Ask a stay-at-home dad… (response)

Transient

Today we continue our popular "Ask a…" series with Sonny Lemmons and his responses to your questions for "Ask a stay-at-home dad." 

In July of 2009, Sonny Lemmons chose to put his 13-year career in Higher Education Administration on hold to become a full-time stay-at-home dad - despite the fact that he had never changed a diaper before his son was born. Originally from Mississippi, Sonny has worked at both public and private universities in the areas of Leadership Development and Academic Advising. He has also volunteered and served vocationally in ministry positions at churches, ranging from youth and college groups to team teaching and creative teams. His wife Ashley currently serves as the Assistant Director of Residence Life at the University of South Carolina. Sonny has spent most of his free time in the last three years (aka "Malakai's nap time") documenting life as a stay-at-home dad from a faith-based perspective. His essay "Committing Professional Suicide" was selected as the lead article in the anthology series The Myth of Mr. Mom, which peaked as the #1 eBook on Fatherhood at Amazon.com. He blogs at Looking Through the Windshield, and he routinely posts the cutest photos of his kid or commentaries on coffee and craft beer on Twitter, so be sure to check him out there. 

You asked some great questions, and Sonny definitely rose to the occasion. Hope you enjoy his responses as much as I did. 

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Note from Sonny: I don’t presume to speak for all stay at home parents, regardless of gender. Nor do I advocate that there HAS to be one parent to stay home with their kid or kids full or part time. Not every dad is cut out to be a SAHD. Not every mom is cut out to be a SAHM. Ashley and I simply made the best decision for us based on our lives. Your mileage may vary.

From Rachel: Tell us a little about Malakai. How old is he? What is he into right now? What's his personality like?

You just asked a dad to talk about his kid. Get comfortable. This might take a while.

Malakai (which is actually phonetically closer to the original spelling of the name) is three and half. Ashley and I finalized our choice for his name about three days before he was born. We knew we wanted his middle name to be Joseph (it was my dad's middle name, and it's mine as well), but we wanted his name to be his own, something that was his and his alone instead of burdening him with the name "Sonny, Jr." We tend to call him "Kai" as a nickname, but "Malakai Joseph" has a great ring to it when you say it in "angry parent" voice.

His personality is off the charts. It's hysterical to watch him in public, because he will just bounce from person to person and talk to them before randomly breaking out in a song he's made up, or he'll just pretend he's Spider-Man or the Hulk if he doesn't want to talk to them. He likes a lot of the stuff I like, so he's probably one of the few toddlers with their own "sonic screwdriver" and TARDIS, who knows the visual differences between many of the spices in the pantry, and is familiar with more songs by U2 and Over the Rhine than Veggie Tales or songs from Sunday school.

Transient

What just kills me is he has a love of reading—a true, deep love of it. He'll occasionally ask to play alone, at which point he will go to his room, arrange his stuffed animals, and pull out one of his books from Dr. Seuss, Beatrix Potter, or Mo Willems and "read" to them a story he has memorized. He and I have read The Hobbit in its (edited by me) entirety, and we're working through The Chronicles of Narnia, and yes, he can articulate differences in all the characters in the books up to "Prince Caspian." When I came back from Chicago recently, he wanted to share with me all the stories he had written down about what he did while I was gone.

He loves to play soccer, watch (and yell at) televised college football, and every day when we go on a walk, he has to pick up "the coolest rock" to bring home to his collection. Yet he also has a fascination with Walt Disney's “Tangled” movie (at one point, he wanted to be Rapunzel for Halloween), loves to watch and talk to babies, and he cradles the doll Ashley had when she was his age with such tenderness and gentleness that I can hardly believe he's not even four. And we love, support, and encourage each and every fact of his personality. The main reason he won't be Rapunzel for Halloween is he's now trying to decide between Wolverine and a Power Ranger.

Except for the times when he wakes up before sunrise, or he gets frustrated that I won't honor his requests for Krispy Kreme and chocolate milk for dinner, he's spectacular to be around. But even in his fussiest of moments, I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing than watching him simply become the person he's going to be.

From Alise: What have been some of the biggest challenges to your faith as a result of this decision? With Mark Driscoll talking about how this is something requiring "church discipline," (and Owen Strachan calling stay-at-home fatherhood a "man fail") how do you fight those voices?

Of course Alise would ask me such a simple and easy question. The sad reality is that although I and other SAHDs try and drown out the naysayers who judge how we have chosen to serve our families, the constant barrage does chip away at your sense of worth. For example, when someone I went to high school with and had not spoken to in 20 years found out I was a SAHD, he took it upon himself to send me email after email about how I was acting outside of God's will. No matter how secure I was and still am in my decision to stay home, being told I am wrong on a regular basis does tend to wear you down.

After Ashley and I moved to South Carolina, we did what all good Christian couples do: we slept in the first few Sundays, and then started the quest to find a church we could call home. We could not have picked a “better” church to visit on our first Sunday, as the pastor was speaking that week – scratch that; he was shouting – about “biblical” gender roles, referencing stay-at-home dads as “abnormal” and it being against God’s will for a wife to have a larger income than her husband.

Needless to say, we failed to fill out a visitor’s card. Nor did we at the next church, which although they stayed silent on the subject from the pulpit, when asked in a one-on-one environment, the leadership said they could not publicly or even privately support our arrangement of me staying home. I found out later that the leadership of both of these churches look to Driscoll and his contemporaries as espousing "the" manly man way in which church, home, and life should be led.

In many ways, American culture, particularly that found within the evangelical church, is rooted in a 1950s mentality that demands “traditional” roles for women and men, all the while failing to realize our Western “norm” is barely over half a century old. Looking back to when our country was founded, most men worked from home. They stayed home all day with their kids. They may have worked out in the fields for hours on end, but they were at home. We were a primarily agrarian society, but even early general stores were run by families. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we experienced a cultural shift where fathers left home in large quantities to go to work. It wasn’t the feminist movement or the rise of advocating equality for same-sex couples that changed "traditional American family values." Blame Eli Whitney. The history of our country is made up of men who "failed," and apparently they should have all been disciplined by and kicked out of church. That is, if we use the “norm” of today to judge them by. 

I Timothy 5:8 is a favorite of anti-SAHD pastors to toss out and use as biblical justification for why men MUST be the breadwinner and leave the responsibilities of full time child-rearing and running a household to their wives. The problem is, in Greek, the phrase “does not provide for” refers to proneno, meaning “to care for,” “to think of beforehand” and “to take thought for.” We have mistakenly taken this to specifically and exclusively mean “to provide for financially,” when that’s not what the intent was at all; we are to first and foremost place the emotional and physical well being of those in our families before our own wants. Add in fact the verse starts off with the phrase “If ANYONE does not…” (emphasis mine), which is a gender-neutral term only given the masculine inference in later translations of the Bible. So this theological caveman-like argument of "man provide money, woman take baby" begins to erode away. 

When Malakai turned one, he was diagnosed with chronic benign neutropenia, a blood condition which - despite the "benign" name in its label - leaves him with a weakened immune system, lowered white blood cell count, and as a byproduct, requires him to have daily breathing treatments. Had I followed "God's plan" for being a man and kept my job, daycare would have gotten him so sick time and again that either my wife or I would have missed a huge chunk of work anyway due to staying home with him to nurse him back to health. As it is, I provide comfort to Ashley's mind and soul because she knows he is with someone who can monitor his health (which, as of his last visit to the oncologist, is finally getting up to the white blood cell count it needs to have). I provide her with peace because she doesn't have to worry about him just being one kid in a crowd of kids, cared for only if/when he cries the loudest.

And yet, people I know who are aware of his health issues still tell me I am in the wrong by me staying home with him and not Ashley.

I am providing. My bank is First Love, and it accepts the currency of smiles, hugs, PlayDoh, puppet shows, and thankfulness. If as a husband I am called to love my wife like Christ loved the church, to the point of giving up His life for it, then me giving up a job to live out my responsibility as a father and a husband should not be not condemned. 

Fail that.

From Chris: Even within churches that "accept" (or simply do not outwardly judge) at-home dads, ministry to men and fathers is still often formed based around the role of dad as the hardworking provider, defined in mostly monetary ways. Fatherhood is explained through sports metaphors, or by comparing it to being the CEO of a company, etc. Weekday church programs to support at-home parents are often still MOPS (Moms of Preschoolers) or "Mom's Group" or something similar, and there is little thought to making such programs openly and obviously welcoming to dads too. Some churches even have specific rules that limit or forbid men from involvement in childcare programs, on the basis that it's too risky that a man may be a predator. How do you go about encouraging your local church to better support and empower really involved fatherhood, and better serve at-home dads like yourself?

You know, Chris, now that I think about it, all the community support I have received as a SAHD has come from outside of the church. The first thing that churches need to do is have their leadership educate themselves on the growing number of SAHDs and realize that we are probably already attending their churches. The latest US Census Data showed that approximately 176,000 men report themselves as stay-at-home dads. Nearly 17% of children who are of preschool age or younger are reported as being cared for by their father during normal business hours. As is evidenced just by the responses from individuals on this thread alone, we are far from being as rare a creature as some might believe.

'finger painting' photo (c) 2011, aaron gilson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

We live in a culture that chastises and vilifies absentee fathers, yet does little to celebrate the ones who stay, who simply do what they are supposed to do. And when Christian culture does pipe up, we talk about and extol the "Godly ways to raise a child." Yet a quick glance at the parenting section in any Christian bookstore shows we apparently only do so from ages 5 and up, leaving out the critical first years of learning and education. The biggest problem is that there is no voice for the men who stay home with infants, toddlers, or preschool children - especially from the church.

One of the easiest ways in which churches or faith-based organizations can support and empower truly engaged fatherhood is by giving us a voice and a platform. I'm not saying we should rush the stage and grab the pulpit, but at the very least we should be invited to Moms Groups. We should be asked to speak up and give examples in parenting series. Granted, most men might grasp a sports or business metaphor before anything else, but we're also capable of greater emotional understanding than many pastors give us credit for.

I've been called on more than a few times to explain or talk to the husband of a SAHM about issues or struggles she may be going through because, sadly, guys tend to listen to what men say to each other more than we hear the voices of our spouses or partners. Part of my "street cred" comes that as a stay at home parent, I can empathize with some of the struggles she may be going through, and frame them in a way that her husband could understand. The fact that I can address issues through the lens of faith and talk about my own experiences as a parent in way that another man can "get" would seemingly be invaluable. But because SAHDs are often seen as rare at a church, our voices and insights are rendered mute.

We, the SAHDs, rallied together and got Huggies to change an ad campaign. But we can't get included in "Mothers Day Out" programs in churches.

From Ed: For dads considering staying at home, what are two of the toughest questions they can expect people to ask them and how would you answer them?

Ed, the biggest struggle that dads can expect doesn't really come from without. I've dealt with comments from total strangers to looks of shock on our pediatrician's face when they find out I'm a stay-at-home dad. The issue comes when these questions that are asked cause struggles that end up being internal instead of external:

(1) Any and all variations of the "Why?" question. First and foremost. That's the question I was hit with repeatedly during my first year. And my answer now is the same as it was then: it made sense and still makes sense for us. When we found out we were pregnant, we at first thought about putting Malakai in daycare after he was born. It seemed to be the normal, natural thing to do. All the cool kids were doing it. We knew that we could financially afford it, although it meant that almost the entirety of my monthly salary would go to paying someone to take care of him. It wasn't until we sat down and did a time analysis that we realized between the irregular hours we both worked, the extra hours at night for student meetings, the weekend duties we had to do, and the things that always seemed to pop up at the last minute that we we would essentially be paying someone else to raise him.  We'd see him at breakfast, dinner, and bath time, and that was going to be about it. Since part of Ashley's compensation package for her position provided us with a place to live, it made sense for me to quit to stay home with him. It's not like we were going to miss my income, since we were going to have to budget for it to be gone anyway. Although, funny enough, I did have one person tell me that I should have fulfilled my Godly obligation and kept my job, while Ashley quit hers, then we could have moved out either before or after she gave birth so as to stay in God's will with me as provider. (Because that scenario sounds like so much fun.) What wears you down is that after the 457th time you answer the "why" questions, you begin to feel like you're continually having to defend your life and your family. 

(2) The other question is the question I began to hate to answer when I met someone: "What do you do?” It cuts to the core of your identity in many ways. Not so much as in "what do you do all day?" but "what do you do for a living?" When you initially meet someone in a social setting, one of the easiest ice-breaking questions is to ask "What do you do?” because we try to find common vocational ground in conversations, or else we just use that as a way to keep our discussions surface level. No joke: I was at a dinner party one night with Ashley when a visiting professor in Religion and Theology from Princeton introduced herself to me. After she asked what it was that I did, my response caused her to literally freeze, stare at me, and then she turned and struck up a conversation with the person standing next to me, not even acknowledging my presence. We're conditioned to function in a rewards-based work structure (make this sale, get this bonus), and any vocational answer given that flies counter to that is seen as weird, odd, and incongruous with the way things should be. The idea that a man could find fulfillment in taking care of an infant, and now continue to take care of a toddler, was something that I needed to express my pride in and not be ashamed of. Even simply saying "I work from home" felt like it was a "better" or more acceptable reply to some people, since it showed I was "contributing" to my family. Granted, my financial contributions roughly cover the monthly cost of coffee, construction paper and the occasional trip to a fancy restaurant like IHOP, but it was still something people felt more comfortable with me saying. "What I do" is I am a stay at home dad. What I get paid to do doesn't matter. 

From Dianna: Hi Sonny! As a woman who doesn't want kids and would never stay home if I did have kids, I'm curious as to what backlash your wife has received as a result of this family decision? In the 80s, when my parents decided to work, my mom got all sorts of comments about how she was abandoning her duties as a mother. Has this been hard on your wife, too?

Hey, Dianna. I asked Ashley about this, and her (paraphrased) answer was a little surprising to me. She said that there was never any implicit or implied negativity towards her from our friends, since the majority of them knew her well enough and never would have expected her to stay home anyway. I think I knew it subconsciously as well. It's not as if we dated, got engaged, got married, got pregnant, and then I suddenly realized that she was not a gentile Southern lady, content on getting an "Mrs." degree from college and that being the end of her goals. 

What they - and our families - did find more surprising was that I chose to stay home, as it was somewhat against my typically vocationally-driven nature. I find it amusing to think that it wasn't a question of my ability to take care of an infant that gave them pause to wonder if I could do this; instead, it was the fact I wasn't working in an office setting that gave them concern. 

Both of our moms were SAHMs to us, albeit for varying years. So there's not a true opposition from our families to one of us staying home; there was just a bit of amazement and wonder that it was me who was staying home. I do feel the need to point out that if our roles had been reversed and Ashley been given the chance to stay home, she probably would have. We were just in a position where I was the one who got to and still gets to stay home. The difference in what society expects and what she would have done is that her staying home would have been a conscious decision on what she would have wanted to do, not what was expected of her. 

From Julie: How do you respond when people call you Mr. Mom or otherwise categorize you in a "female" role? How do you demonstrate that you and your partner are both equally suited as parents and this is the childcare arrangement that works best for your family?

And (we combined these two questions since they are related) from Red: Wow....God is really answering my prayers this week. I don't have kids yet, but my husband and I are approaching that stage, and already struggling with these questions. My question is something that truly haunts me, so I hope it gets picked....There seems to be an unspoken belief that women are better suited to fulfill an infant's emotional needs during the first year of life. I know many people who believe that the best way for a kid to be emotionally healthy is to have lots and lots and lots of Mommy Time when they're little, and transition into more Daddy Time as they get older (like toddler/school years). Certainly, the idea of mom being gone 8 hours a day (no matter how involved Dad is) would lead these people to believe that the infant is probably missing out on something for optimum emotional health down the road. Have you ever run into this attitude? Does it worry you? How do you combat those fears in your own mind? This is very important to my family, because my husband wants to be a SAHD and I want to keep working....but sometimes the worry over whether we will "mess up" our kids practically strangles all my optimism. 

Julie and Red: For starters, I'm fairly certain that many of the home videos, photos, and stories I've written down about Malakai's first few years are going to be fodder for a therapy session… or seventy… one day. The poor kid is already genetically predisposed to being a bit of a nerd. However, children are way more psychologically resilient than we give them credit for, even if we do, for example, spend part of one afternoon marching on the front porch, playing instruments, and hosting a parade for all the passing cars. (I have "a friend" who told me he did that with his son one day. )

Also, my reaction to people calling me "Mr. Mom" has mellowed a bit. I used to want to point out that Ashley isn't "Mrs. Dad" any more than I am "Mr. Mom." The term, while cute, is a little degrading as it automatically compares anything I do as a parent to my wife. It robs me of empowering me as a dad and Ashley as a mom. And I look nothing like Michael Keaton. 

Transient

Ultimately, nurturing is the key to dealing with parenting and care roles and responsibilities. We tend to think of men as less nurturing than women, thanks in no small part to images in pop culture and the media as portraying men as lovable buffoons who mean well and try to do well but ultimately don't have the common sense to find their own behinds with both hands and a compass…unless, of course, we have an understanding and vastly more mature wife to help us along. The day I announced to my office mates that I was quitting to stay home with Malakai, the silence in the room was unsettling. One of my coworkers said something that was just so utterly insane that it blew me away: "I can understand why your wife might want to stay home, since she's his mother, and as women we're made to want to stay home and take care of our kids. But men aren't nurturing. How are you going to know what to do with him?"

To presume that a man is incapable of nurturing in some ways relegates him to the single responsible role of "sower of seeds " which some men - sadly - would accept gleefully.  If a man has a nurturing spirit, what’s the big deal? We stereotype men into being emotionally aloof, having a stern voice or hand when it comes to discipline, and being more hands-off in regards to raising an infant. If a man has been confined into believing he must adhere to traditional gender roles all his life, he may not be a fit for being a stay at home parent. 

Study after study has been conducted to document what it does to a kid to grow up in a house without a father, be it a physically absent or emotionally absent father. So as men, we're told to "be a man" and step up to our responsibilities. The mixed message we get from churches and faith-based organizations often is to be involved, but not too involved. Teach your child, especially your son, manly things in manly ways, as God intended. I have a three-and-half year old son whom I am providing with a male role model - something sorely lacking in this country - and he gets to see me cooking, cleaning, and taking care of other roles traditionally relegated to women. If he grows up with a natural sense of gender equity, I will have fulfilled one  of my duties as a parent.

From Casey: As a newish stay-at-home-mom at 40 (after a career in higher education administration), what I notice is a certain stay-at-home-mom culture, with all sorts of unspoken rules, at places like the park down the street from my house. I don't relate well to lots of those moms...so I guess my front-loaded question really is, how do you integrate into or even participate in the community of stay-at-home parents? How do SAHMs treat you on the playground?

Casey, your story hits a little close to home. We should get coffee. Honestly, I'm ignored for the most part. I can go to the movies, the park, the library, the bowling alley, the zoo, or the children's museum and see droves of moms with their kids. Malakai gets along great with other children, but when I try to strike up a conversation with the corresponding mom, it's like I'm looked at like some kind of oddity. Like, why is this strange man talking to me? Did anyone see him drive up? Was he in an unmarked van with no windows? 

This doesn't happen all the time, but it is the norm rather than the exception. Part of that comes from where I live: I've only met 2-3 other stay at home dads here in South Carolina, so we are few and far between - in public - which means the majority of the parents I interact with are women. And I understand the hesitation that some of these moms may have in holding a conversation with me. Most of the moms that I see travel in groups because they already know one another. I don't have a close-knit group of stay at home parents I "hang out" with. Nor do I have perfectly manicured hair, immaculate makeup, designer clothes, and other than the fact we're parents and our kids are playing together, we may not have a lot in common. The stay at home culture seems to want to foster community provided that it is like-minded and looks the same while isolating and marginalizing those who don't fit the norm.

So, nothing at all like church. Nope. Nothing at all. 

We fortunately live in a moderately diverse location, so Malakai gets to often play with kids who are from a different ethnic and racial background than his, and I love it. There's one park nearby which is kind of the "hippie" park, and that's where I find the moms who are more prone to talk to me and not just ask how old he is, what potty training issues we've had, or other "parent shield" questions that allow us to chat without ever actually talking. 

I tried for about a year to get into some of the parenting groups in the area, but the reality is that because I'm a guy, I was told either to not come or that maybe I shouldn't come, as it might make the other moms uncomfortable. The vast majority of my support has come from the online community. I am close friends with a stay at home mom in TN, and we text each other with comments and anecdotes about us and not just our kids. There are a lot of SAHDs who utilize Twitter, partially as a connection to other men who are at home. 

From KC: Have you found any new passions or hobbies staying at home that you wouldn't have picked up if you had continued to work? (For example, when my dad started to stay at home, he found out he really enjoys cooking, which he'd never done much of while he was working a normal day job.)

KC, Ashley's immediate response to this question was, "Your cooking has gotten a lot better." I always have loved to cook, but now I'm the weird guy who watches a cooking show on Food Network and thinks "I can do that." She always rolls her eyes when she comes home from work and finds a full meal already prepared and ready on the table for her. And Kai enjoys cooking with me. How many other three-and-a-half year olds know to refer to themselves as a "sous chef" or know how to use a mortar and pestle? 

And then there's the writing. Granted, 99% of my writing takes place during Kai's naps,  sitting next to him while he eats a snack in the afternoon, or on Saturdays (when Ashley lovingly gives me most of the day to indulge and decompress), but I never knew how much enjoyment I could get out of writing. Back in my former life, my writing consisted of research and assessment based reviews, articles, presentations or seminars. This, writing about faith or parenting, is something of which I am far more passionate about in tone and subject matter. 

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Thanks Sonny!  You can check out every installment of our interview series—which includes “Ask an atheist,” “Ask a nun,” “Ask a pacifist,” “Ask a Calvinist,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a gay Christian,” “Ask a Pentecostal” “Ask an environmentalist,” “Ask a funeral director,” and  many more--here.

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