Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad
My husband, Clay, does the laundry. He also cooks a mean dinner and manages our 7-year-old's schedule with the seamless precision of the Blue Angels.
Clay loves what he does, and he's proud that he does it all so well. But, he also concedes, it comes with a price.
Clay resents the perception that some people (including some readers) have that he is henpecked, or that he doesn't contribute enough to the family. He has at times felt isolated among stay-at-home moms, or shunned by the dads who find his situation odd, or threatening.
Amid all the talk of women "leaning in" to their careers, Clay says that he would like to hear more stories about men who are leaning into their families, as he did after shutting down his contracting business when the housing market collapsed nearly three years ago.
So for Clay, this is one of those stories.
Clay never anticipated being a stay-at-home father. Seeing his business succumb despite his best efforts to keep it going was sad and stressful for both of us.
But when I was offered a promotion, he encouraged me to take it, even though it involved frequent travel and would require him to become a full-time parent. Our daughter was 4 years old at the time, and he felt he could do the greatest good for the family by being there for her—and for me.
Although society has progressed in its acceptance of stay-at-home fathers, Clay feels that outside of larger urban areas, including in parts of our small town, traditional attitudes remain more entrenched.
"My pat reply to 'What do you do?' is that 'Laura earns our income and I try to do most everything else,' " he says. "Sometimes, depending on who's listening, the 'everything else' feels weak."
Early on, he felt isolated as most of the other parents he would meet in preschool were women. If he wanted to set up a play date with another child, he would give the mother his email address and phone number, but felt odd asking for contact details in return, as he didn't want her to think he was hitting on her.
He was also careful about where play dates would occur, especially after an unpleasant experience at the house of one of our daughter's classmates. When the child's father came home unexpectedly, the mood suddenly turned tense, even though my husband was just sitting while the kids played in front of them.
"Perhaps he was just having a rough day, but I would never have greeted a guest in my home with the cold surprise that he greeted me with," Clay says. "It's a standout memory, but not in a good way."
Generally, Clay says, he finds that women seem more sympathetic, or at least less critical of his role. He has rarely if ever heard a female acquaintance crack a joke about his role as a stay-at-home parent.
"Is this because many if not most of them have been the primary caregiver of their children and held a full- or part-time job?" he wonders. "Is it because, on average, a man's sense of self is more deeply embedded in his career or earning power?"
He felt this contrast earlier this year when he attended an open house at our daughter's school. Only a handful of fathers attended, and they all spent a good part of the time by themselves talking about their jobs. He found himself gravitating to the mothers.
"The moms seemed more engaged in the event itself, more focused on chatting with teachers, viewing student work and touring the school," Clay says, even though many of them hold jobs outside of the home. "It was a window into issues of gender identification and role playing."
After nearly three years as a stay-at-home dad, Clay also says that he has gained more confidence in his role and has fewer regrets. "I like being a househusband and a homemaker," he says. "I enjoy folding clothes and mowing the lawn. I didn't realize that, as a result of this, I would start to think more deeply about how cultural stereotypes originate and, more interestingly, why some people are loath to challenge them."
He has forged friendships with other stay-at-home parents. At the same time, he has come to appreciate the time and freedom. It has allowed him to focus on things he enjoys, including projects around the house, like repainting our kitchen and bathroom or replacing the faucet.
"Nothing feels quite as right as plying a trade that I know inside and outside on my own house," he says.
These days, Clay's occasional doubts tend to revolve around whether he's "doing enough" and whether I "secretly resent" him.
Straight answer? I don't, although there have been moments when I have envied Clay's freedom. But I am also grateful for the tremendous amount of work he puts into our home and family, and I feel lucky that I have married a man who sees the big picture and supports my career.
Life is a narrative, and we are editing as we go along. As circumstances change, we will adjust. We realize that the most important thing isn't what one of us is leaning into. It's that we remember that we can always lean on each other.