I’ll start this off by putting my cards on the table. My wife has made more money than me for our entire marriage (4 years). In addition, I have for the last year stayed home with our daughter, working only a few hours a week and going to school while she worked full time. Though such an arrangement is not our long term plan (in fact it is ending in a matter of weeks), I have nonetheless spent a decent amount of time over the last year considering the issue of stay at home dads, houses spouses, Mr. Mom’s, daddy day care whatever you want to call it. Here are a few thoughts on this Father’s Day.
As always it is important to define terms. There are different types of stay at home dads. Some do it by choice, but temporarily. For example, the husband wants to pursue a Master’s so the wife works him through it. There are others who are forced into it temporarily for some other reason, perhaps a job loss. Finally, there are some families who decide for whatever reason the husband will be the primary caretaker and homemaker while the children are of preschool age. It is the last group that will concern us here. Our question is this, is it morally and biblically acceptable for a wife to be the primary breadwinner and the husband the primary caregiver on a long term basis?
Obviously, a myriad of entangled issues exists here. I’m not going to address them all. I’m going to make and point about culture and summarize what I see as the biblical teaching on the issue and leave it at that. If you have specific questions or want clarification please let me know.
First, we must be aware and wary of reading our own culture into the bible’s words. The bible simply did not envision a world where work and home were so totally divided, individualism so rampant, and competition so cutthroat. In other words, the post-Industrial, career oriented, nuclear family is a foreign concept for the bible. I’m not saying its wrong, just different than in biblical times. The choice faced by so many parents today, stay home and be essentially cut off from adult contact, or go to work and be essentially cut off from meaningful daily contact with the children is a new one. For most of human history work, home, and family were highly integrated. Extended families lived near and with each other. They worked as cohesive teams running farms, shops, trades, and businesses. This put kids, moms, and dads side by side, day and night. Children were always learning from and watching both mom and dad as well as aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents.
So again, today’s nuclear family model, isolated suburban homes, and long commutes to work are not necessarily wrong, just novel. Keep this thought in mind. We will come back to it.
Let’s go to the scriptures.
When interpreted through a Gospel lens, I believe scripture teaches a husband is accountable for the well-being of the family. It is his responsibility the family prospers and each individual member feels loved, valued, and protected. I also believe this can only be done in equal partnership and mutual submission with a wife, but that’s a post for another day. It’s in no way however the husband’s prerogative to drag the family where he wants to go. Rather he is to see each family member gets where God would have them. This is a servant’s role. It’s not a position of power. It’s a burden. It’s scary. It’s use as a domineering refrain throughout much of Christian history is sickening. If a husband has to tell his wife to submit, he is already a failed leader. A usurper. While, Ephesians 5:22 is often quoted to undergird female subservience, 5:21 is almost always left out. It says all Christians are to “submit to each other out of reverence for Christ.” The point in Christian relationships and leadership is always service and lifting up others, not being an I’m-in-charge, abrasive, that’s-that jerk wad. Keep this idea in mind also. We will come back to it.
Next, the bible consistently points to both parents sharing in the child rearing task. If anything, the bible’s parenting references are more often directed towards the father. In Genesis, who is told to multiply and steward? The man and woman (Genesis 1:27-28). In the wisdom books, who is instructed in the discipline of children? Mostly men (as one example, Proverbs is written as a father’s instruction to a son). In the New Testament, who is primarily exhorted to treat children justly and gently by Paul? Men (Ephesians 6:4, Colossians 3:21). Quite a far cry from the tact today’s parenting magazines take. You can soak up estrogen just walking past those things in the check out line. Clearly, God expects men who follow him to be intimately involved in the raising and moral education of their children. Thus, the time worn excuse of, “Well, I show my love through slaving away all day at work!” doesn’t cut it in the face of the biblical witness.
As an aside, none of the above paragraph is intended to denigrate the role of women in children’s lives. Of course it is critical and the bible speaks to it again and again. What I am arguing against is the tendency of many men today to claim and demand authority while being absent most of the time and leaving most of the “dirty work” of parenting to women. This is what the bible is speaking against (and I’m guessing not to many wives and mothers are fans of such behavior either).
So far there seems to be no issue with stay at home dads from a Gospel perspective. If anything such an arrangement may allow men to better fulfill their role as moral instructors and help avoid the temptation to be an absentee landlord for children. Dare we say it even smacks of a counter cultural, Christlike example?
There is however one major problem. 1 Timothy 5:8. It reads “But if anyone does not provide for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” I’ve heard this verse used to say stay at home dads are abdicating their God-ordained responsibility. Period. End of story. But does 1 Timothy 5:8 apply to our modern situation? I think the answer is . . . it depends.
In context, Paul is addressing a local issue. Apparently members of the church there had destitute, widowed relatives and were refusing to care for them out of greed. So, if a man is a stay at home dad because he is lazy and doesn’t want to work, then yes, that is wrong. If a wife desperately wants to be home with the kids, but the husband wants her working because she has a good job, that’s wrong too. I think that’s how 1 TImothy 5:8 is still applicable.
But I don’t think it necessarily applies to all stay at home dad situations.
Now let’s tie all this together.
For men, being the spiritual shepherd of the household means doing whatever it takes for each family member to grow and live a full life in pursuit of Christ. Unfortunately, most men use this simply as a mandate to work the career ladder under the guise of loving their families through provision. Many seem to think the family will starve on the street if they don’t become the Regional Senior Assistant Sectional Manager and get the MBA by age 30.
However, being the spiritual leader could mean something else. It almost certainly means a father (and mother) should slow down with his career while the children are very young. The world will not collapse if you work 40 instead of 60 hours a week. Additionally, what if spiritual leadership might entail staying home and investing in the kids? What if it means at least temporarily sacrificing a career so a wife can pursue hers if she desires? As long as both husband and wife are fulfilled emotionally and spiritually in this arrangement, I do not see a problem with it. On the contrary, I see a husband living out a radical, sacrificial, Gospel infused life in front of his wife and kids. The family is provided for financially and the kids are provided for emotionally by loving parents. However, if this same wife changes her mind and yearns to be home, it is up to this same husband to take as many jobs as he has to for her to be home. That is spiritual leadership, doing whatever it takes for your family to holistically prosper.
Speaking personally for a moment, I would not trade the last year for any degree, promotion, or career advancement. I forged a connection with my daughter on a deep level which I hope and pray laid a foundation to last a lifetime. I will always have this year, no matter where our life goes from here and in her eyes it says more of my love than could any amount of time in an office bringing home more money. I am blessed beyond measure to have this time. I know it isn’t possible for everyone. What I am saying is you will never, ever regret giving up something else to make time for your kids.
So dads, please, slow down and arrange your calendar to give meaningful, daily time to your family. Maybe it means a hard conversation with your boss. Maybe it means less money and a lifestyle downsize. It will look different for every family, I understand that. Not everyone can or should be a stay at home dad and not everyone can have even a little schedule flexibility. Not everyone can have even one parent stay home at all. But it seems to me the last thing we need to be doing is chastising those men who can and are making choices to be with their families more.
For those working the long hours don’t make the old and insufficient excuse that your work is how you show your love. No it isn’t. It’s important, yes, but your family needs more of you. They need you. If you can’t avoid the hours do whatever it takes to have at least a weekly time where your family knows you will be all theirs. It’s possible. My dad was great at it. Leadership in Christ is nothing more than pouring out one’s life in service. The number one way to serve your family is to be with them. Most Christian men would agree, but how many live it out when it comes to the weekly schedule? Please be one that does.
Let me make one last point to bring us full circle.
I think this home/work dichotomy is a false one in most cases. It is a side affect of recent societal developments as discussed above, not an ingrained reality of the universe. In today’s tele-connected, wifi world does it really have to be either/or? Christian families ought to instead be innovators and pioneers in home/work integration (see Part 3 of Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey for more). We ought to be challenging the status quo of work idolatry and the win at all costs mentality of our culture. What would the home look like if both parents worked largely from home? What would it look like if a Christian lawyer set up his schedule to pick the kids up from school to spend time with them in afternoon, then logged back into work from home at night? What would it look like if a Christian doctor costs herself money by hiring another partner in order to see less patients and take the kids out every Thursday? What would it look like for Christian contractors to slow down and apprentice their teenage sons? What if Christian lawmakers forced workplaces to provide parental leave for either parent at nearly full salary? What if all workplaces had free “family rooms” for employees where parents could drop their kids for a couple of hours here or there for a meeting? What if we as a church were no longer conformed to the pattern of this world when it comes to parenting and work, but were instead transformed by the renewing of our minds (Hmm . . .I think I’ve heard that somewhere)?
Unfortunately, when it comes to discussions on family roles, we all too often mistake the former for the latter.
Happy Father’s Day