Attend church on Mother’s Day and you’ll hear how great mom is. Attend on Father’s Day and—if you hear anything about fathers at all—you’ll hear how today’s fathers need to step up and provide.
I suspect that the attitude we take toward these two holidays reveals something deeper: Christians praise Mom for serving well but criticize Dad because he’s not leading well. But I’ve begun to wonder if our inflexible parental gender roles come more from culture than from Scripture. Perhaps the best way for fathers to lead their homes spiritually is to embrace the work of the home rather than build an identity outside of it.
I am a husband and father of two—a 4-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son. I am also an employee at a church. Of those three, the first two are unique to me; no one else can be the husband to my wife or the father to my children. At home, I am irreplaceable.
My role as an employee, however, is different. If anyone calls me “irreplaceable” at work, I take it as well-intended flattery, but I don’t believe it. Unfortunately, this is more discipline than impulse for me. American culture works against our understanding of work as secondary to family. It elevates our jobs to such a status that what we do becomes who we are.
Our small talk drifts more naturally toward work (“So what do you do?”) rather than relationships (“So tell me about your parents.”). If you don’t have a job—or don’t have an impressive one—it’s hard to feel like you have much of an identity. No wonder so many women feel ashamed of being stay-at-home mothers.
Our attempts to elevate the domestic life, sadly, have often reinforced unhelpful stereotypes about motherhood and fatherhood. Perhaps you’ve seen the infographics that estimate the “worth” of stay-at-home moms by translating home duties into dollars. These efforts don’t just miss the point; they reinforce the problem. They lie to us by implying that work only matters when it can be quantified in dollars. The hard and beautiful work of the home deserves better than to be reduced to a salary package. There is a better way.
Rethinking ‘Men’s Work’ and ‘Women’s Work’
Before we had kids, my wife and I lived in a Central Asian country for a couple years—one of the “-stan” nations over beyond the Middle East. Our national neighbors were incredibly conservative but ultimately challenged many of our assumptions about gender.
We weren’t surprised to find that they considered taking care of children to be primarily “woman’s work.” But we didn’t expect to find that shopping, cooking, and cleaning were not. I was even made fun of for letting my wife go into the bazaar to shop for groceries.
On the flip side, my wife and I faced their assumptions about us, a couple two years into marriage with no kids. Their small talk rarely led off with, “So what do you do?” It was almost always, “Do you have any sons?” (They took this seriously enough that the conversation would lead to, “I can get you some pills if you need help with that sort of thing.”) Choosing to wait a couple years to have kids was unthinkable, because who are you, really, without any children?
It was easy for me, as an outsider, to see what was unbalanced with their thinking. Their culture elevated God’s good gift of family to the status of an idol. To have it is to have everything. To lack it is to lose your very identity. It took me longer to accept that my own American culture might have been doing something similar. Compared to my Central Asian friends, we Americans worship the idol of work much more than the idol of children.
The fathers I knew in Central Asia were hardly perfect. But they were, to a man, far more present in the home than the average American father—not just the stereotypical “absent father” we hear so much about but also the “good dads” who are married to their kids’ mom and providing well for their families.
Because work is so central to our idea of identity in the US, provision becomes the primary indicator of fatherly success. What becomes secondary for dads is often relationship, presence, and service. In other words, dads are encouraged to reach for great things in the workplace, but it’s optional whether they need to stoop down to do mundane things in the home.
I’m convinced that one of the key obstacles that fathers face today is the myth that engaging in the domestic life is unimportant because it is unseen. Evangelicals can heighten this stigma by implying that prioritizing time and service in the home is actually inappropriate for husbands and fathers. I have seen us take biblical teaching about complementary roles and slap it on cultural stereotypes, thereby removing the gospel’s power to challenge our culture.
There are, praise God, many fathers who do a great job of being intimately involved in the life of the home. But in my experience, far too many shy away from it. I suspect that their reluctance to spend time doing the work of homemaking is a decision made less from a position of conviction and more from a vague sense of unease.
That sense, however, is not an innate instinct or a godly understanding of maleness. It is the direct result of our American idolatry to visibility, acclaim, and success. After all, you don’t get many pats on the back for the nitty-gritty tasks necessary in the home. Change 1,000 diapers, and it’s possible the only people to know will be the ones whose diapers are being changed (and the most obvious reward may be the occasional mid-diaper-change “surprise”).
A Divine Opportunity
In fact, the context of home life often forces you to do things relatively badly because you’re the only one there to do it. At work you may be first-rate at what you do. But (to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton) in the home you are forced to do what you can, especially with your children, as a 3rd-rate childcare worker, a 5th-rate cook, or an 11th-rate storyteller.
Your work allows you to be an expert. Your home forces you to be a father—and it is much harder to feel like an “expert” there. I don’t know a parent who truly feels equipped to wake up to a newborn’s cry at 3 a.m. for weeks on end, to answer a preschooler’s endless candid questions, or to respond with compassion to a teenager’s unwise decisions. But who among us would have preferred to swap out our own parents for experts in critical times like these?
The irony is that in exchanging the home life for that of the office, we exchange the greater thing for the lesser. We may feel like succeeding at work is bigger. But as Chesterton wrote in What’s Wrong with the World?, “How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone?”
Parenting children is the most significant, difficult, and beautiful task any father will ever be given. Yes, there are sleepless nights and dirty diapers. But there are also everyday joys that fill my heart to overflowing—seeing my son smile for the first time or teaching my daughter to read her first words. I cannot imagine a work achievement that could rival these most mundane experiences. When we give our first and best to our family—rather than to work—we mirror God himself, who reveals himself to us most intimately not as Creator or Savior but as “Our Father.”
Diving deep into the life of the home isn’t just something fathers ought to do; it’s something they get to do. It is a divine opportunity to love others in their moments of greatest need. It is a chance to cultivate a truly humble heart as we serve others in hiddenness and obscurity.
In short, home life gives us the most natural environment to follow the example of Jesus Christ, who showed his disciples what it meant to lead by washing the mud and dust off of their feet.
In that messy and (usually) thankless service, we partake in the life of Christ. And in learning to love like Christ, what greater treasure could there be?
Chris Pappalardo, PhD, is a researcher, editor, and writer at The Summit Church. He is also the co-author of One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (2015). Chris has the joy of being married to the love of his life, Jenn, and being the father of two eminently adorable littles—Lottie and Teddy.