Contrary to what many people would assume, more and more fathers today say they would jump at the chance to be a stay-at-home dad, even just for a little while. That definitely fits with my own experience, where working fathers express to me that it’s something they would do if it made sense for their family. Others say they would do love to do it in theory, but aren’t sure they could pull it off very well.
Fair enough. It is sometimes tempting to warn people not to fall for a “grass is always greener” attitude, blinding to what being a full-time stay-at-home parent actually entails. Those of us who have been fortunate to do it for a while know that while it is almost certainly the most fulfilling job we’ve ever had, it’s also in many ways the hardest. It can feel far more lonely, frustrating, and thankless than anything we’ve done before.
Every child is different, and every stage of a child’s development has pros and cons when it comes to the demands on their caregiver. But in general it seems like we all know that the image of the stay-at-home parent doing nothing but playing Candy Crush or watching TV all day is a total fallacy. It’s hard work. And like any vocation, to be happy and successful at it you need to be intentional about treating it like a job, with clear expectations and preparation.
Here are a few lessons I have learned along the way that I would pass on to any man who is going to be a stay-at-home dad, just thinking about being a stay-at-home dad, or maybe already is one but is finding themselves floundering.
(This is written from the perspective of a SAHD with a working husband. I’ve tried to make it as inclusive of other family arrangements as possible, but forgive me if I unintentionally exclude anyone. Honestly, moms, I think you’ll find most of these apply to you too.)
1.Embrace the role.
Many men who take on the role of primary-caregiver resist calling themselves “stay-at-home dads,” preferring to answer the “So, what do you do?” question by naming old jobs, future jobs, or jobs they do on the side. Or maybe by mumbling incoherently. That’s understandable, to a degree — those things are certainly part of who you are; you don’t need to jettison them from your life and identity. And the sad truth is saying you are a stay-at-home dad can generate unwanted responses, ranging from rude comments, to misplaced sympathy, to uncomfortable silence.
But in my experience, if you wear your title as full-time dad proudly and unapologetically, most people will respect that. Regardless of how you got there, it becomes clear that this is something you choose to do, not something you are forced to do or are just doing until something better comes along.
2. Stand up for yourself.
I don’t mean match rudeness for rudeness when someone questions your abilities as a parent, but rather take every dismissive comment as an opportunity to educate that dads can be just as competent and confident as moms when it comes to parenting. Recognize and defend the idea that being the breadwinner isn’t the only way to “provide” for your family, and that what you contribute to your family is very, very valuable.
You may not even really care what anyone thinks about you and what you do, personally, but others are paying attention–including your children–and the more you openly express your pride in what you do the more people will stop looking at it like you are an anomaly. Often the nice lady at the library who decided to call the weekday morning story-time “Mommy & Me” does so because no one has ever given her reason to think that a more inclusive name would make dads feel more welcome, not because she thinks dads have no place there.
You’d be surprised how receptive people can be when you give them a chance and a reason to think about these things.
3. Stand up for your partner.
Many working parents feel some level of guilt over going to work, rather than staying home with their children. The last thing they need is to hear that guilt justified by others, and your partner will need your support in being an advocate on their behalf at times. They’ll also need you to be intentional about helping carve out time to let go of work and just be a present parent.
4. Be clear and honest with your partner about how much their support means.
Nothing will predict how content you feel in your role as a stay-at-home parent more than having a partner that understands the contribution you are making to your family by being primary-caregiver to your kids, and supports you in that role. (This goes both ways, of course. Make sure your partner knows how much their hard work means to the family too.) Open and honest communication is vital, particularly when it comes to an expectation of respect that you know what you’re doing, and that their arrival home each day doesn’t signal your demotion into a role as a secondary parent who is only there to “help.”
In the same way, don’t treat your partner like a secondary parent, either. You will almost certainly be the one with your finger on the pulse of your children’s schedules, routines, homework, worries, friendships, likes, and dislikes, but you are a parenting team. Never forget that.
5. Negotiate non-childcare related housework separate from care-giving.
Being a primary caregiver means doing a lot more than playing games, reading picture books, and changing diapers. It also involves the cleaning, cooking, and laundry that are natural fall-outs from the fact that kids make crazy messes, kids need to eat, and kids need clean clothes to wear (sometimes multiple outfits a day). The stereotypical role of “housewife” often meant that a mom who stayed home with the kids also assumed responsibility for a myriad of general housekeeping tasks, that fell well outside of the job of primary caregiver for children. General cleaning, sweeping, vacuuming, dusting, laundry for the adults of the house, grocery shopping, cooking evening and weekend meals, doing the dishes, scrubbing toilets, balancing the checkbook, and on and on and on. She did all the household tasks that would need to be done even if there were no kids.
The truth is, it does makes sense that the partner at home may carry a larger share of these household upkeep tasks for practical reasons (e.g. I happily do 95% or more of the grocery shopping and meal cooking in our house), however most couples today recognize the wisdom in sharing those tasks that are not part of day-to-day childcare between partners as equally as possible (e.g. my husband does way more laundry than I do, and handles almost all of the finances). As part of the intentionality behind embracing your job as being a full-time parent first, be sure that there is an understanding that being a caregiver is not the same as being a housekeeper. It’s really important that you and your partner are on the same page as far as expectations in this regard.
6. Don’t stay home.
Seriously, just because they call us “stay-at-home” parents doesn’t mean we can or should just stay at home. If anything, you will find that getting out of the house does wonders for not just your kids’ attitudes and behaviors, but for yours as well. It doesn’t have to be a grand day-trip to the beach, or hours walking around the zoo, either. It might just mean going for a short walk, a dip in the pool, or an hour in the indoor play area at the fast-food joint down the street.
7. Find a Dad Group and get connected.
Many men have a tendency to push back against the idea that they need outside support, but isolation is one of the biggest hurdles that stay-at-home dads battle — particularly when kids are very young. Next to having the support of your partner, having a community of fellow stay-at-home dads around you is probably the key factor in success and happiness as a stay-at-home parent. Moms are much more likely to have a plethora of resources and support available to them, so us dads have to be far more proactive in seeking them out and/or starting something new where we are if nothing is available. Believe me, you may feel like the only stay-at-home dad in your area, but you are not.
8. Connect with Moms too.
There is no greater advocate for a stay-at-home dad than the local moms who accept him, and go out of their way to help him find the community and support that is more easily accessible for them. Yes, there will always be moms who feel like you are invading their space. Yes, there will be moms who treat you with suspicion. Yes, there will be moms who give a lot of lip-service to how great it is that you are doing what you do, but still exclude you from their circle.
But there will also be moms who treat you like a peer and a friend. There will be moms who speak up on your behalf to make you more welcome. There will be moms who are extremely grateful for your presence because the other moms drive them nuts. And there will be moms who love what you are doing, knowing that recognizing dads as equal partners in parenting helps everyone. Cherish those friendships.
9. Push yourself, don’t punish yourself.
The bar for Super Dad is really, really low. It does not take much for a dad to be treated like he is far exceeding expectations by virtue of showing the slightest competence at parenting. Don’t be surprised when you find yourself being praised simply for being present. But we can do better than just show up, and must do better. Set a high bar for yourself. That said, no one wants to see dads become judged based on the impossibly high bar that is so often used to unfairly judge what makes a Super Mom. So while you can’t let that low bar for Super Dad make you complacent, don’t linger on it when you screw up. Which you will, by the way. A lot. Just like a mom.
10. Do what works, until it doesn’t.
Despite what “parenting experts” often seem to suggest, there are few right or wrong ways to parent, especially when it gets down to the nitty-gritty that makes up 90% of parenting.
Feel free to do what works for you and your family, and then change it up when needed. Don’t expect that you are going to do things exactly like anyone else would, including your partner.
11. Schedule mental breaks.
Life with small children is sometimes like being a soldier in a foxhole; even when there is no actual fighting going on, you can easily feel on edge all the time. There is a high level of exhaustion that comes less from a lack of sleep (though there is that too) and more that you can often feel like you can’t let your guard down for a second.
So make sure you actually get breaks, whether it’s an hour in the morning before the chaos, time in the evening after everyone is settled down for the night, a few hours out by yourself in a coffee shop, or any regular opportunity to talk to adults. It will do wonders.
12. Soak up every moment.
Though the numbers of stay-at-home dads in ever increasing, and your experience not nearly as rare as many think, you are still in the grand scheme of things extremely fortunate compared to most men through history to have this extended opportunity for quality and quantity times with your child. So have fun. Spend at least as much time down on the floor playing with your kids as you do puttering around trying to accomplish tasks while they are distracted or napping.
It sounds incredibly cliche, but this time does go by so fast. You’ll blink and your baby will be walking. You’ll blink again and he’ll be off to school. Blink again and he’s grown up.