How My Stay-At-Home Dad Helped Me Dream Big

My dad carrying me up a mountain

Every morning my sister and I would wake up to the clatter of bowls set on our dining room table. We would roll sleepily out of bed, hair sticking out in every direction, and patter over to our seats.

Our dad would get us ready, pulling my favorite 101 Dalmatians T-shirt over my head. He brushed my sister’s hair while she slurped up her Cheerios. He checked we had our packed lunches, buckled us into our car seats, drove us to school, and walked with us hand-in-hand to the classroom.

After school, we would run full-speed to latch onto him as he chatted with our friends’ moms. It never struck me as odd that he was the only dad standing there.

Stay-At-Home Dads Support Working Moms

While I grew up with the example of a breadwinning mother, as I got older I realized that my dad’s support enabled my mom to excel in the workforce. (She is also a badass in her own right, but that is material for another article.)

The rise in dual-income families graph
Source: Pew Research Center analysis of Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements (IPUMS)

These days there is a popular push that mothers can “have it all,” creating the unhealthy and near-impossible expectation that they also “do it all,” from childcare to housework to crushing their careers. I can barely fathom the effort it takes to attempt to do all of that without significant spousal support.

In the second half of the 20th century, there has been a huge rise of women in the workforce, but the numbers don’t show a similar increase in men staying home to support them. More parents are choosing childcare in order to have dual income households, while the model of a solo mom breadwinner is still exceedingly rare. However, if more dads stayed at home, we might start seeing an increase of equality all-around.

The Number of Stay-At-Home Dads Is Increasing

Brad Harrington, the executive director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family, talks in an interview with NPR about the difference a stay-at-home father can make towards having a more balanced household.

“Nothing, probably, provides more of an opportunity for women to advance than an at-home dad, because when they know that the father is there, taking care of that set of responsibilities, then women are more free to pursue their own professional goals.”

Yet in a world trending towards more gender equality, the number of stay-at-home dads is still far from equitable, even after reaching an all-time high in 2017.

The Share of Stay-at-home parents that are dads is higher than ever
The share of stay-at-home parents is far from 50-50

The gap is closing, if slowly, in a trajectory that gives me hope. Dads should be encouraged to take equal part in parenting duties to support their professional partners. Witnessing the support my dad provided emboldened me to dream big when considering my own aspirations.

My Stay-At-Home Dad Inspired Me To Dream Big

Stay-at-home dads don’t just provide support for their spouses; they are also a critical role-model for their children. Research suggests that daughters who have fathers who help out with housework like doing the dishes and laundry are more likely to have ambitious career goals.

My dad carrying me up a mountain
My dad taught me about perseverance, dreaming big, and that it’s not a good idea to knock the glasses off of a person’s face when they are carrying you up a mountain

In 1989, a few years before I was born, only 10% of stay-at-home parents were dads. I was one of the lucky few and I owe my career partly to my parents’ model.

If my mother had quit her job to care for us, I wonder if I would have picked such an incredibly difficult degree. Why work so hard if I might have to drop out of the workforce after a few years? I chose engineering as a major with the example of a mother as a successful breadwinner and a father helping me with my math homework at the living room table.

Yet for all the benefits that stay-at-home dads provide, they face the same downsides as stay-at-home moms, with an extra heap of societal disbelief on top.

The Downsides of Being A Stay-At-Home Dad

Stay-at-home parents (both moms and dads!) face numerous challenges. They have difficulty getting back into the workforce, they deal with loneliness and isolation, and they take on a full-time job of caretaking without being recognized with accolades or rewarded with weekly paychecks. In fact, recently conjectured that a stay-at-home parent does the work equivalent to someone making $162,000 per year.

Dad holding me as a baby
Father-daughter bonding time

My dad didn’t fit in with all the moms at the park. He preferred to play guitar on the bench while we swung our little bodies across the monkey bars. He struggled to land a full-time job after stepping off the volunteer board of the local PTA (Parent-Teacher Association). These obstacles compounded on top of society’s doubts that he could raise us as well as our mother might.

A 2013 Pew Research Center survey revealed that 51% of respondents said children are better off with a mother at home, compared to only 8% who said children are better off with a father at home. This might make sense from a biological standpoint while the baby is breastfeeding, but these attitudes continue into childhood and beyond. Fathers have an enormous impact on their children’s development, so we should change our attitude when it comes to estimating men’s abilities to raise children.

While some people may be surprised that my dad did the laundry, I reminisce about giggling as he dumped the clothes fresh from the drier over our heads. I know that men are just as capable as women when it comes to raising children and making happy memories.

Feminism and Fatherhood

It is time to squash the stigma behind stay-at-home fatherhood. Parents should be lauded for the work they do at home, and dads encouraged to take an equal part. When daughters and sons witness equality at home, they are more likely to eschew the stereotypes that divide us at work.

Feminism is not just the conviction that women can do anything that men can do. It is also recognizing the fact that men are capable of doing the work that women do, too.Click To Tweet

Stay-at-home parents take on massive workloads for little thanks. So I want to take a second to thank my dad for everything he has done. Part of the reason I am an engineer today is that you showed me that men are just as capable of being coffee-makers and child-raisers. Thank you, Dad!

Dad with a broom in the kitchen

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  1. Really interesting article! I think this concept is definitely becoming more normal. I wish that statistic that stay at home parents do $162,000 worth of work was brought up more in the discussions.

    The ability to work from home is going to change family dynamics as well. I may not be 100% available to my future kids when I’m working but I’ll be a lot more present than if I were to work at an office. Also, if I end up working for myself, I’ll have a lot of flexibility with my schedule.

    1. The number was definitely surprising to me, I know that stay-at-home parents do a lot of work but putting a number on it makes it a lot more concrete.

      I completely agree that flexibility in jobs will change how families look in the future. My partner is pursuing medicine in a field he might be able to do remotely, and my job can go completely remote, so that means there are a lot more options than the binary stay-at-home or go-to-work ones that were the only ones available before.

  2. I love everything about this post! My husband had a distant, workaholic, (spousally) abusive dad in a country with some of the least gender parity in the OECD; he’s a full time dad–and we love the situation. You are absolutely right that allows me to take a lot of career chances not available to other working moms. Thanks for posting and sharing your story!

    1. Oh dear, I’m sorry to hear the history of your husband’s dad, but it sounds like he really turned it around in his own life to be a full time, supportive dad. And I’m thrilled to hear it enables you to take career risks and achieve great things in your career!

  3. Your dad has done an amazing job, and I wish there were more awesome dads like that. I was naive to think that all women and men family roles would be dramatically changed over the last decade, but that’s just in my circle I guess – better stay in that circle!

    When I grew up my mom was both the mother and the father, so it’s very strange to find out later that there is really a ‘distribution’ kind of thing going on.

    Hoping that men will also empower themselves to be SAHD and raise more bad-ass kids!

    1. Yes for all the progress we seem to be making, it doesn’t seem like we are making changes across the board. It’s interesting to hear about your role-model mother, she must have been pretty incredible to balance all of those responsibilities! Here’s to more SAHDs and bad-ass kids! 🙂

  4. Great story! Sounds like your dad is pretty awesome, rocking the SAHD title before it was cool. Though, I guess it still isn’t cool yet? My wife is the breadwinner in our relationship, and must stay fully employed to complete a loan forgiveness program, so if we have any more kids and decide one of us will stay home, it will be me. It will probably coincide with a Lean FI situation, so I won’t need to rejoin the workforce in my previous capacity. I’m actually fired up about the potential opportunity, and hope to help change the stigma of stay at home dads!

    1. Woohoo another possible future SAHD! Love it. That’s what’s awesome about FI, it gives you some flexibility there. I’m fired up for you too!

  5. Your dad looks really cool. He kind of reminds me of John Green mixed with Conan O’Brien. 🙂 I didn’t realize the value of raising children is so high. I’m not a big fan of daycare. Unless daycare workers get paid $162K/year I doubt they are bringing the level of value that toddlers deserve. I believe at least one parent should stay at home to take care of kids when they’re young. How does Mr. Mechanic feel about being a potential stay at home parent in the future, or would you rather be at home since you’re planning to retire earlier anyway, or would that not be in the cards for you guys?

    1. I can see the mix. I know some parents have to do what they gotta do. I was in daycare very early on when both parents worked, but my dad was a firm believer in having someone home to raise them.

      Good question! Our culture reinforces the belief that men will be the providers, and Mr. Mechanic grew up with that mentality. He will admit to being a bit surprised when I asked him if he would seriously consider staying at home. He is happy to consider it but it is a definite shift from the overall expectation. If we had kids (big if at this point, but there’s still time) we have talked about a mix of part-time. We both picked jobs you can tele-commute from (medicine is a bit harder, but his specialty allows for it). One factor of financial independence is that it would give us the choice to be flexible around that.

  6. My dream once upon a time was for PiC to be the SAHP and this is exactly why. I knew he’d be good at it and he was the one who wanted all the kids, so it seemed like the perfect fit. I didn’t foresee landing in the Bay Area though, which is so expensive that we both have to work in order to meet our savings goals in addition to meeting our expenses. I’m still very lucky – he’s a very equal partner in the household responsibilities, and perhaps it’s very equal because we both have “equal” jobs: we both work professionally and split parenting and household duties down the middle.

    1. Yes, the living situation can have a huge impact on working vs. non-working parents and spouses. I didn’t go into it here but some parents don’t even have the choice of staying home because of the cost of living. It’s great you have found an equal partner in household responsibilities, the data show that typically even with both spouses working (in a hetero-couple), the woman will end up doing more housework and more childcare, so I’m really happy you have a down-the-middle split 🙂

  7. I love this! My dad became a stay-at-home dad when my youngest sister was born. I just unearthed some home videos of the two of them practicing for her school presentation, setting up for her birthday, attending her school recitals, etc. By this time, my other sister and I were in college so it was just the two of them, but it was always nice to come home and have my dad be present. He always had a meal ready and was also prepared to teach me something which I think helped me become more independent in my own right.

    1. Oh man I love home videos. So heartwarming! We need to get them converted from VHS to watch them again. Having my dad present was great too– I know if I call home that he can help me with an issue I have. I love that your dad was a factor in your own independence, too!

  8. Thanks for sharing. I’m a stay at home dad and I worry about how it affect our son. You turned out quite well so that’s a relief. 🙂 Did your dad go back to full time work at some point?

    1. He had one small stint at a full time environment, but mostly he started his own businesses, and now takes on freelance style jobs and takes care of my parents’ Airbnb.

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