Every once in a while, I read or hear something about stay at home dads that makes my blood boil. Usually it’s all about how that man should get a job, he’s not supporting his family, or he’s leeching off his wife. Interestingly I don’t hear these things about stay at home moms-instead it’s all about how she’s making sacrifices for the kids, how difficult it is to be home all day, how important it is to have mom at home, or how she should be considered a full partner with her husband.
Attention people thinking stay at home dads are lazy leeches: their gender does not make their presence less important, less of a partner, less of a sacrifice, and certainly doesn’t make it less difficult.
Here’s some examples – Time imploring you not to “let” your husband be a stay at home dad because they pay a bigger financial penalty when returning to the workforce, although if they can afford $35k a year in child care I think they’ll be OK. Or here’s an article on why so many stay at home dads are depressed by Vice – but wait, the statistics in the article say only 3.6% of men had depression their first year of fatherhood, the study was not on stay at home dads (those were anecdotes), and apparently 10-15% of women suffer depression in the first year, so this statistic is hardly shocking. Also the top alternate suggestion on Google to my search of “Stay at Home Dads” is “Stay at Home Dads are losers”. Clicking on that option (which is a bad idea, don’t do it) you can see how unhappy men are, how terrible their marriages are, and how their wives hate them.
Interestingly, stay at home moms make up about 30% of married couples with kids while stay at home dads are only 5% according to the Wall Street Journal. The number of stay at home dads is double what it was in the 80’s but still there are six stay at home moms for every one stay at home dad. You know what I would love to see but can’t find? A statistic on how many couples work opposing shifts to keep from having to pay for child care.
The route to having my husband be a stay at home dad was not a straight line. When our first son was born, I had just finished college a few months before. I had a good job in IT at a Fortune 500 company, where I had been for over four years. My income was above my husbands, but barely. At the time I made $35k a year and he made probably $30k working at a factory. (Side note – yes, I was horribly underpaid, but I’ll write about that one day in the future). We had gone to check out daycare before our son was born and the cost was just not doable on our incomes. So we decided he would work the third shift while I worked from 6 AM until 3 PM.
Eventually the third shift wore him down, and I started to earn a bit more. So he took on some part time work instead, a few nights and every weekend for about a year and a half. Eventually that job ended and he went back to the factory on second shift. I was still working from 6-3, and taking calls/emails after I got home as needed. During this time our second son was born, making daycare even less affordable.
During the Great Recession, he (like many) was a victim of the closing of factories. His factory closed and suddenly he was unemployed. I continued to work full time although I would stay past three now, since I didn’t have to be home for him to get to work. And I continued to get promotions and raises during this time, eventually changing companies for a better career path. Then about two years after the factory closed he almost died of septic shock (I’ll be writing about that soon) and embarked on a yearlong recovery process where he couldn’t work. In fact, this was the only time we ever had to use daycare. Our middle son (youngest at the time) went to daycare for three months while my husband recovered and was finally able to get around well enough to care for our son again.
After the hospital, ICU, rehab center, physical and occupational therapy, multiple surgeries, and a long recovery, my husband was able to look for work again. He found early morning work loading packages for a large shipping company – hard on the body but the schedule was right. That job helped him regain strength and make some new friends. Unfortunately, it likely contributed to the complete failure of his abdominal wall. While I was pregnant with our youngest he had to stop working, and he had no disability through that job. Six months after our youngest son was born he had an extremely complex surgery that was about six or seven hours long, which had a week long hospital stay and a long recovery before he could drive and care for all the boys by himself again.
Some pictures from the latest hospital stay
Since that time, he’s stayed at home. After-school and vacation care for two kids and full-time daycare for a one-year-old would cost more than he would make, so the only way it would make sense for him to work is if there was another part-time job that didn’t conflict with my work. And my job requires much more complexity than it once did-gone are the days I would be able to get home by 3:30. Not only do I work much farther away now, but my job hours are 8-5 rather than 6-3. Occasionally I need to travel for work, sometimes just overnight but once in a while for multiple days. I also need to be able to come in early or stay late depending upon the meetings I have going on that day.
A messy story? Yes, but isn’t life messy? Originally we thought we would work opposing shifts just until the kids were in school, then he would switch to more “normal” hours. Honestly, though, whoever designed school must have assumed there was a stay at home parent waiting in the wings. There are half days every single month of the school year. Winter vacation, spring vacation, other days off – there are very few months of the school year where the kids actually go to school every day. Let’s not forget about after school activities, many of which start at 5:30 or 6 in the evening (I don’t even get home by 6 most nights). When they’re in elementary school there are often events during the day – plays, singing, writers workshops, etc. After care in my area ends at 5:30, unless you want to pay extra, as I found out when my husband was sick. Oh and don’t forget about summer vacation – eight plus weeks of time where you need to pay out the nose for someone to watch them. And that doesn’t even cover when your kids are sick, which often happens once or twice a year – per kid.
People are often surprised to hear my husband is a stay at home dad. Many people think it’s something temporary to be reversed later – like he’s not working because he’s disabled, or he’s unemployed. But to be honest I prefer having him at home for the same reasons many other families prefer having stay at home moms to having two people in the workforce. When a kid gets sick, or has an event during the school day, I don’t need to worry about leaving work in the middle of the day. Vacation, professional development day, or half day? No sweat. I need to travel for work, go in early, or stay late? No big deal. During the times he was working those things were a big deal, and I needed to either find a family member to help or leave work to deal with the situation. I’ve been on both sides of this coin and I certainly prefer him being at home so I can focus on work while I’m at work.
I’ve also read a lot in the past about men feeling insecure as their wives out-earn them. My husband and I have been together since high school when we met at our grocery store jobs, at which time he out-earned me. For the first few years of our relationship that continued, and then we were even with our earnings for a while. But once I graduated from college my income started to take off, and his did not. Even when we were young that didn’t bother him – in fact he was proud of me, which is the right reaction. We were in good company since according to NPR almost 40% of wives out earn their husbands. But for some reason it’s still considered something that “doesn’t happen often”, and a bad thing. In fact, the very article I linked assumes that women who earn more do more housework because their husbands feel emasculated (ugh, really?). I would like to see that data for the reverse situation.
For some reason people assume that the man in the couple feels the need to earn the money, bring home the bacon, and be the provider. But this is 2016, not the 1950’s. Women have more college degrees than men (37.5% of women and 29.5% of men), and men are just as capable of learning how to be a stay at home parent as a woman is. It does take a certain amount of not caring what society thinks about your choices, but luckily I’ve never given a damn what other people think. I make my own choices and do what works for my family.
Do What Works for You
What works for you and your family may be different. Maybe you want to have two people in the workforce, because you both enjoy working and you want the lifestyle that goes with that. Maybe you’re both lower earners and you need two people working opposite shifts to get by. Or perhaps one of you earns a lot more and needs a lot of flexibility to be at work, in which case the other may need to be at home with the kids or work a more flexible job. What you need may change over time, and what worked one year may not work the next. Life is messy and unpredictable, especially when you have kids, and you need to have flexibility.