The perils and glories of being a stay-at-home-dad

Guest post by Ben Martin

Over on Offbeat Families, we’ve got an entire archive of posts about stay-at-home dads, but this is our first stay-at-home-dad post here on Offbeat Home!

YAY stay-at-home dads!… says no one, ever. By: Evil ErinCC BY 2.0

Last week, I cut through the park in our neighborhood while I was walking home from some errand or another and saw a group of about 10 or 12 women enjoying a picnic with their kids. The kids had all finished eating and were playing while the moms chatted and laughed.

I have to admit that I felt a pang of jealousy when I saw them. The kind of camaraderie I saw at the park or that I had with my colleagues in the professional world is rarely available for dads who serve as their family’s primary caregiver.

A few years ago, when I was in the midst of my first stint as a stay-at-home-dad, we moved to Concord, NH for my wife’s work. I looked around for a dad’s group. There wasn’t one, but there was a group called the Mom’s Club. Close enough, right?

I called them up and was surprised when they said they’d have to put it to a vote before they could let me bring my kids to any of the events. I thought it was weird (what the hell was going on at the playground with their kids that they needed to vote people in? Survivor: Playground?), but I figured it was just one of those things. Even weirder, though, was the response I got after they voted. They decided that my kids and I could come along but there were TWO VERY SERIOUS STIPULATIONS.

  1. We couldn’t attend any events at a member’s home.
  2. I could be asked to leave any event at any time by any of the attendees who preferred that a man not be there, and I would have to oblige.

Apparently, the primary rationale for these rules had something to do with some of the moms’ awkwardness around breastfeeding. Because it makes perfect sense that I’d create an elaborate plot involving fathering two children just to have an excuse to see breasts, right? (Step 1: Have kids, Step 2: Join a playgroup, Step 3: Finally see boobies!) So, I told them nevermind because, seriously, screw that.

All that to say being a stay-at-home-dad can be an isolating experience sometimes. We don’t quite fit in with the stay-at-home-moms and we don’t quite fit in with the bread-winning dads. For me, isolation is the worst of homemaking’s perils. I know many moms feel isolated, too, but my guess is that the dads among us experience it more often.

When our son was three I went back to school. When he started kindergarten I returned to the workforce. Unfortunately, our daughter began having health problems about a year ago and I started missing a fair amount of work in order to get her to and from appointments 70 miles away in Boston. We’d wanted to move to the city for a while, but the frequent drives to Children’s Hospital, along with other factors, prompted us to go ahead and make the leap.

After much discussion, my wife and I decided it made more sense for me to re-exit the professional world upon moving. Of course, we knew the move itself would be a big adjustment for the whole family, but we also looked forward to someone (um… me) being available to handle appointments without the dreaded 6:30 a.m. sick day/meeting count.

While I miss the fulfillment of grown-up work, a paycheck, water cooler chats, and not having to deal with people’s awkward comments when they ask what I do (“So what do you do?” “I’m a homemaker.” “Oh. “Well, good for you! That’s precious!”), I’m reminded that being a homemaker is exactly what I’m needed for now.

Comments on The perils and glories of being a stay-at-home-dad

  1. I say, “yeah stay at home dads!” Someone has to be there–why not a father? Our culture needs to stop looking down on parents who stay home to take care of their children. You aren’t being precious, you’re not “babysitting” you are working hard at keeping your family afloat. I would have voted you into the play group.

  2. I can’t believe the “conditions” that were attached to you joining the playgroup! What on earth were they thinking!!!! What would have happened if it was a lesbian mother who asked to join? What if one of the mothers is bi-sexual? What closed mindedness!!!

    I personally feel that having a parent at home during your developing years can be a great benefit and would never consider one parent to be better than another based on gender. I think you are doing a fantastic thing for your family and should be applauded!!!

  3. Thanks! And thanks for including the “you aren’t being precious” part. The “precious” is really closely related to the notion that dads are amusingly incompetent, a la the majority of commercials and tv shows and movies involving dads. It’s funny, my wife actually gets more upset about dads being portrayed as imbeciles than I do. It makes sense when you think about the fact that if dads are viewed as being incompetent then the burden of family-type duties falls back to the moms. The result is that moms are often called upon to cover both the home and their own professional lives while dads get a pass.

  4. My husband is the at-home parent while I work outside the home, and he’s had similar feelings of isolation (although no ridiculous Mom’s group votes and conditions). He does do playdates with at-home moms who are more my friends than his, but mostly he goes it alone with our 4.5 and 2.5 year olds. He’s really embraced the role he was once unsure of, and our children are amazing kids because of it. I’m sure that you can say the same thing about your little ones.

    • I am pretty proud of my kiddos. I’m hesitant to say that it’s related to my staying home with them exactly – there are lots of families who aren’t able to have one parent as the primary caregiver due to any number of factors. I think perhaps the common thread in families with amazing children is parents who work really hard to do whatever is best for their family at any given time. So in one situation that may mean having a parent stay home and in another it may mean having both parents modeling hard work and persistence by working outside the home.

  5. My husband will join the amazing stay at home dad club soon and sometimes I worry what he’ll have to put up with. Hell, one of the many reasons I can’t stay home is because I couldn’t handle the isolation. But I don’t want him to get the side-eyes or the “aww, precious” comments. Seriously, when did we start treating men like it’s amazing when they don’t eat their own young? The breastfeeding bit just kills me. What’s the big deal with boobs? Clearly you’ve seen human boobs before or you wouldn’t have biological kids to begin with and if you were gay you wouldn’t care anyway. Which makes me wonder… Maybe if you saw their boobs you’d see that they were actually covered in scales and are, in fact, lizard people. They can’t let you know their secret because they are planning a slow domination of our species!

    • “Seriously, when did we start treating men like it’s amazing when they don’t eat their own young?”

      This sentence made me LOL! Boyfriend and I want to have kids at some point, and I feel like he’s going to be an equally good/confused/scared/loving/comforting parent with me. Men can parent. Who knew?!

      Also, Ben? That’s an amazing beard. I have serious admiration for good beards.

    • Hahaha, lizard people! (Actually, that seems a more reasonable explanation…) If you can swing it, having a parent home with the kids is a wonderful thing–I don’t see why people get so wound up about it if it’s a father and not a mother.

      Growing up, my mom gradually went back to work around the time that my older sister and I started school, but since my father mostly worked from home or could take me along on jobs, he spent a significant amount of daytime looking after me, too. As disaster-prone as I was, I don’t think I ever ended up needing emergency medical treatment on days he watched me, or anything! I wish people would get over their gender stereotypes and realize that they help no one.

  6. I’m sorry… but what? They wouldn’t let you come to events at people’s homes??? That’s just bizarre. I can’t imagine ever voting for that. Sounds like people you wouldn’t want to be in a group with anyway. I hope there are more open and accepting groups in your new city that you can find.

    My husband and I have discussed the possibility of him becoming a stay-at-home dad when we eventually have kids, because I am the primary earner in our household at the moment. We’ll see what happens when we actually have offspring to raise, but I would hate for him to become some sort of social pariah because people don’t “get” stay-at-home dads.

    • It’s really not necessarily all loneliness and isolation all the time. It just sometimes requires more effort, creativity, and perseverance for dads. My daughter and I spent a lot of time with one fellow stay-at-home-dad (who ultimately moved away) and in the place we used to live I did eventually find some great families with stay-at-home-moms who were welcoming and friendly. Don’t give up hope – the isolation is more a challenge than a destiny.

  7. My husband stayed at home when our son was 4-12 months, and found himself walking 6 miles a day with kiddo in the stroller to pass his time since he couldn’t find any groups to really join or hang out with.

  8. My husband stays home with our toddler while I work 9-5 on weekdays. He works at night, so it’s hard for us as a couple, but he LOVES being home with her during the day, and I love it too! What he does is HARD and he does get some flack about it from some friends/family. Nevermind the fact that he goes and works from 6pm-midnight 4 nights a week! He is an excellent dad and I do say YAY Stay-at-home Dads!!!! You guys are awesome.

  9. Kudos! My dad was a stay-at-home dad for us three kids, and we did nothing but benefit. While my mom is a great mom, my dad had a level of energy that only kids can compete with. With him, there was never any shortage of museum trips, library trips, races around the yard, park visits, etc., and I can guarantee now that I’m older and really “know” my dad as a person, all these activities were also absolutely for his own benefit 😉

    I also feel that there is a certain level of… inquisitiveness? Eagerness? Curiosity?….that some guys have about the world and they share it with children. My dad was something of an engineer, fix-it guy, a trait that he passed down to us. He never worried about us making a mess, he was too busy joining in and letting us learn about the world – an area where I know my mom would have a lot of hard time letting go!

  10. That being said, it has gotten better. My husband and his sister were raised by a stay at home dad but this was thirty years ago when it was much more rare. The worst thing was that none of the other parents would let their kids play at my husband’s house because they assumed that being a stay at home dad meant he was a pedophile.

      • Yes. I know that a male family friend (father of three) caught a lot of flack when he used to help out with one of his daughters’ Girl Scout troops back in the 80’s, to the point that he quit. I’m sure some people found my father’s involvement questionable, as well.

        You know, people get all upset when dads *aren’t* involved in their kids’ lives, but when they try, a lot of parents (moms especially, I fear) treat them like child predators. Ugh.

  11. I shared this post with my husband last night. When our twins came home from the NICU and required multiple medical and therapy appointments each week he volunteered to stay home with them. It’s been three years now and he loves it. Reading your post inspired a great conversation about his own feelings of isolation and not being taken seriously (especially by other moms and some of our kids doctors) and about how we should tackle it together.

    Also we totally compulsively read through your blog last night.

    • I’m really glad you guys got a chance to talk about it (I am a social worker, too, after all)! I think it’s often a challenge to talk about feeling isolated, especially for guys because, just like society questions our ability to parent, it tends to judge us for feeling anything but completely self-reliant. It can be almost embarrassing.

      For me it’s helpful just to know there are other parents with the same feelings. I guess that’s one of the ways internet communities are useful!

  12. Anyone who doesn’t say “Yay stay at home dads!” is drinking the Patriarchy Kool-Aid. Way to go, Ben, for doing what needs doing for your family and for sharing it with us. My husband wants to be the at-home-parent more than anything but right now with me being unemployed I’m the default choice. It IS lonely and I can’t wait to get back to work.

  13. Have you considered starting your own group? I think it would be great if you could have a group that would allow both men and women to bring their kids to these types of events. Even if you get one other guy to hang out with you and the kids at a coffee shop, at least you wouldn’t be as alone.

    And you rock by the way! Even if you don’t have a lot of support from your community, this internet stranger supports you 🙂

  14. To the OP, your experience truly and utterly sucks. As Krystyna suggested, have you thought about starting your own group? Groups that embrace momas, papas and all the other care givers out there are a good thing. Your “application” to join the group might have left some group members thinking “Hey, it would be nice to have a everyone-can-play” group.

    However, I can understand why these women might have wanted to adopt this policy. Not all women are comfortable around men (even supportive men like the OP) for numerous reasons including negative past experiences, their own self-consciousness and cultural reasons, such as not being around men who are not part of the family, to name but a few. Without knowing much about the group in question, I can’t comment much more on their intentions.

    I really thought hard about whether or not to post this comment. Hopefully it helps to generate an interesting discussion.

    • Thanks for posting your comment! I think from some of the comments below, you broached a topic that was on several peoples’ minds, so kudos for that!

      I want to make sure to reiterate what I said in a previous comment and then clarify a bit. First, life as a stay-at-home dad isn’t a permanent onslaught of loneliness – it just takes a bit more effort to find people to socialize with than it does in a professional environment. I was a stay-at-home dad until my daughter was 5 and my son was 3, and in that time I really enjoyed getting to know other primary caregivers of both genders.

      Regarding starting a group myself, my daughter is now 9 and my son is 7. In my first go around as a homemaker, starting a playgroup would have been a great idea if I’d had the confidence to try it! They’re a bit old for it now and make friends at school and I’ll make new friends the old fashioned way (by wandering around town asking random people to be my friend, right?).

      As far as the motivations of the women in the group go, I can’t state them with certainty. The group was made up of middle to upper middle class stay-at-home moms married to professional men, so my guess is that it was related to self-consciousness and cultural reasons.

      More importantly, the story about the mom’s group was meant to be an amusing anecdote to illustrate the difficulty of the isolation that often results when we challenge traditional gender roles because, for me, that’s the hardest part of this homemaker gig.

      My hope was to then contrast that with the rewards of pushing through that difficulty – having a happier, more functional family. Some parts that were cut from the original blog post may have made this point a bit clearer. In a nutshell, my daughter was diagnosed with a relatively complicated condition just under a year ago and being a stay-at-home dad allows our family to care for her and for one another while we go through the tumult of a move and a drastically changed lifestyle. While the role comes with difficulties, I think it’s a worthwhile tradeoff in our case.

      Thanks again for having the courage to be the first to post that thought about the perspective of the members of the mom’s group! It can be tough to raise concerns that no one else raises, but it generally makes for a much richer discussion!

  15. I wrestle a lot with this idea in my own personal identity politics…

    I have had several experiences of women only spaces, and part of me kind of can get the reaction of those women on an emotional level. But I am also an inclusionist, and I really react strongly when anyone is getting excluded in any way… I recognize how unproductive that is overall.

    I did my final women’s studies assignment on using media to deconstruct depictions of gender roles in marriage. It’s really interesting to see how the feminist revolution has opened up women’s roles to include both home and work spheres, but that the kind of “funny” failures of men in the home have Not Changed One Bit. In fact in some ways the women’s domain of the home and men’s failure to live up to women’s standards has increased! This really needs to shift in some way if we’re going to start to approach actual equality…

    • Thanks, for your insights, Jen. You and a couple of other commenters have raised valid points that the members of the mom’s group may have had very legitimate reasons to be hesitant to accept a dad into the group. I can definitely see the value in any minority or disenfranchised group (women) having the opportunity to meet and socialize without interference from members of the empowered group (men).

    • I totally agree about the fact that we are still working on challenging social construction of “men.” I want space for my husband to be human first, just like I am. I do problematize things with him sometimes because I have a background of feminist study and he’s come through some experiences that entrenched stereotypical patriarchal views. And yet he’s volunteered to be a stay at home dad when we have kids. It makes more sense since my job is less flexible than his.

  16. My husband was a stay at home dad and continues to be the ‘primary care giver’. We’ve been lucky that he has only ever been welcomed into mothers groups or when taking our daughter to music lessons etc. He always does the maternal child health nurse visits! His family and friends who are quite old fashioned have also been really supportive. My family not so much. The biggest hurdle was getting his job to realise he had the same rights as a mother. He was entitled to a year off without pay and they had to consider alternate hours when he returned (we live in Australia so are blessed with pretty good workplace relation law for the moment). It was so difficult when I know that if it had been me asking for those things it would have been given without question.
    I do worry about him getting lonely despite being a loner by nature. It is an amazing journey though. Thank you for sharing an insight into your world! Yay stay at home parents!

  17. There is an increasing trend of men who have opted to play the role of ” house husbands ” by quitting their jobs and taking on managing the home front full time.As old concepts have given way to the new, so have old norms about workplace and work methods evolved into newer, dynamic ideas that match better with the gigantic technological strides of the modern age. Now with borders having become seamless and horizons drawn closer, the limitations of time and space suddenly seem insignificant, thus giving rise to virtual and flexible working arrangements which allow people the freedom to work in their homes at a schedule that suits their other personal commitments. This is a great opportunity for all those house husbands who have willingly chosen to remain at home to shed their ‘economically inactive’ tag by joining the homeworking bandwagon and tap into a convenient means of augmenting the family income.

  18. Thank you for this. As a man just wading into the stay-at-home-dad waters I am concerned by many of the issues you raised (that is not going to stop me from doing what I need to support my family). I just left a career path that was going nowhere and prevented me from shouldering any of the household responsibility during the week,

  19. Thank you for this. As a man just wading into the stay-at-home-dad waters I am concerned by many of the issues you raised (that is not going to stop me from doing what I need to support my family). I just left a career path that was going nowhere and prevented me from shouldering any of the household responsibility during the week so I know this is the right decision. I still get the immediate question from people that learn of my career move asking “So have you started putting in applications yet and where? How long do you think it will take to find another job?” It is very frustrating that it is assumed that is the only option for me. When I try to explain my plan, I get a “…oh…um that is nice” and a look at my wife and me that says “Oooh la ti da, it must be nice to be so independently wealthy that the little lady can let him mooch like that.” The conversation often ends or awkwardly shifts to something else. I know that is really just me projecting my own deep seated psychological baggage on to their confused look, but that baggage is not unjustified given all of the cultural messages about men’s roles in the home and wage disparities. Trying to explain the economic rationale that my wife and I have considered in making our decision, only makes things worse and I end up just saying something about just looking for a good fit or not seeing any opportunities… down economy…crazy weather we’re having… So it is really nice to find that there are other people who have faced similar challenges. It helps reduce the isolation. Again thanks.

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