A version of this story was originally published in July 2016. It has been updated.
People become “stay-at-home parents" for many reasons. Financial, emotional, logistical, or even instinctual factors may play a part. Plus kids are only young once, and the tug to be close to them is overwhelming for some women—and for an increasing number of men.
At the same time, there are many myths and judgments out there about moms and dads who stay at home. For example, a 2016 study found that 2/3 of women who call themselves “stay-at-home moms" actually contribute income to their families.
It's important to illuminate some of the hidden realities about stay-at-home parents. Since I was (proudly) one of them—a “stay-at-home dad" or full-time caretaker (the label I tended to use)—I experienced, witnessed, and examined the realities of those labeled “stay-at-home parents" and the way these conflicted with certain cultural myths and stereotypes in our society.
There are so many things people don't know about stay-at-home parents—what they do with their time, what motivates them, what their ambitions are, and so much more.
Here's what I learned along the way—
Caretaking is really hard
I was the primary caretaker for my daughter from when she was born until she entered a Montessori school when she was 18 months old. During that time I was a PhD student, adjunct professor in a summer course, the editor of an online periodical, and a graduate fellow at a university think tank.
Caretaking was the most demanding and physically exhausting of these jobs.
It required more efficiency than completing my PhD coursework. I was more physically exhausted after taking care of my daughter for a full day than I was after volleyball or basketball practice when I coached (prior to my retirement upon her birth).
Balancing care-taking with other jobs was difficult—sometimes just finding the time to send a single email was like trying to thread a needle...while riding on a unicycle—and I was lucky enough to have flexible jobs and a boss committed to pro-family policies.
Many caretakers are in more difficult situations with intense pressure to make ends meet with outside jobs while working as primary caretaker.
As a stay-at-home mom or dad, when you're sick, there is no time off. When you and your child are sick, the sheer willpower required to make it through the day can be incredible. This is not ideal since kids constantly seem to be picking up bugs and passing them on to exhausted adults who have more trouble kicking the sickness. This is particularly true for caretakers who have an older child at daycare or school—germ factories. Being tired and sick while trying to take care of that which you value most in the world is no easy task.
Being a stay-at-home parent can also be isolating. In a society where an increasing number of parents live away from their own parents and the local community where they were raised, caretakers are often on their own—physically and emotionally. There may be groups where one can meet other parents—in person and online—but the level of support and engagement is often limited. These groups meanwhile are often billed as moms' groups—not exactly inviting to male caretakers.
Caretaking is deeply rewarding
Few things are as rewarding as watching your child develop and learn. Their curiosity and joy are a constant reminder of the wonder and splendor of life and the world. Helping to form them as a person, to foster good habits and help them to build their character, is serious work.
It is work that society should value deeply.
And for the religious believer, while the great monuments of the world will one day be rubble, this person is transcendent and immortal. It is true of all parents, including those who work full time outside the home, that parenting is their most important work. But for full-time caretakers, most of their day is occupied by this grave responsibility. It is difficult work, but it is deeply rewarding.
Caretaking is undergoing big changes
There are numerous cultural changes that are affecting caretaking. The number of stay-at-home dads is rising. Millennials hold more egalitarian views when it comes to gender roles. Millennials are also taking on established work-life balance norms and practices, demanding greater flexibility and sufficient time for their personal lives. Many find Anne-Marie Slaughter's message that 'care is as important as career' compelling.
Thus many millennials with ambitious career goals are trying to find an alternative to the career first/regret missing your children's childhoods on your deathbed approach. Some are trying to have it all as mompreneurs who bring in big bucks from home while taking care of the kids. Others are trying to juggle part-time jobs and part-time caretaking, with help from babysitters, nanny shares, or others. Some are leaning in, then out, then a little bit more in, then out again—trying to find the right mix or seize opportunities with the idea that you can have it all, but perhaps not at the same time.
All of this is complicated by the digital revolution, which offers new opportunities for work, flexibility, and this type of juggling—but also invades our personal lives and family time.
It is also critical to note that these changes are not just happening among the affluent and highly educated. For instance, many working class men are stepping in as caretakers because that it the best option for their families. Childcare costs are skyrocketing, even exceeding the costs of college tuition in some areas. In areas where wages are stagnant and unemployment is high, it is often practical for one parent to take on some of the caretaking responsibilities rather than spending money on an expensive alternative, regardless of whether it is the mom or dad.
Dads are up for the job
I like a traditional sitcom trope as much the next person, but a few too many people seem to take the bumbling dad who struggles to 'babysit' his own kids one a bit too seriously. I'm sure they still exist, but I don't know dads who don't know how to change a diaper or get their kids to school on time and dressed appropriately. The dads I see on a regular basis are dedicated and competent. Yet stereotypes about dads and male caretakers seem to linger.
On the one hand, I've seen this manifest itself in what I call “momsplaining": I've been told by moms (and single women with no children) that I should not be holding, feeding, playing with, or carrying my child in a particular way on numerous occasions. By complete strangers. I've also received my fair share of eyerolls.
Some of the reactions may be the result of my parenting style. When I look away from my baby if he stumbles in a play area, that may seem like neglect to a nearby busybody if she doesn't realize it's a conscious strategy to get my kids to not cry when they are not actually hurt. But many of the reactions are certainly the result of underlying prejudice against men as caretakers. And this is not at all uncommon and occurs even when dads are using the most textbook techniques. Personally, I don't particularly care that random women are giving me bad advice, but I do worry about the impact it has on men who may not feel as confident or secure in their caretaking abilities.
There is also the soft bigotry of low expectations. I've been labeled “superdad" for doing what many moms do to little or no acclaim every single day.
Just as I'm indifferent to silly criticism, hyperbolic praise has little effect on me—but it really highlights how underappreciated many stay-at-home moms are, even by other moms.
While it is helpful to affirm the work of men who are doing a great job as caretakers, we must not forget about the moms who are everyday superstars and deserve recognition for their critical, excellent work as caretakers.
Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, a Ph.D. candidate in politics at The Catholic University of America, and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.