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Stay-At-Home Dads, Breadwinner Moms And Making It All Work

The next time you see a father out shopping with his kids, you might need to check your assumptions.

"I'll get the, 'Oh, look, it's a dad! That's so sweet!' "says Jonathan Heisey-Grove, a stay-at-home father of two young boys in Alexandria, Va., who is pretty sure the other person assumes he's just giving Mom a break for the day. In fact, he's part of a growing number of fathers who are minding the kids full time while their wives support the family and who say societal expectations are not keeping up with their reality.

He and his wife, Dawn, a public health analyst, didn't exactly plan for Jonathan to be a stay-at-home parent to Egan, 5, and Zane, who's 4 months old. The Heisey-Groves were both working full time when he lost his job as a graphic designer two years ago. That also ended the company day care. Dawn says Jonathan stayed home at first just to save money on child care.

"And suddenly the world just became much calmer and quieter. Egan wasn't as upset and he wasn't as tense anymore. And our relationship, even though we were stressed about not having money, we weren't rushing around when both of us got home. And so, it was just a happier place," she says.

Dawn Heisey-Grove works as a public health analyst and says their home became "calmer and quieter" when Jonathan stayed with the kids full time.
Kainaz Amaria / NPR
Dawn Heisey-Grove works as a public health analyst and says their home became "calmer and quieter" when Jonathan stayed with the kids full time.

Dawn was surprised — and happy — to discover two colleagues whose husbands are also stay-at-home fathers. But she does feel like she's missing out sometimes.

"I showed up for the preschool graduation, and they all looked at me like, 'Who are you?' And I kind of felt like the bad mom moment. Like, he's got the Dad of the Year award, and I'm kind of sitting on the sidelines a little bit," she says.

Mostly, the Heisey-Groves and others say they are doing what works best for them to create happy lives for their children. And they hope to change long entrenched attitudes about the proper role of mothers and fathers.

The Heisey-Groves' arrangement is still an outlier. The Census Bureau finds that about 3.5 percent of stay-at-home parents are fathers, though that's doubled in a decade. But Stephanie Coontz of the Council on Contemporary Families calls the figure vastly underreported. It doesn't include the many fathers who do some work yet are their children's primary caregivers, a trend that cuts across class and income.

"Men today are now reporting higher levels of work-family conflict than women are," Coontz says. They feel "not just pressure, but the desire to be more involved in family life and child care and housework and cooking. And at the same time, all of the polls are showing that women are now just as likely as men to say that they want to have challenging careers."

This is all evident at a place where Jonathan has found camaraderie — a daddy's playgroup in Arlington, Va., part of a national support network.

"I didn't want to be the dad who was never around," says the host, Mark Bildner, who's been home with his children for five years. He chose to leave an all-consuming job in the tech industry and is proud that his decision has allowed his wife to advance.

"She took a position at her company that involved a lot of travel, last-minute work, late nights and so forth," he says. "And I have some understanding of how it feels to be in that position, so I try to be as supportive as I can."

For others, the decision over who stays home with the kids is an economic one. Coontz points out that 28 percent of women now outearn their husbands, a trend driven by the fact that more women than men now earn college degrees.

We put out a Facebook query looking for breadwinner wives and stay-at-home fathers, and many of the hundreds who replied report being happy with their "role reversal." But others say it can be tough on a relationship, and some wrote of the challenge of reshaping their personal notion of self-worth and in bucking social norms.

A few excerpts:

  • David Patrick in Grapevine, Texas, writes that on his third date with his now wife, Monica, she asked if he'd ever considered being a stay-at-home father. He was a struggling actor who'd worked waiting tables and in sales, and his answer was, "Yes!" Today, he stays home with their two young girls, and Monica is an OB-GYN. "In her practice of six doctors (all women) only two of the husbands are currently employed outside the home," Patrick writes. "Monica's father was a doctor, and her mother was a homemaker, so my mother-in-law and I joke about how hard it is to be a doctor's wife. I love it."
  • Chris Bublik of Orlando, Fla., has been a full-time father for six years and writes that he's grateful to be able to shape his children's lives this way. "But there are real impacts to us as men," he writes, "impacts that none of us expected as we reveled in those first few months of sweats and grubby t-shirts, and not shaving...and the 4:30 dash to clean up the house so our wives won't think we're completely useless (you stay-at-home daddies know exactly what I mean). Feelings of inferiority, loss of self-esteem, self-respect."
  • Alison Gary of Greenbelt, Md., writes that her husband, Karl, has been home with their daughter for four years. "His friends think he has nothing to do all day and want to come over and party on federal holidays, and find him lame when he's too tired to hang out on a Friday night. I received some pushback as well. ... I even had a fellow mom tell me she couldn't believe I trusted my husband with my daughter all day."
  • Jonathan and Dawn Heisey-Grove with their two sons Egan, 5, and Zane, 4 months, at their home in Alexandria, Va.
    Kainaz Amaria / NPR
    Jonathan and Dawn Heisey-Grove with their two sons Egan, 5, and Zane, 4 months, at their home in Alexandria, Va.

    So what of that notion — that so heats up the blogosphere — that women are somehow better equipped to tend to hearth and home? "I don't buy that at all," says sociologist Coontz.

    She says for 150 years both men and women have been trained to fulfill certain, distinct roles and to explicitly not be responsible for others. Spotting dirt on the floor? Changing a diaper? "As long as a woman is going to be there doing it, and actually, often telling him how to do it better, why should he learn to do it?" Coontz says. "We really have to make an effort to let the other person succeed at something they've never done before and to give them the chance to get comfortable with it."

    Coontz says for generations, children have been conditioned early for their respective gender roles — boys, for example, have been discouraged when they express interest in cooking or dolls. ("And they all do," Coontz says, "especially when dads are not looking. We've done studies on that!")

    So perhaps it's fitting to close with this reply to NPR's Facebook query on stay-at-home fathers. Katie Shell writes: "My son wants to be one when he grows up."

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    Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.