In the past few years, I’ve read a number of trend stories devoted to stay-at-home dads. While not a huge trend (very few fathers exit the workforce to care for their children), people find this concept fascinating. The worst articles make a big deal about men in aprons, as if stay-at-home moms spend their days in aprons. Fortunately, the New York Times story this weekend on Wall Street Mothers, Stay-Home Fathers didn’t call up all those cliches. But while more nuanced than most, the article still has an anthropological tinge to it: look, here are some women earning 7-figures, married to men who primarily care for their children. Let us study this strange situation. Let us describe their homes, their communities, their hobbies. Apparently SAHDs like boats, rather than yoga class. Who knew?
But while the anthropology is fun, my bigger beef with an article like this is that it buys into certain assumptions. Namely this: People who want big jobs and children require stay-at-home spouses to advance. Whatever the gender of the parties involved, big careers require this particular mold. There’s also an assumption (more hinted at than written explicitly) that it’s best for kids if one parent stays home. When money isn’t an issue, presumably the lower-earning spouse should choose to do that. It helps the kids and advances the other party’s career.
But none of this is inevitable. I say this not just in my usual role of observing how people spend their time — though I’m definitely seeing “Wall Street Moms” as part of the Mosaic project. I also say this as someone who is trying to make a go of it in a 2-career family. It is not just a world of negative trade offs that would be made better if one parent stayed home.
In my husband’s company, in the past the hierarchy was largely male with an assumption that you had a stay-at-home wife. You work long hours and travel and you make good money, so that should come with the territory, right?
In the 20 years he’s been there, though, this has definitely changed. Many, many of his colleagues are now women. More critically, so are the clients! Many of these clients have husbands who work, too. There is no longer this world, once described to me by one of my husband’s more old-fashioned colleagues, where “the wives” are networking together in the community. Female colleagues and clients aren’t so much into “the wives” networking. But it is good if you have your own professional interests and stories to share at events. Your own professional network can expand your partner’s as well.
So the question then becomes — what of the children? And the logistics?
Despite widespread impressions to the contrary, there is no body of evidence suggesting that children do “better” if a parent stays home with them. Certain studies can point to certain potentially more or less likely outcomes. But people are complicated creatures. What does “better” mean? Broadly, children turn out to need both time and money.
The time question is probably more relevant in the case of these high end households the New York Times is writing about. Even if the second earner could bring in six figures, there is no real difference in living standards between a family making $1.1 million per year and one making $1.25 million. But while the NY Times article claims some of these stay-at-home fathers aren’t using nannies and the like, they’re a rare breed then. Many families in this sort of stratosphere have at least part-time childcare, if for no other reason than to drive one set of kids around while mom or dad shuttles the others. If you’ve got 15-20 hours of childcare per week, and kids who are in some preschool or school, and smaller kids who nap, there may not be a huge difference in time spent with each individual child between a family with two earners and a family with one. There is probably some difference. But it’s not 50 hours a week.
As for logistics, it’s true that having both spouses travel can be complicated, but it’s doable, particularly if one spouse tends to know that travel will be coming up. You can arrange childcare to cover these things in a way that keeps everyone happy.
And even “big” jobs are often more flexible than people think. Finance jobs aren’t inherently undoable if you want to see your family. There are a variety of different kinds of Wall Street jobs. Some of the women whose time diaries I’m seeing make a point of wrapping up post market hours work by 5:30/6 to be home not too long after (as long as you didn’t move an hour outside the city! But that’s a different discussion). As you become more senior, you can get a fair number of weeks of vacation, which can be used strategically. If you manage your own portfolio, your results really are the main thing that matters. I’m not saying you don’t have to work long hours. But you may also have a reasonable amount of control of them, and that’s usually more important for work-life matters than sheer volume.
My take away from Bryan Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (which relies on a bevy of twin studies) was that within a range of norms for educated parents, children tend to do fine regardless. Indeed, one of the few things parents actually control is whether their children remember their childhoods as happy. That argues for making sure parents are happy with their choices. If you want to stay home with your kids, great. But no one has to stay home if the parents both have professional aspirations. While articles on stay-at-home fathers are certainly interesting as they discuss gender assumptions, we shouldn’t fall into a different but equally problematic assumption that two career families are unhappy and crazed, or that one partner’s professional advancement always requires limiting the other’s career — no matter the gender of the people involved.