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Maybe There’d Be More Stay-at-Home Dads If We Stopped Pretending It’s Not an Option

stay at home dad
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For 12 years I’ve been the primary, at-home caretaker of my two daughters. I’d love to say this was a well-planned effort to expand family roles and challenge outmoded paradigms, but really it was a perfect storm of circumstance and need.

While my wife and I put a lot of thought into the birth of our first child (classes, books, a birth plan, etc.), we didn’t put nearly as much thought into what would happen once our baby was born. Someone would have to take care of this kid after my wife’s maternity leave was up, and since my wife’s job as a city planner was our family’s primary income source, there was no way it could be her.

Meanwhile, I was still meandering through college. Any income I brought in at the time would have barely covered the cost of childcare, so we decided I’d put college on hold and stay at home with our daughter until we figured out a more permanent solution. Our plan—to live on one income—was a significant privilege and allowed us to make a choice that many people, particularly women of color and people in other marginalized groups, cannot.

Weeks became months, months became years, the city became the suburbs. My wife’s career advanced, we had another daughter, and I quietly morphed into someone who at any given time had one child in a stroller and another one in a sling. This suited me just fine. My wife is an extroverted person who thrives in a professional environment. On the other hand, I tend to be introverted and feel more comfortable reading to a toddler than participating in conference calls. Our arrangement works because it reflects who we are instead of jamming us into roles that don’t fit.

Where are all the other stay-at-home-dads?

I’ve often been the only stay-at-home-dad in social settings. Schools, parks, children’s activities, birthday parties, playdates—they’re all still considered the land of the mothers. I can’t imagine my own marriage is so unique that there aren’t other heterosexual couples where the man is more suited to primary childcare. (I imagine that LGBTQ+ couples have long ago figured this out.) Furthermore, most of the moms I encounter aren’t even truly stay-at-home: Many work outside the home, often full-time, while also taking on the bulk of their family’s domestic and childcare duties. I find myself wondering: Where are all the other dudes like me?

I imagine a lot of them are quietly carrying out roles they’re less suited for because it doesn’t occur to them that primary parenting is an option. When my wife and I made the decision for me to become our primary, at-home parent, it wasn’t based on any kind of pre-existing model or template—because there simply wasn’t one. My staying at home was a stopgap measure to help us get through to something more permanent, but ended up working so well for us that it became the solution.

The assumption is that women should either stop working and take on childcare or continue working and take on childcare, becoming “working mothers,” while men just get to be . . . men. Because of this, I sometimes have a hard time explaining my role. There’s such a lack of language, support systems, and examples of at-home male parents that it’s easy to be seen as an outlier or a novelty.

“Oh! You mean like Daddy Day Care?” Um, no, not really. But that’s exactly the kind of limitation that comes from gendering social roles—it restricts our ability to use our own particular strengths in service of leading happy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives. Whether at home or at work, finding arrangements that play to everyone’s strengths should take precedence over arrangements based on gender identity. This is usually not the case. And it’s hurting all of us.

We can close the gap.

By thinking of male parenting as a secondary bonus (I still hear people refer to men taking care of their kids as “babysitting”), we’re insisting that women who work outside the home shoulder the burden of childcare in addition to their careers. And on top of that double burden, we’re punishing them financially. When either parent takes time away from work outside the home to care for children, that choice has financial ramifications—my own family made significant financial sacrifices when I decided to stay at home. But when this “choice” in so many cases is really just a culturally enforced gender mandate, we end up with a reality where women are paid 54 to 85 percent of what their male counterparts make (the gap is biggest for Hispanic women and smallest for Asian women). Much of this gap, which is unlikely to be closed until the year 2152, is a result of wildly imbalanced parental leave.

Studies by the Center for American Progress show that a 26-year-old woman with a $35,520 annual salary will end up losing $124,689 in lifetime earnings if she leaves the workforce for just one year. This is a culmination of lost wages, wage growth, and retirement benefits, and is sometimes called the “motherhood penalty.” Granted, the same study shows a 28-year-old man who stays home for a year losing $153,237 of his lifetime earnings (the higher number being a function of higher average male salaries and faster wage growth). But according to this Pew study, households where a man works part-time or is not employed while a woman works full-time make up just 6 percent of two-parent male-female American families, whereas families where the man works full-time while the woman is at home or works part-time make up 43 percent. Our wage gap would be a lot narrower if we could find ways to balance those percentages.

Luckily, as social views on family and work continue to evolve, there are more opportunities than ever to reframe ideas about parenting and gender. Companies themselves can be catalysts for this change, and with forward-thinking sectors like tech injecting a spirit of flexibility and innovation into the workforce, it’s not surprising to see an increase in employers across all industries encouraging a more open idea of what parenting looks like. By moving parental leave policies away from the traditional format of “maternity leave” and making leave more accessible to all parents, companies allow employees to figure out what’s best for them.

There are already companies with progressive policies that show us how things could work.

Jennifer Allyn, Diversity Strategy Leader at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), the world’s largest professional services firm, says that PwC adjusted its parental leave policy in 2014 in response to an increase in gay parents requesting leave, which led executives to question why they were trying to distinguish between parents at all. A growing recognition that parents of adopted children needed as much leave time as birth parents also guided the policy change.

PwC now affords six weeks of fully paid leave to all parents (birth, adoptive, and foster), regardless of gender and on top of short-term disability and vacation time. (This is in contrast to the 12 weeks of unpaid family leave afforded to less than 60 percent of the American workforce under the Family Medical Leave Act). After two and a half years, PwC now sees 76 percent of eligible dads taking their full six weeks.

John French, Director at PwC, is a dad who’s benefited from this policy. He took advantage of it when his youngest son was born, but his history with PwC’s open approach to parenting goes back much further. For the last 13 years he’s been on a flexible schedule that ranges from 60 to 80 percent time—specifically so he can spend more time with his five kids.

“When I started the schedule, I was one of the few client-facing males on a program like this,” French says. “I think it’s important for other team members to see parents bonding with their children at an early age, even if they haven’t started their own families yet.” This combats the stigma against men prioritizing family. French says he’s never experienced any negativity directly from coworkers or clients: “When I became more open about my schedule, I was pleasantly surprised how receptive people were.”

French says that flexibility and an open parental leave policy have become key factors in trying to understand what drives and motivates employees. “In the past, people would use money or stock options to keep employees happy, but as I’ve reflected on my time with PwC I realize there aren’t a lot of companies that offer the same kind of parental leave or are as open with flexible schedules, so those things can become very powerful.”

You’re an individual, not an avatar.

If I’ve learned anything from my accidental odyssey of the last 12 years, it’s that you shouldn’t be afraid to make decisions that work for you and your family. If you’re in a male-female relationship, your male partner isn’t an empty suit, biologically programmed to be a breadwinner. Your female partner isn’t a faceless dress, designed to raise children. We can do better than that.

All these years later, I still have moments of self-doubt when my own stay-at-home-dad lifestyle comes up, and there are times when I feel self-conscious about revealing it to strangers. I’m not entirely sure why that is—maybe it’s the years of generational baggage to get out from under when it come to gender identity—but I always end up getting a positive response when I finally come clean. The thing is, sometimes those positive responses are almost wistful, as though they wish for an arrangement like mine. Our culture’s current assumptions about parenting and gender roles punish all of us. Instead of living the lives that fit us, we try to stuff ourselves into boxes that don’t fit. Instead of closing the wage gap, societal mores and systemic pressures keep women from advancing. But it doesn’t have to be this way: I’m not some hero, just a guy who with his wife decided to take an option we’re told we don’t have. We as a society simply have to be accountable enough to each other to break down walls like this—and much of that responsibility falls to privileged men to stand up and take on their share of the burden.

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