If there's one thing that prepared Chris Salazar, of Arlington, Virginia, to be a stay-at-home dad (SAHD), it was growing up in a big Mexican-American family: “I had two brothers and a stepbrother, and there were always lots of little cousins around,” he says. “I changed a lot of diapers in my time and babysat a lot. But my parents were immigrants who worked long hours trying to make ends meet, which means I didn’t get to know them as much as I’d wanted to, and they didn’t get to know me.”
So when he and his wife learned they were going to be parents in 2010, he craved something different for his baby: “I wanted to be in charge of raising our child,” he says. “I knew I was going to stay home with her.” Today, Salazar cares for his two daughters, Kaia and Emily, ages 5 and 5 months, while his wife suits up and heads to the office every day for her job as a federal civilian employee.
Numbers show that he’s not the only dad at the playground. A 2014 Pew Research Center report found that there were more than 2 million SAHDs in the United States. That total—almost a fifth of which is Latino—is about double what it was 25 years ago. The most growth is among dads like Salazar, who are home not because that’s the way the galleta crumbled (i.e., they were laid off, couldn’t find work, became disabled, or were ill), but because they want to be. “It’s still a small number overall,” says Pew Senior Researcher Gretchen M. Livingston. “But it’s significant and growing.”
Of course, many of these SAHDs are doing the same things (feeding, clothing, singing “Wheels on the Bus”) that stay-at-home moms have tackled for decades with little fanfare. But for those of us whose own papás never even changed a single diaper, the shift can feel revolutionary. “Traditionally, we have thought of a father’s most important role as being the economic provider,” says Natasha Cabrera, Ph.D., director of the Family Involvement Laboratory at the University of Maryland, in College Park. “But there is a body of research showing that fathers contribute to their children’s development in unique ways. They really have an impact on how kids do things such as acquire language, develop social skills, and learn to take risks.” So, what are these SAHDs doing differently? A lot.
Yes, we know, just the thought of having to corral a toddler out the door can be exhausting. But take it from dads: You need to get out more. “Especially with young children, parenting can be exhausting,” says Dr. Cabrera. “One of the ways to avoid going mad is to take them out and let them blow off some steam.” That doesn’t have to mean spending bank at the nearest children’s museum or mumble-humming through a mommy sing-along group. In fact, a 2013 study on SAHD behavior from Chapman University, in Orange, California, suggests that SAHDs take particular pride in making anything—a car wash, a trip to Home Depot—into a kid-friendly adventure. “I live my life, and they tag along,” says Francisco Repetto, an Argentinean lawyer who became a SAHD when his family (including kids Isabella, 4, and Francesca, 2), moved to New York City following his wife Michelle’s job. “We go on the subway, I take them to Costco. Michelle would never go to Costco with them; she likes to get in and out. But we make it into an outing, and they help with the shopping.”
In a 2011 survey of families with stay-at-home dads from the National At-Home Dads Network, a major point of conflict between parents had nothing to do with parenting styles—tidying up was the sticking point. “I take my job to be being with the kids, which means I get to housework when I get to it—and sometimes less than my wife would like me to,” Salazar says. In fact, explains Dr. Cabrera, research shows that moms tend to multitask while caring for their kids: “They’re doing laundry, planning the next day’s meal,” she says. “Dads don’t do that. They think, ‘I’m supposed to be taking care, so I’m going to really take care of you.’” This laser focus might drive moms crazy, but it can actually pay off for the kids, she adds. “For example, when dads read to kids, they get more engaged—they ask more questions, label things on the page, repeat lines in different ways—so the effect on the kids’ language skills is greater. But it may just be that dads care less about mess!” The dads’ advice: Let go of the idea that either of you is an all-powerful super-parent, and talk through the housework separate from the kid-work. After all, if your kids are happy and healthy, a Cheerio under the table isn’t a big deal.
As a mom, it can sometimes feel as if everyone—your mamá, la suegra, the preschool teacher, that random lady eyeballing your kid’s meltdown in the cereal aisle—has an opinion on how you’re raising your kids. Studies show that this feeling of being constantly judged can take a toll on a mom’s well-being. But if you think you have it bad, consider this: In a Pew survey, only 8 percent of Americans believe that a child is better off with an at-home dad vs. an at-work dad. (They’re about evenly split on moms.) But here’s the thing: The SAHDs we talked with couldn’t care less. “Especially when my kids were younger, I’d be out with them and get a lot of unprompted advice or warnings from older women,” says Rico Pabón, a Puerto Rican SAHD of three—Jahziel, 10; Iselah, 7; and Anaíza, 4—in Oakland, California. “And I always remember my grandfather, whom I loved and respected a lot, saying, ‘If a man doesn’t work, he ain’t about nuthin.’ But once I settled into this role, there was nothing that could shake me. I know it’s the best thing for my family, and that’s what matters.”
It’s nice to have like-minded mom friends with whom you can share your joys and worries (especially if they have similar-age kids), but it isn’t easy finding them. SAHDs are still rare enough (less than 10 percent of all fathers) that they can’t afford to be cliquey when it comes to playdate scheduling. “When I moved from the West Coast to Long Island, in New York, there were way fewer stay-at-home dads,” says Mexican-American Angelo Moreno, father of 4-year-old Emmeline. “It’s more conservative here. You have to go outside your comfort zone, but you want your kid to have friends, right?” So the next time you find yourself paired with Peppy Mom and Emo Mom at the school book fair, give them both a chance. Sure, you could be rebuffed, but it might also be the start of a beautiful kid-and-mom friendship. “It’s extremely lonely when you’re with a group of moms and none of them will talk to you,” Moreno says. “So I ended up getting all the moms together, even though I’m a dad. I’d organize four of the moms and we’d all do a boat trip. I still talk to some of them, even though we’re across the country.”
Mexican-American SAHD of two (Holland, 2, and Haarlem, 7 months) Richard Vasquez knows that other parents—“especially moms,” he says—might raise an eyebrow when he play-wrestles with his cute-as-a-button toddler. “But she loves it!” says the burly former federal air marshal. Bonus: It’s good for her too. “Fathers are a little more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play with kids, which helps them learn to set and respect limits,” Dr. Cabrera says. “Mothers tend to be a little more cautious.” Sociological research shows that while girls are often initially reluctant to participate in intense physical play, they enjoy it. Going toe-to-toe with Daddy seems to be correlated with increased confidence and independence in girls—it gives them practice in testing boundaries with a bigger, stronger, and yet ultimately loving adversary. For boys, who often aren’t taught to express their emotions verbally, physical play is a way to show affection and teach emotional intelligence, according to The Art of Roughhousing, by Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D., and Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D. Boys learn to read Dad’s signals for ramping play up or down, they learn to take turns (say, chasing and being chased), and they see that touch isn’t just for aggression. It’s quality time that makes for assertive children who are likely to become assertive adults, which is every dad’s (and mom’s) wish.