“You mean your husband is babysitting your kids and you bring home the bacon?” Lucy, my eighty-year-old neighbor from down the street asks.
It’s been just over a year since my husband, Brad, and I decided to switch it up: I went back to work full-time and he became a stay-at-home dad. Since then, I’ve found myself either defending or explaining our decision – at work, at our older son’s pre-school, at family gatherings and now even at a party hosted by my neighbor.
I decide not to tell Lucy that Brad and I didn’t come to this decision easily. After our first son was born, I began working in a part-time position at the corporation where I am employed. My arrangement was ideal – I had more time at home with my son and I also had the benefit of a stimulating job (and adult conversation) twenty-four hours each week.
When we got pregnant with our second son, I started to do the math. It would be impossible for me to continue working part-time and pay for child care for two children, even if only for three days a week. After several spreadsheets and late night discussions, our choice was clear. We would survive on my salary and Brad would stay at home with our boys.
We aren’t the only family with this arrangement. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2007 there were 165,000 stay-at-home dads. With recent economic downturns, I would guess that number may be increasing as fathers and mothers alike are laid off by employers. In my office there are at least a dozen other women that I know of whose husbands stay at home with their kids.
Even though the number of stay-at-home dads is increasing, I still get a lot of questions about our out-of-the-ordinary arrangement: does he do the laundry? Clean the bathrooms? Fix dinner? Vacuum? Shop for the groceries? My answer: yes to all but one of the above. Recently it seems that unfortunately neither my husband nor I are cleaning the bathrooms. In a house with one man and two boys, this could become a real problem. But, yes, for the most part, the stay-at-home dad in my family does the same tasks that a typical stay-at-home mom tackles during her day. And, in turn, I do what most working fathers do: I get up, shower, go to work, attend meetings, make recommendations, lead projects, and earn an income that provides for my family.
Once we determined that I would work full-time and Brad would stay home we decided to visit a family counselor. Her take on what we were thinking of doing?
“Wonderful! I completely support couples swapping roles. It will give you both an appreciation for what the other does. Go for it.”
We took her words of encouragement and ran with them. And, she was right. I now understand the pressure of “bringing home the bacon” and Brad understands the pressure of caring for two young children all day long. Suffice it to say that in our year of living in this gender-bending arrangement, we’ve also learned a few things.
Communication is key
This is true in every partnership, but in our marriage in particular, we both need to feel comfortable venting about the pressures we face. When our roles were more traditional, we didn’t give those pressures the same attention. Maybe we even took for granted that we were handling the pressures of work or the kids on our own. Now, because our roles are new to both of us, we’re more vocal. We’re also better listeners because now we understand what the other parent is experiencing in a different way than we did before.
Define the tasks
Every household has numerous tasks to keep it running, ours is no exception. When we set out to switch roles, we made an exhaustive list of everything that requires care in our house – the kids, the cats, the finances, the income, the food, the computers, the lawn, each other, etc. Then, based on our interests and skills, and the amount of time we spend at home, we assigned ourselves the tasks we would each manage.
We decided to share some tasks. Caring for our sons, for example, is something we both want to do. Yes, Brad is the primary caregiver during the day while I am at work. But, when I get home I want to be completely involved with caring for my boys. Other tasks, such as managing our money or mowing the lawn, are handled by one of us alone.
After six months of our new arrangement, we sat down and evaluated how we felt. Based on our discussion, we implemented a weekly “night off” for Brad. I have the option to take a night off when I need it, too. In our discussion, we also talked about finances and potential ways to juggle tasks that weren’t getting done – like cleaning those pesky bathrooms.
Sure, there are many days when I wish I was the one at home with my boys. And, there are days when Brad would pay fifty dollars to have five minutes alone. No, people like our neighbor Lucy don’t understand our gender-bending arrangement. The good news is…they don’t need to understand it. (However, for the record, regardless of your sex, it’s not babysitting if they are your own kids.)
What matters is that for our family, having a stay-at-home dad is working well. As our counselor predicted, this experience has been a huge gift to each of us, to our kids and to our marriage. I’ll take that gift over a clean bathroom any day..
Liz Sheffield lives in Seattle with her husband and two sons. She can be reached c/o email@example.com.