What it Costs to Be a Stay-at-Home Dad

·10 min read
An image of a father combing his daughter's hair while a mother works at home.
An image of a father combing his daughter's hair while a mother works at home.

Getty Images.

When I set out to learn how families were financially faring through COVID, I was surprised to learn that many American households looked like mine: geographically independent and (whether by choice or by force) single-income.

Like many moms, I had always thought I would eventually stay at home with my kids. But at the time I got pregnant, my job didn't offer paid maternity leave at all. And with a new baby on the way, our family couldn't afford to lose my income. So, instead, the pandemic sent my husband into full-blown stay-at-home dad (SAHD) mode—and, suddenly, I started seeing SAHDs everywhere.

But while the pandemic and a lack of paid maternity leave sent my family on this SAHD journey, it's clear clear that many SAHDs have completely different motivations. For one, it turns out, guys are just as tired of male-breadwinner culture as women are. Rather than lose their families or sacrifice their mental health, more and more men are choosing to voluntarily leave the workforce.

Only 23% of Americans expect men to be breadwinners.

Earlier this year, researchers Pilar Gonalons-Pons of the University of Pennsylvania and Markus Gangl of Goethe University in Germany published a study that looked at data from 29 countries from 2004 to 2014. Their research asked: Is male unemployment correlated with marital separation because of financial stress—or simply because couples can't bear the social scrutiny of departing from the male-breadwinner gender norm? (Earlier studies had found that "male unemployment increases the risk of separation more than women's [unemployment]," according to Gonalons-Pons and Gang.)

Turns out, older studies had also concluded that when a dad became unemployed, it was perceived to be largely his own fault. People believed that he must have had some personal flaw that led to the downfall of his career, and thus his dominant status as an earner, husband, and father. However, this new study found that "men's unemployment is associated with higher risk of couple separation in countries where the male-breadwinner model is strongly embedded in social and cultural values, that is, where a substantial share of the population believes breadwinning is men's primary role."

Is male unemployment correlated with marital separation because of financial stress—or simply because couples can't bear the social scrutiny of departing from the male-breadwinner gender norm?

In countries where fewer people think breadwinning is men's job, separation is less likely. Among the set of countries in this 2021 study, the United States sits smack in the middle of a spectrum between conservative and liberal views about male earning. (About 23% of Americans expect men to out-earn their partners, as opposed to just 4% of Swedes and 47% of Greeks.)

In short, strain on a marriage could go either way in a heteronormative, cisgendered American couple. But anecdotes suggest that our country has never been in the middle on this topic before. In the conversation around gender equity, we've seen women's roles in the workplace stage a revolution. Men haven't shifted nearly as fast or as substantially, but perhaps the growing number of voluntary SAHDs will change all that.

Today's dads are over toxic masculinity.

After spending 20 years in advertising—15 years as a partner and managing director of ad agencies, and five years as a consultant for start-ups in the ad tech business—Joey Dumont needed to recalibrate his life. A series of traumatic experiences, including his brother death by suicide, made him realize that his anxiety had turned him into a jerk—not the kind of person he wanted his two young sons to mimic. So, four years ago, Dumont left the corporate world to write a memoir entitled Joey Somebody: The Life and Times of a Recovering Douchebag. More importantly, he tells Parents, he's used the time to deprogram the toxic masculinity he had inadvertently modeled for his boys.

"Our society's narrative of what it means to be a man has caused generations of BS to be passed down from fathers, which is causing men to feel shame when they're unable to live up to those patriarchal expectations, such as 'bringing home the bacon,'" Dumont tells Parents. "Once I deprogrammed my insecurity about not being an executive and a provider (which was not easy), I found that being there to support my executive wife while spending an inordinate amount of time with my little boys was the best thing I (we) would ever do."

Self-employed, stay-at-home, and single dads experience stigma.

Similarly, Mitchell Stern says that choosing to stay at home was the best thing he could do for his daughter. He is a single father to a 2-year-old. Before the pandemic, Stern worked as a stagehand in San Francisco, but the pandemic dried up all the events. He wasn't eligible for benefits with the union, so he used his free time to build Shopify stores.

"I left the corporate world long before I had my daughter, so I already had my own SEP IRA & individual health insurance when she was born," he explains to Parents. The entrepreneur says that his work-from-home set up is so time-flexible that he also doubles as a SAHD. He jokes that his daughter might miss out on a few "bring your daughter to work days, but she'll make up for it in quality time that I'm able to spend with her by working from home every day."

The only downsides to this win-win are the curious conversations Stern has to have with neighbors, who speculate about why he's always able to take his daughter on their midday visits to the park. "I make a point of letting them know that I run a business and that I've written a book, too, because I can tell that they're trying to figure out whether I'm a deadbeat or living the dream," he says. Stern fears that if he were unemployed rather than self-employed, the neighbors would treat him and his daughter negatively. Thankfully, his business SideHustle.Tips is thriving during the pandemic, so he may never know.

Workforce reintegration for SAHDs can be years in the making.

Truth be told, Dumont and Stern may be the exception—they are still earning some income. Both have authored books and plan to break into public speaking. They are not completely dependent on a spouse or using their life savings to fund their sabbatical. Moreover, they both would like to stay self-employed, even if they grow much more active as their kids grow up. What, then, are the prospects for SAHDs who actually plan to become employees again someday after a long hiatus?

Charles Mahatha lives in Texas with his wife and two 15-year-old sons. He's been at home with them since they were about five years old, when their mom completed her law degree and entered the workforce full-time. At the time, Mahatha hadn't yet finished undergrad himself, and he struggled to find jobs in his field that were worth the time away from his young family. He and his wife mutually decided to hedge their bets on her income, while he took on childcare and household upkeep. Ten years later, he has no regrets.

With just three more years before his kids are enrolled in college, however, Mahatha is preparing to get back into the workforce. His Bachelor's degree is now complete, and he's planning to turn his love of caregiving into a Masters Degree in Social Work in the class of 2023. He'll graduate just a year before his boys finish high school. The plan sounds ingenious, but Mahatha will have to figure out how to explain the missing decade on his resume.

"My hope is that the gap is insignificant in the grand scheme of things," Mahatha optimistically tells Parents. "But, I'm also giving myself the whole year after my graduation and before the boys go to college to land the right position."

The challenges of job-seeking for SAHDs

Dawn D. Boyer, Ph.D., a Virginia-based resume writer with over 20 years of experience in human resources, instructs her stay-at-home clients to list their caregiving time as "home management," complete with logistics, scheduling, and maintenance services descriptions for those in-demand skill sets. Boyer says she would never hold a work sabbatical against a job seeker if they were able to meet all the other job requirements.

"Over the last 12 years," she tells Parents, "we have had not only the market crash in 2008-2009 that put a massive number of Americans out of work, as well as the COVID pandemic. In this day and age, gaps in employment should never even be considered," she reassures. Mahatha hopes she's right, but he's bracing himself for a fair amount of bias.

Welcoming dads back into the office is still new for most workplaces.

"Currently in the US, we're seeing a progressive push toward gender equality in the workplace. While this movement includes tackling the big issues like equal pay, true equality in the workplace will also require the breaking down of certain stigmas," offers Alison Pearson, the head of HR at Hal Waldman and Associates. "A gap in employment to start a family shouldn't be looked at like a negative; often, these moms and dads are learning to become more flexible and proficient humans. While the stay-at-home dad may not be as commonplace a stereotype as the stay-at-home mom, SAHDs are on the rise."

During the hiring process, Pearson says she asks about a gap in employment, but there's no right or wrong answer to that question. And that goes for moms and dads alike; both have to prove their qualifications and offer glowing references.

"For SAHDs, though, the challenge is especially unique," Pearson tells Parents. "Since the phenomenon is relatively fresh, many companies still struggle to enforce a healthy culture around welcoming fathers back into the office. Although there may be specific HR policies in place, a stay-at-home dad returning to work may find himself the target of bullying or harassment. Many times, these comments are not perceived as harassment, since they are coming from co-workers or friends."

But even if meant in jest, those barbs can sting. Such comments remind us that, although male-breadwinning culture isn't as prevelant today as it was 50 years ago, it still persists in many American workplaces.

Use people management skills to nip implicit bias in the bud.

Pearson's advice is to apply those expert people-management skills that SAH parents have honed so intensively when caring for emotional toddlers and irrational teenagers. Those de-escalation techniques, time management skills, and strategic communications plans come in handy when showing hiring managers that you're the best person for a high-stress job—and reassuring coworkers that you're committed to the team.

Moreover, proud SAHDs can seize these teachable moments to call out implicit gender biases and offer co-workers a different model of masculinity. Today's growing number of SAHDs are transforming corporate culture by disrupting the old, dated notion that a man's true value comes from out-earning his partner.