Stay-at-home dad: It sounds like an idea for a sitcom. Yet there's a sizable group...
Although there are no exact statistics on the number of fathers who elect to stay home to take care of their kids, James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in New York City, puts the figure at around 300,000 -- and growing, he emphasizes. But far more interesting than the number of SAHDs (yes, they even have their own acronym) are the answers to why these men are choosing this line of work, why now, and what it ultimately means for families.
"The decision is largely a function of the times," says Robert Frank, Ph.D., an assistant psychology professor at Oakton Community College in Skokie, IL, and author of Parenting Partners. "Two reasons come up the most: This generation of parents is more reluctant to place children in daycare, and many wives are making more money than their husbands."
This nontraditional arrangement is not without its ironies. Only 30 years ago, the feminist movement rallied against the notion that raising children was the only job for women; they took to the workforce in droves, striving to have both a career and a family. Now that women, the majority of whom are working mothers, have a significant foothold in the workplace, more and more men, who perhaps saw what their own mothers went through in trying to "have it all," are choosing childrearing as a full-time occupation.
There are smaller ironies too. Many stay-at-home dads speak of feeling shunned by their female counterparts (sound similar to what women entering male-dominated professions encountered in the early days?), devalued by their own gender (remember the "mommy wars" of the '80s?), and generally isolated and invalidated (ever hear of the kaffeeklatsch?).
The wives of at-home dads have had to make some adjustments as well -- from enduring "pity parties" from neighbors who think their husband can't hold down a job to feeling twinges of jealousy when their toddler runs to Daddy for comfort. What's more, research shows that these women don't play the equivalent 1950s role of the detached working dad to their husband's June Cleaver. They willingly take on parenting and household responsibilities in the mornings, in the evenings, and on weekends, Frank says.
And in yet another one of those little ironies, Kyle Pruett, M.D., director of the Child Study Center at Yale University and author of Fatherneed, reports listening to stay-at-home fathers of newborns discuss how lonely they felt and how their brains were turning to mush -- "all the things we've always called maternal ambivalence," Pruett says. "It's proof that these emotions have nothing to do with gender -- and everything to do with the job."
For this story, we heard from nearly six dozen at-home fathers. Here, three share the challenges -- and joys -- of the daddy track.
Marc Harris, 36Murfreesboro, Tennessee
At-home dad for two yearsWife: Jeana Chicosky, 32, president of a commercial printing companyChildren: Emily, 4, and Jake, 2
Marc Harris has always been a somewhat nontraditional father. When his daughter was an infant, he brought her with him every day to the job sites he supervised for his contracting business in Houston. But that was before his wife, Jeana Chicosky, was promoted to president of the printing company she works for, requiring the family to move to Tennessee two years ago.
"We had been talking for a while about my staying home with the kids because I was getting tired of the politics of the contracting business," says Harris. "Then we found out she was going to be relocated and figured this was the time to give it a try." But like many cautious couples, the two agreed on an initial trial period. "I think I was more afraid of being bored than of not knowing what to do," he admits. "Man, was I wrong!"
Harris couldn't have anticipated how much he'd enjoy being his kids' primary caregiver -- nor how ostracized he'd feel. "The mothers I meet are totally standoffish," he says. "They barely acknowledge me when I'm with Jake at Tumble Gym. One mother still doesn't let me in her house when I bring Emily over for a playdate -- and the kids have been playing together for over a year now." Then there was the neighbor who, upon meeting his wife for the first time, consoled Chicosky about her "husband's situation," obviously assuming that Harris couldn't keep a job.
Fortunately, Harris came up with another outlet. Last year, he and another at-home dad posted a message on one of the SAHD Web sites looking for men who were interested in forming a dads' group. The message generated responses from all over central Tennessee. "We're up to 16 dads now, as far-flung as Nashville and Columbia," he says, meaning he can wind up driving 40 minutes each way, "and the kids are from about 6 months to Emily's age." They get together for weekly playdates with the kids and a monthly dads' night out. "You don't realize how great it is to have other guys to relate to," he says. "It's very validating."
Harris says his second year as the primary caregiver has been a bit more challenging, since Jake is now an active toddler. ("When he's not sleeping, he's moving.") Still, there's no question this was a good move. "Jeana loves her job, and I feel very fortunate that one of us can be home with our kids," he says. "We both know what a luxury it is to be a single-income family."
Both children of divorce, neither Harris nor Chicosky had close relationships with their own fathers growing up. His was a traveling salesman, gone a week at a time. "I saw my father only on weekends," Harris recalls. "Once my parents got divorced, I saw him only every other weekend. So knowing exactly what kind of dad I don't want my kids to grow up with has made this experience even more incredible for me."
Ben Rountree, 40
Mission Hills, California
At-home dad for seven yearsWife: Maria, 39, legislative analyst for the city of Los AngelesDaughter: Arianna, 7
To hear Ben Rountree tell it, that first year as Arianna's at-home parent was like taking a speed-reading course in a foreign language. Rountree, who in his former working life was an independent music producer and songwriter, immersed himself in What to Expect the First Year, treating the book like an instruction manual, and never missed an installment of Dr. Brazelton's show on the Learning Channel. He made frequent long-distance phone calls to both his mother and his mother-in-law with questions about things his baby daughter was -- or wasn't -- doing. And then there was Katie -- his wife's sister, who lived nearby and who had given birth to her first child the day before Maria did.
"Katie took an extra three months' leave, and we talked every day," Rountree recalls. "We were our own mutual support group." Still, he could be easily thrown by topics that neither the book, Brazelton, the grandmothers, nor Katie had discussed. For instance, "I didn't take Arianna out for months because none of my so-called experts happened to mention it," Rountree exclaims. "That's how literal and scared I was. I was sure she'd wriggle out of her carrier, fall, and crack her head."
Though he might not have known what he was getting into, he did volunteer for the job. "Maria had gotten her graduate degree in urban planning a few years before Arianna was born," he says. "If she had taken time off to stay home, it would have felt like she was bailing on her career." And once Arianna arrived, handing her off to a daycare provider was no longer an option for Rountree, who fully expected to be able to do his music on the side. ("Little did I realize I'd barely have time to breathe!")
Rocky start aside, for years now Rountree has flourished in his role -- both at home, where he is chief cook and bottle washer (but not launderer, since Maria doesn't appreciate his creativity with bleach), and in the community, where he is PTA president for the second year in a row. "I spend almost as much time at school as Arianna does," says Rountree, and it's no wonder. This year alone he started three extracurricular art classes as well as computer, chess, and journalism clubs. He also organizes all the PTA fundraisers and runs the after-school snack shop (another brainchild of his that helps pay for new software for the school).
Before his PTA "gig," he organized weekly playdates for his stay-at-home-dads group. "I definitely miss the camaraderie with the guys," he says, guessing that he's the only full-time dad at Arianna's school. "People still don't quite know what to make of me." Such anomaly status is why, several years ago, the group had T-shirts made that read, "I'm not a babysitter, I'm a father."
"That slogan is as much about pride as about letting people know -- in a subtle way -- that it's insulting to assume that only mothers can be nurturing," Rountree says. With Arianna in school now, he occasionally contemplates rejoining the gainfully employed: "It's confusing. Financially, we've made sacrifices for a long time, but I don't want to suddenly create a latchkey kid. Besides," he adds without missing a beat, "I could have a long and illustrious career ahead of me in the PTA."
Bryan Syverson, 39Fresno, California
At-home dad for five yearsWife: Rebecca Stickler, 43, general surgeonChildren: Valerie, 15, and Joe, 4 1/2
Unlike most stay-at-home father/working mother couples, Bryan Syverson and Rebecca Stickler actually discussed this arrangement some 20 years ago -- before they were even married, let alone parents. "We both knew that medicine, and especially surgery, was a difficult mommy-track career," Syverson says. "Also, our personalities are well suited to our roles: Rebecca would be an unhappy at-home mom, and though I've always enjoyed professional work, it's not how I get my ego stroked."
As it was, he worked full-time to put his wife through medical school while studying part-time for his own undergraduate engineering degree. Valerie, born six weeks before Stickler started school, was cared for during the day by "a wonderful woman who was a master's student in early childhood education," he says.
After medical school, the family moved from Washington, DC, to Chicago, where Stickler began her surgical residency ("the equivalent of working 2 1/2 full-time jobs while getting paid for one minimum-wage one," Syverson says). For those five years, he juggled two jobs in order to be there when Valerie got home from school -- first doing computer-related consulting from home and then some variation of flex-time at a computer managerial job.
Seven years ago, they moved to Fresno, where his wife joined a small group practice. Syverson did some part-time consulting work from home until Joe was born, when he finally got the chance to focus exclusively on his domestic and paternal side. For four years, he did the laundry as well as the shopping and cooking -- which for his family can be quite a challenge, as his wife is a vegetarian and his daughter is allergic to dairy. As for cleaning the house, Syverson acknowledges that he has "a slightly higher threshold for dirt" than his wife, so the couple compromised by getting a cleaning woman. ("It was cheaper than marriage therapy," Syverson says.)
Then last fall, Joe started a Montessori preschool five mornings a week. Just as his dad was considering what to do with his newfound free time, an opportunity presented itself: a flex-time position writing for a small computer-book publisher. "My main concern was how I would find time to get the work done, since my kids took precedence," Syverson says. So, just like scores of new working mothers before him, he took the job and agonized over everything those first few months.
Now, six months into it, he's worked out a reasonable schedule: He's in the office every morning while his son is in school and has a babysitter two afternoons a week so he can work from home; he steals a few more hours at night after Joe's had a bath and gone to bed and Valerie is done with her homework.
"Rebecca has been extremely supportive," Syverson says -- for example, she tries to come home earlier to make dinner on the days the sitter is there so he can continue to work. Joe, however, had to make one adjustment: "He realized I wasn't sitting in the car outside school waiting for him after I dropped him off, as he'd always thought I did. That was a hard one."
Valerie thinks having a "dad for a mom" is pretty cool, although, Syverson says, she at times has the typical teenager's attitude toward any parent being at home. Joe doesn't seem to have noticed the difference yet. Public reaction to Syverson's role reversal has improved over the years, he says -- which he attributes more to Joe's being older now than to any seismic shift among the culture at large. "When Joe was an infant, I got very disapproving looks, as if to say small children should only be with their mothers," he says. "It was a clear prejudice, and I felt more isolated back then. Now, as a dad out with his son, I'm practically treated like a role model."
He still feels ambivalent about having one foot back in the work world, though: "The rules for success are very clear-cut, and getting feedback is nice. So is getting a salary," he says. "But it can't compare to the emotional payback of hearing, for no apparent reason, 'Dad, I always love you.'"
Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the June/July 2001 issue of Child magazine.