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.