Parenthood Juggle: Musings on Gender Roles in Mormonism

macadamia nutBackground

Looking back at my history, it isn’t shocking to see why I have a general disdain for rigid gender roles.  Way back in the last millennium, when my mother was conceived, her male biological material donor (the terms “Dad” or “Father” aren’t going to be used to describe this person) took off.  So Grandma moved back home to a small Utah town to give birth to her child.  With a child to support and family to help her, she took a job at the local bank as a teller.  Over the course of her adult life, she always worked, even after marrying again to the man lovingly, and most deservingly, referred to as Pa.  In her career, spanning from the early 50s to the late 80s, she rose from being a teller to being one of a few Vice Presidents of a bank that had approximately a dozen branches when it was finally bought out by a national bank.

Grandma was an avid outdoorswoman.  She loved camping, fishing and hunting.  She, Pa and my Dad took me on my first hunt.  Every year we knew Grandma would fill her deer tag.  And while an excellent hunter, I remember years that Pa didn’t get his deer.  They also built their retirement home together, a cabin in the mountains overlooking a wooded valley.  Literally, they both cut down the trees they used as logs, together.  Yes, my Grandma was a straight shooting, chainsaw toting, bank Vice President.  But they built their lives the same way as they built the cabin: together.

When my parents divorced, my 2 siblings and I went with my Dad.  Mom was struggling with depression and Dad wasn’t about to give in.  Being in a small Utah (and VERY Mormon) community, Dad was the scuttlebutt around town.  “Men can’t nurture children.”  “I hope those children don’t starve.”  That’s just the stuff I remember hearing. Being in a prominent position at the local school, I’m sure Dad heard much worse.

Looking back on those early years, I think Dad was driven more by an internal rage than anything.  From those comments and his raw determination, he was a man possessed.  I remember most his determination to make sure we all had a hearty, hot breakfast every morning.  When I tell my kids the story, it goes like this.  Dad made us pancakes literally every morning for three years.  Stacks and stacks of pancakes.  And if you didn’t eat at least 3, he thought you might be sick.  One day Dad noticed our appetite for pancakes was waning a bit and he asked if we should do something else for breakfast.  We were all desperate for something else but didn’t want to offend Dad by asking for cold cereal.  After we told Dad that we’d be open for something else, he started making French toast every morning.  And he continued doing so for the next two years.

So for me, there is nothing typical about stereotypical gender roles.  Even growing up in rural Utah, bastion of all things conservative and Mormon, gender roles were fuzzy in my world.  I had a front row seat to women who can hunt, fish and run a bank.  And men that can cook, clean, work a full time job and, shockingly, even nurture children.  Both sides are justified to equally lay claim to the line, “anything you can do, I can do better.”

Our Story

Following our marriage, we decided that it would be best if I temporarily suspended my undergraduate studies in engineering to have my bride finish her graduate program in a medical field.  While she earned her Master’s, I earned my Ph.T. (Putting Honey Through) with pride.  And following her graduation we swapped roles, she worked in her field and I finished up school.

Through that first phase of our careers, we ended up swapping back and forth.  When kids came, she elected to stay home with them and work occasionally either in or out of the home while I worked full time.  There were several stints of layoffs and unemployment, which was not unusual in my field.  And at that time, she could pick up work and I’d watch the kids.

My favorite layoff was for a winter shutdown on a project in Vermont.  She took a job with a traveling nursing placement service.  We drove to Arizona, spent the winter there with her working and me taking the kids to the park, reading, cooking and making big plans for the future. 

Following the next year we decided that I would change fields and launch a start up project.  So she went back to work, I became a stay at home dad by day and fledgling entrepreneur by night.  While the business failed in glorious fashion, full time parenting suited me just fine.  Hanging out and playing with the coolest people in the whole world, all day long.  What’s not to like?  I did all the housework, all the laundry, all the shopping.  Dinner was on the table by 6 every night.  I really showed that June Cleaver who was Boss. 

Ask any guy who’s done the SAHD thing, there are social costs to this decision.  Neighbors wonder why you don’t go to work.  Guys in Elder’s Quorum think you’re pretty weird.  “Why would you want to do that?” Bishops will look at you slightly askance.  Silently, your testimony will be questioned.  And playgroups?  Yeah, you’re not going to any of those.  You may think that other Moms at the park will accept you and see your compassionate, nurturing skills.  But you would be wrong thinking this.  I’ve never climbed high enough in corporate America to witness the glass ceiling, but I’ve sure been on the wrong side of the plexiglass wall surrounding the playground.  And if you have any aspirations of returning to a career, make sure you have something good to put on your resume in that time gap.  Saying that you wanted to stay at home with your kids for a couple of years really doesn’t sell well if you’re a guy.  It’s basically a flashing neon sign that tells recruiters, “Cooties!” 

Realizing I was completely clueless at starting a business, I headed back to school full time.  My wife worked part time, off and on, during those two years; I was insanely busy with graduate school.  We got by with some student loans, savings, a little work, some helpful friends and with some good fortune sprinkled in occasionally.

In March of 2009, smack in the middle of the Great Recession, I informed my wife that there was zero demand for people coming out of school with a background in construction that had also studied finance.  The recession decimated those fields.  I couldn’t have picked it worse if I would have tried.  Of my graduate business class of about 70, I think 5 had jobs at graduation.  It was terrible nationwide coming out of a professional program.  I was very worried.

My wife had the brilliant idea of buying an assisted living home to take care of elderly people.  We could both utilize our skills, hers in healthcare and mine in business, and still have someone home with kids.  To make a really long story fit my word quota, it sounds all very neat and tidy.  It wasn’t.  It was hard.  There were nights on end where I was working til 3 or 4 a.m., only to get up at 7 to get the kids off to school.  There were days where I’m certain she wanted to fire me.  The stories, most of them lessons learned the hard way, would fill volumes.  Marriage is hard enough.  Add a fledgling business into the mix, put it under pressure and life gets combustible.

To date we’re 3 years in to this gig.  She’s scaled back some on the business and is seeing patients part time through another job.  We needed some extra money and she needed a bit of space from our two youngest who are quite clingy.  I do whatever is needed at the care home but rely heavily on our staff.  I normally have the younger two 4 days a week, but I flex to her schedule.  I work at night, weekends, or take the kids with me.   Nothing beats a Costco hot dog for lunch with the “executive team.”  I coach my kids’ sports teams, she helps with piano lessons and scouts.  It sounds so much cleaner and organized than it really is. 

I just manage chaos.  We manage chaos.  You probably do too.  Life got easier when I made peace with that idea.

What I’m Teaching My Children About Careers

Here’s a few nuggets I’ve found along the way that I’m passing to my kids, three boys and a little girl.  Feel free to ignore these observations.  My kids probably will too.  I share them with a hope that they will help someone.  And I don’t expect any of this to apply to anyone but us.  This is what is right for us.  I have no idea what is right for you.  These are just my thoughts on the matter.

I’ve made a conscious decision that I’m not building a career.  We’re building a life.  It’s our life.  We determine what’s best for our family.  No one else gets a vote. And we determine if and when our needs change. 

As such, I’m responsible for my decisions and their outcomes.  I recognize there really isn’t much of a net here if we fall. Corporate America is not going to roll out the red carpet if I want to go back.  By being an entrepreneur, the bridge isn’t burned, but it’s currently ‘out.’ My wife is going to have a rough time climbing the ladder in her field should she want to go do that later.   We made those decisions. We own that. 

My first boss and mentor told me, “there is no good life.  It’s all just life.”  It’s really up to each of us to make it good.

When thinking about work and careers, I recommend considering the flexibility your field gives you.  Flexibility has turned out to be more important than pay in most instances for us.

My father-in-law told his daughters the following:  Each of you should prepare for some sort of a career.  When choosing a field, ask yourself:  Am I good at it?  Can I support a family doing it?  Does the world need another one?  Our family has been blessed, even saved, by that advice.  My boys will get that advice too.  (Boys, here’s a hint to answer those questions:  Registered.  Nurse.)

Speaking of boys, I’ve read articles and heard economists talk about long term projections in various career fields.  In most western societies, growth in traditionally male dominated fields is going to be very stagnant.  Growth in “pink collar” fields is going to do very well.  This will go on for the next generation.  During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate for males age 20-45 was over 20% and it’s still very high.  Regardless of how “true” the concept of fathers supporting a family is, the reality of the situation is that it will be very difficult for many families to achieve this ideal.  Should you choose to rely only on a husband’s ability to earn income over the next 25 years . . . I’m trying to find a way to put this kindly . . . I wish you the best of luck.  Truly, I do.  But for me, ‘luck’ isn’t a plan.

Educated people need intellectual stimulation.  Educated people tend to need more intellectual stimulation than the activity of child-rearing typically offers day in and day out.  Kids are great.  Raising them is fun and incredibly rewarding.  That said, there is more to life than just raising kids.  But it’s your life.  Make of it what you will.

My wife has a unique skill set that is in very high demand in our society.   She is quite literally able to bless people physically and in a very profound way.  She has made the lame walk.  Considering the investment both society and our family have made in her knowledge, it seems irrational to even consider the idea that once children come and until the time they leave our home, she should be only at home with them. 

In Finance we learn that people tend to behave rationally and make rational decisions.  They tend to make decisions that are in their best interest and generally not destructive given the information that is available to them at the time.  With that in mind, I apply that to these issues of balancing work and family in the attempt to carve out a life.  So when another family is making different decisions than I do regarding these issues, I work under the assumption they are making a rational choice that is best for their family at this time. 

So if you’re a stay at home dad, awesome.  I salute you as a brother.  If you’re a full time, cookie baking, stay at home Mom with a Master’s degree?  Very cool.  I love white chocolate with macadamia nut cookies.  You’re a dual income family?  Great.  It’s okay to say ‘no’ to preserve some family time.  You’re a single parent struggling to make it?  God bless you, I hope others see that and can respond appropriately and with care.  And if you’re unemployed, hang in there.  There is inner genius in each of us.  We’ve been all these things at some point.  I’m confident that each of you is making the best decision for your family given your situation.  Our job is not to pass judgments on each other.  Our job is to show love one to another.  My experience over time within our faith and culture is that, unfortunately, we tend to forget that when we tackle this subject.

-Submitted by Chris S.

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