Stay-At-Home Dads: The Radical Choice To Be A Traditional Caregiver

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Earlier this year, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States showed that fatherhood leads to a drop in testosterone. Fathers who are most actively involved in child rearing and caretaking experience the biggest decline. These findings, far from suggesting that men become wimps as they become parents, instead illustrate that women aren’t the only ones biologically adapted to be parents; male parental care actually shapes the physiology of men, too. As Dr. Peter Ellison, a Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology, said in the New York Times, “[The research should make men] realize that we’re meant to be active fathers and participate in the care of our offspring.”

All this was on my mind earlier this month when I joined a group of about 60 men for the 16th Annual At-Home Dads Convention. The community of at-home dads is relatively small, but exactly how small is hard to pinpoint. The official census gives us a figure of 154,000, based on the narrowest definition of at-home dads possible (which excludes dads working part-time or looking for jobs). According to one demographer’s estimate, however, the number of at-home dads who are primary caregivers for their children reached nearly 2 million last year, or one in 15 fathers. Regardless of the exact number, at-home dads are still a rarity.

But they aren’t particularly radical. Close up, these dads sounded less like models for a new brand of enlightened masculinity (although many probably are), and more like throwbacks to traditional at-home motherhood. And, in many ways, they were performing a traditional-role reversal since moms are still the prototype in the at-home caregiver universe.

The dads I spoke with (seven in person and two later by phone) were all straight, married, well-educated, and appeared to be in their thirties and forties. They were a seasoned bunch: all had been at-home dads for at least a few years, and some were in their second decade of at-home caregiving. Geographically diverse, they hailed from major cities including San Francisco and New York, as well as the suburbs of Omaha and Cleveland. They exuded kindness and comfort. (In fact, I was so comfortable that when one man offered up his hotel suite after determining we needed somewhere quieter to conduct our conversation I didn’t hesitate to head upstairs with all of them. I can’t imagine another scenario where I would have joined seven male strangers in a hotel room).

For these fathers, at-home caregiving was not a role any had landed in against their will. It was a thoughtful choice each father had made, most before marrying their spouses, and all before having children. But that is far from the narrative propagated in the media. “Mass media needs to stop writing articles about men who’ve lost their jobs and are forced to stay home with their kids,” said Andy Ferguson, an at-home dad now residing in San Francisco. These recession stories feel like a personal affront to these fathers’ thoughtful choices. “The assumption is still that the first choice is always mom, and the second choice is always daycare. This is where culture has to change,” said Hogan Hilling, a conference co-organizer.

The choice for these men to become the at-home parent was influenced by a few common factors. The first was simple economic pragmatism. Although most of the dads had good jobs before becoming at-home parents, they all had wives with bright professional futures whose careers the couple jointly deemed more likely to provide long-term security and earning power. Many of the dads also felt better suited temperamentally for the at-home parent job. Robb Tavill, an at-home dad from Omaha, agreed with his wife that he is more patient. Many others echoed that sentiment, including Ferguson, who said that personality-wise, he and his wife each feel best suited for the jobs they are doing.

Acknowledging that being an at-home dad is an economic privilege, most of the dads agreed that if a family is able to afford it, someone – regardless of gender – should stay home with the kids. For men in an ostensibly countercultural role, the sentiment felt practically retro. “My wife and I both felt we didn’t want a daycare raising our children,” said Tavill, who quoted Laura Schlesinger’s advice that there should always be a parent present when the child is awake. “We felt that if we had kids, we should raise them,” Ferguson said. These were, on the whole, men who didn’t believe in “outsourcing” (as one dad put it) child rearing.

Because at-homes fathers are a minority, the work of a man raising his child is not only sometimes viewed with skepticism, but it can also be very isolating. Some of the dads I spoke with were welcomed into the local mom’s groups with open arms. Vincent O’Keefe, a Cleavland-area at-home dad with a PhD whose wife is an OB-GYN, said that while it took some initiative on his part, he ultimately felt part of the early childhood PTA community of moms and valued the support they offered him when he felt in over his head. That said, he admits that it got tiring being the only dad at events. He recalled being surrounded by moms the Monday following the Super Bowl one year and realizing that no one was talking about the game. “I really need some dad friends,” he remembers thinking at the time.

Other at-home dads have had more difficulty breaking into groups dominated by moms, and lack of community can feel like a real hurdle. Hilling, who is 6’6, described the uncomfortable looks he sometimes gets when he shows up at the playground. “I had to learn to really give off a non-threatening vibe. I learned to smile a little more, to bring extra toys, to start conversations about kid things,” he said. Hilling is sensitive that women are taught to be wary of men at a park. Videos that teach kids not to talk to strangers always feature men, he reminded me. “As a society we want dads to be more involved. But our culture has taught women to be wary of guys who are involved,” he said. The only solution is to try not to take people’s reactions personally, he said, and to do his best to “be a friendly father.”

At-home mothers would seem to be natural allies for these men, but some can be dismissive of males in traditionally female roles. “How do I get through to them that I’m doing the same thing they are?” wondered Tavill, who was the only dad at his daughter’s dance class for two years. He described the difficulty of breaking into conversation with the moms and feeling like an oddity. The moms, he said, didn’t know quite what to make of him, and seemed to operate with the assumption that he was only there because his wife couldn’t be. Over time he said it got easier, but the initial interactions made him feel like he was “pounding [his] head against a wall.”

For other dads, the outsider status is more explicit. The local mothers group in Matt Schneider’s Manhattan neighborhood doesn’t allow dads out of concern for keeping it a “safe space” for women. Schneider, a former New York City teacher, started the New York City Dads Group along with at-home dad Lance Somerfeld, which now boasts a membership of nearly 450 dads. Schneider said he now has a great community of other dads, but ultimately said he would prefer a parent’s group, not just a dads group. He believes a parents group would strengthen the idea that dads are equal to moms.

Most of the men felt they had more in common with at-home moms than men who aren’t caregivers. Of course, there are some differences between at-home moms and at-home dads, Ferguson pointed out. “Some are consequential and some are inconsequential,” he said. “In terms of inconsequential, men push their kids harder on the swing. They let their kids crawl all over the play structure. I think basically they have more faith in the fact that childhood is dangerous, but most people survive it.” In terms of consequential differences, many of the men agreed that at-home dads are often more comfortable with the role than at-home moms, because modern moms have been conditioned to be more culturally and socially conflicted about staying home. At-home dads have already stepped outside of the cultural mainstream, so in some ways they have been liberated from many societal expectations.

The job of at-home dad has given many of the men a newfound respect for at-home mothers. The men understood that at-home dads often get much more credit for doing the same work as mothers. “I get fawned over for my job [as an at-home dad] whereas at-home moms really don’t,” O’Keefe said. Al Watts, the president of Daddyshome, Inc., the non-profit that organized the convention, said this double standard is culturally pervasive. “Dads are often looked at as heroes for just being with their kids,” he said. “That should be true for moms, too.” Jim O’Dowd describes how his female neighbor often greets him with “Hi, Superdad,” which he recognizes could actually be considered insulting to her husband, who is a good father, but also works full-time.

Of course, being a “Superdad” is a double-edged sword, and the flip side is “Mr. Mom,” a cultural touchstone that makes all the dads cringe. Not only is the reference dated, but the at-home dads take offense at the assumption that men are incompetent as caregivers and in a role where they don’t belong. (“Would you ever call a working mother ‘Ms. Dad?’” Watts asked.) Part of the problem, of course, is the lack of visibility of at-home dads in the media and that fact that no cultural touch point has replaced Michael Keaton’s memorable 1983 performance (although the new network show Up All Night features Will Arnett as at-home dad, a fact the dads pointed out).

Ultimately, the men I spoke with felt blessed to be able to spend so much time with their kids, and many felt their relationship with their spouse had benefited as the result of their dad arrangement, too. “We’ve dismissed the standard definitions and we recognize what’s special in one another,” O’Dowd said. Others talked about how raising children had taught them extraordinary patience and to be better communicators.

At the end of the day, the men agreed that they want to be recognized and validated as good parents, not just good dads. “We’re all doing the same thing: raising our children,” Tavill said. And that’s not so radical, after all.

Nicole Rodgers is the president and founder of Role/Reboot. Follow Role/Reboot on Twitter @RoleReboot and like Role/Reboot on Facebook.

Photo credit D2112/Flickr

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