When Chris Brandenburg had to take his 7-year-old daughter August to Children’s Hospital of Minnesota to have her tonsils and adenoids removed and ear tubes inserted, he was too focused on his primary job as a stay-at-home dad to address the shock at seeing himself dubbed simply “unemployed” on forms pre-filled by the hospital. After all, he was his daughter’s primary caretaker who’d been her number-one nurse and advocate throughout this and every challenge since birth. He thought he deserved more recognition than “unemployed” and informed the hospital’s CEO, Dr. Bob Bonar, of just that once his daughter recovered. Summarizing the letter, Brandenburg notes:
“Your hospital is committed to children. It is the number one value in your mission statement: Kids First. Further down the list is another value, Be Remarkable,” I wrote. To me, that describes stay-at-home parents perfectly. We are committed to kids first, and we try to do the “Be Remarkable” part every day with them. We sacrifice careers, salaries and sometimes even our sanity to raise our children in a way we think will benefit them. I asked him to help. To help challenge gender role stereotypes, to end the stigma of being a stay-at- home parent.
Remarkably, Bonar listened. He explained that the hospital worked with the company that designed the financial software to create a classification titled “stay-at-home-parent.” It was a small victory with huge meaning for Brandenburg, the co-founder of the Twin Cities Dads Group. As he explains with good humor in his recap of the event on the City Dads Group blog, he’s not a babysitter, a stigma that plagues modern dads, whether they stay at home or not. His account of his own experience pouring his life into his children is one that every stay-at-home parent can relate to, which is why we all secretly bristle at the inevitable question, “What do you do?”
Recently Leslie Loftis theorized that women should avoid the term stay-at-home mother if they want to retain a healthy sense of self and be understood by others. Stay-at-home mothering, she observes, has unfortunately become associated with the infamous Mommy Wars, the perfectionist drive of over-educated career moms obsessed with parenting their children. For Loftis, “stay-at-home mom” is a cop-out title implying that everything we do “revolves around our children.” To be sure, the stereotype exists and it is probably why so many of my colleagues prefer the term “work-at-home mother” to make sure their freelance career status remains intact. However, Loftis notes another – perhaps the important reason our culture looks down on stay-at-home parents:
The narrative is this: if you don’t earn a paycheck—complete with Social Security and federal income tax withholding—then what you do is worthless. We secretly believe we are wasting our educations, and that we will be invisible in motherhood.
That is precisely the stereotype Chris Brandenburg sought to reject by refusing to be dubbed merely “unemployed.” Cheers to Chris for his determination to confront the myth that stay-at-home parents are merely “unemployed.” One small step in Minnesota may wind up being one giant leap in changing the way we value parenting and, in turn, prioritize children and families in this country. Who knows, it may even change the way we see ourselves.