Man on the home front
As more dads become primary caregivers to their children, many learn to homeschool and navigate expectations
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Philip Shea had just returned from taking his daughter to dance class and was answering questions about being a stay-at-home dad when one of his kids interrupted him.
“Sorry, just a moment,” he said, before switching to his parenting voice. “No, we’re not going to clean the hot tub right now. Let Dad finish this phone call first.” When the girl tried to reason with him, he replied more firmly, “I know, everybody says that, but it’s not going to happen right now. I think it would be better if we did it on Monday.”
For Shea, this isn’t just Saturday—it’s every day. The Happy Valley, Ore., stay-at-home dad not only homeschools all four of his kids, he takes them to swim team, does most of the household chores, and tells them when the hot tub is off limits, all while his wife Jess works a full-time job.
Dads like Shea are on the rise. Counting only fathers who are out of the labor force to take care of family and have a spouse who’s employed, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded around 204,000 at-home dads last year. But that number goes up to roughly 1.75 million if you include dads who are the primary caregivers of their children regardless of their employment status or their spouses’, says Jonathan Heisey-Grove, president of the National At-Home Dad Network.
Historically, economic downturns have led more dads to stay home, according to Arielle Kuperberg, a professor of sociology and women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The pandemic may have contributed too, as layoffs and hiring freezes kept more men home and virtual school and shuttered daycares left kids with nowhere to go.
Not only are more dads staying home, they’re also doing more around the house, and getting more time with the kids. In 2016, the average dad spent eight hours a week on childcare—triple the time a dad in 1965 spent on his kids, according to the Pew Research Center. Dads nowadays also spend more time doing domestic chores (10 hours a week) than the average four hours his granddad likely did back in 1965. Mothers still do more—in 2016 they put in 14 hours a week on childcare and 18 hours a week on housework.
As modern dads get more involved in home life, they’re not just able to change diapers, they can confidently run the house without any help. But even while American men become more accustomed to staying at home, many still feel the tension of cultural expectations that suggest home-based child-rearing is primarily a woman’s role.
WHY DO DADS STAY HOME? Reasons vary, but some couples choose the arrangement for practical reasons. Before Russ Jones left his job as a psychologist to homeschool his three kids full time, he and his wife both had demanding full-time jobs that only got tougher when the pandemic shut down schools and daycare. By May 2020, the dad in northern Virginia said, it was a “no-brainer” that he would be the one staying home, since he had already been doing most of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and preschool drop-offs. “Once that happened,” he said, “everyone got happier.”
Jones joined a local homeschool co-op where he’s often the only man in a sea of moms, but said the group’s warm welcome made the adjustment easier. “I don’t feel my gender as much as I thought I would because we’re all talking about the same thing,” he said. “We talk about curriculum, or the attitudes of our kids when they don’t want to do something. That’s universal.”
Some also assume that dads run the house differently, but as these men tell it, life isn’t so different when dad’s in charge. Jones said his wife would run the house the same way he does, with only minor differences. “She would stress safety, and I would stress eating everything off your plate,” he joked.
For many families, the decision to have mom as the sole breadwinner has more to do with money than who’s better with the kids. Many wives today out-earn their husbands. The gender pay gap has narrowed, with the American woman’s median weekly earnings at 84 percent of a man’s earnings, up from 62 percent back in 1979. Throw in the high cost of childcare and the hectic family schedules of dual earners, and the decision becomes clearer for some couples.
“It was largely providential,” said Neil Shenvi about going from being a theoretical chemist at a research university to a homeschooling stay-at-home dad. He and his physician wife Christina were expecting their fourth child when they realized having Christina’s mom watch all four kids would be a challenge. Finances also factored into his resignation: “After taxes, my marginal salary would have just barely covered childcare and/or private school.”
The North Carolina dad never planned to stay home or homeschool. But since the switch, he’s come to love schooling his children. “I devote most of my one-on-one instruction to math, and it’s amazing to see how far my kids can go,” said Shenvi, who also tutors in the family’s homeschool co-op.
SHENVI IS ACTUALLY AN OUTLIER among stay-at-home dads. A large majority of U.S. fathers who stay home do not have a college degree, according to research from Kuperberg, who analyzed Census Bureau data. And while most at-home dads are married, unmarried dads are in fact more likely than married dads to stay home with kids, she found.
In a study published earlier this year, Kuperberg and her co-authors wrote that “at-home fathers report tensions about not providing for or ‘contributing to’ their families.” Those men feel that way “especially when home because of unemployment or when they are working class and face stronger breadwinning expectations.”
Some at-home dads struggle with shame about not being the provider, while others say isolation has made at-home life tough. “Stay-at-home moms tend to have a community of other stay-at-home moms all around them, no matter where they live,” said Shenvi. He enjoys the close community from his homeschool co-op but acknowledges it’s “95 percent moms.”
When Shannon Carpenter became a stay-at-home dad in Kansas City, he tried to join the parent groups that were readily available: mom groups. “I sent dozens and dozens of emails that got either ignored,” he recounted, “or a quick ‘No, thank you.’”
We checked, and it’s true that many mom groups don’t allow men. One Facebook group in northern Virginia lists its rule in all caps: “ONLY MOTHERS ARE APPROVED MEMBERS.” Even mission statements, curricula, and advice sessions for many of these groups are specifically designed for women. Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) International, which boasts 75,000 members worldwide, is “uniquely called to moms,” said Kelli Smith, MOPS’ director of marketing, so no dads are allowed. At church, the gender divide in the parenting community is similar, with dads bemoaning the fact that childcare is often offered for women’s gatherings but not for men’s.
Most of the dads we spoke to said they had little trouble convincing family and friends of their decision to stay home, but well-meaning acquaintances and strangers didn’t understand and made wrong assumptions. Whenever Carpenter sees a new receptionist working at his children’s doctor’s office, he knows he’ll have to remind the new hire to contact him and not his wife. The same goes for schools that still call and email his wife, even though the dad of three is listed as the first contact.
At the playground with his kids, Carpenter has received strange looks. He and other dads know men unaccompanied by their wives can come across as creepy to women. Shea said that when he’s out with his kids, he receives compliments from people praising him for taking time out to watch them. His dry reply: “This isn’t babysitting, this is what I do.”
Eventually, Carpenter found his tribe. The former elder abuse investigator has been close friends with four other stay-at-home dads from KC Dads Group for 14 years now. Once a year, the men go on a trip with all 16 kids in tow and visit places like the Field of Dreams in Iowa. Carpenter’s Kansas City group is part of City Dads Group, a network with groups in about 40 American cities.
But dads don’t have to be in a dad group for community. Pursuing his interests in apologetics and Biblical critiques of critical race theory, Shenvi has been able to connect to a “broader community, even if it’s mainly via the internet.” He advises stay-at-home dads to find meaningful, productive work outside of the time with their kids, and says that will often come with a ready-made community of people interested in the same thing.
AMERICAN CULTURE HAS BECOME more accepting of dads staying at home, but some immigrant cultures still frown on the idea. The antipathy is mainly rooted in the convention that men be the primary provider. The Chinese, for example, have a specific, derogatory expression in their language for a man who lives off a woman, literally translating as he who “eats soft rice.”
As a Korean American dad, Kyun Chung understands this Asian stigma. For five years the dad from Seattle (see “Adopting against the odds,” May 21) split his time between caring for the kids and working on his startup. But when the pandemic broke out, he shut down his company to stay home full time. It worked well for everyone: His kids got help with virtual school, he got more housework done, and his wife could focus on her full-time job.
But on one visit with his Korean relatives, Chung’s extended family apologized on his behalf to Connie, his Asian American wife, because she had to be the breadwinner. Chung said he and his wife were more amused than offended by the incident.
For Christians who subscribe to traditional gender roles, a stay-at-home dad might raise eyebrows. Does the at-home dad trend conflict with passages that teach a Christian to provide for “members of his household” (1 Timothy 5:8) and teach young mothers to be “working at home” (Titus 2:5)?
Views differ. Denny Burk, a professor of Biblical studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, points to Genesis as laying out God’s original design for husband and wife: Adam was to cultivate the land and provide for his family, and Eve, his “helper,” was to bear children, nurture them, and manage the home. While Proverbs 31 depicts a woman who is both a homemaker and employed outside the home, Burk says her employment was secondary to her calling in the home. Ultimately, the Bible “teaches by precept and by pattern that the able-bodied husband who does not provide is giving up what should be his role,” he said in an email.
But Tim Lane, a Presbyterian Church in America minister and president of the Institute for Pastoral Care, argued “there are countless situational factors that call for biblical wisdom in applying passages like [these].” He noted the 1 Timothy passage places the responsibility on the entire family to care for dependent relatives, and says the Titus passage simply teaches women to avoid a habit of idleness and going about from house to house. In the Bible’s pre-industrial, agrarian context, both men and women were “working at home,” Lane says. They divided responsibilities in a way that seemed practical and “that same freedom is [also] upon us [when] many people now work ‘outside’ the home.”
Dads have an important role in leading their children toward a “steadfast, long-lasting, sticky faith in Christ,” added Danny Huerta, vice president for parenting and youth at Focus on the Family. Dads who stay home can be more engaged in their children’s upbringing, he said.
Shenvi has had the opportunity not just to read the Bible and pray daily with his kids, but to use day-to-day moments for discipleship. He has had “some of the most meaningful conversations” with his children during random moments throughout the day, he noted, including car rides to the grocery store. Be it food, money, or politics, he hopes his kids will see every topic through a Christian lens.
Some dads like Shenvi, Carpenter, and Shea see this as their vocation and are in it for the long haul. But for others, it might be just a season in their lives. Chung recently returned to full-time work, taking a job at Microsoft’s Xbox. It had been convenient during the pandemic for him to take care of the kids full time, but after he and his wife adopted two boys from Taiwan, the added expenses prompted him to make a change.
With all four kids returning to in-person school and his wife already working from home part of the week, Chung admitted, “I was getting a bit bored with the minimal intellectual challenges and repetitive nature of being home.” His new position is fully remote, so he’ll still be around when the kids come home, but at the same time, Chung feels conflicted. “The kids are still so young and they still want to hang out with me, so am I wasting this short window in their lives?” he wonders. “My income isn’t necessary, so am I choosing money over family?”
Whatever the decision—to remain a stay-at-home dad or return to work—Chung knew he’d have to deal with some feelings of guilt and doubt. “What’s helped me feel at ease has been the feeling that the job opportunity was … provided by God,” he said. “It’s just been the way He’s worked in both Connie and my life, and I’m incredibly grateful that He almost made the decision for me.”