Marriage and Family — 10 November 2003
Kudos for the many stay-at-home dads

Kudos for the many stay-at-home dads

Stay-at-home dads (SAHD) are a growing phenomenon. According to the U.S. Census, the number of stay-at-hone dads has jumped 70 percent between 1990 and 2000 to 1.7 million men. Despite the growing numbers and the documented value to children, SAHD face many challenges.

The 1950s traditional family consisted of a primary male breadwinner and a stay-at-home mother. As women’s rights and opportunities in education and the labor market improved, greater equality between the genders was created. Economic demands of modern life propelled many households to resort to two-earners model. This required young children to be cared for by day-care professionals.

New research and social influences highlighted the advantages of a parent-centered upbringing of children. As the pressure mounted, many couples elected to forgo the financial advantages of a two-career family in order to afford their children the presence of a full time at-home parent. Most commonly, this parent was the mother.

However, the option for fathers to assume the primary at-home-parent was created. Many couples did the math and chose to have the higher paid individual work full time outside the home. The cost of day care for many couples made the employability of the lower earner, sometimes the man, an unwise choice In some families where the wife was the higher earner and the husband was inclined to stay home with the children, the choice was easily made.

The economic situation of the past few years produced many layoffs. Men who lost their jobs found it necessary to stay at home while they search for new jobs and needed their wives to resume their careers. The recent wars assigned many women to overseas military duty and left the men at home to care for the children.

Regardless of the circumstances, stay-at-home dads increased in numbers and began to face some special challenges. First they needed to contend with some social misconceptions.

There are people who look askance upon males who are not the primary breadwinners. They may ascribe laziness, irresponsibility, “wimpiness” and unmanliness to Mr. Mom. Some see the stay-at-home dads’ role as “doing nothing,” perhaps being an incompetent employee or a henpecked husband. Other misguided notions are associated with disrespect for a male who burdens his wife with the financial responsibilities of supporting a family. Yet others discount the value of men at home and see the children as being deprived of maternal love.

Research, however, reveals that children benefit greatly from early attachment to their fathers. Youngsters who were more attached to their fathers by age 5 were more interactive, less anxious and more confident at age 9. These children were more likely to be accepted by their peers and better adjusted at school.

A secure attachment to mother affected the children’s self-worth and their ability to form close relationships. It is clear that children need to have a close connection with both parents. This may be achieved, regardless of the parents’ work status.

Aside from the prejudices some fathers face, SAHD also have to contend with daytime social ostracism. Some fathers report being less welcomed by mothers’ play groups, neighborhood visits and playgrounds. The occasional snub may come in the form of questioning the man about his aberrant choice.

Why is it that some women are so uncomfortable in the presence of a male parent? Who designated these mothers as having monopoly on love, tenderness or competency in child care? Why is it that women claim to admire tender males only to recoil from the evidence of some?

Our society is still weighed down with the need for conformity. We try to safeguard our territory in certain areas, to assert our value. Why could men and women not be equally able to work and earn, raise children tenderly, and decide about their personal and family choices appropriately?

Well, they can and many do. For others, these options are too threatening. Some wives may fear that the presence of a stay-at-home husband may imply that they are less maternal or loving of the children. Avoiding this misperception of others may prevent some couples from making the best family decision for their marriage and their children.

Women are not necessarily better at raising children by virtue of their gender. Nor are men necessarily more suited for outside work. In addition to the economic and practical considerations, each family needs to assess the personality and inclination of each partner in determining their respective work roles.

If you are a stay-at-home dad,

# Be proud of your talents and skills as a parent and homemaker. The emotional demands and complexities of your job far exceed many outside jobs.

# Recognize the immense contributions you make to the health and well being of your children.

# Regard the less than approving comments and looks as a sign of misguided understanding.

# Your personal comfort and pride will set the tone for reactions from others. This will help reduce social ostracism.

# Facilitate for your wife the time to bond with the children.

# Remember, children grow, while jobs are there to be had with due time.

# You may be a part of a minority group right now, but you are a pioneer in setting cultural, emotional and social standards for the benefit of children for years to come.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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