Why Are Men "Heroes" for Being A Parent, But Women Aren’t "Ambitious Enough"?

You may have seen a recent article from Slate wherein a new father claims his wife is now dreadfully traditional and therefore not worth his time when she announced she wanted to stay home and not return to work following the birth of their daughter.

By Gwen Farrell4 min read
Why Are Men Are "Heroes" for Being A Parent, But Women Aren’t "Ambitious Enough"?

The article sparked controversy and criticism across all manner of sources and rightfully so. And oh boy, do I have some thoughts.

Mr. “Suddenly the Breadwinner” alleges that his wife is setting a bad example for their child by giving up on her profession. But don’t be fooled. His concern isn’t really for his child, it’s for himself. He even says that this new side of his wife (i.e., maternal and inherently natural) is something he doesn’t “like or admire.” Move over, Prince Charming.

Putting aside the mammoth dose of entitlement and narcissism this guy seems to have, his case presents a valuable opportunity for conversation. Traditional gender norms and their trappings, whether you adhere or disagree with them, are a crucial aspect of our culture that inevitably — as exemplified by this article — have the ability to profoundly impact our families and relationships.

Not only does this narrative prove that the core tenets of modern feminism which we hold so dear have essentially failed us, but it’s also pretty indicative of what our society thinks of stay-at-home moms

We Just Can’t Win

It seems like now, more so than ever before, women who choose the home over the workplace seem to be having a tough time of it when it comes to being criticized by their peers, or even their spouses. (Look at the evidence.) It’s almost like the rallying cry of the ideology we’ve adhered to for the last 50 or so years — modern feminism — was never really meant to solve all our problems in the first place.

Mr. Suddenly the Breadwinner, whose household can survive on one income — a huge slap in the face, by the way, to the tons of women who would love to stay home with their kids but can’t out of financial necessity — is not alone in his thinking. Pillar of third-wave feminism and author, Jill Filipovic, sided with the dad after implying that not being ambitious sets a bad example for kids: “I would have a really, really hard time being married to a spouse who chose not to work.”

But the mom in question isn’t simply “choosing not to work” as if she has nothing else to do outside of her job. She’s not choosing to leave what I’m sure is a very fulfilling career for nothing. She’s attracted to the choice of staying at home to be closer to her daughter, and frankly, it’s admirable that financially she’s able to make that decision when again, so many aren’t.  

This whole argument seems to be predicated on one fatal flaw: the idea that stay-at-home moms just don’t do anything. As a mom with a few or even just one child will tell you, that isn’t the case. What’s worse though is that we’re making the whole concept of staying at home with your kids unattractive to expectant and even future moms by claiming that it doesn’t meet our 2021 standards of what is quote-unquote “ambitious.” Based solely on that logic, we’re also equating being a stay-at-home mom and not having a job with laziness

Stay-at-Home Moms Are Not the Villain

The double standard is there for all to see. It just isn’t being called out.

Think of the big company executive, a man. I always picture the archetypical father, like Don Draper from Mad Men. This guy is the sole breadwinner for his family, meaning he has to work long hours and rarely sees them. But what he lacks in presence, he makes up for in material comforts and being able to provide everything for them. When he does venture out of the office, whether it’s on a weekend or for a long-awaited vacation, his wife is satisfied, his kids are happier, it’s a veritable picture of familial, Norman Rockwell-type bliss — all because he’s devoting the time, energy, and attention of what’s usually directed towards work towards them. 

Men are idolized, they’re heroes, for spending time with their families.

Is there anything wrong with this narrative? Of course not. This is what traditional gender norms at work look like. The problem is what we’ve already had a chance to observe, thanks to Mr. Suddenly the Breadwinner: men are idolized, they’re heroes, for spending time with their families. And women who choose to eschew the workplace for raising their children themselves are somehow demonized for it by not being “ambitious” enough.

Last year, I wrote a piece called “I want a career and a family, but I’m constantly being told to choose.” The thesis is just that: I do want both, but I constantly feel the societal pressure from both sides to pick one instead of attempting to do both. It’s narratives like Filipovic’s and this new father’s that bolster that exact narrative. By societal standards, I would be a bad mom for going back to work and putting my kids in childcare, or even worse, I’m lazy and not driven enough, or not even setting a good example for them by staying home

Not an Individual Problem, but a Cultural One

Unfortunately for us, this thinking isn’t limited to two people. It’s obvious that they have enough support to feel comfortable vocalizing it in the first place.

A handful of years ago, which by the media’s standards seems eons before Suddenly the Breadwinner ever wrote to Slate’s advice column, Boston Magazine ran a hit piece on the “suburban mom.” The piece reads more like the Burn Book from Mean Girls than a supposed hard-hitting exposé on the everyday struggles of stay-at-home moms. 

Erin Almond, a mom and writer herself, was quick to point out how the article unfairly characterized moms who chose to stay home as lazy, entitled, immature adolescents more concerned with shopping and gossiping than the rearing of their children and the stability of their marriages. Almond sums it up beautifully: “There's no job less prestigious than raising children. The pay is terrible. The work is incessant and can often fairly be called 'drudgery.' And the external rewards, such as economic power and intellectual respect, are nil. Yet it's one of the most valuable jobs in the world.”

There are no trophies, promotions or pay raises, no company-wide recognition for a job well done when it comes to being a mom.

She points out the central focus of the lack of appreciation and respect we give to moms as opposed to working women. There are no accolades, no trophies, promotions or pay raises, no company-wide recognition for a job well done when it comes to being a mom. Being a stay-at-home mom is an unsexy, challenging, thankless job, and therefore by cultural standards, not worth our time. More than that, it lacks “ambition.” 

There’s that word again. To have ambition, we know, is to be driven, motivated, undeterred towards a goal or focus, single-minded in our pursuit of excellence. We contextualize ambition solely in its professional connotation. After all, who’s lifelong ambition is it to be a mom?

In fact, it’s mine. And maybe yours. And plenty of other women who feel demonized and unfairly targeted by our supposed lack of motivation, because our brand of ambition directly and intentionally contradicts the norm.

Closing Thoughts

Back to our antagonist. If I ever had the chance to address him, here’s what I’d say:

I’m sorry that your conceptualization of women, of your own wife and the mother of your child, is so limited to the idea that she can only do one of two things, and that the choice she wants to make somehow makes her less than in your eyes. I also feel sorry that the diminishment of the sacred position of motherhood and women as a whole is the example you’re setting for your own daughter.

To his wife, I’d say this. Congratulations on your baby. You can go back to your job if you want, and you may even get a raise or a promotion. Over the years you might be recognized by your boss or your co-workers, you might see great professional successes which are fulfilling and satisfying in and of themselves. But the way your boss and your co-workers acknowledge you is nothing compared to the way your daughter will.