The Identity Crisis of the Stay-at-Home Parent When the Kids Go to School

Now that two of my three children are in school full time, I have more time for myself at home. Am I still a stay-at-home dad or something else?

three kids walking to school with backpacks on
Author Andrew's three children heading off to school. Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Knott

There's a certain confusion that comes with your children growing up and away. Often while in the thick of parenting young children, parents spend a lot of time fantasizing about their children becoming more independent and their time being theirs again.

However, as that time of increased freedom begins to arrive, it can be hard to know exactly what to do with it. I first became a mostly stay-at-home-dad seven years ago when my first child was born. When my wife was pregnant, I was finishing grad school—I had left my job as a science writer to pursue a different field. Because I wasn't established in my career and my wife who is a labor and delivery nurse was, it made sense for me to stay at home after our first child was born. When parenting defines you for so many years, it can be difficult to go back to having any other main role. Since my second child has started elementary school, leaving only our youngest still at home full-time, I've begun to imagine what my life might look like when all my children are in school. And going even further, who I'll be when my kids are a few years older and won't need my attention and care all the time.

In addition to the time my sons spend away at school, I've begun to catch glimpses of my future when they are home. One of their favorite things to do is play Minecraft on the Xbox. They play together, carrying on a constant commentary. They rarely bicker or fight when they are immersed in their game. It's one way they connect. Meanwhile, I often feel a bit adrift and aimless when they play. If I don't have a dishwasher to unload or clothes to fold, I'm not sure what to do with myself.

The idea of eventually transitioning back into some sort of daily life that isn't 100 percent focused on caring for children is difficult to get my head around. I understand this feeling is not unique. Many moms have to deal with this identity shift and an increasing number of dads.

Stay-at-home dads still aren't common, but we are no longer unheard of. I'm still a bit of a novelty when I volunteer at the school book fair or take my kids to the playground on weekday mornings, but I'm not a complete outlier. And while I used to shy away from identifying myself as a stay-at-home dad, fearing that I would be looked down upon, I soon learned that people are typically very supportive and complimentary. At least to my face. Perhaps too much so, in fact. A bit of male privilege at work, no doubt, as I'm sure few stay-at-home moms are routinely lauded by strangers for their life choices.

While I think it's silly that I'm often praised for doing what I'm supposed to do as a parent, that doesn't mean I haven't internalized some of that praise. While many dads I know have impressive careers, few spend as much time with their kids as I do. Even though I reject antiquated notions of fatherhood and masculinity, subconsciously those outdated norms are probably, at least in part, why I feel proud to be a very hands-on father, more involved and dedicated than many men. I'm well aware that being a good parent isn't exceptional in any way. But traditionally, there has been a low bar set for dads in the parenting department. And praise for a job well done is easy to come by.

Still, I'm proud to be a different kind of man. And as terrible as it might seem, I do feel some level of satisfaction when I hear about other men not pulling their weight at home. Like, yes, I'm not climbing the career ladder, but I am doing something right! When you're a stay-at-home parent, you have plenty of time to obsess over the things you might be doing wrong, the ways you are coming up short. So, I'm not above boosting my confidence in petty ways to counteract the negativity.

But where does that leave me when my kids are older, in school large parts of the day, even grown and out of the house all together? I'm not sure. I know my responsibilities as a dad don't necessarily decrease when my kids go to school. My kids still need me and will continue to need my steady presence for many years to come. But practically, I will have more free time to fill. And when I'm off the parenting clock for large chunks of every day, will I still identify as a stay-at-home dad like I do now?

Being a father who stays at home is still unique enough that it has become a core part of my identity. It sets me apart. It makes me feel important. If I start working when my kids are in school, I'll just be a dad who works, like almost every other guy. But if I continue to stay home, I'll be, well, what will I be exactly?

Sometimes the answer seems easy: Find work that can fit around my children's schedule. And if anyone were willing to hire me to work from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., I'd likely jump at the opportunity. But that seems unlikely. And that's one reason why re-entering the workforce full-time often feels like an impossibility.

I didn't understand many things about being a stay-at-home parent when I fell into the gig eight years ago, but one of the most surprising things I've discovered is how hard it is to get out of stay-at-home parenting once you're in it. I'm so ensconced at this point, the idea of doing anything else is almost too daunting to even consider. It's not just the logistics of finding childcare and weighing expenses and income—though those are big obstacles—it's the psychological hurdle of transitioning from being a full-time dad to a dad who only sees his kids at nights and on the weekends. Can I ever bear to make that shift?

These are all questions I have to answer. Fortunately, I have time. My youngest is 3 years old, and she has plenty to say about what I should be doing on a daily basis. Specifically, I'm supposed to be playing with her in the playroom. Moving dolls and toys around. Or making her snacks while she watches Peppa Pig. Or taking her to the playground and pushing her on the swing for what seems like hours at a time. So, that's what I'll be doing.

Because I'm a stay-at-home dad. At least for now.

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