Editor’s note: This essay is a part of The Inquirer’s ongoing series about changed minds. If you’d like to write about your own change of mind or heart, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a dad and a husband, I’d like to think I’m a creature of 2020. I’m part of a newer generation of American men who are, by and large, more progressive than our fathers and grandfathers. But at a time when gender dynamics are being thoughtfully reexamined and updated, it’s important to look in the mirror. In recent months, I’ve realized something surprising about myself: Being financially dependent on my wife has left me sad and demoralized.
After 19 years living in the Washington, D.C. area, I moved to the Philly suburbs with my family in January 2020. We’d wanted to relocate here for years, hoping for better work-life balance and proximity to extended family. Since there was little chance my wife and I could both find new jobs in the area simultaneously—and given that she had the more marketable skill-set—she became the designated breadwinner. She found a great job, and I was suddenly unemployed.
In many ways, our new arrangement was ideal. I was unhappy in my D.C. job, and moving meant I could return home to the city and community I love. I could spend more time with our seven-year-old daughter, taking her to the bus stop every morning and helping her with homework in the afternoons. But there was still a nagging suspicion that I wasn’t doing my part, that I was somehow the lesser spouse.
During the coronavirus pandemic, these feelings are more pronounced. My wife is now working full time from home, and I spend my days assisting our daughter with remote learning, cooking, and doing housework. And, given the current economic climate, I’ve all but written off looking for a new job until schools reopen. Especially during these hectic times, my wife reminds me, the work I’m doing is essential. But for whatever reason, I still feel inadequate.
Am I brainwashed by cultural norms to think I should be making money? Unfortunately, those same unequal traditions are reflected in the gender-wage gap. According to Census Bureau data, women in full-time jobs make only 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. Even worse, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that over a 15-year period, women made just 49% of what men earned.
Despite recent celebratory tweets about “girl dads,” men still do less parenting. That’s slowly changing, as the number of single parent homes headed by fathers increased from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 16 percent in 2017. But that means as of that year, nearly 84 percent of children living in single parent homes were raised by mothers. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has detailed how working married women still handle more of the housework and childcare.
These gender disparities also have political ramifications. Amid the “Me Too” movement, a record number of women were elected to Congress in 2018. Conversely, President Donald Trump’s support has been bolstered in part by male desire to protect their familial and public power. During the 2016 presidential campaign, a Fairleigh Dickinson University academic asked men who made more money in their household, while also probing their voting preference. When the gender-role question about household income was asked later, Hillary Clinton beat Trump 49-33. But when the gender-role question was posed first, Trump led 50-42.
When we both worked in DC, my wife earned the higher salary and I was proud of her. Yet I’m still dealing with this antiquated notion of being a family anchor. One question I’ve wrestled with lately: Do I feel this way because I’m the man in the relationship, or because I’m uncomfortable accepting support from other people? After all, when we were first living together, my wife was starting her freelance career and I helped support her. This shouldn’t be much different.
The antidote to this sentiment is killing my inner-male id—the same impulse that starts wars and plunders the planet—and accepting myself. If I’m unsatisfied being a stay-at-home dad, or making less money, it might just be patriarchy and propaganda clouding my judgment. It might not be reality, but the ignorant voice inside my own head.
I’m still grappling with our new life in PA. My role at home—especially during these stressful times—has required flexibility and patience. I’m learning to talk less and listen more, and I’m trying not to obsess about my next career move. If I can be a supportive spouse and a caring parent, that’s a job worth having.
Gregg Sangillo is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.