If you were asked to come up with a list of occupations that would induce the most amount of fear and shame for a traditional, conservative Christian Asian parent to a firstborn male son, you could do no better than some combination of “Pastor – Photographer – Stay At Home Parent.”
I shouldn’t be surprised that this is where I arrived. My life has always been spent in, or at least in search of, in-between places. By this I mean, I have always wanted to be known as unique, special, and different. Yet, while I enjoy going against the norm, I don’t want to be noticed, put in the spotlight, or garner too much attention. This mode of being was both self-preservation and my way of asserting my identity and existence to the world.
In my high school years, I was the typical Korean American pastor’s son. Yet, when it came to school and my life outside of family and church, all my friends were white and fairly non-religious. I read the Bible regularly. The book that fascinated me the most was The Book of Revelation. In college, all my friends were Korean American Christians like me, but because I didn’t grow up around other Korean American Christians, the culture was unfamiliar. I went to university thinking I would be a computer scientist, and later on, pre-med, but I ended up majoring in English Literature. I grew up in the United Methodist church, but I ended up going to a Reformed Calvinist school for seminary. The list goes on.
Even so, on the surface, my life trajectory looked fairly typical in many ways. I ended up going to a good college, I served God faithfully at my church, and I eventually decided to go to graduate school. After graduation, I got my first job, moved, did youth ministry things, and got married to a good Korean girl. I was set to be ordained and move on to a position in an English-speaking ministry of a Korean church, as most Reformed/married/father/Korean American pastor-types do.
Given how I have lived most of my life in and out of the margins, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when things started to fall apart. In the broadest sense, I never really “fit” in the Korean church culture. I served and was let go from 2 different Korean churches, leading me to abandon my pursuit of ordained ministry. Around the time I was fired for the first time, my wife and I found out that we would be expecting our first child. My wife accepted a new job soon after the delivery (she got the call at the hospital). She didn’t have any leave accrued, so she was back at work after just three weeks. Suddenly, I was a new father, unemployed, taking care of a newborn, and attempting to figure out how things had changed so abruptly. Caring for a baby was a welcome distraction from my self-doubt and uncertainty. Instead of trying to figure out my next job, I thought most about who I was, what I believed about everything, and what my place would be in this world. When you are in Korean American Christian ministry, you rarely have time to think about such things. You do as you are told. But now that I was out, and that world had all but rejected me, I had a lot of time and a lot of questions.
Being a stay-at-home dad is a unique undertaking. The biggest obstacle is the fact that most everyone you encounter doesn’t quite understand you, nor do they know what to do with you. My own mom expressed it well when she once asked me in the midst of a heated argument about my future plans, “what will I tell other people about you?” In the stereotypical mom-dad binary, when parents get together, moms talk about feeding, sleep schedules, recipes, and what brand of baby wipes work best, while dads talk about…sports and beer? In those moments, especially early on when I had very little opportunity for adult conversation, I would have loved to have talked to my fellow dads about car seats and strollers, but I was met with a lot of awkwardness. I would have loved to have complained along with moms of young children that I knew, about how baby bottles are a pain in the ass to wash and sanitize, but that was met with even more awkwardness.
Others expected the situation to be temporary (a real man has to get a “real” job to provide for his family, right?). Many of the dads I spoke with would tell me that they envied me, that they wished they could be in my position. “Stay at home and do ‘whatever’ with the kid all day? Sounds great!” When they expressed this, I would laugh along, but deep inside, I knew that most of these men, while they could probably handle the duties of raising kids, would probably never be able to let go of the traditional expectations of being a “proper” Christian husband, father, provider, and head of the family.
In those moments, especially early on when I had very little opportunity for adult conversation, I would have loved to have talked to my fellow dads about car seats and strollers, but I was met with a lot of awkwardness. I would have loved to have complained along with moms of young children that I knew, about how baby bottles are a pain in the ass to wash and sanitize, but that was met with even more awkwardness.
Being a stay-at-home dad itself is almost never met with outright opposition or hostility, at least in my experience. Most people will never say to you out loud that they think you are less of a man, failing your family, or being a bad husband. More often it is about what they don’t talk to you about, namely, the parenting. Well-meaning people will tell me about various church positions and job openings, a subtle hint that they may be concerned about our financial status, as well as their discomfort with my untraditional role.
When faced with these sorts of challenges, I don’t know if there was any one thing that got me through (besides the support of my partner). When I first started deconstructing my views on life, I found myself frequently asking the question, “why not?” Instead of being told what to think, believe or how to live, I instead wondered why it wasn’t possible to glorify God, honor your parents, and be true to oneself all at the same time. I didn’t set out to be an iconoclast or a radical, but rather, I wanted to believe that such harmony was possible in my own life.
When they expressed this, I would laugh along, but deep inside, I knew that most of these men, while they could probably handle the duties of raising kids, would probably never be able to let go of the traditional expectations of being a “proper” Christian husband, father, provider, and head of the family.
Going into photography was a part of this as well. I wanted to combine my desire to create with what remained of my desire to do some sort of ministry. I would do photography, but I would donate a part of my earnings to a just cause. It wouldn’t be just a job, but it would be a ministry as well. I could still be some sort of pastor, but not really. I would also be professional photographer, but not in the typical sense. Photography would still be my way of interacting with the world on my terms, with one foot in, and one foot out. At least that was and is still the hope.
I am now entering my 8th year of being a stay-at-home parent, my 3rd year of being a professional photographer, and my 6th year out of church work. In a few weeks both of my children will be in grade school, which is the tentative milestone I set for myself to restart some sort of more permanent career, or perhaps getting back into pastoral ministry. I am feeling many of the same doubts and anxieties as I did when I first started down this road. However, this time, it feels different. I can be confident that although my identity has been made of many different pieces that have been pulled together, sometimes in haphazard ways, and colored by the unexpected, it is, nonetheless, an identity that is defined by being comfortable in all those in-between spaces I have always lived.
About the Author: Dae Jeong (he/him/his) is a stay-at-home parent, photographer, and occasional guest preacher based in Maryland. He would like to thank his wife for supporting his unconventional ways.