Although most of us can laugh at it as a completely archaic and close-minded view of marriage, the “Leave It To Beaver” stereotype of a pearl-wearing, vacuuming wife and a bread-winning husband, in many ways, still stands as an ideal of a marriage — with the convenience of neat and tidy roles that let us know if we are doing a good job as a wife or providing as a husband.
But what happens in a marriage when you completely flip standards and stereotypes on their heads and instead of the bacon-earning, suit-wearing, cigar-smoking breadwinner husband you have the bacon-cooking, pajama-wearing, kid-wrangling stay-at-home dad?
Ron is a stay-at-home father and husband, and proudly calls himself a “domestic engineer.” And like many stay-at-home parents, he is re-writing the history books for what it means to be a committed partner in a marriage. He and his fellow house husbands shed some light on what it’s like to be the man in charge — of the house, that is.
1. Money is a factor.
Many of us assume that in most marriages, the mother is the default partner who not only wants to stay home and raise kids, but is also the one who will take the least financial hit — in other words, women usually still make less money than men. But with all of the couples I interviewed, money was most definitely a factor — because the wives made significantly more money than their husbands.
“My wife Carol really loves her job as a lawyer, is very motivated, and [the work] pays well,” says Mark Tyler, a stay-at-home father of two (whom you may remember as the stay-at-home dad who took his wife’s last name in marriage). “My job at a bank didn’t pay as well, offered less opportunities for promotion, and I didn’t like it.”
For Laura, a chemist, and her husband, Ron, a former construction worker, the decision was somewhat mutual. “We had talked about it before we got married and knew that if it was financially possible, we wanted one person to stay home when we had children (both of us came from families where both parents worked),” explains Laura. “I wanted a career and we knew that I would be able to make more money than he could, and he liked the idea of taking care of the kids.”
2. Some moms really do prefer to work.
While we generally assume that mothers will want to be home more than work if given the financial choice and dads will be fine with waving good-bye and heading out of the house, that’s not always true.
In Ron’s case, he maintains that if he could do it all over again, he would still choose being a stay-at-home dad. “I have asked myself the same question,” confesses Laura. “And my answer is also that I would have chosen to work. Overall, I love working and having a career. I also don’t feel like I missed out on any of my children’s’ activities as they were growing up.”
And on the flip side, some dads really do want to be home with their children. When Mark Tyler dropped his hours to part-time after becoming a dad, he found that he still wasn’t satisfied. “What I found was that I was really not paying much attention to my job,” Mark relates. “Instead I was thinking about the baby.”
Another couple, Jon and Jen*, faced some ribbing from friends who dared ask Jon what he “did all day.” [insert gasp here] For the most part though, Jon says that he just felt “blessed” to have the chance to stay home with his kiddos.
3. Kids don’t care.
A mother’s absence in the home leaves a gaping impact on her children’s development, right? Nope. To Laura and Ron’s kids, having dad at home was just normal.
Although the couple remembers a few incredulous reactions from some friends, no one ever publicly said anything to them, and for their family, it just wasn’t an issue.
“[Our kids] said they were just glad that they got to come home after school and didn’t have to go to after-school care like their friends,” says Laura.
4. Husbands can (gasp) do everything that moms do.
Ok, so dads can stay home with kids — but surely they can’t take on everything that a woman can, right? Not so fast. In addition to his role as dad, which involved school lunches, homework, all pick-ups and drop-offs and after-school activities, stay-at-home dad Ron takes on the majority of household responsibilities as well. “Jon has no problem doing house work,” Jen says. “He admits he likes doing it!”
“He cooks, cleans, goes grocery shopping, does yard work, fixes things, maintains the cars and just about everything,” says Laura of her man. “I pay bills since we do online bill-pay now, but when we use to mail checks, he took care of that too. I feel pretty lucky, because since he took care of everything, it gave me more time when I wasn’t at work to spend with the kids or do other activities with friends.”
The couple also noticed that there was an obvious assumption from other parents that as the mother, Laura was the “default” parent. “Even though Ron stayed home, the moms would call me to schedule things — and I would relay information to Ron,” Laura says. “A few moms figured out after several years, that they could just call him directly. There are some things that only a mom can do (especially with girls), like shop for prom dresses or make-up, but that is true whether a mom is a SAHM or working mom.”
5. Stay-at-home dads struggle with the same things as stay-at-home moms.
You know that loss of identity, the discontent, the self-doubt, the insecurity, and the sheer boredom that can occur with being a stay-at-home mom? Turns out, it’s not just crazy female hormones that cause those feelings — stay-at-home dads experience them too.
Laura recounts how, in going out with her girlfriends, many of whom were stay-at-home moms, she was in the unique position to hear the gripes of wives talking about their husbands not coming home at night on time — and realize that their complaints were the same as her own husband’s. “Since I was friends with SAHMs, I listened and learned a lot about their frustrations which turned out to be about the same as Ron’s,” she remembers.
In Mark’s case, he admits that he struggled with his eventual role into becoming a full-time self-professed “house husband,” reducing his hours at work and then eventually quitting all together when the couple welcomed baby number two. “It had been a huge adjustment for me, going from working full-time to part-time to eventually not working,” Mark says. “But I realized that Carol and I are a team. I understand that Carol’s career is the law and that my career is being married to Carol. I’m widely known as ‘Carol’s husband,’ and that’s OK.”
And while Mark is totally cool with taking a team approach to marriage, the money aspect does weigh on his mind occasionally. “What I do find challenging about all of this is being completely dependent on my wife financially,” he notes. “It colors everything. I do feel funny at times, [but] it’s nothing that Carol has done or said.”
Laura notes that her husband has struggled with feeling that he isn’t a financial team member in their marriage, but she doesn’t see it that way at all. “Ron tends to worry more about spending money than I do because he feels like he is not contributing anything to our income,” she explains. “But I think his being a house husband and SAHD is contributing.”
6. There can be some pretty major benefits.
Laura is the first to admit that there are some unexpected benefits to having a stay-at-home husband, like the way that all her kids’ friends clamored to ride with Ron to after-school activities. “All of their friends wanted to be in [Ron’s] car because he would turn the music up loud and they would have a great time,” she notes. “I would not have done that!”
She also relates that in one instance when her children were young, her husband had to go out of town for three days and the kids were a bit concerned. “I remember them asking, ‘But who will feed us??’ They really thought that I didn’t know how to cook!”
But instead of wasting time feeling guilty or comparing her marriage to anyone else’s, a pointless endeavor at best and a damaging one at worst, she has embraced the benefits of a non-traditional union. “I think I have been very lucky to not have to cook and clean!” she laughs.
7. Old views die hard.
For Jen and Jon, the “traditional” roles of what a man and wife are supposed to do in marriage presented a challenge early on in the transition to bread-winning wife and stay-at-home husband. “Earlier in this arrangement, every once in a while I would find myself becoming resentful that he got to be with the kids I was ‘stuck’ working,” confesses Jen. “I came from a traditional household, so when I was thrust into the role of breadwinner, and having those financial pressures, it was a lot to deal with.”
Switching places also forced Jon to reevaluate how he felt about the couple’s marital roles. “For Jon, suddenly his role was changed as well and he dealt with a lot of his own pressures, like the thoughts, “I should be the one working, I should be the one making the money, I should be gone all day,’” says Jen. “It was a change for both of us. Both good and bad. Even though it is what we both wanted, it comes with its share of challenges.”
Jen notes that she is aware of the warning advice for breadwinning wives that the switch-up can lead to the path of divorce. “The man [feels] not needed as much or the woman feels too much pressure from every angle,” explains Jen. “It may be true, but I also think you both have to have the mindset of, ‘OK, this is what we are going to do. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll change it, but regardless, we’ll work it out together.’ ”
8. They know they are nontraditional — and they can laugh at it.
What I loved most about interviewing these couples is that they took everything about their “nontraditional” marriages and completely owned it. While I’m over here analyzing every square inch of my marriage and wondering if my husband secretly hates me because all I can cook is lasagna and the occasional Crock-Pot meal, these couples are just like, this is what works for us and who cares what anyone else thinks?
“We were not only an ‘oddity’ because of our nontraditional roles, but also I have a Ph.D. in chemistry while he is a high school graduate,” says Laura, of her marriage. ”Most people thought that our marriage would never last. We can’t say we never had arguments or disagreed on lots of things, but we can’t remember even what they were about. For some reason, it all just worked for us. It just worked and our marriage is good.”
Meanwhile, Mark and his wife are secure enough in their marriage and feel completely comfortable poking fun at themselves. He relates the story of when a fellow non-traditional couple came over for brunch one weekend. “It was probably funny and ironic enough for a fly on the wall to witness two dads talking about the travails of raising preschoolers while their wives talked about business,” says Mark. “But the real ‘aha’ moment came as they were about to leave. Carol and I both wished Diana well as she navigated the pregnancy and impending birth with her career, and jokingly warned Bill that he was about to have his hands full. ‘Don’t feel sorry for Bill,’ Diana joked, ‘He’s got total job security now.’ With that, she gave him a loving pat on the rear end. It was funny, and we laughed, but I couldn’t help think I’d just witnessed a scene from the 1950’s except in reverse.”
Now—how do we feel about men in pearls?
*Names have been changed.