This past Father’s Day I had a new appreciation for what it means to be a dad. Last July, I was blessed with a child who changed my perspective on life. There is something spiritual about seeing a baby who looks like you, has your smile, shares your mannerisms and calls you ‘Baba.’ Eleven months later, the miracle only gets clearer and more divine.
From the start, I have been in awe of Ibrahim, or Bibo, as we call him. That is why when my wife and I discussed the possibility of me staying at home with him full-time I jumped on it. My decision to be a stay-at-home-dad has not always been met with such enthusiasm, however, by some in my family and community.
I was raised in an Egyptian American household where traditional gender roles were valued and followed. My mother, who is amazing in every way, still clings to those cultural norms— fathers are the breadwinners and mothers raise the children. So she is not crazy about me setting aside my law degree in order to stay at home with Bibo, even temporarily. I thought she would change her mind after seeing how committed I was to the task— even ensuring I speak in Arabic at home to Bibo so he learns the language of his grandparents— but to no avail. To my mother, I am not fulfilling my prescribed role as a husband and father.
Her sentiment is not unique. I get comments like “Brother, you know it’s the man’s responsibility to bring home the proverbial bacon,” to which I facetiously respond; “Yeah, but bacon tastes much better when your wife brings it home.” Kidding aside, I do believe in the Islamic principle that men are required to provide for their family. However, there is no legitimate reason why a couple cannot agree to swap roles. Following the example of our Prophet (PBUH) and his first wife Khadija, it is a noble and legitimate path for a woman to work, and if she does choose to do so, her man should embrace it!
People older and wiser than me always say work less and spend more time with family, especially your kids, because they grow up too quickly. I am grateful for the fact that I get to spend my son’s formative years with him and not behind a desk or in court.
I understand why certain traditions developed in our culture, but disagree with why they should have to continue. In a bygone era, men worked and women stayed home because men were more educated, had access to better career opportunities, and had more earning potential. This is not the case anymore. Today women are often better educated than their partners with excellent professional prospects. There was also the issue of breast-feeding. Now nursing is remedied by the breast pump, which allows a mother to pump and store her breast milk so that the father can bottle-feed the baby while she is away. So it seems the only issue left is whether or not fathers are willing to let go of their egos to find liberation and spirituality in being a stay-at-home-dad.
The first hurdle we men need to overcome is the notion that somehow child rearing is not a noble endeavor or that it somehow undermines our manhood. We are reminded time and again by our Creator and our Prophet (PBUH) that raising children is the noblest of works. The idea that mothers are so revered in our faith is a reflection of the divine value that is placed on raising kids. Mothers are so highly esteemed not simply because of their gender, or because they carry and deliver our children, but because they are raising and nurturing the world’s future generations. When men take on that role, minus the actual gestation and delivery, they should command the same respect.
Despite the Islamic principles to the contrary, some men will still find child rearing to be emasculating. To those men I say learn to be comfortable in your own masculinity, and do not let your value be undermined by arbitrary societal notions of “machismo.” I know many new dads who still scoff at the idea of raising their kids. I am not offended by them, but saddened that our priorities are so screwed up— we have convinced ourselves that building a career takes precedence over raising our own children.
There is nothing more ‘manly’ that I can do than raising my son and instilling in him the values and foundations that will make him a compassionate, responsible, loving and God-conscious human being who will be a positive influence on his family, his workplace and his community.
Having said all this, I know that being a stay-at-home-dad is not for everyone. Some fathers just do not have the touch, so to speak. For others, relying on a single household income may not be a feasible option. Ultimately, it comes down to what works best for each couple and how they work together as partners. I know from my own personal experience that having two loving, nurturing parents who participated in my life made me the person I am today. I hope through my commitment now I can instill the same love and values in Bibo so that as he grows older and makes his own choices, his choices will reflect the nurturing that both his parents provided him as a child.
Born in Cairo and raised by two loving Egyptian immigrant parents in southern California, Tarek Shawky is a former Los Angeles and Riverside county public defender and present full-time dad to his firstborn, Bibo, who he hopes to provide with the same love and care his parents gave him.