The end of the year is typically a time of reflection — in other words, a perfect time for some more navel-gazing. Without further ado, here’s some of mine.
I’m a stay-at-home dad.
I’ve mentioned it plenty before, but I don’t think I’ve ever talked about how I got here. Why bother? Well, I feel like a lot of stories of SAHDs that I’ve read have started with a lost job or some other circumstance that forced the dad to stay home, whether for a temporary stint or an extended period of time. When we were expecting our first child, a friend of mine recommended the book I Sleep at Red Lights, a memoir of a guy who had triplets when his son was two. While his book is very funny (and at times terrifying) Bruce Stockler doesn’t really qualify as a stay-at-home dad. Sure, he was home for a while when he lost his job and was freelancing from home, and he was the “primary caretaker.” That’s if you don’t count the $2,100-a-week nanny they hired for a while, in addition to his son’s regular nanny. [Update 1/2/11: Stockler commented with some clarifications and corrections, so be sure to scroll down to his comment.]
Since then, I’ve encountered some (but not many) other SAHDs, either in real life or in the media. It seems like the vast majority didn’t become full-time caretakers by choice, and for many it’s only a temporary position until they find a new job. And while for most it’s not nearly as horrible an experience as that old movie Mr. Mom makes it out to be, I have talked to some dads who just can’t wait to get back to the office.
What I haven’t encountered often is men who chose to become stay-at-home dads, those for whom this is according to plan. That’s my story — this is the life I signed up for.
First, some ugly facts.
It should come as no surprise to women or men that men typically do less housework and less of the day-to-day parenting duties. One chapter of For Better, titled “Chore Wars,” provides some interesting statistics: only 10 percent of men are unhappy with the division of labor in their marriage, compared to 60 percent of women. In marriages where both the man and woman work outside the home, the women typically do most of the cooking and cleaning. When a woman gets married, she typically spends 70 percent more time doing housework, while a man spends 12 percent less. And even in cases where the man stays home and the woman works? The wife still ends up doing most of the housework.
As a man, these figures make me ashamed of my gender. Now, Parker-Pope does offer a few explanations that suggest it isn’t all our fault—for example, many women act as “gatekeepers” and despite saying they want their husbands to help, they micromanage and don’t let the husbands help in their own way. Still, that’s pretty weak.
When I first moved to Tribune and some of the high school kids would come over for game nights, several of them made comments that all of their dads wanted my job. I asked: “They do know I do the laundry, cook dinner, wash dishes and do the grocery shopping, right?” One of the kids said, “Oh, my dad would never do that.” So … what they really wanted (and I suppose what they pictured) was that I got to stay home, watching TV and eating bonbons. Or pork rinds.
In the area of childcare, men are starting to become more involved than they used to be. However, there’s still often an assumption that women are better wired for parenting and therefore most of the childcare duties (particularly for infants) fall to the moms. Remember this video of dads changing diapers? Sadly, this is how most men think of diapering — and how many women think of men with babies.
I read somewhere else about the harsh double standard when it comes to working parents. When people see a dad taking care of his kids—whether it’s attending a soccer game or driving them to piano lessons — they see him as SuperDad. Wow, that’s so great that you’re so involved in your kids’ lives! But when a mom makes the decision to work outside the home (even if, as the statistics suggest, she still does most of the childcare and housework), she’s seen as a bad mom. Don’t you care about your children enough to stay home full time? Dads, let’s face it — we don’t have a very high standard to live up to.
I don’t say all this to paint myself as some sort of saint — my wife, despite being a family doctor and working unpredictable hours, still does a great deal of childcare and often “rescues” me from the kids at the end of a long day. But I do want to give you an idea of how unusual my position is, in the hopes that (1) more men might consider this a possibility for themselves and (2) I might hear from other guys like me.
So, after that lengthy preliminary, here’s my own story: I chose to be a stay-at-home dad. For six months before our first child was born, I was a house-husband. (We’d moved to Portland and it didn’t make sense for me to look for a job for six months.) Although I worked at various jobs during the first five years of our marriage, I’ve generally been in charge of household chores—not only because I tend to be the more domestic of the two but because you can’t rely on a medical student to fix supper when you have no idea when she’ll actually be home.
I’d never changed a diaper until my daughter was born, and I hadn’t really spent much time with babies, either. But I got pretty good at it. I got used to being the only guy at playgroups, at getting remarks from strangers about how I was “babysitting” for the day. I won’t lie: I like being different. I like when people think I’m a lucky guy and (especially) when they tell my wife she’s lucky to have me. I like having a job that I’m good at, one that lets me play a big role in my kids’ lives. I like the double-takes and blank stares that I sometimes get when I tell people what I do.
It has also been incredibly rewarding. I’ve been a full-time dad for seven years now, and I have no plans to “go get a job.” I do work part-time at the local library, but that’s sort of a concession to the fact that I was spending so much time there with my kids anyway. I hope someday to revive my fledgling art career, but that’s something I’ll do from home as well. My primary responsibility is taking care of my kids and my wife, making sure that they’re clothed, fed and read to.
But I’ll also be the first to say: it’s not easy. It was hard sometimes, not having other guys to talk to — particularly when playgroup conversations centered around fashion or shopping or breastfeeding. Stay-at-home dads, in my experience, don’t tend to be as good at forming support networks as moms do. For Better points out that many men have a lot of trouble not being the primary breadwinner in the household; in fact, some studies have shown that marriages in which the wife provides all or most of the income are at a higher risk for divorce. There are a host of complex reasons why this is so, but among them are the man’s inability to swap traditional gender roles and the tension that arises about household chores. And sometimes it’s hard not being able to get away from the kids for a while, though a lot of that is due to our particular circumstances — a doctor wife with unpredictable hours and no grandparents anywhere nearby.
It actually took me a while to get to the stage where I wanted to be a stay-at-home dad. I grew up in a very conservative home and for a long time didn’t think it was appropriate for my wife to work while I stayed home — but that’s perhaps a story for another time. Suffice to say that my mind has been totally changed and we had this plan in place before we even got married.
Anyway, it’s not for everyone. If you’re a guy, thinking about staying home with the kids, here are a few things to consider before you take the plunge. If your wife is working and you’re at home, the household chores are your job. She shouldn’t be responsible for bringing home the bacon and cooking it and washing the dishes afterward. Don’t be a slob. I happen to have a fairly low mess tolerance so I’m used to being the one responsible for cleaning up (it’s been true since college). If that’s not true of you, work on developing an eye for things that need to be picked up — your wife will appreciate it and your kids won’t be swallowing your D20s. And you know what? There’s no shame in having a wife who makes more money than you. Get over it—but if you just can’t handle that, you need to both sit down and have a reasoned conversation about it well before it puts undue stress on your marriage.
If you’re a working dad, good for you! Be involved with your kids and don’t be satisfied with low standards for excellence.
And if you’re a mom, thanks for reading all this way and putting up with all this blathering about things that you’re likely doing every day without making a fuss about it. You’re awesome and you deserve some praise and recognition.
As long as you’re not just sitting at home watching TV and eating bonbons.