The subtext to the wave of concern over the recently announced epidemic of childlessness in successful career women is that women can’t have it all after all—and it’s men’s fault. Why? Because men interfere with their wives’ career aspirations by their refusal to become their children’s primary caregivers, forcing women to sidetrack their careers if they want children.
Despite the criticism, men generally focus on their careers not out of selfishness but because most women still expect men to be their family’s primary breadwinners. For women willing to shoulder this burden themselves, replacing the two-earner couple with a female breadwinner and a stay-at-home dad (SAHD) can be an attractive option. I became a SAHD with the birth of my daughter four years ago, and the arrangement has benefited my family immensely.
My wife and I sometimes remark that if we had met in the era before women had real career opportunities, we’d both be pretty unhappy. As a lone breadwinner I would feel deprived of time with my children. My wife, an ambitious woman who loves her career, would feel stifled as a stay-at-home mom. Since each of us would want to be doing what the other is doing, we would probably resent each other. Instead, the freedom to switch gender roles has allowed each of us to gravitate towards what we really want in life.
Men need not fear a loss of power when they become a SAHD. While SAHDs are sometimes stereotyped as being at the mercy of their stronger wives’ commands, in reality, I have more power in the family now than I ever did when I was the family breadwinner. The most important issue in any marriage is deciding how to raise the children. While my wife is an equal partner in any major decision regarding the children, I supervise the children on a day to day basis and I make sure that things are done the way I want them done.
Women also benefit from SAHDs because, with reduced familial responsibilities, they can compete on a level playing field with career-oriented men. For men, it is an opportunity to witness the countless magical, irreplaceable moments of a young child’s life, and to enjoy some of the subtle pleasures our fathers never knew, like making dinner with a three year-old’s "help," or putting the baby down for a midday nap in a hammock.
Still, there are adjustments that both men and women will need to make. Women will need to discard the popular yet misguided notion that men "have it all," and understand that being the breadwinner comes with disadvantages as well as advantages.
One disadvantage can be the loss of their primary status with their young children. Mom is #1 not because of biology or God’s law but because mom is the one who does most of the child care. This can change when dad becomes the primary caregiver. When my young daughter has a nightmare and cries at 2 AM, my wife is relieved that she’s not the one who has to get up and comfort her. The price that my wife has had to accept is that her child insists on being comforted not by her but by "yaddy."
Another disadvantage is that taking on the main breadwinner role reduces a woman’s ability to cut back her work schedule or look for a more rewarding job if her career disappoints her. This is one of the reasons many women prefer life as a frazzled two-earner couple—keeping the man on career track as the main breadwinner helps to preserve women’s options.
Men will also have to make adjustments. For one, they will have to endure the unconscious hypocrisy of a society which often wrings its hands over the lot of the housewife yet at the same time views SAHDs as freeloaders who have left their working wives holding the bag.
SAHDs also have to contend with the societal perception that being a househusband is unmanly. The idea is so pervasive that even I still tend to think "wimp" when I first hear about a SAHD.
Working women sometimes complain that men in the workplace don’t take them as seriously as they take men. As a SAHD I have the same complaint. For example, last year I attended a school meeting with my wife, my son’s elementary school teacher, and some school officials, most of whom knew that I drove my son to and from school, met with his teachers, and did his spelling words with him every day. Yet the woman who chaired the meeting introduced herself to my wife, began the meeting, and then, only as an afterthought, looked at me and said "and who might you be?"
In addition, while many stay-at-home parents face boredom and social isolation, it can be particularly acute for SAHDs, since there are few other men at home, and connections with stay-at-home moms can be difficult to cultivate.
None of these hurdles are insurmountable, and they pale in comparison to the benefits children derive from having a parent as a primary care giver—particularly a parent grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he never knew he wanted, and never thought he would have.
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