The Secret Life of a Stay-at-Home Dad

A stay-at-home father speaks to Global Women, under condition of anonymity, to share his family’s experience, from the privilege of parenting to other family members’ concern about the untraditional set-up.

Our first child was about two years old when we decided that I should become a stay at home dad. A number of factors contributed to this decision. We were both working full-time while renovating an old villa and had decided to sell it once it was ready. My wife had a secure job and I was at the end of an extended contract. We reasoned that by not pursuing another contract I could focus on completing the house. In addition, we were paying what amounted to a second mortgage of $800/month for our son’s full time crèche care: we could divert that money into the renovation.

Since making the decision, I don’t think we’ve ever received the full and unconditional approval of our extended family. A few manage to voice support, but we’re both well aware that our arrangement is still too ‘modern’ for some to understand. Concern is still expressed that my wife works too hard and that the family’s financial burden rests fully with her, with the implication (we feel) that I am exploiting her. The disapproval has been palpable at times, with no acknowledgement of the way in which we support each other in our respective roles, or the amount of work undertaken by me to manage and improve our family life; including renovations of the half dozen homes that we’ve owned and lived in over the past twenty years or so.

Once we sold the villa mentioned above I began to work from home, part time and around child-care, taking up a variety of roles as opportunities presented themselves. We strongly believe that having a full-time parent at home is of enormous benefit to our children and almost two decades later have no reason to change our minds. Within a year of leaving the villa a new baby arrived, much to our delight and, we agreed, confirming our new domestic arrangements were right for us, and giving us the best possible reward for our decision to change. After her 12 weeks parental leave, my wife returned to work and I took enormous delight and pride in my expanded role of father and husband. My wife has always had a greater sense of vocation than me so it made sense to prioritise her career; her rapid rise to her present senior role is one more confirmation that we made the right decision.

As a house husband working part time, often from home, I relied on kindergarten and then school to meet new people, while my wife became increasingly immersed in her career, working long hours, often involving national and international travel. I was fortunate to connect with a fellow house husband with a daughter in our son’s kindergarten, but frequent moves have made it hard to maintain and develop new friendships with other parents that I’ve met. A succession of part time jobs in local and academic libraries have allowed me to engage more with the communities we’ve lived in.

In 2006, my wife won an international study award and we moved to the United States. Living with children in a large city on the eastern seaboard was a wonderful experience, but unable to work under our visa conditions I found even fewer opportunities to meet people. My sense that parents at my son’s elementary school didn’t understand my role, or were suspicious of an apparently unemployed adult male, was not something I imagined. I did meet a male nanny in the playground near the house who spoke English (most nannies were Puerto Rican and spoke together in Spanish), but otherwise my interactions were limited to family, even more proscribed that I’d become used to in New Zealand.

On return to New Zealand, we again moved cities, but this time my quiet domestic life was changed in a remarkable way. Before we’d had a chance to fully unpack we found ourselves at the centre of a community environmental movement tasked with preventing a polluting industry being established on the fringe of our new suburb and adjacent to a unique remnant of lowland forest. With my wife fully occupied with her new role, I threw myself into the campaign and rapidly found myself at the heart of our little suburb, well supported by a host of new friends, many of whom looked to us for leadership. The campaign was a success and for the ensuing three years before we moved from that city we continued to work for our local environment and community.

I think this experience gave me a strong sense of purpose which is hard to generate while managing a house and family and undertaking part-time work and short contracts. When the time came, we were both sad to leave New Zealand, but excited by the prospect of living in Australia where my wife had a new contract.

Once settled in Australia, I again found part time employment while working hard to keep the house running, settle the children in their school and support my wife through what was for her a very intense initial 18 months. We lived in Australia for just under five years. Again, as in the US, I found it difficult to make friends through the school. Being the father of a gregarious daughter seemed fraught with risk; despite her having many new friends, few if any ever came home with her after school and sleepovers at our house were hard to set up unless my wife actively managed them. This was in part because I was wary of exposing myself to the risk of false accusations, although this was no doubt an imaginary risk. Now that our daughter is a teenager that situation seems to have eased, much to my relief.

This social inhibition based on my gender is the one thing I regret for my children, whose own social lives may have been restricted as a result. However, we are both confident that our children have benefited from our arrangement. While not being included in coffee mornings and not being able to easily connect with fellow house husbands has left me at times feeling socially isolated, this amounts to an extremely minor drawback when measured against what has been and continues to be a very privileged and rewarding role for me as a man. Our son is a budding intellectual, an excellent conversationalist and has a growing interest in cooking; our daughter is confident, outgoing and articulate.

I’m now approaching 62 and since returning to New Zealand a little over two years ago, we’ve been content for me to continue to run the household and manage ongoing renovations. I’ve engaged on a volunteer basis with several areas of interest, including two board roles. My wife has a large job and relies on me more than ever to make sure everything is as it should be when she returns home. The children are growing into wonderful young adults and we live in a warm and unostentatious 1920s bungalow. I gain enormous satisfaction from the things I do around the house, not so much perhaps in the particular and repetitive tasks but in the preparation of food and in gardening and the pride I take in providing a warm and welcoming home. I doubt I’ll ever work full time again, although I’ll never admit to being retired. Being a house husband has been the most rewarding role I’ve ever had the privilege to take up, and any down-sides it may have brought are of no consequence when measured against the reward of being there for my wife and children.