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As a stay-at-home dad, I am the economic equivalent of a zero.
This revelation came to me at my local Costco where, upon checkout, I am often asked to apply for their new cash-back credit card. Usually, I politely decline, preferring to leave the crowded store with my bulging shopping cart (did I really think my kids would eat that much broccoli before it went bad?).
I finally gave in. "Sure, why not?" I said when asked for the umpteenth time.
A kind lady escorted me to Customer Service. We began the application process cheerfully (employees at Costco always seem to be in such a good mood; customers are another matter).
"Just a few questions, sir," kind lady said, starting with name, address and postal code. She worked down the list toward "occupation."
"What do you do for a living, sir?"
"I'm a stay-at-home dad," I replied confidently.
She paused, unsure of what to write, and temporarily left the field blank.
"My wife," I laughed. Kind lady chuckled.
I do some odd jobs here and there so I told her "about $10,000."
She looked at me, hesitant again, and queried: "Per month?"
I laughed heartily. "Per year."
"I'll tell you what, sir. I'm gonna write you in as a student with an annual income of $15,000."
That's kind of weird, I thought. "Do they give cards to students?" I asked.
"Oh yes, sir. No problems if you fill the form this way."
I shrugged and walked away, thanking kind lady. It didn't hit me at first, but as I was pushing my cart, an indignant voice rose from within. I didn't want to lie about my occupation. I am proud to be a stay-at-home dad. I finally became comfortable telling people what I do, so no, I won't be marginalized!
I went back to kind lady and said: "Listen, I don't want to lie on my application."
She said she was only trying to help. If she wrote the truth I'd be rejected. I thanked her for her efforts but asked her to tear up my application. "Absolutely, sir," she said. "Sorry for the trouble."
I left the store feeling unloved by our Gross Domestic Product. Don't get me wrong, I'm not too hung up about this. Stay-at-home moms have faced these types of issues a lot longer than I have. But it can sure feel like a thankless job, sometimes. (Yes, I am comparing the work of stay-at-home parents to that of paid positions.) Our work – cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids – is important.
Why do I feel a bit insecure at times when I declare my status as stay-at-home dad? Why do I occasionally feel compelled to append: "I'm a writer, too"? Is it not enough to be simply a stay-at-home dad? Sometimes, the caveman inside me wants to jump out with his big stick and grunt: "Me man! Me should support family!" Years of cultural conditioning are hard to cast aside.
Then I ponder: What does it really mean to be a man? I have concluded that it isn't about how much money you make, or how well you can frame a stud wall (though that is a useful skill for anyone). To me, it's more about being true to yourself and to those you love. To be responsible, caring, honest and patient. And it is possible to be more than one thing. Yes, I am a stay-at-home dad. Yes, I am a writer.
As for the economic merits of paying stay-at-home parents, I will leave that debate to the policy makers and special-interest groups. While my work is not counted by the economy, it is acknowledged by those who matter most to me: my family.
By staying at home, I had more time to teach my sons how to ride their bikes. I learned to cook a mean homemade chicken noodle soup. I've been fortunate enough to attend every school concert or performance my kids have been in. I've developed a unique bond with my children, one I don't think I would have achieved within the same time frame had I gone back to work.
I am okay with being financially dependent on my wife – we made that decision together. We made a monetary sacrifice. It works for our family, but I don't claim the arrangement is better or worse than anyone else's.
One day, when our kids are a bit older, I'll jump back into the paid work force. When that day comes, I'll miss cutting the crusts off their sandwiches every day, and picking them up at the bus stop. I'll think fondly of the day my youngest son said: "I wanna be a stay-at-home dad and a writer when I grow up."
And next time Costco asks me if I want to apply for their new cash-back credit card, I'll smile and say: "No thank you. But you could try asking my wife."
Jeff Shiau lives in Ottawa.