It's time to get rid of phrases such as, "stay-at-home dad" and "working mother." As gender roles have expanded, these expressions, and the ideas behind them, confine, more than define, the complex lives of today's parents. The words mom and dad -- or variations thereof -- are all we need.
Novelist Peter Mountford suggested as much in a column on Slate.com about taking his two children to the zoo. As he was negotiating the purchase of a cup of cocoa with his 3-year-old daughter, an older man looked over and said "Daddy's day with the kids. Enjoy it!"
"It so happens I'm alone with one or both of my kids at least 50 hours a week," he wrote. "Every day is Daddy's day."
Descriptors may have made sense decades ago, when specific jobs were considered the domains of either women or men. The phrase "working mothers" distinguished mothers who brought home a paycheck from the majority of moms who juggled child responsibilities and household duties full-time. Women who were employed were also described differently from their male colleagues. They were waitresses not waiters, stewardesses, not stewards.
The phrase "stay-at-home dad" didn't exist because fathers were expected to go off to work. As jobs expanded to include greater numbers of women, we moved into gender-neutral descriptions for paid employment: firefighter rather than fireman, server, not waiter or waitress and flight attendant rather than stewardess. According to an Associated Press report, about half of all states have adopted gender-neutral language for state business and public employees. Isn't it time to be equally considerate of parents, whether they're scrubbing crayon art off the wall or reviewing bank ledgers?
A report by the Pew Research Center demonstrates how different parenthood looks today.
Almost two out of three married mothers are employed outside the home. Slightly more than a quarter of moms make more money than their husbands. In 40 percent of households with children under 18, women are the sole or main breadwinners: single moms are the sole breadwinners in 25 percent of those households, married moms are the primary providers in 15 percent.
Meanwhile, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute, employed dads have increased their workday time with children under 13 from two to three hours, while children's time with mothers has stayed the same, at about 3.8 hours. Many dads wish they could do more: According to the institute, fathers are considerably more likely than mothers to say they're not spending enough time with their children.
Some columnists have suggested that we need additional terms for new roles. In The Atlantic, Princeton University politics professor Anne-Marie Slaughter listed several phrases for fathers at home that she has heard including "feminist housedude," "caregiver," "work-at-home father," "full-time father," "hands-on dad," and "maker," (which, short for "homemaker," seems to require more of an explanation than it's worth.)
Slate.com columnist Jessica Grose weighed in on the description "stay-at-home mom." Given the number of self-employed mothers who work at home, she wrote, "I've always disliked the term. It connotes 'shut in' to me, as if mothers who don't do paid work are too fragile to handle the outside world. How did this become the default terminology for women who don't go to an office every day?" The only substitute she could come up with for these moms and dads, she offered apologetically, is "primary caretaker" which, she admits, sounds "a little stiff and census-y."
Why do we insist on making a distinction between gender roles at work and at home? Could it be that mothers or fathers whose primary work centers on their children are afraid of being identified as unambitious slouches wasting their education? Do parents who work for pay fear that if they label themselves by their profession they will be tagged as caring more about their jobs than their families?
We would do well to take our cue from our children. They don't introduce mom to people by saying, "This is my mother who's an engineer," or dad as "This is my father who takes care of me at home." To them, we are mom or dad, period. Why not keep things as simple as they do? At a professional gathering we may prefer to be identified by our paid job, but in personal situations we should be able to choose to be "Paul's (or Anne's) mom (or dad)" without hesitation.
If we really believe that jobs inside and outside the home are of equal worth, we should not hesitate to call them what they are, without qualifiers.