When Eric and Jody courted during graduate school, they assumed that when the time came to raise a family, Eric would work and Jody would stay home with the kids. Six years later, things looked different. "I liked my job, but Jody loved hers," says Eric. "Jody made lots more money than I ever could have. It became clear to each of us that she should work and I should stay home. We came to this decision through a lot of prayer and by discussing it with our church friends ad nauseum."
Three children later, Eric is passionate about being a stay-at-home dad. "My staying home and Jody engaged in her career works well for us. We each think we have the better end of the deal. I love kids, and she loves her job and our kids. I haven't traded away a gloomy future so my wife can work; I traded up. I worked for 12 years as an engineer; it was a good experience and I miss my colleagues. But I will have a more significant impact on the world by being home."
Eric and Jody aren't unusual. Estimates today place the number of stay-at-home dads in the United States at nearly two million—a number that has quadrupled since 1986 and is now the fastest growing family type. The exact number is difficult to determine because many fathers who devote themselves full-time to the job of parenting also have part-time jobs, work from home, or are between jobs.
Based on survey results by researcher Bob Frank, these families share common characteristics: they see themselves as equal partners in parenting, and they put childcare first—above traditional roles. They choose this arrangement not out of necessity, but of practicality: the husband's personality may be a better fit for raising kids full-time or he can interrupt his career more easily or work out of the home. In most cases, the wife's career provides greater benefits and career potential than the husband's.
Such was the case with Sue and Dave Jenks of Palo Alto, California. Sue worked at a technology firm, Dave was self-employed as an architectural draftsman, and they juggled childcare for their two children. "It became clear that one of us needed to stay home," says Dave. "I was trying to work late at night, but I wasn't doing too great a job at either taking care of the kids or starting my business. I was wiped out all of the time; so I suggested that I stay home. Sue had an established career with benefits and was in a marketable position. We wanted one of us to be home with the kids, and we both feel relieved of the stress of using day care. One thing I hope my kids will catch on to is how committed we are. We'll do whatever it takes to raise them in the best way."
Not Mr. Mom
Mr. Mom, a hit movie in the early eighties, depicts a freshly unemployed Michael Keaton struggling to adapt to being a full-time dad. He tries to be a substitute mom, and it isn't until the end of the movie that he gets it—he can still be a dad.
Fathers and mothers do not parent alike, writes Dr. Bob Frank in Equal Balanced Parenting (Golden). Agrees Eric: "My parents have noticed that I am not mothering the children, I'm fathering them."
In fact, studies are finding that children who have increased time with their fathers have numerous advantages chiefly because of the way a father interacts. One study from the Center for Successful Fathering in Austin, Texas, cites that when a father is an active participant in parenting, children benefit with higher grades, greater ambition, fewer anxiety disorders, and a reduced risk of delinquency or teen pregnancy.
Another study found children with an actively involved father score higher on verbal skills and academic achievement.
Not Mrs. Dad
Working moms tend to blend both the "breadwinner" role with more traditional mothering activities such as helping with dinner, bathing the children, and putting them to bed. Fathers do most of the same household activities as stay-at-home moms, but still assume traditional responsibility for maintenance tasks such as yard work and fixing appliances.
Peter Baylies, founder of the newsletter At-Home Dad, splits household chores with his schoolteacher wife. "We share cooking every other week. Dad may still be changing the oil in the car but he's doing diapers too. Mom still isn't changing the oil, however," he notes.
Effects on a marriage
What impact does role reversal have on a marriage? Marital contentment with these reversed roles has much to do with why the couple chose this arrangement. If both partners choose their role, it can enhance love and commitment, eliminate stresses of juggling daycare, and foster a supportive bond. But if a couple has fallen into this arrangement by default (such as getting laid off), or the father does not establish a primary emotional bond with his children and takes less power in parent-child matters, the adjustment period can be quite difficult. In those situations, husbands run the risk of becoming secondary factors in a marriage, writes Daniel Colodner in Full-Time Dads magazine.
Eric and Jody say this arrangement works beautifully for them. "It's proven to be a rocket booster—it was precisely the right thing for our marriage," says Eric. "Jody is happier at her job now, knowing I'm with the kids. I love watching her blossom. Being a full-time dad has only strengthened our marriage."
Such is the experience of Carol and Robert Hamrin, founder of president of Great Dads: Seminars for Fathers, who reversed roles in 1983. "The underlying theme for Carol and me in this area is that we are equal partners, under God's guidance, in our marriage and in our parenting. Together we seek God's guidance on what we should do career-wise, ministry-wise, and parenting-wise. He has never failed us. God is our Head, and under him we submit to one another and respect one another. As a married couple, God has a single purpose for us; we are to seek him. In practical terms, this meant making the appropriate sacrifices on the career front as God led us along the way. It has made our marriage strong and filled with joy for 30 years."
But Dave and Sue Jenks admit this arrangement isn't for everybody. "Every thought I have about our situation is fully two-sided," admits Sue. "I like our marriage even more because we are doing something original, creative, and atypical; and because we are doing something original, creative, and atypical, it's kind of lonely. I respect David even more because he has the strength of character and capability to play this role, but I'd like to test my mettle on the homefront too. I'm proud and impressed that I'm financially supporting a family of four, but I feel overwhelmed and sometimes exhausted at the very notion. I love representing a productive, contributing woman in the workplace to my kids; yet I haven't learned to cook and don't have that and other 'domestic' skills to impart to my kids."
Dave shares Sue's ambivalence. "I think this changes a marriage and throws you for a while," he says. "If you've been brought up in a more traditional home, as I was, reversing things takes a lot of getting used to. It's hard not to value your contribution by money; money is just easier to measure. I feel as if I'm in a support role to Sue—so she can make money to take care of us all."
Transitioning into these roles can take time. Even Eric, enthusiastic about his role, admits to a sense of loss at first.
Peter Baylies notes that it took him a year to adjust to the new routine. "There's an adjustment period—no paycheck, no affirmation, and you're facing the hardest job you'll ever have. Parenting is a job you can never leave."
Loneliness, isolation, and recreating an identity not based on achievement are the main drawbacks, says Peter. "Dads tend to try to solve problems on their own, they do not reach out for support the way mothers do—that's why some at-home dads are isolated."
Mixed reactions from acquaintances, relatives, and friends gets tiresome, says Dave. Eric finds that if a stranger makes a careless remark, he takes it in stride. If it were a remark by someone in his church group, he would take it to heart. "But our church has been incredible. We would be an incomplete story to not include the support we've received from our church," he says.
Eric's church has been especially helpful in defining his new role. "I believe I have a duty to lead," he says. "And I do lead this family. Based on my Bible study, sermons, and conversations in my men's group, however, I don't think there's a duty to provide exclusive to the husband."
Still, swimming against cultural norms will prove difficult to many stay-at-home dads. Stay-at-home dads should remember, however, as Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson write in Raising Cain (Ballantine Books), "There are many ways to become a man; there are many ways to be brave, to be a good father, to be loving and strong and successful. We need to praise the artist and the entertainer, the missionary and the athlete, the soldier and the male nurse, the storeowner and the round-the-world sailor, the teacher and the CEO. There are many ways . . . to make a contribution in this life."
Encouraging each other can make all the difference. "It's very important to both be and have a supportive partner. The two of you really need each other to make it work. Jody misses the kids and longs for more time with them," says Eric. "So I try to take care of the homefront so she can come home and be 100 percent with the kids."
"In addition," advises Eric, "you have to make time for each other. For at least one 24-hour period a month, we try to get away just the two of us. We make a real effort to plan time for just us, to remind ourselves of why we fell in love in the first place."
Many stay-at-home dads report an amazing, powerful bond with their children. "There's no better way to really understand your children than to spend a lot of time with them," insists Peter. "Our kids are not at daycare—but at home, being raised by the one or two people on the planet who love them the most."
Eric readily agrees. "We did not want to subcontract out our parenting. We felt we could only do two out of three things well—her work, my work, or raising our children. Maybe others can juggle all three priorities. We couldn't, and we didn't want to compromise with our kids."
And all of these families insist their kids have profited by the arrangement. "I love showing our kids that they're a huge priority to us," says Sue Jenks. "We're providing 'here-and-now' benefits for them versus more financial savings for their futures. I love showing them that we'll structure things however we need to in order to 'walk that talk.'"
Suzanne Woods Fisher is a wife, mom, and freelance writer who has published over 40 magazine articles.
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