No one has to stay home

photo-91In 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.



39 Responses to No one has to stay home


  1. Alissa says:

    My husband stays home with our girls. It was important to him that a parent stay home and I said early on it wouldn’t be me. We also have a unique circumstance that he is a decade older and I have more earning power, where he had tapped out in his job. I am just a librarian though – no 6 figure income. However, people think it’s interesting that he had the primary caregiving role and how great that must be for me. I will say it does have its benefits & challenges. The biggest challenge is the lack of “me” time since when I get home he usually wants to leave to hang out with his friends and on the weekends I feel I should spend time with my daughters. What you said about happy childhoods really resonated with me. I recently started taking more time for myself which makes me happier and thus a better parent when I am with my girls. Thanks for more thought provoking reading as always.

    • Laura says:

      @Alissa – thanks. One of the interesting findings from a Pew survey on single-income families that I wrote about a few months ago was that SAHDs are better about protecting time for leisure. This may be a function of what you point out — mom spends time with the kids after work and on weekends, whereas a breadwinner father may not feel that he needs to be the “on” parent during this time.

  2. Carrie says:

    Studies about kids in day care are like studies about drinking coffee. They’re constantly contradicting one another.

    But studies don’t matter to me when it comes to this topic. My feelings matter, since I have to live with myself. I think a lot of decisions we make as parents are like this. They’re little more than the answer to “What could I live with?”. And that’s fine.

    I would not WANT to put my kids into full time day care, even with a relative, unless it was an absolute necessity. I would miss them too much. I couldn’t live with the possibility that they would be abused. I only trust my parents to babysit my kids, because I know they are going to take good care of them.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I agree that the article was a bit nuanced. One particular point they mentioned, but didn’t get into in details, was the number of stay at home fathers who also engage in some sort of freelance or flex/part-time work. This is a trend I see growing exponentially over the next few years (for stay at home parents of either gender). I know very few “stay at home” parents who do nothing more than stay at home. The vast majority are engaged in some sort of work, whether it’s actually part-time hours with part-time daycare, or they work (sometimes more than “full time) at night, on weekends, during naps, and/or during school hours. This allows for greater intellectutal fulfillment for the “stay at home” partner while still allowing for spending plenty of time with the kids.

    • Laura says:

      @Elizabeth- thanks for your comment (and sorry it took me a few hours to fish it out of the approval queue!) You are right that “pure” SAHDs are pretty rare. The traditional mindset is that the primary parent is a stay-at-home parent. But men who assume primary care for their children may not have these old assumptions. It’s quite possible to combine work with primary parenting.

  4. Completely agreed. In most cases, a SAHP parent is not necessary. Certainly in upper-middle-class cases, it is unlikely for a SAHP to be necessary.
    *
    But we look at not working through the lens of financial independence– some people don’t like to work for The Man or do self-employment work. If they can afford it and they’ve got enough insurance should the marriage or partner’s career go South, then more power to them. It is definitely nice having a partner at home to take care of things, but no, not necessary. (And personally, I’m enjoying the higher income more right now, but that’s not always the case.)
    *
    In terms of daycare studies, they’re pretty consistent. High quality daycare helps kids of low educated/low income parents. Low quality daycare is not as good as mom for kids of highly educated parents. Everything in between doesn’t seem to matter much unless you’re using outcomes like, “questions authority” etc. to “prove” your agenda. (Hint: that’s a bad outcome if you don’t like daycare but a good outcome if you do.)

  5. Ann says:

    I am a divorced mom with joint custody and a very demanding career. One 9 year old daughter who has had a nanny until she started preschool full time. I think the important thing for people to understand and always remember is there is not only one way to raise a happy healthy child. What is important is that you are emotionally present and give your child a good life . That is all very relative. Just because a household is structured different from ours doesn’t mean it is wrong. We should observe and learn what is working for them………………….

  6. Chelsea says:

    I guess a both agree and disagree with the idea that “no one” has to stay home because in all the situations you’re talking about, someone does have to stay home – it’s just that the someone is a nanny rather than a parent. I think it is very very tough on a family when there is no one whose dedicated job it is to take care of kids and do all the household stuff (no matter how much you minimize it). Even once kids start school, someone has to be on call for if a kid gets sick or for snow days or other school closures.

    Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a great nanny as long as there’s a strong attachment with the child/children. My son loves his daycare teachers seems to thrive spending time around other kids for part of the week; however, we can’t afford a nanny/SAH-person right now, and I think having the extra time to keep up with all the chores makes our family life less stressful and the extra time (not quality because who can count on the mood of a 1-year-old) but just plain quantity of time) strengthens our bond.

    • Along the lines of what you were saying first…yes, someone does have to stay home/watch the kids. The question is just who it will be.

      I guess this confuses me a bit when I read stuff about how SAHMs are depriving the world of their input, especially when what people are choosing is a nanny. If I hired a nanny and then went out into the workforce, the world wouldn’t have the benefit of one extra person….there’s still one person at home to allow another one to go out to work.

      I can see the argument working when you’re talking about putting your children in preschool/daycare, where the adult/child ratio is way different than with a nanny…then yes, the number of people going into the workforce would be greater.

      • Laura says:

        @TheFrugalGirl – in these particular families the NY Times is looking at, there has already been another person tapped — almost universally — for childcare duty. The thinking is generally that, hey, your household income is very, very high, and it’s a pain to load the baby into the car to take another child to swim lessons. So you don’t. It’s not always FT, but it’s rare that it’s less than 15-20 hours/week. Of course, sometimes it is FT. Sometimes it’s more than one person!

  7. sarah (SHU) says:

    i do think there is a distinction to be made here – in certain cases it actually MAY makes sense for a parent (either one) to stay home. for example, if a) their income is really not contributing much and b) they WANT to stay home, then more power to them! before we could afford a nanny, it was pretty difficult (and stressful) balancing a job with childcare, and coordinating things like dr visits, errands, etc.

    • but, rereading my comment – that doesn’t mean that anyone HAS to stay home. i wish people who did stay home would acknowledge (in a happy way) that part of the choice was that they PREFER it that way. as opposed to the ‘superior’ choice for the children, or the morally correct one. okay, all done :)

    • ARC says:

      THIS is exactly it for us. We could afford high quality daycare/schooling and know it would be fine if we both worked, but we (both) WANT to stay home. Sadly, we do require income and not many people are hiring part-time, so finding 2 part time jobs is not likely to happen.

      And I’ll be honest, I’m having so much more fun not working right now, even with all the crappy little things that need to get done with 2 little kids. After 10 years of working for The Man, it is awesome to be able to plan my days around something else.

      Not to mention that we have had some extra craziness lately with preschool mishaps, illness, and house construction, it really is easier to have one of us as the “point person” for all the house/construction/sick/find-a-new-preschool stuff.

      I’ll fully admit it’s a decision we can make due to privilege and it’s very much about what *we* want our daily lives to look like.

      I will also say that I’ve been more than a little sad that my 2nd will not get to experience toddler daycare, because my 1st got SO MUCH out of it.

  8. oldmdgirl says:

    One of my biggest pet peeves is when people wax philosophical about how one parent must stay home with the kids. Or, if no parent is able to do this, a family member always provides the best care because a daycare or nanny might abuse your child. Right. Because abuse by nannies and daycares is soooooo much more common than abuse by family members.

    We use daycare and an au pair, and it works really well for us. And when the kiddo is schoolage, I totally plan to outsource all the schlepping.

    The people it sucks for are the ones who have to choose between having kids and working because childcare costs so freaking much and they don’t get paid quite enough. Then one parent opts out…. and later has trouble re-entering the workforce when the kids go to school. That really sucks.

    • yes, yes, and YES.

    • Laura says:

      @oldmdgirl – we loved daycare! Even after we hired a nanny in NYC we kept our then 2-year-old in his FT daycare for about 35 hours a week because it was so awesome (the nanny primarily cared for our then baby). He had great friends. They basically taught him to read and write at age 4. High quality daycare is identical to high quality preschool — you just get more hours of it and it starts earlier. This was great for our very academically oriented kid.

      It just irks me when people use phrases like “baby prison.” If prison looked like that employers would be tripping over themselves to hire people coming out of it!

      • The term I see on the internets is “baby farm”… though I’m not sure what’s derogatory about a farm…

      • gwinne says:

        Laura, yes.

        It makes me nuts that some folks in the SAHM camp send their kids to “preschool” and look down upon “daycare” when they are basically THE SAME THING, just with greater hours.

        If I were home with my son (two) he would not be educated and socialized all day long. Yes, there are downsides to daycare (from my perspective mostly the sharing of germs!) but overall it is a very very good thing.

        • ARC says:

          The sharing of germs is going to happen at some point anyway, whether it’s Kindergarten or preschool or whatnot, and IIRC there have been some studies that show that it’s actually beneficial to the kids’ immune systems.

          I will say it was NOT fun to endure a whole year of runny nose on my toddler, though. But after that she rarely got sick.

          • Laura says:

            @ARC – the viral cesspool phenomenon is one reason we ultimately went the nanny route. Though by the time we hired one, my older kid was 2.5 and was done with most of the awful illnesses associated with daycare. I absolutely loved the social stimulation and academic nature of it. But he was out about 5-6 weeks that first year with one thing or another, and I needed more reliability. Obviously, people deal with this situation with back-up sitters and the like. I just found it hard to manage. We’d get a great crew of back-up sitters, and then he’d be healthy for 3 months and they’d all find real jobs and not be available anymore, and then he’d be sick for a week and we’d be scrambling again.

          • Ana says:

            And I never went to daycare or preschool and was out SO MANY days in KG that they were going to have me repeat. (from being sick). It just gets pushed back. Mine are both getting out of that phase already, since they started daycare in infancy.

    • Jennifer says:

      Your post made me want to scream for joy!!!! amen sister!

  9. Colleen Johnson says:

    Laura, Your article mentions most of the variables that offer families options for thriving. Please consider, though, the article title conveys an anti-home bias even before the discussion begins. Here, I believe, is the flawed premise. Home can be the life lab that launches an entire family to positively influence the culture. We need less talk of child care options and more tutorials in harnessing the potential of 168 hours at home.

    Thank-you for your work.

    • “Home can be the life lab that launches an entire family to positively influence the culture.”

      What does this mean? (I have a PhD in social science and I can’t parse it.)

    • Tracy says:

      “Home can be the life lab that launches an entire family to positively influence the culture.” — As a 4th year homeschooling mom of 2 boys – I “get it”.

      I also have a 4 yr degree and work at home now so I can stay home with my boys now 9 & 7. (Not making much money doing this, but the benefits for our boys far outweigh that aspect).

      I’ve also worked as a preschool teacher, latchkey administer and daycare employee for the United Way (all before I was married & had children). One of my take-aways from working there was the realization that kids who spend all day with “us” were likely spending more of their awake hours away from their parents and homes. — That was not what I wanted for my kids.

      • That sounds a bit cult-like. Do you really think that people who send their kids to daycare or preschool or school don’t “launch families to positively influence the culture”? Whatever that means.
        *
        It also sounds a bit like that research that shows that daycare is a bad thing because kids who spend time away from their families develop sometimes different belief systems than their families and are more likely to question authority (at least according to the mom’s answers to survey questions, which is also questionable in terms of internal validity). Which could also be considered a good thing, depending on your viewpoint!
        *
        Do we want to raise people with wide-ranging experiences who think for themselves (even if they disagree with us sometimes) or do we want to raise clones of ourselves? I suppose a lot of that depends on your religion and your culture. Too bad so many people want to force their religions and cultures on people who aren’t in their immediate families. But that’s the way human beings work, I guess.

  10. Meghan says:

    We don’t live in a neighborhood with lots of young children, and many programs (libraries, kindermusik, other enrichment classes) are scheduled during the baby’s nap time, so it’d just be me and the boys all day, all alone, if it weren’t for daycare. Up until 6 months ago, we lived in a more stay-at-home-friendly city (in the sense of opportunities to get out of the house and be social without driving an hour each way), and staying home with my older son was mostly okay. It still didn’t provide the intellectual outlets I needed, and by the time he was 2, I was back at work and he was in preschool.

    I’m going to be honest here and say I do not like staying home with my kids. It’s boring, for ALL of us. Do I love my children? Absolutely. But I am not a preschool educator, and I am not a 3-year-old playmate, and my kids are not academic, intellectually stimulating conversationalists (yet). There are things I just cannot offer, and these are things my children need (well, the 3-year-old. The baby isn’t quite there yet).

    This does not make me a bad parent or my children unhappy children — they get loads of attention from my husband and me in the mornings, evenings, and on weekends, and they get loads of attention from their teachers and buddies in daycare, and that break we each have from the other means we’re not cranky and insane at the end of the day.

    Is anyone else bugged when work at home is equated to staying home? To me, they’re not the same thing at all, even if you don’t use (much) outside childcare to help get the work done. I know staying home is a lot of work, and working at home with children means yes, you are technically staying home, but I just don’t think they’re the same thing. I’m not trying to say one is harder/better/worse/whatever than the other; just that they’re not interchangeable terms.

    • gwinne says:

      I’m Laura has talked about this in her time use studies (or maybe I read it elsewhere?) but in the end as I recall SAH-parents don’t spend any more “quality” time with their kids than those who work outside the home.

      No, staying home with a child is not the same as educating the child, playing with the child, etc.

      • Meghan says:

        She has written about it, and you’re right. The amount of time spent playing and teaching – not just basic care – doesn’t vary wildly, and we all spend more time with our kids than parents do a couple of generations ago.

        My earlier comment sounds pretty grouchy! My husband and I are both facing big deadlines, and this weekend was my turn to solo parent so he could focus (next weekend’s my work weekend, since my deadlines are a bit later), and yesterday was a snow day as well as minor surgery for the baby, so I’m a leetle bit “mom!”-ed out.

        Anyway, daycare gives me solo time with the baby, since he doesn’t go every day, as well as time with both kids where I’m not constantly thinking about all the other things I need or want to be doing instead. That makes me happier, and makes them happier. I’m capable of planning involved enrichment activities all day, every day, but I’m not very interested in it or good at it, so it exhausts me. Better for everyone to let someone else do that, and give my kids peers to play with, instead of a 32-year-old bossy woman who’s always enforcing rules and boundaries. (I did just spend a great half hour being amazed by curtains – I do enjoy my kids, I swear!)

        • Laura says:

          @Meghan et al – yes, the times from time diary studies aren’t as different as you might imagine. The ATUS people did a multi-year tally for married parents a few years ago. For married moms with kids under age 6, those who aren’t in the workforce spend 3.21 hours per day caring for children as a primary activity. Those who work full time spend 1.97 hours/day. The difference is an hour and 15 minutes, basically, for all kinds of care (if your kids are home with you, you’re obviously changing more diapers and the like). It’s not nothing, but it’s also not 8 hours a day, even though moms who work FT are working about 35 hours/week. If you have a FT job and wish to match the top half of the bell curve for SAH parents, it is quite possible to do so. It’s particularly possible to match the interactive activities: reading, playing, etc. The average parent just doesn’t do that much of that — no matter his/her involvement in the workforce: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus2.t01.htm

          • I gave my students the ATUS for their final exam and instead of choosing the fun time stuff as their outcome variables, they’re all choosing the boring CPS demographic controls. So far I have learned that men spend more time eating than women and older people spend more time eating than younger, and everybody else is choosing income and education and veteran status. Next year if I use the same set I’ll have to specify that they need to pick one of the time use outcomes, not one of the demographic controls.

          • (Also, if they’d read your book, they might have realized something weird was going on when they found that women usually worked on average 4000 hours in the previous week. Hint: recode the missing as missing.)

          • Laura says:

            @NicoleandMaggie – if anyone comes up with any interesting observations (are they using Stata?) I would love to see it. I determined for a statistics class once that women who used midwives were more likely to be married. So men spend longer eating meals than women, huh?

          • Nothing interesting. I am so bummed out. They almost to a person used and misused the boring cps variables.
            Yes, stata.

    • oldmdgirl says:

      Right there with you, sister. Compared to daycare I am BORING. Also, I love what I do. And my husband and I still get ample quality time with our daughter in the evenings and on the weekends.

      It’s not that staying at home isn’t valuable difficult work. It’s just work that we have decided to outsource. We (including our daughter) are very happy with that decision.

      • I think another secret of many happy SAHP is that their kids sleep more.

        http://www.wandering-scientist.com/2011/08/rambling-post-about-sleep-lessons-and.html

        I don’t believe in forcing kids to sleep when they don’t need it, but some kids really do have higher sleep needs. It is so much easier to stay home when that time is broken up by long naps.

        • gwinne says:

          If my kid promised to sleep through the night, I’d be happy to stay home with him.

          Ha.

          • Laura says:

            @gwinne- it is definitely a different life if you’ve got a kid who sleeps from 7-7 and takes a predictable 2 hour nap. And if you’ve got a partner who’s home by 5:30/6? Very different from, say, a partner who’s traveling a lot and a kid who’s often awake from 6 or earlier, doesn’t nap predictably, and doesn’t go down without a fight.

  11. Pingback: Another late link love | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured