Why Should We Care About The Primary Caregiver? (By The Designated Dad)


This is a public service announcement from me, The Designated Dad, for anyone who has friends or acquaintances with kids. Listen up, because you might learn something that could save your own kid’s life (I’ll get to that in a bit).

When my wife and I have the rare chance to meet new adults together, the introductions seem to wheel in a familiar motion. After exchanging names, more personal questions are posed, and the first question is almost inevitably always this:

“So, what do you do?”

(Maybe the question is some variation like “What do you do for a living/a job/all day/for work?”)

If you were to ask me, I’d tell you I work a salary-earning job that supports my family and household financially. If you were to ask my wife, she’d say that while I do so, she provides care-giving for our son.

You’d probably ask me follow-up questions. Where do you work? What’s your title? How long have you been employed there? How’s your commute?

Now comes the problem: You’d probably not explore much further into my wife’s days at her work, if at all. She’s a stay-at-home parent and you believe you already know the answers to these questions. Obviously she works at home. And the title — it’s homemaker or something, right? You can guess just about how long she’s been employed in this role by approximating the age of her oldest child. As for the commute, well, she is a “stay-at-home” parent after all.

I once posed the “What do you do?” question to a couple whose child was about as old as my son. The woman was a stay-at-home parent and the man had a career that supported the family’s financial needs. I asked no further questions when the woman declared her role as a “homemaker,” but I indulged her partner with a multitude of queries about his work, which in turn made me feel like we could relate because after all, I know a lot about career work too. I did not consider the involvement, or lack thereof, by the “homemaker” in our conversation.

But why not? Shortly thereafter, I began to wonder myself. Why was an entire person — a whole human being with just as dynamic and worthy a story to tell — so easily and acceptably left out of our casual discourse about work habits?

At another time, with my wife and child present, a friendly stranger asked me the same question: “So, what do you do?”

I answered him. Then I humored various curious questions about what do I actually do, what’s the most interesting part of my job, is this what I always dreamed to do, and so on.

Then he asked what my wife “does.” Well, she teaches our son, I said. She’s his teacher.

And… no further questions. No invite for further explanation. Just a nod and “Of course.” Clearly, she is a stay-at-home parent, and clearly there is nothing more to be said.

A Case For The Primary Caregiver

Because what we’re actually talking about here is inclusion of the stay-at-home parent, I think it’s important to see what my wife has to say about this recurring scenario:

“My best guess as to why this familiar hand is played so commonly is that, perhaps subconsciously, people believe they do understand the role of a full-time guardian and all that it entails. Truth is, every individual experience within a family is finely, uniquely nuanced, so you cannot really expect to know what a stay-at-home parent would say before they say it — even if you’re a stay-at-home parent yourself.

Perhaps stay-at-home parents/primary caregivers aren’t further questioned due to a great fear of the unknown, which I believe adults carry in heavier loads than children.

Perhaps the questioners react this way due to simple ignorance. As if every home life is identical, as if a stay-at-home parent surely has nothing of value, depth, or interest to provide, as if they’re selfish to speak of impressive toddler poops recently witnessed on the Big Boy Potty, spending four hours picking out hair ribbons with little Sally, and managing to convince their pickiest eater that green food is delicious. ‘How self-centered — don’t they post enough baby photos on Facebook as it is!’

Maybe it’s a feeling of inadequacy on some level, as secondary caregivers or those without any experience with children of their own, to ask the right questions. After all, most stay-at-home parents will have you pretty convinced that they’re on top of everything and have it all more or less together. They run a complex operation every day, every night, on minimal sleep and leftovers from their toddler’s lunch. So perhaps it is out of courtesy, in some respect, to honor the sacredness of a stay-at-home parent’s tireless duties by allowing them a moment of private silence about the whole thing, for once.

Yet, perhaps it’s just a matter of personal disinterest. And this is where our culture that often glamorizes a childless life has duped us all for the worse. It’s okay to not give a rat’s tail about other people’s baby photo extravaganzas on social media, but it’s not okay to treat people who have reproduced (and make a life out of raising their progeny to be as happy and healthy as possible) as ignorable. To make them feel, by default of our neglectful oversight, as lazy. Lesser. Unambitious. Timid. Weak. Control freaks. Martyrs. Self-serving. Self-deprecating.

We assume quite a few things about stay-at-home parents, don’t we?

So I believe it’s time to start asking follow-up questions.”


Watch Your Words

When “What do you do?” gets “I’m the primary caregiver for my children” as a response, we should follow it with the equivalent effort we give when respondents say “accountant”, “fireman,” or “disc jockey.” Really, why even bother asking what a person does with their life if you’re not genuinely curious to find out more beyond the job title?

Part of us knows the stay-at-home parents have been dying for a shot at a real adult conversation for, like, 46 years (because toddler years are like dog years, you see). We kind of know they’ve been yearning for this very sort of opportunity to unload some pent-up frustrations off their battered minds and weary hearts with a fully-grown human peer who is able to commiserate, encourage a healthy belly-laugh about it all, and offer them an ice-cold adult beverage. We also know that adult conversations are not only those that exclude mentions of life with children; an adult conversation is simply defined as a discourse between adults.

But we tend to save all that for the parent who isn’t the full-time caregiver. As soon as we hear “homemaker” or “stay-at-home mom/dad,” it seems the conversation veers suddenly away, as if these are some sort of wrong answers to the question, barely worthy of acknowledgement. At this point, I think we should have a word about the definition of “work.” My recent realization is that parents who choose to stay at home for the good of their families tend to get shut down, cut off, ignored, or passed over upon confirming that they don’t “work.”

No, stay-at-home parents don’t “go to work” — in fact, they never “go” to work because they’re always already at work. Their entire life is the workplace. No, they never “clock in” at any point, but if they did they’d also never clock out. No, they (probably) don’t contribute significantly to the household’s incoming finances, but to say money is all a household with children ever needed is to say that nothing in life is priceless.

Anyone with a toddler will tell you they’re an unusually consistent danger to themselves. Keeping a child safe and sound at every given minute is no small feat. Unfortunately, I’ve gleaned that although a picture is worth a thousand words, a stay-at-home parent is deemed by much of society to be worth, well, very few.

What kind of label has a primary caregiver claimed in reply to your “What do you do?” question? Was it “I’m a stay-at-home parent,” or maybe full-time parent, homemaker, primary guardian, devil’s slave, something else?

“Stay-at-home mom/dad” may be taken by the sorrily inexperienced to mean “Doesn’t leave the house; watches soap operas from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

“Homemaker” may be taken by the ignorant to mean “Spends the day scrubbing grout between kitchen tiles and applying new wallpaper trim, just because!”

“Full-time parent” just sounds pompous most of the time, because it implies that those who work outside the home are merely “part-time parents.”

“Primary guardian” sounds so… legal? Formal? Distance-y and cold? Court-appointed? (Which is fine and dandy if that’s technically the situation, but otherwise a potentially unwelcome false impression may precede).

And “devil’s slave” — yeah, most people who don’t have kids wouldn’t find this funny, and for those who do, it only brings up sore memories from their broken pipe dream of parenthood automatically earning “leader of the wolf pack” status … so why even go there. They don’t want to ask further questions because ignorance is bliss.

Keep in mind, the stay-at-home mother/father chose his or her OWN title. A good follow-up question to ask might be, “So what made you connect with that title most? Any reason you relate to it more than others such as [insert term. Hint: Superhero is a safe, inoffensive, overall-supportive suggestion].”

An Opportunity To Learn Survival Tricks

You know who’s really going to survive the zombie apocalypse? Primary caregivers of small children.

When that time comes (oh, it’s comin’!), you’re going to wish you’d thoroughly picked the brain of your neighbor with three kids under three about how she saved her toddler from choking on a plastic ring without any formal CPR training and a battery-dead phone unable to call for help, while nursing a cluster-feeding, tongue-tied newborn, and never lifting one eye off her oldest kid who seemed but one splash away from drowning in the bathtub under two feet of bubble clouds.

No dazzling Excel skills or commuter traffic play-by-plays are gonna protect anyone against a zombie attack. How to aptly convince a ravenous member of the undead that your brains are “ew yucky” and taste like strained peas, now that could really come in handy.

All kidding aside, the next time you find yourself meeting a stay-at-home parent for the first time, take active interest in what they have to say. If for no other reason, you might learn something that saves your own kid’s life!

No kids? No concern for life? Then consider digging deeper with follow-ups to the “So, what do you do?” question if only because it’s what you would’ve done had they answered with a “real” job title.

Thanks for reading,

~ Eric, The Designated Dad