Stay-at-Home Dads Share What It’s Really Like

In the lead up to Father’s Day, we’d like to revisit a Man Repeller piece about dads and the many different roles they can play. This story was originally published in 2019.

According to Pew Research, the number of stay-at-home dads in America is on the rise: 7% of American fathers choose to stay at home, which accounts for 17% of all stay-at-home parents (up from 10% in 1989). Depending on your view, those numbers will either be heartening (more dads subverting gender norms and choosing to place their partners’ careers ahead of their own!), heartbreaking (fewer than one in four primary caregivers are men!), or just plain befuddling (why do we even track these things/why do we still adhere to outdated notions of gender roles/why is childcare in America so expensive/wait, there are MEN who stay at home with their children?).

I talked to three stay-at-home dads about their decision to stay home, and how they have reconfigured their understanding of success to do it. Below are their stories.

Conor, 34

As with many serious things in life, I laid the groundwork for being a stay-at-home dad by joking about it. But after my daughter was born, it became very important to me to be with her. My wife and I talked about our general desire to have a parent be her primary caregiver, but it was always with the understanding that it was my preference to fulfill that role, and not my wife’s.

In the lead-up to the decision, we were in a good position to keep both our jobs. My wife had a great job that she loved and I worked at a fun fabrication firm. We had childcare miraculously lined up through sheer determination and some luck. But as much as I trusted the folks we found, the added stress and expense of managing logistics in a day largely spent without her didn’t seem worth it. Fortunately for us, it turned out it was actually more feasible from a financial perspective for me to leave the workforce. This was a narrower view than we might have taken considering some of the potholes we’ve experience since we made this decision (like balancing home responsibilities, post-work free time, etc). I don’t think we would have made a different decision, but we might have talked more about what it would mean for one of us to not be “working.”

Early on, the biggest challenge was simply getting her to drink from a bottle. I have vivid memories of both of us crying in an armchair until one of us fell asleep on a throw pillow. But in the long run, trying to grow my limited pool of patience and actually learning more about the healthy management of my emotions has been hard. My kid is my mirror, especially as she has learned to speak and express herself more clearly. When I’m a bonehead or my voice is harsh, it is instantly apparent. And now she’ll even say things like, “Dad, it’s aaaalright. Cool your jets,” when I sound annoyed (she’s three-and-a-half). So I have serious motivation to learn to regulate and try to be a better example for her.

On a day-to-day level, just moving through the day with a fun and exploratory sense of adventure and everyone falling asleep peacefully and well-fed is a success.

I’ve always struggled with the idea of what it means for me to be successful. For me, this conjures up a sense of professional accomplishment, recognition, culminating in copious remuneration, so I can travel and be super classy. I have repeatedly made decisions that have moved me away from those things. So there is a tension between what I’ve grown accustomed to believing success to be and what I derive a sense of meaning from. It was my priority to be present as a parent versus being employed. So for me, I feel like I’ve been more of a “success” as a parent than if I had simply gone to work at a job to continue to earn money.

On a day-to-day level, just moving through the day with a fun and exploratory sense of adventure and everyone falling asleep peacefully and well-fed is a success. If I manage to clear some brush or work on a house project, then it’s a real win. When my “working” life gave me a good feeling, it would happen at the end of a long project, or maybe when I was putting the finish on a beautiful table top. But as nice as those things felt, it’s not like I would take my phone out later to look at pictures of these projects or table tops to cheer myself up.

I think I’m working more towards a sense of satisfaction than success. I’m grateful to be able to be with my daughter as she grows. But this is my choice for me and our family, you know? Lots of people raise other human beings in all kinds of ways, I’m doing it this way. And we’ll see how it turns out.

There is one moment I remember really starkly, when another stay-at-home dad and I were strolling with our kiddos, when we were stopped by an older lady. She cooed at the kids and then looked up and asked if we were married. We both explained that our wives were out working and that we were the caretakers for these small humans. She looked at us and said, “That’s great, just great. My husband — he wouldn’t pick up a toothpick if it fell on the floor, the sonofabitch. But he’s dead now. It’s OK. God bless.”

Otis, 55

The decision for me to stay at home was based on the best opportunity for our family. After having our son Oscar, my wife had gone back to producing TV while I continued to run my own sports memorabilia business. Oscar was always in our care as we arranged our work schedules to accommodate this.

When Oscar was still young, however, my wife got an offer to produce a show in Indianapolis. For the next three months she lived in a hotel room while I cared for our son and ran my business. We ended up having to get a part-time sitter, since I was still trying to work. But soon after, the network asked her to do a show in Vegas. Her career was picking up steam rapidly and we wanted to be together all the time, so the decision was pretty simple. I sold my business, we put our house on Airbnb, packed our stuff, and haven’t looked back.

I never really understood it when people would ask me about “success.” I never bothered with thinking about it and would fight it each time I heard it, which was too often.

The biggest challenge for me in this role is trying to stay busy and try new things. It’s very easy to park a child in front of a TV and read your phone. Fortunately for us, as we moved from city to city we had nothing but new opportunities at each new stop. That has kept things fresh. The biggest joy is the ability to be with my son. He’s seven now, and primarily homeschooled — he has probably spent more time with me than I spent with my either of parents. Obviously it can get a little testy at times, but it’s worth every bit of that to be able to watch him grow daily right before my eyes.

As far as success goes, I am not a traditional capitalist. My capital was me initially and now it’s my family. I never really understood it when people would ask me about “success.” I never bothered with thinking about it and would fight it each time I heard it, which was too often. I simply did things, took each day at time and did my best not to force anything. This line of thinking was not popular with my parents. I am a huge fan of the late Colonel Bruce Hampton, whose mantra was to “collapse into yourself.” When I heard this it was the first time I could articulate how I wanted to live. It’s about not trying so hard or, really, not trying at all. It’s based on letting things just happen. It’s not pre-producing a movie of your life in your head.

That line of thinking comes with a guarantee of failure. Unfortunately we’ve been wired to fear failure, when in essence, it’s one of the best opportunities to learn about yourself. This is not easy to do, but the less you care about others’ ambitions for you, I think the opportunities can be endless. That philosophy has helped me move through five different careers, become a dad at 48, and who knows what else?

But yeah, I’ve had to defend my choice to stay at home! It certainly raises eyebrows and causes heads to shake. Being a stay-at-home dad requires being a team player, ignoring sexist stereotypes, putting most of your ego, some hobbies and interests aside for a bit, and seeing the big picture. I’m cool with being “Oscar’s Dad.”

Andy, 32

I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for just over a year, taking care of my 15-month-old daughter. My wife has been on a solid career track since before we met. I’m a visual artist and have had random, mostly administrative day jobs, but in the last few years have been able to supplement my income doing freelance work related to my visual art practice. It seemed like a no-brainer for me to be home with our daughter and for my wife to continue her path in her career — it made more sense financially for me to take on full-time childcare rather than pay someone else to do it.

A big challenge is dealing with other people’s expectations of what a stay-at-home parent should be. I’m lucky to live in a community with a lot of parent/child meetups during the work week. Some mothers treat me like a novelty, tell me it’s “so great” that I get to be home with my daughter, things I don’t know if they would say to another mother. My first mom friend who asked me for parenting advice almost made me cry, feeling validation in my abilities as a parent from a social perspective. I also get a lot of doors held for me, pats on the back, compliments about being a good dad, giving mom the day off, etc. My wife doesn’t enjoy this treatment from strangers when she’s out alone with our daughter.

A lot of people, before the baby was born, asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. My mother would ask me if I was sure I wanted to do this, if I realized what I was getting myself into.

In terms of success from a parenting perspective, it’s just, like, taking care of my daughter all day and going to bed feeling like I did okay, like she had a good day and ate all her food and took a good nap. From a personal or creative perspective, it’s taking advantage of the mental freedom to continue to grow my creative practice as an artist, and using my limited free time productively. I’ve had some small successes in my art practice in the last year that have felt very special. To have that as an outlet and to be able to actually get things accomplished always feels like a meaningful victory.

A lot of people, before the baby was born, asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. My mother would ask me if I was sure I wanted to do this, if I realized what I was getting myself into. Now, people ask me how it really is being a stay-at-home parent, and I tell them that it can be hard and definitely tiring and frustrating, but it’s never stressful. I feel lucky to be in this situation. My wife’s job stresses her out, and she’s going to leave it one day, while I get to raise our child to be a (hopefully) good person.

I have a very “normal” relationship with my own dad. He worked, isn’t super emotionally giving, but certainly not a bad parent. To know that my daughter is going to be so much closer to me than I am with my own dad makes me really happy. People always say they want to learn from their parents “mistakes” in raising them, and I feel like so far I’m doing that. That feels really cool.

Illustrations by Ana Leovy

Meghan Nesmith

Meghan Nesmith

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.

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