Stay-at-home dads have a problem. They are an embarrassment to their friends and families, especially at cocktail parties. Just watch them fall apart when someone asks, “so what do you do?” It’s a simple question, just not to your average stay at home dad. Chances are he can’t answer it in less than three sentences. Consider this example from a fellow stay at home dad I’ll call “Bob”

“Well, when I graduated from law school I worked for the prosecutor’s office for a couple of years, then I went into private practice, working for a firm that specializes in disability claims. Now I do some consulting work, which keeps me pretty busy. Just the other day I got a call from a former collegue who wanted to collaborate on a special project. I’m thinking about starting my own practice. I also spend time lookinf after my two children. Did I mention that I went to law school?”

Psychologically speaking, there’s a lot going on there–not all of it healthy. Bob should simply say that he’s a stay at home dad, the way a doctor says he’s a doctor, a plumber a plumber. Bob has two kids under three, so let’s face it, the only consulting he has time to do is to help the other stay at home dad down the street find the number for poison control. And while it’s true that he’s gotten a few calls from former colleagues, they were just trying to find out what the #$@! he did with the stapler and key to the file drawer when he left.

You may assume that with all this posturing about his law degree and successful career, Bob’s embarrassed about being a stay at home dad, that he still hasn’t gotten past the lingering prejudice against men who aren’t traditional breadwinners. That’s not the case. Bob’s confident he’s made the right decision to stay home with his kids while his wife works. And not only is he proud about being a good dad, he does it in a particularly manly way. He can make a diaper out of duct tape. No question about it, Bob is a man’s man.

Bob’s problem, rather, is one of self-identity. For men, the “What do you do” question is really a question about who you are, what kind of man you are.  Who am I, and what is my purpose?  This is the most important question we can ask ourselves as human beings.  But men, being men, would rather avoid all the soul-searching necessary to come up with a meaningful answer.  That’s why we tend to identify ourselves with our career.  It’s a clear and concise way of summarizing our education, aspirations and usefulness to society at   large.  (Men like being useful, which is why they like duct tape.)

But being a stay at home dad is not a career.  It’s temp work, however important.  Kids eventually grow out of diapers and go off to school.  What’s more, you can’t major in being a stay at home dad, and success can’t be measured in concrete terms like raisers and promotions and frat-boy shoulder punches from the guys in sales.  Men like that kind of stuff, it helps them make sense of their lives.

Being at home with the kids, stay at home dads don’t have access to these ways of gauging their progress.  They are therefore in a state of existential flux.  “When I go back to work, will the guys in sales still know the real me?  Do I even know the real me?  If a diaper doesn’t stink, it is because it’s not dirty or am I just n longer in touch with my senses?”  Oh, the mental anguish!

This is why Bob can’t give a straight forward answer about what he does–he’s struggling to define himself with the limited vocabulary available to him.  He’s desperately trying to veave together the loose threads of his former and future professional life with those of his current world.  It’s like trying to put “Mr. Snuggle-Blankie” back together after each wash cycle.  It’s a god-awful mess.

No doubt Bob will go back to a successful career once the kids are a little older.  It’s just that nobody cares–at least not those people he meets at social functions.  Bob would cause everybody close to him a lot less pain if he just told people he’s a stay at home dad and leave it at that.  He should think of it like a surgical scar:  don’t presume people want the full presentation–if they want to know more, they’ll ask.

Of course, this is asking a lot of Bob.  It’s essentially asking him to embrace his temporary identity as if it were his permanent one.  But Bob’s not alone.  There are people out there who know exactly how he feels:  those folks in the “in transition” phase of gender reassignment therapy (i.e., the kind of operations you used to be able to get only in Sweden).

Bob may be a stay at home dad, but he knows that’s just temporary.  Inside “Bob” is really “Betty.”  As soon as the kids are older, “Betty” is going to sprout beautiful butterfly wings and soar to worlds of promotions and windo offices that “Bob” could never know.

But as long as “Betty” still looks like “Bob,” nobody really wants to hear about “Betty,” certainly not standing around the spinach dip.  It makes them uncomfortable.  There is no socially grafeful way for “Betty” to parade aroudn as “Betty” until it is clear to the naked eye (figuratively speaking, of course) that “Betty” is really “Betty.”  In other words, “Betty” isn’t “Betty” until the IRS docks “Betty’s” pay.

I know it hurts, “Betty.”  But you’ll get there eventually.  We’re all rooting for you.  Until then, however, at least in public, you’re best off keeping “Betty” under wraps.  (Think duct tape.)  So the next time you’re standing next to a platter of coconut shrimp and Pringles, and someone asks you what you do, take a deep breath, count to ten and say, “Hello, my name is ‘Bob’ and I’m a stay at home dad.”