I’m a Stay-at-Home Dad: How We Make It Work

You’ve probably read a lot recently about how there has been an increase in the number of stay-at-home dads in the United States in last few years. You’ll mostly hear that this is because the troubled economy is hitting traditionally male occupations like construction and manufacturing the hardest, while women are graduating from college at a higher rate, and more often than ever bringing home higher salaries than their husbands.

However, while there are certainly plenty of men who have lost their jobs and stepped up their responsibilities at home, I think, for many dads out there, the reason for becoming “at-home dads” is actually twofold — both financially based and a chosen decision.

I am one of those dads, and I’d like to share my family’s story.

My Intro Into being a Stay at Home Dad

When I was in my late 20s, I was childless, single and working as a freelance web and graphic designer. It gave me the sort of flexible life that allowed me to do something that I’m not sure very many men get to do at that stage in their lives—be a full-time, live-in caretaker to my brother’s three kids for a short time.

My brother Dave and his wife Maia were expecting their fourth child in early January 2005. With the previous kids (twin boys, who were at that time 3 years old, and a third son who was not quite 2), Maia’s mother had come to help out during the birth. This time, she was not going to be able to do so, and neither could my own mother. So they asked me.

Why me? That’s a good question. Undoubtedly a large part of it was my simply being available. I could bring my laptop and (theoretically) still do my work from their home. But my understanding is that they also asked me because they knew my personality and temperament was very similar to that of my brother. He often handled caring for the boys on his own due to Maia’s work schedule as a nurse. In short, they knew I could handle it.

Would I be willing to come live with them for about a month on the other side of the continent (I was living outside of Vancouver, BC, and they live in the Atlanta area) to take care of my three nephews in the days surrounding the birth, then help during the transition period afterwards, they asked?

I said yes. It sounded fun, but more than that I loved spending time with my nephews. Being on the other side of the continent meant visits were few and far between, so this was a great chance to form a closer relationship.

A couple of weeks before the due date, I flew to Atlanta and enjoyed my time as the visiting uncle immensely. Although the baby could come at any time, both Dave and Maia were still at work, so I was mostly an extra set of hands wherever they were needed.

A Fundamental Shift

Then, very late one Friday night, my brother woke me up to tell me that Maia was in labor. He was going with her to the hospital, and the boys were now solely my responsibility.

The next couple of days were a blur. Single-handedly getting all three boys up, fed, dressed and out the door so we could go to the hospital and meet their new baby brother (I’d never seen such a brand new baby before, only hours old!) was a monumental feat. At least it seemed so at the time. It wasn’t necessarily difficult, but it was exhausting both mentally and physically. There was a very clear shift in my interaction with the boys, as I went from fun visiting uncle to responsible primary caregiver.

I clearly remember at one point realizing that I was spending so much time cooking and cleaning and breaking up fights that I was no longer doing much playing with them.

After a few days recovering, Dave and Maia and baby Bryce came home. At that point, Dave and I became something of a team, taking care of the older three boys so Maia could rest and concentrate on caring for the baby. After a week or so, Maia’s mother arrived to assist, and I flew home.

Later, my wife (who at the time was simply a friend) told me that when she heard what I was going to do, she knew I would come away from it either excited about being a dad someday—or convinced I never wanted kids.

She was right, and thankfully my experience–as exhausting as it was–solidified my desire to have kids of my own, and to be as hands-on as possible. I knew I would never want to tackle it without a partner, but if I could enjoy an experience like that with someone else’s kids–how much more would I cherish time spent caring for my own?

The Path to Stay-at-Home Dadhood

I start with that anecdote because I think that it’s important to acknowledge that when the time came for my wife, Anna, and I to have our first child, the idea that I would leave my job at the time to stay home and take care of a baby was perhaps a little less foreign an idea to me than it is to many new dads.

At the time, I was in a full-time position that I adored. I worked for a small company in Seattle that created web-based games for kids. Our primary clients were companies like Disney and Hasbro, so I was able to work on some huge brands, and it was the kind of job I had always dreamed of having.

Anna hated the idea of asking me to leave such a job, so my becoming the at-home parent wasn’t our go-to plan, but it was one option on the table as we discussed post-maternity leave childcare. In many ways, that idea was the most practical, because as an engineer in the medical device field, my wife’s income was, and probably always would be, higher than what I was bringing in as an artist and animator. In addition, my confidence in my abilities and more nurturing temperament seemed well suited to the task.

So if one of us were to stay home, it just made sense that it would be me.

After our son Tucker was born, in the autumn of 2008, we did discuss me cutting back my hours, or finding a way to telecommute so that I could be home with him part of the time, rather than have him in daycare. Then, to our surprise, Anna was laid off from her job a couple of weeks into her maternity leave. The recession was hitting everyone hard, and she was but one casualty. Suddenly, the idea of me leaving my job wasn’t feasible any longer. While Anna started the search for a new position, I remained our sole breadwinner.

That was, until our son was about three months old, and I found myself laid off from my dream job as well.

So there we were, with a brand new baby, and both of us laid off.

Did I mention we’d also bought a house that year?

We’d been smart with our money, so I wouldn’t say “panic” set in right away, but we definitely had to make some hard choices. One of those choices was to cast the net wide and far for opportunities for my wife, even if it meant selling the house and moving away from our friends, family and the community we loved.

What Our Life Looks Like Now

What finally came about was a cross-country move to the Allentown, Pennsylvania area, where my wife accepted a position at a large medical device company. Our plan now was that she would become the main breadwinner, and I would–at least temporarily–become our young son’s full-time primary caregiver.

I loved the time with Tucker. I loved exploring our new community with him. I loved the songs and the stories and playing together. I loved bath time, and visiting the markets with him. I loved cooking him delicious, healthy food, and I loved watching as he charmed everyone who met him.  Above all, I loved being present and active in helping him with his first steps, and first words. I loved seeing him transition from baby to toddler.

Then in January of 2011 we welcomed a second healthy, adorable son, Coltrane, and I got to love doing all of those things again with him.

Making things work on a single income can be tough, so there have been times I have put my résumé out and interviewed, but jobs are scarce and competition is high, particularly ones in my field that would pay enough to cover the costs of full-time childcare.

Could I find a job that paid enough for us to afford daycare? To be honest, we don’t see the cost of childcare as purely a financial consideration. How do you measure the cost of missing all that I am getting to experience? The truth is, after a while, the realities of the job market and the cost of childcare in our new area took on less importance in our decision to have me home, as my love and comfort in the role of “stay-at-home dad” grew and grew.

The ‘Downside’ of Being a Stay-at-Home Dad

The challenges have been many, of course. There was a never-ending stream of diapers and laundry and teething and messy meals. There were sleepless nights and napless days. There was crying at inopportune times, fevers to nurse, boo-boos to kiss and a constantly fluctuating set of baby-proofing needs.

The long periods with no adult conversation can be rough. And, as it turns out, having a second child didn’t double the work, it seemed to increase exponentially, as the infant care had to happen while also trying to parent an energy-filled and exceptionally busy toddler.

Don’t even get me started on potty-training.

In addition, there have been plenty of added headaches by virtue of my being a stay-at-home dad. There is, frankly, a severe lack of resources and community available to dads. Playgroups and library story-times and the like are very often “mom-focused,” and regularly exclude dads. Sometimes this is by design.

One “mom’s group” specifically told me they had voted not to allow dads because the risk was too great that a dad might be a predator! So finding opportunities to connect with other parents and kids has been tough, and required a lot of intentionality in seeking out activities that welcomed dads openly. I eventually started my own local “Club Dad” in an effort to fill the void.

Still, there are strange looks on the playground, awkward silences when asked “What do you do?”, and the passive-aggressive unsolicited “advice” offered by well-meaning strangers and friends alike. Elderly ladies in the grocery store, in particular, seem to feel free to tell me when they think one of my boys ought be wearing, say, a hat or different shoes.

Now, I do certainly get a lot of praise for being an involved father. But it is a low bar, and making “dad” my full-time job does come at a price.

Am I Lucky? That’s a Matter of Opinion

It’s not uncommon to get comments, from both men and women, about how lucky I am to be doing this, and how he or she wishes that they had the “luxury” of doing the same thing. They’re not wrong on the first part; I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be able to have this quality time with my boys, and to have such an active role in shaping them into the men they will someday become.

But when I say it “comes at a price,” I mean that literally. This isn’t a luxury to us; it’s a sacrifice we make because we believe it’s important.

Sure, given how few families are able to make ends meet on a single income, I can see how it looks like a “luxury” to some degree. And I’m sure that in some families, it really is the reality that one parent is home because the other is raking in so much money that they don’t need any more in order to have everything they want and need.

But in our family, and in the families of almost every stay-at-home parent I know, that simply isn’t the case.

How We Make it Work

My wife’s salary, as a biomedical engineer, is simply not as large as most people expect. Even though we have two children, we live in a small, rented, 2-bedroom apartment. We have never owned a new vehicle, and only recently added a second car since our primary car is 12 years old. Compared to most, we probably spend very little on entertainment (I miss movies), travel, clothing, eating out and electronic gadgets. We rarely splurge—even on a babysitter for a few hours.

We work hard to make ends meet every month, and some months we don’t know how we will pull it off. This is, of course, not even including the cost that taking these years out of the formal workforce will have on my own future employment, should I ever want to return to it. In addition to the full-time work of raising two boys, I often spend my evenings doing freelance design and illustration jobs, and have self-published a handful of children’s books to help contribute financially to the family… at the cost of many, many hours of sleep.

We’re not perfect, but we try really hard to be responsible with our money. How much something costs—regardless of what that “something” is—is never far from our minds.

So what some call “luxury,” we really do call “sacrifice.”

And we sacrifice because we believe that having one of us home to care for our young sons is the right choice for our family right now. Someday, that might change. My wife could be laid off. I could be offered a dream job. As the boys get older and go to school, I’m sure my time devoted to caring for them will become less. And when it does, we’ll continue to make the best choices we can for our family, whatever the future holds for us.