This story appeared in the June 2010 print edition of Metro Parent.
Lead photo by Kimberly Tauber
Over the years since he became a stay-at-home dad, Mark Hart of Brighton has been getting his two daughters out of bed every morning, greeting them when they come home from school and taking care of everything in between. But he feels a little unappreciated now and then.
“It’s a joke in our house,” Hart says. “When my wife comes home they run to the door and say, ‘Hi, Mom! How are you?’ When I come through the door, they don’t move. I say ‘Hey, you always run for Mom!’ and they answer, ‘Well, we see you every day, Dad!'”
Such is the woe of many a stay-at-home parent. And recently, an increasing number of dads are home to experience the best, and the rest, of full-time parenting.
The economics of SAHDs
The U.S. Census Bureau defines a stay-at-home dad (SAHD) as a father who has been at home for at least one year for the primary purpose of caring for his children while his wife works. While SAHDS are still small in numbers, it is a growing trend. The Census Bureau estimates the ranks of SAHDs have swelled from 98,000 in 2003 to 158,000 last year.
Perhaps the simplest explanation for the rise of SAHDs is that American women are making gains in job and wage-earning opportunities. According to a Pew Research study published in January 2010, 22 percent of women were earning more than their husbands in 2007. In 1972, only 4 percent of women earned more than their spouses.
“This is a trend that has been occurring over the past 40 years,” says Wayne State University history professor Elizabeth V. Faue. “It’s certainly an indicator that something is going on in the economy, and some of that has to do with what an economist would call ‘sectoral shifts’ – that, for instance, we have less industry, fewer blue collar jobs and a movement toward the information sector, which employs an entirely different group of people.”
Faue says more women are entering the job market than ever before. “It may be the family’s choice, the woman’s choice, the women’s movement and the fact that men’s salaries aren’t keeping up with inflation. For a lot of families, it’s no longer a luxury to have two incomes.”
The Pew report, entitled “Women, Men and the New Economics of Marriage,” reveals that women’s earnings have grown 44 percent from 1970 to 2007, compared to only 6 percent income growth for men. So while women continue to earn less than men, even when doing the same work, nearly a fourth are now earning more than their mates.
Early in their marriage, Mark Hart and his wife, an automotive executive, moved often for her job, which paid more and provided better healthcare insurance. Eventually he became a freelance graphic designer working out of their home.
“When the kids started coming, this was a great way to be able to be home, help out and take care of the kids,” Hart, 45, says. Before their kids were school-aged, Hart would care for them all day. When his wife came home, she would take over so he could work on his own accounts all evening. “Looking back, it was the best thing. It just seemed to work out well for everyone.”
Mark Phillips of Shelby Township has stayed home on and off with his two kids – a daughter, now 15, and a son, 6. When Phillips married, he was working at a small marketing firm. The company struggled through the economic turbulence of the early 2000s and, when the third round of lay-offs came along, Phillips lost his job. He attempted to stay in the labor market, but his wife, a junior executive in the financial industry, made more money than he could. It made sense for Phillips to become a SAHD. He even home-schooled his daughter for four years.
“I always took care of stuff in the house. I always did the vacuuming, the dishes and the laundry. So for me to do it full-time wasn’t a big jump,” Phillips, 42, says. The shaved-headed, six-foot tall, 300-pound dad won’t be mistaken for Mary Poppins anytime soon, but he admits he loves being in the nurturing business. “I’m a caretaker, I guess. I get a lot of satisfaction out of taking care of others. I love babies and kids love me, so it was a natural thing.”
Now Phillips takes care of the home and kids while his wife works alternate weeks in Troy and Pittsburgh for her firm. He often wishes he could have more face-to-face interaction with other SAHDs. “All I do is interact with my kids and my wife, when she’s in town.”
Last year Phillips launched a Facebook page for SAHDs in Detroit. He’s still its only member (update: The ranks are slowly growing!). “There are a lot of us out there, I’m certain of this. But I believe that some stay-at-home dads don’t want to admit what they do.”
Gary Parker of Troy has a master’s degree in social work (M.S.W.) and was working full-time before his two boys came along. Economics was a factor in his decision to stay home, as his wife is a registered nurse and full-time college student. But the couple also felt it was important for one of them to be with the boys at this stage.
“We’ve had to make sacrifices,” Parker says. “It’s unconventional and a lot of my friends tell me I’m nuts, staying home. But right now Mason’s 2 and Brody’s 7, and they need guidance. They need structure and lots of love – and I’m here to provide it for them.”
The recession and SAHDs
Livonia SAHD Josh Winchell may have been able to earn as much as his wife, but he hasn’t had the chance to find out. Winchell graduated from Eastern Michigan University with an M.S.W. just before the recession hit in 2008. He couldn’t find a job in his profession and settled for part-time work in a grocery store. But soon it was clear that it made more sense for him to stay home.
“Childcare is expensive,” Winchell, 30, says. “We did find one lady that we really liked and my son loved her too, but she was too expensive for us at the time and we decided we wanted to raise our kids ourselves. We were able to just barely make it with one income. We’re pretty fortunate to be in this situation to have one of us stay home with the kids and bond with them.”
Winchell is in the thick of things, at home all day with a 10-month-old girl and 2-and-a-half-year-old boy – both in diapers – while his wife works as a private school teacher.
“I do I have my days where I get really frustrated,” Winchell says. “Sometimes I have to go take a drive or something when my wife gets home.”
Like many women who put their careers on hold to have a family, Winchell is also a little concerned how taking a few years off from his career will affect it. “I hope potential employers will realize the work that I did, and that raising kids is a part of social work,” he says.
While economic and labor shifts lay the foundation for men to stay home while their wives work, positive attitudes about the change in gender roles is important, as well.
Professor Faue, whose research focuses on women’s history and American labor history, suggests that the post-Baby Boom Generation, Generation X, grew up in a different world than their parents did. The Leave it to Beaver ideal may be a fond memory to Gen Xers, but it’s not a parenting bible.
“Typically in the world that they grew up in, their mothers would have been women who went out to the labor force at least part-time, probably when they were still fairly young children,” Faue says. “Maybe they were in school and their mothers worked weekends or a couple nights a week. They’re not unfamiliar with the idea of the female wage earner. These people have begun to re-think gender roles.”
It certainly doesn’t bother Mark Hart. “I remember before we had kids my wife asked me, ‘Are you sure you’re comfortable with me making more than you?’ And I said, ‘Is your money my money?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ So I said, ‘I’m a hundred percent comfortable with it, baby. Let’s go!'”
Hart’s happy to have the power of the purse, now. “I can buy a $1,000 bandsaw and it’s months before my wife figures it out!” he says cheerfully.
The hardest job you’ll ever love
Although their numbers are growing, SAHDs are still not entirely understood.
Gary Parker, 38, tends to his Troy ranch and toddler boy while wearing Nike workout clothes, a thick silver chain and four tattoos on his arms (two of which are his boys’ names). He even makes time for “Sports Center” after breakfast. Yet his basketball buddies sometimes give him a hard time.
“Yeah, they’ll say ‘You’re a wuss!’ now and then,” Parker says. “But I’m confident in myself enough so that stuff isn’t really important to me. My usual response to that is, ‘How much time do you spend with YOUR kids?'”
Even the grandparents don’t always understand.
“My mom tells me I’m wasting my brain,” Phillips says. “But she was born back in 1931, when a man went to work and a woman stayed at home.”
But most agree that loneliness, boredom and, at times, sheer exhaustion are the toughest aspects of the job.
“I enjoy it, but I don’t have an office to go to and shoot the s*** everyday,” Hart says. “I don’t know if I’d say it’s lonely, but some days I do talk to the squirrels.”
“My day used to end a lot earlier. Now when it’s 9 o’clock and they’re in bed, they’re still calling for me. It’s exhausting, so yes, I have a great new appreciation for my mom and moms in general,” says Parker.
And that’s a universal feeling expressed by these local SAHDs. They appreciate what their mothers and wives did before them. But by going a new way, they are helping change perceptions of what it means to be a dad.
“I think it doesn’t matter if it’s a male or female who stays home. It’s about whatever the family needs,” Hart says. “Some people are comfortable working at home and taking care of the kids. Some have too much going on outside the home. Whatever works, just do it.”