Today’s post is an interview I conducted via e-mail with a family friend, Tom, who spent many years as a stay-at-home dad. Tom has three kids—a 15-year-old daughter, a 13-year-old daughter, and a 10-year-old son. His wife, as an anesthesiologist, is the main breadwinner of the family. Tom teaches part-time at a community college—he holds undergraduate degrees in math and psychology and master’s degrees in quantitative psychology and education.
I chose to interview Tom not only because he was a stay-at-home dad, and therefore has a unique perspective, but because I have watched him parent for 15 years, and I think he’s fantastic at it. He is loving and kind with his children, and he is no slouch on discipline—I remember watching a toddler stop in mid-step at a word from him. When I became a mom and chose to stay home, I often thought of Tom’s approach to parenting, and the things he said about life as a stay-at-home dad. In our discussions, Tom emphasized that, despite the challenges of being at home, he really did enjoy it and would do it again in a heartbeat.
I’m grateful to Tom for his willingness to participate in this interview—I hope you enjoy his insights as much as I have.
- What influenced your decision to be a stay-at-home dad? Was it something you’d pictured yourself doing when planning for a family?
It was a purely practical decision. I didn’t have any hesitancy to do it, but it wasn’t something I dreamed of doing. Both my wife and I wanted one of us to stay home when we had children, and I realized it would probably be me, but it didn’t seem like a real scenario in my mind. Then she got pregnant with our oldest child during her medical internship. Since she had always dreamed of being a doctor and had a much greater future earning potential than I did, it just made sense for me to be the one staying at home. I don’t want to say I drifted in to it, but it wasn’t part of any grand plan.
2. What challenges have you faced that you think are specific to being a dad at home? For example, I remember you talking about being the “odd man out” during playgroups when your children were young. Was that a common experience? How did you work around the social issues that arose?
Most people aren’t used to stay-at-home fathers, and we tend to discount/ignore things that don’t fit our idea of how the world works. So while every stay-at-home mother I ever met told how great it was that a man was staying home, they never invited my children over for play dates. One time when my daughter was in second grade, she invited a boy over to play, and his parents wouldn’t let him come over because “our arrangement might confuse him”. I don’t think any of it was malicious, but (especially 15 years ago) it was easier for people to ignore us than rethink their views.
Luckily for me, when my two older children were still pre-schoolers, we lived two doors down from another stay-at-home father. He was a great guy, we had the same interests, and our children liked each other, so we would get together. I know the odds of that happening are pretty low, so I got real lucky.
3. Have you noticed a change in cultural attitudes toward stay-at-home dads since your children were young? Are people more generally supportive now than they were ten years ago, for example?
It’s hard for me to answer that. Now that my youngest has been in school for 5 years, I don’t know that I’m still seen as a stay-at-home father. I’m still the one that does homework with them, gets them to softball/baseball practice, goes to school meetings/activities, and all that, but I’m also now working part-time and the days of going to the park to swing and chocolate milk at the playplace are things of the past. I’m not sure how the new stay-at-home dads are being received, but I haven’t met any in the last 10 years so I’m guessing they’re still relatively rare and therefore not much has changed.
4. If you could make two or three changes to our culture to make life easier on stay-at-home dads, what would those changes be?
I think the hardest part of being a stay-at-home father (probably also being a stay-at-home mother) is the social isolation when the children are young. I remember one time my wife asked if I went to the post office and bank that day, and I told her that I went to the post office but was saving the bank for the next day so that I’d have reasons to leave the house on both days. From my point of view, mothers can avoid some of this with each other. So my one big wish for stay-at-home fathers would be that there was some avenue for social interaction (with children in tow) on a random Tuesday morning. Sure, there are gymnastic lessons at the local rec center, but more often than not the mothers chat with each other and the one father sits there reading a book.
Secondly, people tend to think that, barring evidence to the contrary, stay-at-home mothers are good, competent parents and that fathers are goofs who don’t know anything about children. I remember one time my infant daughter was crying in public, so a random woman attempted to wrestle her out of my arms as she said, “Let me help you calm her down”. She seemed genuinely surprised that I wouldn’t happily hand over my child to a stranger. I can’t imagine she would have done that to another woman. I realize that women probably do TEND to be more nurturing parents, but people shouldn’t assume that means some men aren’t just as capable of being excellent primary caregivers as most women.
5. In what ways do you think your family has been shaped by the fact that the primary caregiver is dad rather than mom? For example, do your kids ask different questions about work/life balance, gender roles, etc. than they might if mom were at home?
I think it’s removed a lot of limits on my children’s thinking, but hasn’t pushed them in any specific direction. For example, one of my daughter’s true loves is playing sports (she’s much more athletically gifted than I ever was) and my other was a “princess” as a youngster and is now big into fashion. In general, I don’t think they see activities and jobs as being masculine or feminine and we’ve never had any sort of “boys are mean” or “girls have cooties” comments. Sure there are mean boys, but the fact that they are mean is incidental to the fact that they are boys.
6. If there was one piece of advice you could give to any at-home parent—male or female—what would it be?
Way too many stay-at-home parents lose their identity in being a parent. Go to a neighborhood playgroup and 95% of the conversation is about children and parenting. I dealt in children all day, when I got to talk to another adult I wanted it to be about “adult” things. At the risk of sounding cliché, you’ll be happier and a better parent if you go on date nights with your partner and don’t give up your interests (whether they be fantasy sports or writing a feminist blog). Plus, the children are going to move on someday, so you better have a life to go back to.