Defining Duty: How Men Identify with Work

“What we do” is not all of who we are

By Sonny Lemmons

The single-earner nuclear family sometimes depicted in pop culture is a relatively recent development, a byproduct of post-industrial revolution North American culture. As cultures and circumstances change, roles tend to change along with them—both at the societal level and the individual level. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as a “culture lag,” meaning the culture itself shifts first and people’s behaviours and attitudes catch up afterward.

Data pulled from the Employment and Social Development Canada website states the unemployment rate was 7.7 per cent for men in 2012, and that men tended to remain unemployed slightly longer than women (averaging 21.0 weeks as opposed to 19.2 weeks for women). Given the number of men who have lost their jobs in the last few years due to the economy, it is reasonable to assume these numbers have increased and will continue to grow.

A survey of national salaries in 2011 posted at cataylyst.org showed that in 18 per cent of dual-earner households, wives were the primary breadwinners when measured in hourly earnings, bringing in more than 55 per cent of the household income.

According to 2013 data from Statistics Canada, 13 per cent of two-parent households in the country have a stay-at-home dad who serves in the role of primary caregiver. A 2013 report from Marriage and Family Canada shows 76 per cent of the respondents believe that in a household with children under the age of six, one parent should stay home full time. Last year, Men’s Health magazine reported that in a poll conducted amongst its readership, 61 per cent of the male respondents who are fathers believe it important to actively place their family before their careers.

But these numbers do not measure the emotional duress many men undergo while in transition between careers or when forced through circumstances to take on the role of staying home to take care of the family while their spouse assumes the position of financial responsibility. Regardless of how a man came to be in what has been—ironically enough—traditionally a non-traditional role, these numbers do substantiate and give hope to a fear some men may feel: you are not alone.

Sonny who lives at home
You might think that by now I would be somewhat immune to the stares, reactions, and stream of comments or questions from individuals once they learn about my job. After all, I’ve been at it for nearly half a decade now, so what I do doesn’t have the same air of uniqueness to me as it may to others. Plus, by the time I get ready to re-enter the traditional workforce, I will have had the better part of 10 years’ worth of experience in my position.

I’m a dad. A full-time, stay-at-home dad (SAHD) to two boys, one who is five years old with wild, curly hair and attitude to match, and one who is a year old, cuddly, teething and babbling the greatest stories he can tell.

Yet for as much fulfillment I find in endlessly constructing Lego towers, changing yet another diaper, or trying to convince both of them “vegetable” is not a dirty word (or food), it wasn’t always the case.

What I, and many of my fellow SAHDs, have had to deal with is confronting the expectations and burdens placed on us through society, the Church, and our own ingrained insecurities, to say nothing of dealing with our doubts and questions of self-worth about not being the primary breadwinner in our families. On a grander scale, the concerns and questions we have expressed are echoed in many men who have found themselves between jobs or changing jobs, if not entire careers, often due to circumstances beyond their control.

No matter what led us to this point where we are in not in a “traditional” role within our family structure, collectively at the core of these identity struggles is discovering if these insecurities are rooted in a biblical or societal understanding of our roles as men, fathers, and husbands.

Yes: I chose to do this
Five years ago, after our first child was born, my wife and I were faced with the same choice as many other parents: do we put the little bundle of joy into daycare, or does one of us stay home to raise the man-cub? After a lengthy analysis of what our work schedules looked like on a “normal” week, we realized that between the time and cost of daycare and babysitters, we would effectively be paying someone to raise our child for us.

Financially, we could afford it; but emotionally, we couldn’t afford the toll it might take our family. Since my wife’s position provided us with a place to live as part of her salary package, leaving my job seemed the more logical decision.

To us. Once we began telling family and friends, many of them looked at me like I had gone mad. Because, as I was told both to my face and in inference from attitude, that’s just not what men do.

One of my professors from graduate school told me if I did this I would never again find employment once I decided to return to the workforce. My decision to leave not only flew in the face of traditional social convention, but it came at a time when my career trajectory was on the rise. She used the phrase “committing professional suicide” to illustrate that I was effectively killing all the hard work, years of effort, and sacrifices I had made for my career should I opt to follow the dictates of my heart and place the needs of my family over what might be best for my resumé.

Men are, for the most part, conditioned to function in a rewards-based structure (make this sale, get this bonus; X=Y). A vocation or even life that flies counter to this is seen as odd and incongruous. Biblically, we tend to hearken back to Adam’s curse given in Genesis 3:17-20, highlighting the idea of working by the sweat of our brow to earn our daily bread (3:19) as our duty and “the way it should be.”

Yet Adam spent his days and nights focused on God and what identity was found in Him. Adam’s work of cataloguing creation (Genesis 2:19) came only after he was first created for fellowship (Genesis 1:26).

Once Adam sinned, identity became a commodity for mankind. When God strolled through the garden calling out to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8), they emerged from hiding, ashamed. The first question the Father asked was, “Who told you that you were naked?” The implication of this question is that God was asking them “Who told you that your identity is not found in Me?”

From that moment on, Adam’s sense of fulfillment—and conversely, what we as men have inherited from our fathers—fell from finding identity and contentment in God to naming our identity in what we do vocationally. Ever since, it has been a struggle for men and our sense of identity and self-worth to not exclusively take delight in what we do, have, know, have done, make, or perform.

Providing love
When initially meeting someone in a social setting, one of the easiest ice-breakers is to ask “What do you do?” Often we use this as an opening to try to find common vocational ground. Men especially utilize this as a way to connect with one another, citing either a friend who does something similar or remarking what an interesting profession it must be as a way to keep the conversation continuing. For men who are between careers either through choice or circumstance, it is unnerving to be so vulnerable with a stranger.

As men it is easier at times to define ourselves by our profession than by any other codifier. We often take pride in stating what it is we do, when the deeper question we need to ask of ourselves is who we are. I worked as a career advisor at a local university for several years where I taught a class to graduating seniors about work-life balance while maintaining professionalism. I often used the phrase “Your last name is not whatever organization you work for; remember you are a person first and foremost with a life outside of your office space.”

For men who are between careers, this sense of a loss of identity can be deeply wounding, at times paralyzing us to the point where our families begin to suffer alongside with how we are feeling. Losing that daily connection and friendship with co-workers in exchange for days searching for a new position or filled with crayons or yet another trip to the library can leave a man with a deep sense of isolation, could lead to a struggle with depression, and self-doubt about their ability to function as the head of their household.

1 Timothy 5:8 is often cited by pastors who take a stance against men who are stay-at-home dads or are not the primary breadwinners in their family. The problem is, the verse starts off with the phrase “If anyone does not…” (emphasis mine), with “anyone” being a gender-neutral term only given the masculine inference in later translations of the Bible.

Furthermore, the phrase “does not provide for” refers in Greek to proneno, meaning “to care for,” “to think of beforehand” and “to take thought for.” We have mistakenly taken this to specifically and exclusively mean “to provide for financially,” when that’s not what the intent was at all; as husbands and fathers, we are to first and foremost place the emotional and physical well being of those in our families before our own wants.

Regardless, the people described as “worse than unbelievers” in the instructions from 1 Timothy 5 were relatives of widows who were shirking their responsibilities to them by exploiting the church’s provisions for widows. So the “biblical” foundation for men to stay rooted in their careers begins to erode away when the context of this verse in question is more carefully examined.

Most men will agree that by providing a positive example of what a marriage of equals can look like, we are honoring our first responsibility as a husband and father. There are far too many men who contribute financially to the stability of their families and yet leave bankrupt hearts and memories in their wake.

During the period of transition men may find themselves in—whether leaving their vocation through choice or out of their control—we often feel as if we are lost in a wilderness of trying to find our own identity. Mercifully, that same wilderness is the first place where John the Baptist began to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand (Matthew 3:1) and also where Christ Himself came to be baptized (Matthew 3:13) as well as to find Himself ministered to by the Father (Matthew 4:11).

Sonny Lemmons has written extensively on the topics of faith and parenting for numerous magazines and anthology books. The Myth of Mr. Mom, for which he was the lead author, was ranked as the bestselling eBook on Parenting at amazon.com in April 2012. He and his wife Ashley currently live in Columbia, South Carolina. A sought after speaker for high school, college, and young adult church groups, Sonny can usually be found Tweeting (@sonnylemmons), blogging (www.lookthrough.net) or doing laundry while his sons are napping.


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