We're expecting child number 3 in December. Until recently, my wife and I had both worked full-time and put the kids in daycare. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try being a stay-at-home dad, at least for a while.
Once the baby comes, I’ll have a five-year-old who barely missed the cutoff for kindergarten, a two-year-old, and a newborn—the full spectrum of young childhood to experience in full before it’s gone forever. On top of that, I was getting bored of editing after doing it for more than a decade, and I wanted to write more, something I could do part-time. My wife was killing it at work, and by staying home, I’d eliminate three Northern Virginia child-care bills (at least between my wife’s maternity leave and my oldest son heading to school), so the financial hit would be modest. And while I tend to think that parents’ child-care decisions don’t have severe long-term impacts on their kids, there have been some compelling studies lately suggesting daycare can be harmful.
So, I did it. I quit my full-time job and was fortunate enough to work out a new part-time writing gig with my bosses. In my head, this would improve my life along numerous dimensions at once. I'd spend more time with the kids; our house would be cleaner; our weekends would no longer be consumed by chores and errands we never seemed to have time to take care of during the week; and I'd be getting lots of writing done, too.
How's it working out a couple of months later? Here are five things I've learned.
1. It’s really possible. More men should give stay-at-home parenting a shot if it makes sense in their situation.
Running through the checklist above, things have gone pretty well. I'm spending as much time with my little rugrats as anyone could want, the house is cleaner than it was (though this isn't saying much), and I've still had plenty of time to write. And we’re still paying the mortgage.
Lately, educated people have taken to complaining about their “meritocracy trap” and how they just have to work all the time, but it turns out, you can just stop if you want to. And it’s pretty awesome to play an impromptu baseball game in the yard at 10 in the morning or start a campfire in the afternoon just because you feel like it.
2. That said, the experience has given me a deeper understanding of the Second Wave of Feminism’s rebellion against rigid gender roles.
If you have kids, you don't need me to tell you they can be a pain sometimes, what with all the temper tantrums and soiled diapers and spilled beverages and putting their breakfast dishes on the floor so they can eat out of them like dogs (“We’re playing puppy!”). When you're the stay-at-home parent, there's no break from it, even on days when you wake up feeling a bit off and don't feel like dealing with inexplicably defiant toddlers. It's one thing if you made a considered decision to take on this role within your family; it must be quite another for it to simply be expected of you.
3. There's an adjustment period for everyone.
Kids are notoriously unfiltered: If they think you're fat, they'll straight-up say you're fat. The upside is that if you actually want to know if you're fat, a kid is the perfect person to ask. With this brutal honesty in mind, I recently commissioned a Yelp review of “Daddy School” from my son.
He told me he preferred his old preschool because they didn't make him practice writing so much, and also assured me that there would be no writing in kindergarten, either. After some prompting, he also agreed I yell too much when he and his sister don’t behave. He enjoys our trips to the park, swapping out books at the library once a week, and “helping” me sweep and vacuum, however. Guess I'll call that three stars—and cosmic payback for not appreciating my own stay-at-home mom more when I was little—and try to improve.
Things have also changed a bit for my wife. On days she works from home, she no longer has to drop the kids off anywhere, but she does play with them for a while before work so I can get some writing done. This is good because she really wants them to do craft projects that I can’t stand, but that time is stressful for all of us on days when they're being insufferable. And needless to say, on those whinier days, they can also disrupt her work later on.
4. We probably underestimate how many full-time parents/part-time workers there are.
A few months back, I pointed out that if you tally up all the paid work and at-home work that moms and dads do, dads actually do a bit more in total—a difference largely driven by the fact that stay-at-home parents tend to have a bit more free time, and moms are more likely to stay home. Even when kids are as young as mine are, there’s downtime when they nap and so on. As mentioned above, I nicely solved this problem by continuing to do a decent amount of work.
I'm not alone. In the 2017 American Community Survey, more than 10% of married moms (and a handful of married dads, too) reported that they typically work 10 to 29 hours a week. Unfortunately, the survey does not reveal how many of these folks keep their kids out of paid child care, but certainly, they must use less of it than full-time, dual-earner couples.
This is relevant as we debate broad subsidies for child care. In such a system, families like mine—in addition to all the families where one parent stays home and leaves the workforce entirely—will pay taxes to support a product that we've taken deliberate and sometimes costly steps to avoid.
And of course, there are tradeoffs to this lifestyle. Trying to do both at once can be frustrating; sometimes, I'll be thinking about work (or even writing on my phone), while I'm supposed to be focused on the kids, and sometimes the kids will interrupt my work by resuming their chaos before naptime is over.
5. Reactions to your decision to stay at home with the kids will vary.
I'm not a particularly social person, so I haven't had the "I'm a stay-at-home dad now" talk with that many people. Most have just said congratulations and moved on with their lives. A (female) acquaintance did laugh out loud when she heard, though, and an (also female) elderly friend of the family did react with the head-scratcher, “well, that's okay, too.”
I don’t know how long I’ll go before I return to full-time work; this has been tiring already, and the baby isn’t even here yet. But from the early results, I think spending a year as a stay-at-home parent would prove rewarding for a lot of people, male and female, who might not consider it. In the end, which are you more likely to regret: Setting your career back a bit, or not getting to experience parenthood in full, even for a little while?
Robert VerBruggen is an Institute for Family Studies research fellow and a policy writer for National Review Online.