by A. Joseph West
A. Joseph West is father of two children, A.J. and Claire, and husband and lover of their mother, Jessica. He is a graduate student in the department of sociology at the University of Arizona.
The last time I had a “real” job was in July 2005. That was the month my wife Jessica gave birth to our second child. We had decided that when the baby came, I would quit my job and stay home full time with both children. We continued with that arrangement until August 2008, when we moved to Tucson for my graduate studies.
When we made our decision, we thought of ourselves as a relatively liberated young couple who could easily cast off the gender dispositions our religious culture had instilled within us. But it didn’t take very long to realize that things would not be so easy. What we had been raised to believe about gender roles still had a profound effect on our experience. Things quickly became difficult, especially for the first several months.
The difficulties had nothing to do with the actual day-to-day activities of stay-at-home fatherhood, which I actually found to be very rewarding and satisfying—from watching one of my children actually learn something I had tried to teach, to feeding them, or giving them a bath, or getting them into their pajamas. I often wish I could have continued in that role. I think I could have done it for another 20 years. The difficult part was figuring out how to recast my sense of identity and understand where I belonged in my community.
Some feminists and gender scholars understand gender as a function of performance.1 In other words, femininity and masculinity aren’t so much what we are, as what we do. But though Jessica and I formally changed roles, our gender expectations still clung tenaciously on. For example, though I was responsible for keeping the house clean, Jess was the one who felt shame if the house was messy. Similarly, as much as I enjoyed the day-to-day tasks of domestic work, it was still difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t have a wage-paying job. Intellectually, I was fine with it, but I couldn’t shake off the norms and values of masculinity overnight. Adding to the difficulty was that Jess still felt compelled to direct home affairs. But eventually I learned to make my new job my own, and she learned to let go. I started to develop my own routines, set my own goals for the house, and eventually learned how to be satisfied on my own terms with what I was doing.
Incidentally, for the past two years, Jess has been the stay-at-home parent and I think that the house is generally cleaner under her direction; but the kitchen specifically stayed cleaner under mine. A clean kitchen was just something I needed. In some ways, our kids ate a healthier, more regimented diet when I was in charge. But with Jessica, they’re probably learning an appreciation for a wider variety of healthy foods.
Recasting our personal identities wasn’t our only struggle. There were social struggles as well, beginning with the awkward interactions that would ensue when I would tell family or friends that I had quit my job to become a stay-at-home dad. Though people rarely disapproved of or overtly criticized our choice, they didn’t seem to know how to respond. Everyday interaction is comfortable when people can rely on the social scripts they’ve spent their lives learning. But when those scripts break down, interaction becomes difficult. Again and again, I had to endure an awkward silence, or a subtle glance, or some other indication that I had socially paralyzed someone.
Sometime during the first two years of my stay-at-home parenthood, I taught a lesson on fatherhood in elders quorum. I decided to share some academic literature I had come across about “nurturing fatherhood” and relate it to my own experience. I shared some basic findings and statistics about the importance of nurturing fatherhood for particular developmental outcomes. I felt that the lesson was well received, but at the conclusion of the meeting, the member of the elders quorum presidency who was conducting—and who had remained silent throughout the lesson—got up, thanked me, and then said something to the effect of, “We all know that the proper role of the father is that of provider and protector. While it’s okay to temporarily rearrange roles in a family if the husband can’t find work, there’s a model that we’ve been taught to follow, and we all know what that is. We’re blessed when we follow that model.” Perhaps at the time I was overly sensitive, and I’m not sure what I expected to happen, but I can vividly remember the sting of listening to this priesthood leader blatantly discount my current life’s work.
Though there were plenty of individual church members who were supportive of us, this experience in elders quorum is indicative of how the Church as a whole has responded to the domestic choices of families like ours. The institution that promised to strengthen our family seemed to be working to undermine it. This was not something Jessica and I had expected, and it took a long time before we felt like we understood this response. It was, in part, this experience of confusion and exploration that eventually led me to graduate school and a career in the social sciences.
According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, there is statistical regularity to the ways material resources are stratified—most often along the lines of race, ethnicity, religion, education, and perhaps most obviously, gender. Bourdieu calls the justification and maintenance of this inequality “sociodicy,” a play on theodicy (which is the act of trying to justify faith in God despite the presence of evil in the world). Similarly, Bourdieu describes how culture is used to justify inequality. He points to what he calls “symbolic violence” as the main culprit. He describes symbolic violence as “a gentle violence, imperceptible and invisible even to its victims, exerted for the most part through purely symbolic channels of communication, cognition recognition (more precisely mis-recognition), or even feeling.”
For Bourdieu, masculine domination is the example par excellence of symbolic violence. In all patriarchal cultures, there exist myths and structures that show why men should be socially privileged over women. When an individual or group, such as stay-at-home dads or same-sex couples, stray from this symbolic order, they encounter resistance because their behavior threatens the accepted sociodicy and thereby the status quo power structure. It is in this light that I have come to understand my own experience as a stay-at-home dad in the United States and the LDS Church. The resistance Jessica and I felt because of the choices we were making together wasn’t about an institution trying to oppress us or undermine the strength of our family; it was about the fact that our behavior challenged our culture’s symbolic order.
For example, my experience as a stay-at-home dad has forever debunked the “pedestal argument” in my mind. Mothers are often rhetorically placed upon a pedestal because of the difficulty and thanklessness of the domestic work they do. In my experience, domestic work was neither overly difficult nor thankless. On the contrary, in some ways it was far more satisfying work than what I’m doing now as a graduate student. This discourse that raises women above men in the domestic sphere also serves to justify a power structure in which men exclusively lead.
While the Church was not as supportive of our domestic choices as I would have liked, I think it is important to recognize that we never encountered overt coercion. This is an important point in the Church’s favor. Authoritarian institutions, by their very nature, have few options besides repression when faced with acts of revolt (however small) against the prevailing symbolic order. The absence of such repressive tactics implies that, even if the pace is glacial, improvement is coming.
 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, (New York: Routledge, 1990).
 Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2001), 2.