Being a stay-at-home dad carries its expected share of indignities, casual insults from a prejudiced world. A new survey of at-home fathers, released last week by the Boston College Center for Work and Family, turned up some amazing stories. There was the father who showed up at a mom’s group, only to see the members pull out their bylaws and declared that, as a man, he wasn’t welcome. There was the Boston-area guy who took his infant for a walk in the woods near his house and came out to find police cars waiting: Someone had reported a suspicious man who had possibly taken a child.
And there was the guy who took his infant daughter to a supermarket. In the checkout line, a female shopper behind him started rearranging the bow in his daughter’s hair, declaring that fathers couldn’t do anything right.
But what was most striking about the in-depth study of 33 dads was its conclusion: Despite the challenges and stigmas, the snooty moms and questioning relatives, the fathers surveyed were intent on staying home, satisfied with their choices. “What struck me was how thoughtful they were about parenting,” the center’s executive director, Brad Harrington, told me. “How it had changed them as individuals, how it had changed their perceptions of what a father should be.”
Which is why he ended the study with a pointed recommendation: That we break from the “conflict/burden paradigm” that describes so much of the chatter about parenthood today.
This, perhaps, is what we can best learn from stay-at-home fathers: to stop complaining. So much of what’s written and publicly hashed about parenthood these days focuses on the negative: the angst and stress over doing things “right,” the competition among overprivileged mothers. The question of working versus staying home is, itself, fraught with judgment about what’s best for kids, womanhood, careers, the self.
Maybe it’s easier, when it comes to fathers, to talk about the basics — to see parenthood not as some ideal to strive for, but something that you just do. And maybe it’s easier for fathers to leverage those stigmas and stereotypes, to achieve that elusive “balance” as a matter of course.
Stay-at-home parenthood is a fairly rare phenomenon in this country, in part because of economics: Our parental leave practices are a stark reflection on the value our society actually places on having kids. The ranks of stay-at-home dads are predictably tiny, but growing fast. Today, 3.4 percent of stay-at-home parents in two-parent families were dads, compared to 1.6 percent a decade ago. (Fun fact: 3.4 percent is also the proportion of female CEOs in the Fortune 1000.)
The men in the survey, Harrington said, talked about the challenges, the social isolation, the comments from relatives who didn’t respect their choices. But they also talked about the rewards, the meaning that kids had brought to their lives. They didn’t parent with regrets.
That’s a sentiment that gets echoed in ranks of “daddy bloggers,” such as Trey Burley, who lives in Georgia, takes care of two small boys, and maintains the blog daddymojo.com. By phone, Burley told me that his social network consists more of dads than of moms. He finds that dads tend to be calmer. They put their kids on a longer leash. They countenance more bumps and bruises.
If Burley is any indication, they also talk about choices and tradeoffs without so much guilt or angst. He imagines that someday, if he can find a bigger-salaried job closer to home, he and his wife could switch off. His advice to stay-at-home parents is to insist on a balance at home: His wife takes over a large portion of child care in the evenings and weekends, to give him a break, to go running or do karate or go online or volunteer.
Somehow, when he describes the arrangement, it doesn’t sound wrenching. It sounds matter-of-fact. Smooth. Isn’t that what family life should be? Isn’t that what gets lost in the noise of those trumped-up “wars”?
“We talk about it as if it’s all about the burden and the responsibility and who’s going to take responsibility for what kind of thing,” Harrington said. “When you operate with that paradigm long enough, it can lead us to forget: Would you rather not have the job? Would you rather not have the kids? What a great thing it is to have lives that are full.”