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Lessons From 15 Years as a Stay-at-Home Dad

Lessons From 15 Years as a Stay-at-Home Dad

When I first became a stay-at-home dad, 15 years ago, people didn’t know how to categorize me: I was called a babysitter, “that guy at story time,” and even a woman a couple of times by shirttail relatives and friends. Their words were patronizing and unnecessarily feminizing, but they didn’t diminish my love of being a father. Over time, I raised three kids while my wife advanced in the advertising world. She negotiated contracts; I negotiated naptime. She worked hard to bring in new clients; I worked hard to raise our children. The division of labor has benefited our individual strengths: We both agree that I’m more patient while she is more business-savvy.

Yet, after all this time, many people still can’t compute that I’m my kids’ primary caregiver. Several years ago, as I was fetching my youngest child from preschool, a kid asked the teacher why my son was always picked up by his father; the teacher explained that I was a “daddy-mommy.” As I wrote this article, I learned that I’d missed the sign-up for the same child’s parent-teacher conference because I never got the email. My wife did, even though she barely interacts with the school.

I wish I could be surprised that this kind of confusion hasn’t gone away. I live just outside Kansas City, Missouri, in a rather progressive part of the Midwest where people tend to accept those who buck traditionally gendered roles. In 2021, the proportion of American fathers who were stay-at-home parents was 7 percent, up from 5 percent in 2020; dads account for 18 percent of all stay-at-home parents. Still, I’ve come to believe that a gradual increase in the number of stay-at-home dads alone won’t alter people’s perceptions. Two problems also need solving: policies that discourage men from being involved parents, and a cultural misunderstanding about men doing care work.

Let’s start with paternity leave. Denmark offers a year of paid leave that is split between a child’s parents. Swedish parents get 480 days of paid leave between them. These systems come with their own complications. But the American counterpart is paltry: The Family and Medical Leave Act provides only 12 weeks of unpaid time off, for mothers or fathers—and applies only to certain employees at certain companies. When new mothers aren’t even guaranteed paid time off from work after birth, it’s hard to imagine fathers taking time too—in some cases, they might need to provide the family’s only income while a mother recuperates and cares for a newborn. The result is that fathers, from the very start of a child’s life, tend to be seen as the secondary parent. This too often sends the message to new dads—and to other men—that child-rearing is not the father’s main job.

For a rich country like the U.S., these parental-leave policies are a travesty. However, paid time off at a child’s birth is the bare minimum required for fathers to be active in their kids’ lives. We also need to address society’s perception of what kind of labor can lead to a fulfilling life for men.

A vehicle for this could be some of the many caregiving fields that have a labor shortage. Richard Reeves, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the author of Of Boys and Men, and the president of the American Institute for Boys and Men, has advocated for a “massive national effort to get men to move into jobs in the growing fields of health, education, administration, and literacy.” He argues that having more men in occupations like therapy, nursing, and teaching would not just fill jobs but provide a broader social good, by modeling that men can be caregivers. Reeves points out that federal funding has increased the number of women in STEM professions by providing grants, scholarships, and direct aid to women. The same funding could be provided to place men in fields such as nursing and teaching. The number of male nurses has increased by 59 percent over the past decade. But currently, only 12 percent of nurses are men, and 11 percent of elementary-school teachers are men.

To Reeves, there are real benefits to men when they are cared for or taught by other men. They may be more receptive to a male therapist, and thus more likely to get help, for instance. But doing care work rewards the giver, not just the receiver. Studies show that people who actively choose to provide care may experience a decrease in stress and a greater sense of social connectedness. Dads experience caregiving benefits in specific ways: One study found that when a group of fathers cradled their premature newborns against their bare chests for the first time, they experienced a decrease in both blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol. In general, when men become fathers, their testosterone tends to decrease, a change that increases empathy while lessening aggression, writes Linda Nielsen, the author of Myths and Lies About Dads: How They Hurt Us All and a professor of adolescent and educational psychology at Wake Forest University. In short, it can be both psychologically and physiologically healthy for men to care for others.

My hope is that policy and societal changes will benefit all fathers in the long run, no matter the particular caregiving structure in their family. But for stay-at-home dads who might feel marooned or misunderstood in their experience now, the best recommendation I can offer is joining a dads’ group. These are locally organized small associations of fathers—and not just at-home ones—who might meet regularly for playdates with kids or hangouts without them. The groups are an ideal way for men to bond over their parenting experiences and mentor one another: My group and I discuss everything from automobile engines to potty training. I have been a member for my entire time as a father; the community has both cared for me and taught me how to care for others. When I was in the hospital with my wife for the birth of my youngest son, one of the fathers in my group took care of my older kids, while other dads brought food over for the next month. Just recently, we discussed strategies for teaching my 16-year-old son to drive, ahead of his upcoming test.

For all the chaos it created, the pandemic gave many fathers more unexpected family time, even if they weren’t full-time caregivers like me. It opened many fathers’ eyes to a new approach to parenting. But too many people still see men caring for others—be they one’s own kids or a wider community—as an implausible vocation. I’d like friends, extended family, and our kids’ teachers to recognize how fulfilling being a stay-at-home dad can be. And I’d like fathers to see that caregiving can be a joy for them, too.

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