Podcast: The stay-at-home dad model – would it work for your family?

Best of Both World podcast with Laura Vanderkam

My podcast co-host Sarah and I both care deeply about our careers. We both earn a good living, but neither of us is the primary breadwinner in our family. Both of us have also, for various reasons, wound up building our careers while being the primary parent in charge of our young children.

This can sometimes introduce challenges. It is a common family model for professional women, but it is not the only model, so we were excited to welcome Becky Diffen to Best of Both Worlds to talk about this topic. Diffen is a partner at a major law firm. Her husband, who was working as a teacher when they met, has stayed home with their two young children for the past six years.

Diffen was delightfully thoughtful about the joys and challenges of having a stay-at-home husband, so please do give this podcast a listen and let us know what you think!

The main take-aways:

There are some serious upsides for a woman with big ambitions to having your husband/partner stay home with your kids. Among them:

The freedom to put in the hours you need to. Being able to work late sometimes without worrying about daycare pick-ups, or a nanny’s schedule, or negotiating with a partner over whose turn it is, is liberating. You seem like a go-getter, and you’re more relaxed about it too. Many women still absorb the cultural message that paid childcare is “bad.” Having a stay-at-home partner means the kids are still cared for by a parent (which the cultural message holds out as ideal) AND you can keep your foot on the career gas pedal. This seems like the best of both worlds!

The freedom to travel. While my husband and I have a childcare set-up that allows us both to travel for work, many families assume it will be difficult to impossible for both parties to be on the road. So many women wind up scaling back. But when travel is off the table, or you’re trying to limit it, you don’t meet as many people in different parts of your organization, or in your industry. You simply won’t be considered for some bigger roles.

The freedom to network. Diffen pointed out that a lot of women’s networking events are lunches, because the assumption is that everyone needs to race home after work. It makes sense. Many people do need to race home! But since she doesn’t need to do that, she has the freedom to go to evening events — the “men’s events,” as it were — where she’s landed new clients and gotten face-time with important people in the legal world.

Freedom from (some of) the mental load. Many working mothers resent also being the parent who remembers permission slips, the kids’ activity schedules, etc. If your partner has specifically taken on the kids as his full-time responsibility, you as the breadwinner probably have to deal with a lot less of this.

So Sarah and I were feeling a wee bit jealous, since the sense of being “on the clock” is one of the more frustrating aspects of being a working parent who also winds up taking on more than 50 percent of the home/kid management job too.

But, in life, nothing is a panacea. Because there are serious challenges involved in the stay-at-home dad model, which we also discussed:

Breadwinning pressure is real. When Diffen switched firms a while ago, she was looking at all her options. While it wasn’t 100 percent a salary decision, she could see that becoming an in-house counsel for a company would pay less than working at a big law firm. Since her family’s standard of living is based entirely on her income, this factored in. A breadwinner will naturally have more stress about losing a job — and hence may not push back on less-than-ideal assignments or travel. You as a breadwinner may know that your partner is lovingly caring for your children, but you might still want to see the kids more too! Scaling back will be a more difficult financial decision without a partner’s income to soften the blow. You might feel more tentative about tapping into entrepreneurial aspirations, if you don’t know for sure how much money will come in for a while.

You give up control. You can tell a nanny your general childcare guidelines and trust that she will likely follow them. Your husband, on the other hand, does not work for you. Hopefully the two of you will communicate about what works and doesn’t, but if he’s the one doing the lion’s share of the hands-on parenting, his priorities will win out.

Stay-at-home parents are still human. Going above and beyond is still going above and beyond. If you, as the breadwinner, have been traveling all week and then decide to get drinks with a client, your co-parent is going to be annoyed. Diffen reports that she tries to be good about flagging nights when she has a sense things might run late. She also puts her husband’s guys-weekend trips on her calendar well in advance and treats them as sacred.

Stay-at-home dads view housework differently than stay-at-home moms. Time diary studies back this up. Many at-home fathers view their job as taking care of the kids. They do not view maintaining a sparkling home as part of their identity as caregivers. Housework has to be negotiated separately. Diffen has a cleaning service, and recommends that as a way of keeping the peace. (Though I should point out here that plenty of families of male law partners also employ housekeepers, whether or not mom is employed. If you have the cash, why not?)

Stay-at-home dads might feel more lonely than stay-at-home moms. Caring for kids all day is isolating, which is why mommy groups abound. Daddy groups, not so much. Diffen has seen that even living in oh-so-progressive Austin, stay-at-home dads are less common. Dads might not be easily accepted into moms’ groups. While Diffen 100 percent trusts her husband, sometimes other people view male-female friendships with suspicion. A good group of fellow dads is key to helping a stay-at-home dad feel like part of a tribe. (Or at least finding a good open-minded parents’ group, that doesn’t specifically bill itself as a moms’ group.)

People still check with Mom. Many people find it hard to accept that Dad is the parent in charge of the schedule, the children’s social lives, etc. Diffen has been called at work about a sick kid, even though her husband is listed as the one to call first since he will be the one getting the child at school. She would also be emailed, solo, about kid events and need to forward the emails to her husband. Eventually they created a family email address that both can check, which removes the temptation for people to only list her.

Dads with resume gaps can face severe discrimination. Diffen’s husband’s career — teaching — allows for more in and out precisely because it has been female dominated. In careers that don’t have this, men can face even worse discrimination than women for having been out of the workforce. Men who acknowledge family commitments face a backlash, which is part of the same problem that returning female caregivers face, with the added suspicion that comes from challenging gender norms. Men who stay home for a while would be wise to keep a hand in with freelancing, networking, and the like. And if you are the breadwinner in a family where the partner stays home, you should build into your financial model that you might need to continue relying solely on your income, well into the years after your kids start school.

The stay-at-home dad model might still harm women’s advancement. Diffen brought up this point, which I confess I hadn’t thought about that much. She says she feels guilty about being held up as an example for younger lawyers of a woman who “has it all” when the reason she has it all is that she has the same family model men have traditionally had. Since this is not going to be a reality for most junior women, her success perpetuates a model that may limit women’s advancement. I don’t think Diffen needs to feel guilt about this — because she’s using her power to advance women and change work/life models where she can — but I will throw this out there as a discussion point.

If you’ve experienced, or considered, the stay-at-home dad model in your family, I’d love to hear your stories.

23 thoughts on “Podcast: The stay-at-home dad model – would it work for your family?

  1. Yes, to all of the above! I have been the breadwinner since our first child turned 1 (we have two boys who are now 16 and 14). My husband had a big job, but when his company wanted him to move countries, we decided against it and he took the redundancy. We had no idea how long it would last, but it has been a while. While he has had a couple of times he’s dipped a toe into the workforce since, he has mainly volunteered at different things, largely, not completely school related. I’m now the CFO for my company, so I have a reasonably big job.

    I can particular resonate with the breadwinning pressure – I was surprised at how stressed I felt to realise that four people were relying on my ability to earn an income. I’ve got over that now, but it gave me a renewed appreciation of the standard male thinking about this.

    I’ve also wondered at times whether I’m setting that great an example. Sure it is great for my boys and their friends to see both a caring man, and a professional woman. But I am reinforcing the stereotype that the only way to do a big job is to have someone looking after the home front. Which I hate.

    I think a woman is still more likely to put pressure on herself to spend time at home with the family, so I think we are more likely to have a bit more of a balanced parenting team than the opposite gender split.

    1. Hi Jennifer, glad to hear I’m not alone in those thoughts. I try to use insight as a working mom to help me be a better boss for those with kids and other outside of work obligations, both the men and women, and I hope that we can help support them in that way even if our situations are perpetuating the old model. One of my male associates is home with a sick kiddo today, in fact, and I’d like to think that I am being supportive in a way that perhaps the prior generation wasn’t. And I also push hard for female associate hiring, opportunities, and promotions, so I’m doing what I can. I just hope no one would ever try to hold my situation up as a standard – I think that’s where the guilt comes from as I want two working spouse women to be supported and successful.

    2. @Jennifer – you may be right that it is more balanced than it would be in the other gender split. Because mothers often do want to be (or at least feel they should be) involved in kid matters, they won’t completely exit some spheres in the way that a breadwinning father might. That is likely shifting, but still probably true for many families.

  2. Hi Laura – I would love it if we could come up a phrase to replace saying stay-at-home-parents don’t “use their brains”. I think anyone who has cared for kids knows how much we use our brains. I know what Becky meant, and I myself, as a stay-at-home parent, need an outlet for something intellectually stimulating… but I find the phrase “not using my brain” a mischaracterization. Does anyone have any suggestions?

    1. @CM – you’re right that there are plenty of opportunities for using one’s brain – crisis management, negotiating with unreasonable people, etc.! I think people are more getting at the idea of adult conversation, or intellectual stimulation, as you put it. Maybe that’s a good phrase.

    2. yeah, this bothers me too (and I’m even guilty of defaulting to this answer when I was too lazy to come up with a more precise way to phrase it!). When I’ve taken time away from work, I never felt like I wasn’t using my brain – I got to read so much more, pursue my hobbies more intensely AND figure out all sorts of awesome things to do with my kids. I definitely didn’t feel like I was lacking intellectual stimulation. But there is something to not feeling too isolated and not having other adults to talk to. For me that was definitely alleviated once the kids were old enough for school – meeting other moms and making plans during the day definitely made it easier.

  3. I loved this episode, but it really brought to mind that old adage, “Every woman needs a wife”!

    I’ve been a part-time work-from-home mom for 7 years, and my husband is spectacular, but HE’S NO BECKY! Ha! My heart ached a little to hear how much thought Becky put into his stay-at-home-dad struggles. It was so beautiful to hear about their caring relationship, and it also stung a little because I can’t imagine too many working dads speaking with the same passion about their stay-at-home spouse’s balance of parenting work and creative work.

    Is there anyone out there who has traded places and become the breadwinner after years as a stay-at-home parent? Or has anyone shifted from 1 full-time income to 2 part-time incomes? I’m in this transition right now (with a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old), and I’d love to talk to someone who has gone through it. It feels right, but it’s been a tough transition for all 4 of us. (Lauren and Sarah — I could email you more details, if this is a topic you might want to discuss during one of your advice sessions!)

    1. @Kara- of course, would love to hear details – we’re always looking for listener questions! lvanderkam at yahoo dot com is probably best way to reach us.

      And totally agreed, Becky has clearly thought about this a lot and it was great to hear how she and her husband made it work.

  4. We are officially going to use that family email idea. Really brilliant! We are almost the polar opposite of Becky and her husband. We both have busy jobs but want both parents to be able to see all the kid related emails because we both take responsibility for some kids plans, but have trouble getting people to keep us both copied. Revolutionary–how have we never thought of this?! Thanks Becky!

  5. My husband and I both work “part time” and care for our daughter equally. He cares for her on 2 days, my mum has her 1 day and I have the other 2, then weekends are mostly family or organised around other activities we have on. It works well for both of us – we both want to spend time with Lilly but also both want to continue our careers. We have flexible positions which helps – my husband runs a painting and decorating business and I am a senior lawyer at a law firm – but the balance of all aspects between us works really well.
    As for housework, my husband does all the cooking, we share the tidying up and have a cleaner for the rest.

  6. This was a really great episode. Although our situation is very different it was great to hear Becky’s story and thoughts. One of my favorite episodes to date!

  7. This might sound like hyperbole, but I almost cried listening to Becky’s interview. I’m a breadwinner Mom with a stay at home husband, and I’ve literally never met anyone else (in real life) who has this family model. It was beyond edifying to hear Becky talk through the same exact pros and cons my husband and I have been muddling through. It really spoke to me in an affirming way…like, hey we are on the right track! Oh look, we aren’t the only ones getting the sideeye from the moms at the park! Becky and her spouse had issues around housework too! We aren’t alone!

    My kids are 5 and 1 years old, and my husband has been a stay at home Dad since our first was born. I agree – the worry and anxiety over being the sole source of income for three human beings weighs on me. But the benefit of complete flexibility and ease (for instance – I only have to rush to get myself ready in the morning, not deal with getting two kids up, dressed, fed, and out the door) is amazing.

    I also agree with Becky’s assessment that there isn’t much social support for stay at home dads (literally none in our immediate area). Tons of moms groups, but nothing for dads. To make things even harder, we moved to a completely new state – so my husband had no preexisting friendships in our new home. We haven’t figured out a solution yet – I actually run into the flip side of the issue, in that when I am trying to make friends with other women, they often stay at home and we don’t have much in common. I usually am able to socialize easier with the dads since we have the common gripes about working, commuting, etc!

    Longest comment ever – i was just super excited to hear from Becky. 🙂

  8. Great podcast. I spent years as the stay-at-home mom before I went back to the office part time. That quickly transitioned to full time. We now are on the cusp of my potentially becoming the breadwinner. A decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined this, but I’m definitely at the stage where I am reinvigorated by my career and more than happy to give up control.

    The comment about everyone contacting mom really resonated with me. I live in a big metropolitan area, and it’s clear from my work contact number that I’m not even in the same state as my children’s schools. Yet when my daughter was sick recently, the office called to tell me I had to pick her up–not my husband, who works 15 minutes from school!

  9. It was so interesting to listen, as i find myself applauding the concept of a SAHD but then cringing at how I would react if men were saying the same things about the benefits of a SAHM. I have opposing reactions to this podcast – not at Becky or her situation, but how I wish the benefits of having a stay at home parent would have evolved over the past 50 years. But instead, one spouse gets opportunities to travel at a moments notice, go to happy hour after work without thinking about daycare pickups or bedtimes – and the other spouse picks up the slack. It seems cruel that society really hasn’t changed, except to offer either gender the chance to work or stay at home.

    1. Cynthia, I completely agree with your comments, and it’s why I sometimes feel guilty that I am perpetuating the old model, just with sexes flipped. My husband’s view is that it isn’t “my career,” it’s “our career.” We both view my career success as OUR success and acknowledge that his contributions are a significant factor in my making partner and being successful in biglaw. I always say he has the harder job (and I mean it )! This was an active choice we both made (and continued to make every time we checked in with each other about it and considered alternatives), and ultimately we feel that we are better off as a family, both economically and socially, with one intense career and one person staying home. For others, a different balance might make sense. Maybe it’s use of nannies or au pairs or grandparents so both spouses can have the flexibility. Maybe it’s both spouses deciding that certain types of jobs won’t be right because they require flexibility that isn’t there. I think everyone has to decide what their priorities are and what they are willing to sacrifice (and continue to re-evaluate those choices as things change over time).

      To your point about society not changing, you are completely right. I don’t what the right answer is. Law is a service industry. Our clients pay us a lot of money to be available and dedicate massive amounts of time to their projects, often with little to no notice. If we aren’t as available, then they will find another law firm that is. So a law firm can try to make it easier for two working spouses all they want, but ultimately these demands are coming from the clients. I struggle to figure out how we improve working conditions and make it less favorable to a single working spouse when we as service providers feel this need to always be there for our clients. I do certainly have some clients that are far more respectful of boundaries than others, and they try to respect your vacation or not dump a mound of work on you over the weekend unless absolutely necessary. Those clients are great, and to the extent you can pick and choose your clients, then of course you would prefer those who are more respectful in that way. But the reality is that most of us can’t choose our clients, and we are constantly fighting for more business. I’d love to see ideas on how we improve this for everyone, but that is a deeper issue about how businesses operate.

      The best solution I have found so far is to work with colleagues who truly take a team approach and cover for each other. I am lucky to have such a team – we cover for each other on the big things like vacations and the small things, like I may offer to take a call so my partner can go to his son’s soccer game, and he may cover a meeting so I can attend a play at school. I do the same with my associates. That doesn’t always work, and sometimes things will have to be missed, but it certainly helps.

  10. I loved this interview so much. I get some of that mom-email stuff, in reverse. I pay the school fees but yet, no matter how many times I tried to email them to switch the email address for the receipts, they still insist on sending it to my husband. So I absolutely LOVE the idea of the family email. I will be creating one and changing email addresses 🙂

  11. I really enjoyed listening to this episode of the podcast. Great to hear how this has worked for one family. Sarah and Laura I would love to hear more about the childcare you currently use and if / how this has changed as your families have? I live in the UK where we have 52 weeks of shared parental leave. So, when our little one arrived, I took 9 months off, then went back to work full time and my husband stayed at home for the remaining 3 months of leave. Now he works full time and I work three days a week. On these days our son goes to day care and my husband does the drop offs and pick ups. That is pretty much the only time he is “in charge” of our son. The podcast got us thinking about what other options there are for the two of them to spend more time together. Thanks again for a great episode.

    1. @Nina- I think it can be easy for one parent to become the default, and it’s great that you guys are thinking about how to make sure your husband and your son have a close relationship. Could he generally commit to some “daddy time” on weekends? Maybe the two sign up for an activity together, or else in general you guys know that he will take Saturday mornings or some such? And it might help if you get out of the house too — is there a class or hobby you’d like to take up that meets at a specific time? You could decide that Tuesday nights are Daddy nights because you’re out at book club/softball/choir whatever.

  12. I’ve now listened to the podcast (while on my Saturday morning run, thanks for the running inspiration Laura) and wanted to add how much the social isolation of dads resonated also. When my husband started doing it he was the only one around our neighbourhood, and he often got women peeking into the stroller and critiquing his clothing choices. We found a great group of women from our neighbourhood and they crewt d a little play date group, but there were still people in our wider circle who you could see didn’t really believe he was competent.

    The global financial crisis was actually helpful for him, as suddenly there were heaps more dads doing drop offs and pickup (our kids were in primary school) and he wasn’t the only dad in the playground any more.

    @rachel, I found an email group for moms who work with the dad at home, which was great (it’s stopped now as the kids have grown up). I also found a few people at work to trade stories with. My husband used to laugh at me – why would I need a support group, he was the one who needed to find a dad group! But it was nice to have someone to talk to in the same situation.

    Great podcast, thanks once again.

  13. Thank you so much for posting this article Laura.

    I am a veterinarian of eight years that has never known limits. Thanks to the opportunities made available to me by the feminist movement, and to very supportive parents that instilled in me a healthy sense of work ethic, I only achieved my dream job, but will soon be opening a hospital a block away from waikiki beach next month.

    Eight years ago I met the man of my dreams, a retired stunt performer/high diver/champion jet ski racer. Magnificent, charismatic, funny – the most amazing human I had ever met in my life. I made my mind up the second week of dating that I would court and marry him – told him my intentions and chased him to Hawaii – and married him within the year.

    The happiest two years of our life followed – people looked on in awe – we never fought.

    We celebrated the arrival of our first son in 2013. He was so excited to be a stay at home dad. He quit drinking and smoking all together, warmed up frozen breast milk each day while I kept putting it in – pedal to the metal at work – becoming the most successful vet the clinic had ever seen.

    The next year, our second son arrived. Things started feeling strained at home. I found my husband playing more and more video games – and being much less social. He started isolating himself from him friend (who didn’t have kids) but the house was always clean and he was always supportive each day.

    We bought our dream home one block from waikiki beach in 2017. At this time, my husband starting becoming increasingly irritable, constantly criticizing and having frightful angry outbursts for now reason. He started drinking and still had no friends. It was obvious to me he was becoming depressed – but when I reached out to family for help – no one had sympathy for a stay at home dad that was living the good life off his wife’s income. Our home was in disrepair. There is no one that you can call on for help. The depressed mentally ill person is expected to fully recognize his condition and seek help.

    I had the support of the world, a long list of professional accolades and accomplishments, two beautiful children, and full control of our finances.

    My husband did not get so much as 1/100 of the sympathy I did. Reason : men become angry when they are depressed and push the world away when they most need help.

    The next year was a slow decline into a severe psychiatric/psychotic break. The shame and scorn that he felt from society about sabotaging his life – his ego couldn’t bear it. His sentences and thoughts became scrambled eggs, he was despotic, he started talking to god thinking he was receiving secret messages and that he was the second son of god.

    There is literally no support for someone in my husband’s situation. I pulled all my professional connections, I called 911 seven times, I petitioned a judge to approve transport to a hospital TWICE – I reached out to my friend who was producer of the year this year who offered to send out a press release and connect me to protest organizers. I got the head of Kaisers psychiatrist department involved to talk to queens hospital into hospital My husband, I called all the local news networks and presented hundreds of pages of facts to the psychiatrists begging them to get him on an antispaychotic.
    My husband got stuck in a cliff overnight and we had to send police helicopters out to look for him.

    THIS is how much it took to get him a mere ten days of hospitalization.

    I am now breadwinner, mother to two beautiful children, a dream home, a hospital of my dreams soon to be opened and am married to and am caregiving to the man of my dreams. I organize all aspects of our life now including paying bills, saving and organizing childcare and helping our kids with homework, cooking, laundry and creating and running a hospital.

    The cost? The mental health of my husband – in pursuing our professional ambitions I k ow clearly see how big of a toll it has taken to the confidence of men of our generation. How far have we really come?

    What it really means to have it all.

    What will it take for it to be perceived as cool and manly to be a stay at home dad? How can men
    Learn to regulate their tempers around toddlers having tantrums when their testosterone biologically wires them to get angry?

    And we keep pushing forward for positivity and a smile…

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