The Rise of the Stay-At-Home Dad

Why more fathers are scaling back their careers.

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In The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family, Jeremy Adam Smith explores the lives of fathers who decide to become primary caregivers to their children. Smith himself opted to scale back his own work schedule so he could be home with his then-one-year-old son, and felt like the odd person out on the local playground until he met other stay-at-home dads. I recently spoke with Smith about why more fathers are making the decision to prioritize caregiving over their careers, and how they are treated by others. Excerpts:

So often, it seems like discussions about working parents focuses on mothers. Why do you think that is?

Historically, women have been the primary parents. They've engaged in the most caregiving behavior. When the women's movement started and women started going to work in large numbers, they asked workplaces and society to recognize their caregiving, so they had flex time and maternity leave. In the meantime, it was still very much case that fathering was defined as breadwinning. The ideal that was embraced in many workplaces was that the male worker be a robot, unencumbered by family responsibilities. In the book, I argue that the definition of fathering has expanded beyond breadwinning to include a capacity for caregiving.

[For more, see: "The Challenges and Rewards of Part-Time Work."]

Do people tend to overlook men's role as caregivers?

I still think it's the case that people equate family issues with women's issues. Everybody does it. It reflects the weight of that history.

Did you find any trends or commonalities among men who decided to scale back their own work schedules to focus more on caregiving?

I found, and other research has found, a range of motivations for why families decide to share caregiving or make the father the primary caregiver. The biggest reason is that the mother makes more money than the father or has better career prospects. With one couple in the book, she was a scientist and was studying to be a doctor. He was in a place where he could temporarily drop out of his career and she was not. So they decided he would do it. Research by Jennifer Van Hook at Penn State found that a high level of paid parental leave also correlated with greater father involvement. Men bond with their children, too, if they're around. So if companies give men that opportunity, they'll have a higher level of involvement.

One thing that surprises people is that the availability of child care and early childhood education also correlates with fathers' involvement, because when you have two working parents, the pressure is strong for the father to be as involved as the mother.

Do you think fathers who stay at home with their kids are judged? You describe moms on the playground wondering why you weren't at work.

The more I talk about it, the more complicated I consider this to be. Dads who are taking care of their kids during the weekday are a minority. They experience all the problems that minorities experience. Gender is an even tougher barrier than other social barriers. Moms meet each other on neighborhood playgrounds and in general, they bond readily. Fathers are more out on their own, and some fathers are made to feel like outsiders.

A lot of fathers feel like they're held of as exceptional. Hearing, 'You're such a hero" can be just as alienating. How fathers experience this depends on what kind of community they're in. I live in a dense, urban area in San Francisco, and there are a lot of dads around. If fathers are able to start their own groups, that helps their mental and physical health. I went to Kansas City, which you wouldn't think of being particularly progressive on gender issues, but there was a large cohesive group of stay-at-home dads scattered all over the city.

Many dads in the book went through a period of adjusting their self-image and priorities. Breadwinning is very much the baseline against which people judge.

[For more, see: "Creative Ways to Combine Work & Family."]

How did you decided to take a year off when your son was born?

My wife and I never assumed that one of us was the natural breadwinner and natural caregiver. Before my son was born, we assumed she would go back to work after six months, but she and he weren't ready, so she didn't work at all for the first year. Then, at a certain point, we talked about her going back, but we didn't want to put our son in day care. I wasn't sure we could afford it anyway. I was at a cross roads in my career. I could leave, and I did.

At the end of the book, you describe your recommendation of mothers taking the first year of a baby's life off from work, and then fathers taking over for the second year. Why does that two-year plan seem best to you?

When people talk about parenting, they tend to take whatever they did and project it as ideal. But it does seem kind of ideal to me. Childbirth is tough and it's good if the woman can take the first year off, and then it's really great when the father can take over for the second year. It's at a time when the child is learning to separate from the mother and learn independence, risk, and how to walk. Fathers can really play a role and be a bridge there, between dependency on the mother and the rest of the world.

A lot of dads worry about the impact taking time off would have on their career. Did you worry about that?

I had been a nonprofit manager, and after I became a parent, I felt like I didn't want to do that anymore. It was really inflexible and I realized I had to change my life. I had been a journalist, and decided to be a writer and editor. So I used the time to engineer this career transition. I worked for a few hours in the morning every day, so it worked out well. That's pretty typical of a lot of stay-at-home dads. They'll keep a hand in the labor market. In my experience, every dad on the playground did some work. One was a contract archeologist and went to Mexico once a month, another was a private chef and two nights a week would cook for a rich person.

Do you think dads as primary caregivers will become more common?

I sure hope so. The overwhelming trend is for women to do more work and for men to do more care. We're moving in the direction of families becoming more egalitarian and sharing more equitably than in the past. I argue that what created more stay-at-home dads was women going to work, and also instability in the job market. There is no more lifelong employment. In that circumstance, families have to be nimble. They can't afford to specialize. Both parents have to be capable of taking on either of these roles. I think that's going to be the reality for a long time. You can resist that, or embrace it and understand what you're gaining. For women, they can gain a greater degree of personal independence and accomplishment in careers and jobs. For men, they can gain a fuller life and greater sense of humanity.

What advice do you have for dads who are weighing the decision of whether to stay home or not?

My advice is to do it. Nothing about parenthood is forever. I think there's a lot of fear mongering, that if you drop out of the workforce, you'll never get back in, or you'll lose 30 percent of your income. The answer to that is, "Not necessarily." If you keep a hand in the labor force and do something to educate yourself and keep networking, then if you want to transition into the workforce you will probably be able to. Don't let fear tell you what to do. You have to do what's best for your family.