Advice on how to be a stay-at-home dad from a semi-retired stay-at-home dad
By Cate Busch
It may not seem like it but women have come a long way in the business world. Yes, the glass ceiling is still there and there aren’t enough female executives in the corporate world but the women’s movement has been advancing and one indicator is the rise of husbands who choose to become stay-at-home dads.
According to recent studies, the number of stay-at-home dads in the United States is estimated to be between 1.4 million to 2 million and the number of fathers who choose to stay at home with their kids has doubled over the past ten years.
Of those families, the wife earns a higher salary and is advancing in their careers at a much faster pace than the husband. The high cost of daycare, especially when there are two or more children in the family will be equal to or greater than the husband’s total income. These economic realities play a major role in the growing number of stay-at-home dads.
Brian Presley considers himself to be a “semi-retired” stay-at-home dad and was more than willing to explain the joys, pain and the reality of a man taking over most of the responsibilities that have been traditionally the domain of the woman since the beginning of time. Over coffee, Brian shared his advice.
How did you become a stay-at-home dad?
I was working in the marketing department of a large electronic security company in the late 90’s when the company was purchased by an even larger company who decided after a year that they didn’t really want the company and decided to let a number of us go.
My wife was just about to come off maternity leave with our youngest when I got the word that they were downsizing and as a family we had to decide what we were going to do. We looked at what it would cost to have two kids in daycare and with my past experience as a youth worker and camp counselor we started to give my being at home some serious thought. We also didn’t like the idea of having someone else raise our kids and if anyone was going to screw them up, it should be one of us.
Why didn’t your wife stay home?
She was moving up in her career with the government and when you add in the job security and benefits, it wasn’t a really hard decision on who was going to stay home. I told people it was because I was very supportive of my wife’s career, which I was, but it was all about the salary and benefits.
How are you a semi-retired stay-at-home dad?
My kids are now 21 and 19 years old so they don’t need me to make their meals or drive them around but somehow, I still do!
How hard was it to adjust from working in an office to looking after young kids?
It was great to not have to wear a shirt and tie and I didn’t miss the commute. It was like being at home all day on the weekends. I never had a problem with changing diapers and feeding them and I was always pretty good at helping out around the house so for the first few weeks it was kind of fun but after that, it felt like it would never end.
What was it that you missed the most when you were home?
Having a conversation and interacting with adults, especially men. Going grocery shopping, to the library and playgroup was a great way to get out of the house but when I did have a conversation, it was always with women and the talk always centered around the kids. It would have been nice to talk to someone about the game the other night but when someone sees you with a double stroller, the conversation will always be about the kids.
Which was harder? Working at an office or looking after the kids?
Being at home with kids is definitely harder. Fortunately for me, a number of people who were laid off at the same time I was decided to start their own businesses and would hire me to design their graphics and marketing programs so it wasn’t too long before I was Mr. Mom during the day and Mr. Marketing at night.
When both kids were at school full time, I started a contract with a company that allowed me to be there to put the kids on the bus and to be home when they arrived but when my wife asked if I found it hard to get back into an office environment I just laughed. Sitting at a desk and being left alone to work for a few hours was a lot easier than chasing after two kids.
How did that work into your looking after the kids?
My wife and I had a great arrangement. I would usually have dinner ready when she got home from work and afterwards she would take care of getting the kids ready for bed and I would head down to my home-office to do the work and it worked really well for the first couple of years but then the work slowed down and it became a lot tougher to get jobs.
A lot of stay-at-home dads don’t like the term Mr. Mom.
I’ve never had a problem with it and it was a funny movie. I always referred to myself as the “dad” and not as a “house husband” or even a “domestic engineer.” I had never felt like less of a human being or even less of a man because I chose to stay at home with my kids. I’ve been called a lot worst.
Did you meet a lot of other stay-at-home dads?
None. There are quite a few now but in 1999 it was unusual to see a stay-at-home dad. At playgroup one day a few of the mothers reminisced about how one dad came to one session a few years earlier. He had the day off and his wife wanted to go shopping. It was like they were talking about seeing Hailey’s Comet.
What kind of reaction did you get from the moms?
Almost everyone at playgroup was polite but a few were not sure what to make of it. My kids really enjoyed going and I did my best to fit in. I usually spent the time playing with all the kids. A couple of the moms actually told me that they thought that it was cool that I was at home with the kids. That was nice.
Library programs were a completely different game. There were a lot of sitters and nannies involved and they wanted nothing to do with me. They would openly talk about their favorite baking recipes and take time to photocopy them for everyone but me. But again, the kids loved going and that’s why I was there.
How did you react in those situations?
I didn’t do anything. I never really had a problem with self-esteem so I didn’t really care. I was there for my kids and that was it. People are going to talk and make assumptions because they have nothing better to do.
If you’re conscious of what other people say or do, you’ll never survive being a stay-at-home dad and your kids will suffer for it. The reason you are a stay-at-home dad IS for your kids.
Did you do any housework?
Almost everything but dusting. Who’s got time for that? The house wasn’t always the cleanest when my wife got home from work but the kids were clean, happy and dinner was ready. We liked to do crafts so there was usually a mess on the dining room table but other than having toys scattered around, it was clean. After a few weeks I was even able to master doing laundry without leaving the kids alone.
What was the worst part of staying at home?
The most obvious was having only one income coming in but we’ve always been a frugal family so we didn’t take expensive vacations and we always bought a used car. We didn’t eat out at restaurants and would go to museums when they were free or if we got discount coupons.
What was the best part?
Naps! For the first few years I was able to pick up a few jobs that I would work on at night after the kids were in bed but by the afternoon the next day I was starting to feel it so I would take a nap with the kids. I’m a light sleeper so if they moved I’d be up but we made it part of our daily routine. We’d get in my bed and read a Dr. Suess book and then nap. The real problem however was later on when the kids stopped needing naps. I was devastated!
The real benefit of being at home with the kids was watching them grow and develop. I know my wife was disappointed that she couldn’t stay home so I was adamant about keeping her informed of everything we did. It’s amazing that these little creatures start off as poop machines and then develop into little people. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man say they wished they DIDN’T spend as much time with their kids when they were young so I consider myself to be very fortunate.
How did you deal with screen time?
The television wasn’t always on and when it was, it was only on a public broadcaster that had a lot of great children’s programs with no advertising. There were a few programs that we really liked like the animated program Arthur and the British show Art Attack where they made some very creative crafts.
Movies on our VHS player were used as rewards such as potty training or when I needed to keep the kids busy while I made dinner. I live in the real world so I will admit that yes, a screen has helped to make life easier at times.
The first time the kids used a computer was when they were about six years old. I had found a great learning program based on the Dr. Suess characters. It was around grade four that they started to actually use a computer and it was only for that program. They weren’t aware of surfing then.
Did you have a strict schedule?
There never really was much of a schedule. We had playgroup and library club days and times booked but other than that we played it by ear. You can’t run the house like an office. You have to be very flexible and be able to adapt quickly. If one kid is sick or if it’s too cold to go outside, you need to find something else to do. It’s always good to have a plan B to fall back on when things take an unexpected turn but to play it safe you should have plans C to G ready just in case.
What about free time?
When the kids were quite young, free time was play time. We used a spare bedroom as a playroom and it had a few old cushions that we could sit on along with almost every toy known to mankind. We did make a point to not get toys that only had one purpose. We had wood blocks, Duplos, dolls, a kitchen set complete with stove, fridge and plastic food along with a lot of Fisher-Price stuff which included the classic telephone on wheels that you pulled to make the eyes go up and down.
I would go in the playroom with the kids and watch them play. They’d start picking up things and handing them to you and then take them back again. It was fascinating to watch them discover things and develop their motor skills and they were never left alone.
The line “I only turned my back for a second” was never needed in my house. As the kids got older they didn’t need me to be in the room with them but I made sure to keep an eye on them.
What do you think dads offer that moms don’t when they are at home with the kids?
I can only go on my own experience and from what I’ve read but I think dads allow kids to gain more independence by allowing them to try more things faster than moms would.
When the kids were young I used to let them pick out their own clothes which would drive my wife nuts when she got home because they rarely matched but the kids liked it because it was their decision. Eventually they learned to match tops with bottoms but sometimes they just wanted to wear a dress or even an old dance costume my wife had when she was a kid and I was okay with that.
I also think that women are able to do much more such as housework, prepare meals, bake and all the other domestic jobs around the house while men concentrate just on the kids. For people of my generation, mom was the one who did all the housework so as a man it didn’t come naturally to me so it required a lot of effort.
There would be some instances where the mom would tell the kids not do something while the dads would tell them to try it but to be careful. Nothing dangerous of course.
One thing that I did notice was the “everyone gets a medal” mentality that many of the moms from playgroup had which I think is a terrible thing to teach. As a dad, I explained to my kids that you won’t always win and that’s okay. As long as you did your best then that’s okay and that not winning at something is not bad but not being able to handle not winning is at lot worst and will only set the kid up for disappointment when they get older.
Was looking after two girls a problem?
No not really. The biggest and most annoying problem I ever had was finding a family bathroom to take the kids in when we went out. If there wasn’t one available I would have to use the handicap stall in the men’s room. It was the only place to fit a stroller and look after the girl’s needs. It would be great if more businesses had family bathrooms.
Did you ever consider raising your girls “gender neutral?”
I’m not sure how this “gender neutral” idea came about. I have never, ever heard a parent tell their son to be manlier or tell their daughter that they can’t do that. As parents we never forced our kids to dress a certain way or play with certain toys. They had dolls but they also had toys that were not gender anything. We didn’t have any games or toys that were restricted to one gender or another and I don’t really think there are any that I know of.
My girls liked to dress up in my wife’s old clothes but they also played competitive basketball where they had no problem getting sweaty and roughing it up just like the boys. We enrolled them in a lot of different programs such as ballet, synchronized swimming and even hip-hop dancing just so they can give it a try but we always let them decide. There was never any discussion about what they could or couldn’t do and I don’t think the vast majority of parents have ever had that problem. It seems to be a problem that doesn’t exist and will only make life harder for those kids.
What skills have you developed since becoming a stay-at-home dad?
The most obvious one is patience. You may plan on spending twenty minutes at the grocery store to pick up a few things but with kids it ends up being an hour. When you start to play, the kids are really fast at getting their toys out but when it’s time to clean up and put things away, they seem to slow down to a snail’s pace and that’s when your patience comes in.
Being at home has also turned me into the family lifeguard. Whatever I did at home or whenever I left the house, the girls were always within arm’s reach and within sight especially when they were young. I’ve read too many newspaper stories of kids getting hurt or worst that included the line “I just turned my back for a second.” When going shopping or to the mall, the oldest one always held on to the stroller and when they were both older, I never had to worry about them running off.
What did you do when you weren’t looking after the kids?
As I mentioned earlier, I did have a few part-time contracts that I worked on in the evenings but after a couple of years and with the economy tanking, it dried up so I decided to self-publish a book about the games, crafts and activities that I developed and implemented from working at the local Boys and Girls Club and as a counselor and program director at summer camp.
After spending all day and most of the evening looking after the kids, it’s important that you do something that’s just for you. Many people I know have hobbies or like to watch television or read. I chose to write and publish a book.
How did that go?
Pretty well. I found an editor and a print-on-demand company and launched it at BookExpo America in Chicago during the summer of 2001. I sold just under 300 copies across North America but it was more of a hobby than anything else since I still had to look after the kids.
How often did you feed the kids fast food?
Very rarely. There are a lot of parents who make going to McDonalds a regular event and that’s their choice but the only time I ever took my kids is when they got a coupon at Halloween for a free small fry or to get an ice cream cone but only as a treat. If we ever did have to eat out, especially when we were travelling, we always looked for a Subway shop since it seemed to be the healthiest choice of all the fast food places.
Have you been able to resume your career now that you’re a semi-retired stay-at-home dad?
No and yes. No because although I had a successful career before the kids, the large timeline of professional inactivity on my resume was a major drawback. In job interviews I was asked what I did during that time and when I told them that I stayed at home to look after my kids, the women interviewers would smile and say “that’s nice” while the men didn’t say a thing. At that point in the interview I could tell that there was no point in asking about a parking space.
In 2011 I relaunched and expanded the website for my book What To Do With The Kids® full time and have been working on a number of projects as well such as my WTDWTK Minute podcast and I have also developed a new app for babysitters and nannies called SitterAdvantage.
Depending on your profession, it may be hard to get back into the workforce. I had the odd contract here and there but looking back, I know I made the right decision to stay home.
Now that your girls are young women, how do you think they turned out?
I think they’ve turned out well but I’m a little biased. They both have great futures ahead of them and they both have respect for themselves and others but I guess I’ll find out in a few years when I’m old and they decide what kind of old age home they stick me in. If it’s a nice one, then I’ll know I did a good job.
How is your relationship with them now?
Pretty good. We have always been able to talk to each other about everything, except for things of a female nature, that’s still mom’s area but we communicate well with each other and that comes from talking with them when they were young.
We spent a lot of time in our van going somewhere and I would usually use that time to talk to them. A lot of times I would ask them questions like; name 5 fruits that are red or 5 names that start with the letter L. Just fun quizzes to help pass the time but I would also ask them about school or their friends and for their opinion on things such as movies, shows or even my cooking.
I always made a point of talking with them and not at them. I was also open to sharing my own stories of growing up and the wacky things I experienced working at summer camp with kids. I am proud to say that I am not one of those parents who say that their kids never talk to them. Now, there could be a number of reasons for that but my kids have no problem talking to me because we talked together when they were young.
I also started to treat them more like adults when they turned 18. Although I can still picture them as little girls, I wanted to make sure the transition for them into adulthood was stress free when it came to being at home. They tell us when they’re going out and when they’ll be home and they still ask if they can have friends over.
What advice would you give to fathers thinking of becoming a stay-at-home dad?
In most cases, the families don’t really have much of a choice because of finances but if you do decide to stay at home then you’ve got to realize that it’s no longer about you. It’s about the kids. If you have little patience and can’t multi-task, then you’re in a lot of trouble.
The important thing also is to be yourself but keep in mind that the kids will emulate you so it’s a good idea to work on some of the little things that you might not want the kids to do and keep in mind that there is no such thing as a perfect parent. You’ll know what kind of job you did when they start to discuss old age homes for you.
Cate Bush is the parent of two kids, one dog and a fish. She has written about kids and parenting for a number of years and is now a special contributor to What To Do With The Kids®. She can be reached at [email protected].