Last week on Salon, Aaron Traister admitted that a steady diet of stay-at-home parenting had turned him a bit dull. He writes:
I would love nothing more than to write an insightful article about healthcare reform, but I’m dumb now. Anything I write relating to healthcare would end up as a screed about why my children have to take a back seat on getting their flu shots to a bunch of kids with “respiratory disorders.” Why are kids who can’t breathe right so much more important than my own kids? My kids love to breathe, and they’re good at it, and they should be rewarded for their aptitude in breathing. But I digress.
Traister should be commended for managing to pen a quite intelligent essay about how stupid he has become. But after generations of women have sacrificed their private intellectual lives for the purpose of child-rearing, why has it taken a stay-at-home-dad to articulate this?
Traister touches on that point in the opening of his essay:
I don’t know if parenting makes you chronically stupid or just temporarily slow, but after nearly four years of child rearing, most of them spent as a stay-at-home dad, my intellect has been dulled to a nub. Women have known this for generations. Maybe that’s why the “stay at home vs. get out and work” debate is so contentious. Of course, I’ve never heard anyone talk about it. But maybe I just wasn’t paying attention until now. All I know is, while my wit may never have cut with the precision of a Ginsu blade, my mind was a bit sharper than the rusty pair of kindergarten safety scissors I’m working with these days.
I wonder why Traister has never heard and/or paid attention to anyone talk about this before? I imagine that when women have written and spoken about this, it’s been considered a “women’s issue,” and therefore not something that would necessarily emerge on Traister’s radar. There’s a reason that Traister’s story is considered a more general-interest piece: A woman’s intellectual talents just aren’t publicly valued in the same way a man’s are. Who cares if you’re losing your mind if there wasn’t much value there to begin with?
Nowadays, most people don’t have a problem accepting women as intelligent. Career women are certainly celebrated for their braininess in their chosen fields. But when it comes to baby-making, a woman’s intellectual contributions have got competition—-they must be weighed against her perceived innate talent for child-rearing. When a woman chooses to abandon her career in order to raise kids, the loss to the world of ideas is balanced against the valuable nurturing she’ll provide to future generations. (Women who have always been on the mommy track, of course, are never assumed to have any brains to lose).
Not so for men, whose intellectual lives are assumed to outweigh their worth as readers of monosyllabic storybooks and preventer of babies swallowing small toys. Stay-at-home-dads are still seen as the exception rather than the rule. (Of course, our refusal to see men as nurturers isn’t fair, either).
Were Traister’s piece written by a woman, I imagine the following would be different:
a) She would have to work harder to prove that she had a valuable intellectual life in the first place;
b) She would be required to insert the appropriate number of caveats about how much she really, truly loves her children, even though they are making her dumb, and wouldn’t trade her full-time mom job for anything;
c) A portion of the backlash would be centered on her failure as a woman.
As it stands, Traister’s article has gotten its share of negative responses—-but none that I can see which single out Traister’s failure as a man (just as a parent and writer). But it’s also received dozens of grateful letters from SAHMs (that’s Stay-At-Home-Moms) who are happy to see another parent write frankly about his newfound inability to think normal adult-person thoughts. Obviously, Traister is exaggerating a bit—-his life as a stay-at-home-dad hasn’t made him too dumb to write a coherent essay about his discomfort with parenting’s brain rot. But the question remains—-why are more women expected to fight the slow atrophy of their intellect than men are?