by Damon Riley
House-husband. Primary caregiver. At-home parent. Full-time dad. All these terms are descriptive, but I usually describe myself as an at-home dad. I have been at home since my daughters were four months old and my wife went back to work. Now that our twins are almost five, I consider myself a veteran parent.
I live in a neighborhood with several other at-home parents, including for a while, another dad. I also belong to “Dad to Dad” in my county, a fellowship of primary care-giving dads. From my vantage point, at-home dads and at-home moms have a lot in common-- well, except for the beards.
Most important, we moms and dads want what is best for our family. Some of us know what we want to do when (and if) we return to paid employment, and some of us don’t. Some of us struggled with the decision to give up our jobs, and others ran for the door. It seems to me that all of us made less money than our spouses. In my case, I made less than half of what my wife was bringing home, and my hours were longer and less predictable. If either of us were to leave a job, it would be me.
I am not unique. Libby Gill, in her book Stay-At-Home Dads: The Essential Guide to Creating the New Family, lists the top three reasons dads stay home:
1. Dad is out of work or makes significantly less than Mom.
2. Mom’s job offers health benefits and/or stability, and Dad’s doesn’t.
3. Dad passionately believes in being a parent at home.
Most people take it in stride that I am an at-home dad. When I do get a strong reaction, it’s fawning. “Wow!” women exclaim. “That’s so great!” “My husband could never do that!” “Your wife is so lucky!” “Do you cook, too?” When someone is trying to be nice to me, I like to enjoy it, but these are back-handed compliments. Essentially, the moms who react this way are saying, “I had no idea a man could be an at-home parent.” Imagine your reaction if a woman told a man she was a lawyer, and he reacted with, “Your husband is so lucky!” Or “My wife could never do that!”
My kids are now in their third year of preschool, and although there are three other full-time dads and many dads doing the drop-offs or pickups, the mom-centric customs are ingrained. Each class has “Room Moms,” and they hold an annual event called “Donuts with Dad” as a way “to get the fathers involved with the school.” Although I haven’t let these kinds of things stop me from being a classroom substitute, chapel volunteer, field trip chaperone and bulletin board coordinator, they are reminders that men are very much interlopers in the at-home world.
I am not complaining. I can’t make a strong case that I am a victim of any kind of discrimination or prejudice. This may change if I go back to a traditional employment situation and remain the primary caregiver. In the meantime, the worst I suffer is occasional worried looks from moms who wonder why a bald guy in his thirties is sitting in a playground or in the children’s room at the library on a weekday.
The kind of discrimination that affects me is more indirect. If my wife earns less than a man doing the same work, I am indirectly affected. Who knows--maybe my wife isn’t suffering much from this kind of discrimination because she doesn’t have to miss work for snow days and pediatrician visits. Still, when you look at it this way, pay disparity affects almost everyone.
For a few years, my wife believed what I was doing--taking care of twins--was harder work than her own job. But at some point the balance shifted. My wife works very hard at her job, and it is mentally very demanding. I would say that at about the time the kids stopped taking daily naps, my job became easier than her job. She also is stuck at her job in that if she leaves it for a seemingly greener pasture, she puts the family budget at risk. This is not a new situation; it’s just unusual for a mom to find herself in it rather than a dad.
Sometimes, when one of my kids gets hurt, she cries, “I want my mommy!” I used to wonder why my kids didn’t want me, until I found out that when one of them is with her mom and gets hurt, she cries, “I want my daddy!” It seems my kids just want to have the other parent there, too.
My wife often wishes that she could be home more often. Now that our girls are getting bigger, they tell her things like, “I want you to make dinner every night.” They’re not complaining about my cooking. It’s just their way of telling their mom that they want to be with her more.
It’s a good thing that my wife is not the jealous type. When I take my kids on a trip or to play with other kids, I’m usually with one or more moms. Unless I want to do all these things alone, I don’t have much choice but to hang around with women. The last play date I hosted, eight moms attended. These women are my buddies now. We watch each other’s kids, go to the same birthday parties, lend each other equipment, videos and anything else.
This is one benefit to being at home that I had only dimly anticipated--the community I had joined. There is a whole world of people who don’t drive to the city each day. These folks were largely invisible to me B.C. (Before Children). Now I see them all the time at the preschool, library, supermarket and playground. We parents share a bond-- you see it in the way we roll our eyes at each other and how we watch out for each other’s kids. I expected to have fun with my kids, to wipe a lot of noses and other things. I expected to have good and bad days. But nothing surprised me as much as the number and quality of new friends I have made since I quit work to be home with my kids.
At some point, I will stop being an at-home dad, but when that will happen is hard to know. I’m looking for ways to earn money when my kids are in school that will still allow me to volunteer at school and to be there for my kids’ after-school activities, homework, shows or games, and so on. At the same time, I want to put my skills to good use. Does that sound familiar? Yes, being an at-home dad is a lot like being an at-home mom.
This article originally appeared in the July 2002 issue of Welcome Home.
Article Copyright 2002 Damon Riley. Reproduction or dissemination of this work -- or any part of it -- is expressly forbidden.