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What's In a Name? Rebranding the "Stay-at-Home" Parent

SAHDIn the beginning, when my wife went back to work and I became the sole parent caring for Felix during the weekday, I bristled at the term Stay-at-Home Dad.

Part of this was insecurity. I got my share of sharp comments and wry tones, people who seemed to think it cute that I would be responsible for my son’s care, or that I — a man! — thought I could be. Those things wormed under my skin for a few weeks.

Also, my dream was to be a writer, but having never been published, I worried that I was just a dad. In a country where we identify ourselves in large part by what we do, saying I was a Stay-at-Home Dad felt limiting, like I was being put in a box, or, more precisely, a home. I mean, sure, I’m a homebody at heart, and I love taking care of my son, but that’s not all I am or do.

Still, as I wrote on The Huffington Post in 2010, part of my journey as a father included coming to peace with the term. I eventually stopped feeling shame in describing myself as a Stay-at-Home Dad.

In the past year, though, I’ve stopped using it, as Stay-at-Home Dad fails to capture the way I spend my time or envision my life. While childcare occupies me for about 30 hours on an average week, with time taken to do domestic duties on top of that, I also write here on Babble and for other publications, and I’m editing an anthology of authors writing about fatherhood. Now I say, “I’m a writer, when I’m not with my son.”

(Plus, Stay-at-Home Dad acronyms to SAHD, which I can’t help but read as “sad.”)

As Jessica Grose writes on Slate’s XXfactor this week, we need to find a better term for people like me. “Stay-at-Home” Mom or Dad just doesn’t cut it. (Carolyn Castiglia made a funny, similar call for a new term here on Babble, saying it sounds like something Rush Limbaugh would say “Stay at home, Mom.” You can read more about the fallout from that here.)

But what term should we use? Nothing feels right to me so far. “Primary caregiver” sounds cold, and it also implies a hierarchy, like one parent is prime and the other secondary. What about when both parents are around, who is primary then? “Working Parent” confuses me is the working parent the one at work, or the one with the child?

On The Huffington Post, Lisa Belkin suggests adopting Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In language, with some parents leaning into parenting and back from work, while others lean into work and back from parenting. This doesn’t sound right to me either. What if you’re not leaning any which way, but trying to walk a tight-rope between the two, valuing the two equally? My wife and I both balance work and parenting responsibilities. It’s just that she has a 9-5 job in a cultural institution, while I write in the mornings, and at evenings, and on weekends whenever I can, really.

It’s likely that we all have ambitions outside of our family lives. Satisfaction comes from our parental and domestic responsibilities, but we find meaning in career achievements and charity work too. Perhaps we should always keep the two present when describing ourselves. I’m a writer and a parent; sometimes I’m a parent and a writer. Depends on whether you’re meeting me at a party or a toddler playdate. My wife is an educator and a parent, or a parent and an educator.

Maybe by including parent in our shorthand description of ourselves I do this, I live here, and I’m a parent we’ll demonstrate that we regard parenting as much as we do our careers, but not at the expense of our careers. No need to find one word or term to do this. Complex ideas can’t be boiled down to quick soundbites, not without simplifying and distorting them.

What do you think? Should we rebrand “Stay-at-Home” parents with a new term, or just drop the phrase altogether?

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