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