The stay-at-home dad is becoming more common … and that’s a good thing.
This article originally appeared in Rebel Magazine.
“More than 80 percent of those who were laid off during the Great Recession were men.” It’s the kind of statistic I had used a thousand times as a journalist.
Put it in historical perspective. Trace its origins. Analyze its impact and personalize it by interviewing some of its victims.
That would have been my approach had an e-mail not appeared in my inbox requiring me to attend a meeting with other associates at my newspaper. I knew what this meant. I had been laid off.
Everything that I accomplished in my professional life was now irrelevant. Every pride-inflating bullet point that helped define me was stripped away.
I was fearful for my family’s financial future, and I had no idea what I’d do next. And yet, as odd is it seems, my most powerful sensation was clarity.
I always wanted to be a part of something significant in the workplace—something that changed the world for the better through action. Journalism had fulfilled that need, but I knew with absolute certainty that this chapter in my life was over. I had no idea it had been the precursor to something even better.
The Changing Face of Parenting
The trend of stay-at-home fathers has grabbed recent headlines across the United States. Driven by the economic downturn, the increased presence and earning power of women in the workplace, and greater acceptance of new gender roles, more fathers are enlisting in the front lines of parenting.
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the number of stay-at-home dads rose to 158,000 in 2009, a 13 percent jump from the previous year. The stay-at-home ratio for moms versus dads also continued to shrink year over year. Despite these trends, Stanford Knight Fellow Jeremy Adam Smith says the statistics can be misleading.
“Discussions of fatherhood often peak during times of economic crises, but this has been building for decades,” says Smith, who founded the website Daddy Dialetic and wrote the book, The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family.
Dr. Aaron Rochlen, associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Texas-Austin, says the number of families in which the woman makes more money than the man has increased at a steady rate since the 1950s to its current all-time high of 29 percent.
Smith believes the change is a product shift in attitudes from one generation to the next: “I asked my grandfather, who went through The Great Depression and fought in World War II, ‘Did you face any challenges as a father?’ He said, ‘No, your grandmother did all that.’ I asked him, ‘Did you ever change a diaper?’ He said, ‘No, your grandma did all that.’”
Smith continues, “For my father, the greatest challenge was trying to be as involved as possible. He didn’t want to be remote or absent the way his father was, but my dad never questioned for a moment that he would be the primary bread winner and my mom would be the primary caregiver. When I got married, my wife and I never assumed any roles. We always assumed we’d negotiate them over time.”
Rochlen’s research found the factors that determine who stays at home are myriad, ranging from economic and workplace realities to simple social or value-based factors.
Bill Grason is a stay-at-home father of three who lives in suburban Chicago. Grason’s wife is a school principal.
“It just made sense for us,” says Grason, who hasn’t worked full-time in more than a decade. “My wife is paid well, so we can make it work on her salary, and we have a strong belief that at least one of us should be present in our kids’ lives on a consistent basis.”
Grason says he tried daycare for a short period after his son Jack was born, but he and his son were both unhappy with the arrangement.
“It was so hard dropping him off each day and watching him cry,” Grason says. “After a while, my wife and I were like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ My job was enough to cover his daycare and commuting costs with just a little left over. It just made sense to sacrifice a little bit for our kids’ sake.”
Seminal works in pop culture have helped call attention to shifting gender attitudes.
Harry Chapin’s 1974 release “Cat’s in the Cradle” crystallized the angst baby-boomer dads experienced due to workplace realities that kept them away from their families.
The 1983 film, Mr. Mom, introduced the idea of stay-at-home dads, but Michael Keaton’s portrayal of a bungling, hapless house-dad is a classic example of the stereotypes toward stay-at-home dads that still exist two decades later.
A 2008 study by Rochlen, Marie-Anne Suizzo (University of Texas at Austin), Ryan A. McKelley (University of Wisconsin at La Crosse) and Vanessa Scaringi (University of Texas at Austin) found a significant number of stay-at-home fathers face negative or ambiguous external attitudes toward their role choice.
Nearly 43 percent of the respondents to a survey reported being subject to jokes, teasing and reactions that were difficult to understand, confusing, awkward, or cautious.
Notably, only 28.6 percent reported specific responses from women that were perceived as negative. But there are still practical realities that make being a stay-at-home dad sometimes awkward.
Grason says he has a hard time setting up play dates for his kids with other children because their moms were either uncomfortable chatting with a man or distrustful of his motives.
“I think some of them thought I was hitting on them,” Grason says, laughing.
Much like the difficulties women faced when first entering the workplace en masse in the ’50s and ’60s, men face intimidating obstacles in mother-dominated settings.
I remember taking my daughters to a puppet show at the local library. Mind you, the thought of sitting through a puppet show was torture enough, but enduring the stares of scores of moms, who outnumbered the men at least 9-to-1, was equally unsettling.
I could almost hear their individual voices:
- Is he divorced?
- Is he some unemployed loser?
- Is he gay?
I’ve faced more than enough cold shoulders to let me know my role wasn’t accepted in all circles. But in many cases, the perceived reception was a product of my own insecurities or the internalization of traditional attitudes toward my new role.
“No matter how revolutionary we are, we’re always haunted by the ghosts of traditional roles,” Smith says. “A lot of dads feel badly for not going to work every day, and a lot of moms feel badly for going to work every day.”
Rochlen says a variety of factors can negatively impact stay-at-home dads’ self-esteem including a lack of respect from outsiders or an outright challenge to their masculinity. These acceptance issues cross many cultural, demographic and regional lines.
But the Greatest Issue is Still Economically Driven
“For guys who entered into this role as the primary caretaker only because they lost their job, it’s going to be a much harder emotional shift and challenge,” Rochlen says. “If they value one parent being at home, if they have shared beliefs with their partner or really view this through the lens of what’s best for the family, they have a much easier time.”
Smith adds that family and peer support is essential to a feeling of self-worth. In other words, if the most important people in your life support and respect your decision, you will, too.
Brian Reid is a writer and former stay-at-home dad who has maintained the highly influential website Rebeldad.com for eight years. A former Washingtonpost.com parenting blogger, Reid writes and speaks extensively on the new “involved fatherhood” and has been featured on the Today Show and in The New York Times and the Boston Globe.
Reid has waged an online war with several traditionalist writers over the years, most recently Penelope Trunk, who founded a website devoted to dispensing advice to Generation Y.
“What makes Trunk so dangerous,” Reid writes, “is that she not only declares that moms (or would-be moms) need not even attempt entrepreneurship, but she suggests that men are willing accomplices in shunting kid and household stuff to women, keeping them down.”
The following is an excerpt from Trunk’s piece on Techcrunch.com:
Men are more likely to settle when it comes to raising kids. The kids are fine. Men are more likely than women to think they themselves are doing a good job parenting. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Men have to trust that the kids will be okay so that they can leave and go get food or make more kids.
Before you tell me there are exceptions, I’m going to let you in on a secret: I’m a magnet for high-powered women with stay-at-home husbands. And when the men aren’t listening, the women always tell me that their men don’t pay enough attention and they (the women) are really running the household. They would never say this to the men. It would de-motivate them. So even the most child-oriented men are not as child-oriented as their wives.
Ignoring for the moment that Trunk’s basis for opinion is purely anecdotal—utterly bereft of legitimate research—it’s also based on a social construct—an assumption that a woman’s way of raising children is the default or proper method.
Women have been doing this a lot longer and certainly have a glut of experience on which to draw, but that does not make their approach to caregiving the definitive and final word in Reid’s mind.
“That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of work to do in the area of gender equity,” Reid writes. “I just happen to believe that we’re moving in the right direction, and that it’s worth the effort.”
The Good News
Many men would agree with Reid’s last assertion.
“In a nutshell, I gained a lot more empathy, patience and confidence,” Smith says of his own stay-at-home experiences. “Whether it’s nature or nurture, when men take care of children they have their own way of doing it. The important thing to understand is that you can be a man’s man and still take responsibility for the care of children.”
Grason agrees. “I expect to have a closer bond with my kids because I’ve been there from the start,” he says. “Maybe someday, when I’m old, they can return the favor and change my diapers.”
There is a dearth of research that analyzes the impact dads have on children as primary caregivers. But there is some. Research from the Center for Successful Fathering shows that kids who spend more time with dads post greater ambition, fewer anxiety disorders, and a reduced risk of delinquency or teen pregnancy. Other studies found that kids with involved dads have better verbal skills, higher academic achievement and better physical fitness.
I don’t know yet if those findings will hold true for my two daughters. They are 5 and 3. It’s still too early to judge.
My own testimony comes more from the sense of fulfillment I’ve gained as a result of this role reversal. When I finally got past the fact that my old career had ended—aided in great part by a burgeoning freelance business—I started to focus on the obvious benefit that had been right in front of me all along—my girls.
I’m not just a spectator at their soccer games or a chauffeur to the zoo on the odd weekend day. I’m an active participant in shaping two lives—the most important two lives my wife and I have ever known.
Yes, that means doing homework, laundry, and cooking, but I also hear about their daily struggles and triumphs. I watch their personalities flower, their creativity blossom and their minds expand to solve problems and answer questions.
Because of this newfound definition of employment, I also enjoy better balance in my life than I’ve ever experienced. I have creative outlets that I can explore around my girls’ schedules, making me a happier and healthier role model for those two lives I am charged with shaping.
When I consider the myriad attitudes toward stay-at-home fathers I discover now that I just don’t care what others think. I don’t even define my choice as a role reversal any more. That’s just a social construct created by a variety of variables that can and are being altered with every passing year—a social construct that also can be challenged and deconstructed based on its series of false assumptions.
All that matters to me is that my wife and I made a life choice that was in the best interest of our family. When I see its impact every day in my girls’ faces, I know it was the right choice.
Craig Morgan is a freelance writer based in Gilbert, Ariz. He serves as the Phoenix correspondent for Cbssports.com and Foxsportsarizona.com. He also writes a weekly column, “Daddy’s Home,” on the challenges of being a work-from-home dad for The Arizona Republic and tackles multiple marketing writing projects for various clients. You can read “Daddy’s Home” at Azcentral.com/members/blog/thewordsmith or visit his website at Thewordsmithonline.com.
Photo credit: Flickr / AdamSelwood