I look down. As I am writing a story about men who stay home to watch their offspring, I’ve stopped paying attention to my own child. He has just shoved his hand into a pile of chicken poop on the patio that I intended to clean up…but about which I promptly forgot. My son, Theodore, looks at me with alarm. I sigh. “We should show your mother.”
Parenting is more or less a series of trials and errors from which you hope that all parties emerge mentally unscathed, physically healthy, and sufficiently potty-trained. The roles that parents adopt in the process–Mom, Dad, butler, chauffeur, chef–are a combination of past experience (Did your father mow the lawn? Did your mother clean the house?) set against one’s social expectations (the gendered nature of parental roles within a society).
For good or ill, men have not conventionally been homemakers or “staddys”—a new term that joins “stay-at-home” and “dad” together in a way that those fond of parenting blogs may appreciate. The Census Bureau describes these men as married fathers with children younger than 15 who have remained out of the labor force for a minimum of a year so that they can care for their children while their wives work outside the home. As of 2014, estimates peg this population of men at roughly 200,000 to 1.4 million depending on who is counting.
Obviously, stay-at-home dads make up a fraction of the larger population of all fathers. Yet, the Pew Research Center’s survey work suggests that the number of fathers staying within the household as primary caregivers has more than doubled since the mid-1980s. Baton Rouge has a few of these men of our own.
Jeff Ryan stepped into the role of a stay at home dad several years ago and hasn’t looked back. He is 45 and has four kids, the eldest of which is about to drive. “Little does he know he’s gonna be helpin’ dad,” Jeff shares and grins. A radiologist by trade, he pivoted to caring for his children full-time when the pressures of a needy and expensive daycare became too demanding. The time-honored reflection of working parents–“This doesn’t make financial sense”–gave way to him staying at home while his wife continued building her pediatric practice.
Jeff describes his experience matter of factly. It just is what it is. He already did most of the cooking and cleaning so “it wasn’t a stretch” to add in a kid. When it comes to drawbacks, Jeff is transparent, “There were days where I wouldn’t talk to any other adult until my wife got home. A lot of my friends were my co-workers. This was before Facebook, and I lost a lot of friends just because I lost track of them.”
His response is one that is rarely considered for men. The isolation of stay-at-home parenting can become consuming no matter the gender. But Jeff is quick to respond, putting to rest any hint of wistfulness for another path. “Yeah, but I feel like I know my kids more, the little quirks. They’re not strangers.” That knowledge and understanding make the sacrifices worth it.
Jeremy Landry, 33, molds his “Staddy” life into a role that fits him. He has three kids; two in school, and one at home. In a former life he was policeman with the Baton Rouge Police Department. Now, he juggles a real estate business alongside his wife and proudly boasts that he’s known as “The First Lady of my subdivision.” It sounds like he’s running a three-ring circus. “More like seven,” he laughs.
If Jeff’s experience as a stay-at-home parent seems more conventional, then Jeremy’s is anything but. The vanity plate on his SUV reads “MAN VAN” and his YouTube channel is where he shares his children’s shenanigans. He proudly displays his role and is game for life’s twists and turns with his sense of humor.
When he considers whether this experience has given him a different perspective on his relationship with his own father, Jeremy pauses and thoughtfully searches for the right words. It’s obvious Jeremy cares deeply for his dad. But if time is the currency with which we purchase our relationships, then it is clear that he recognizes what many children wish from their parents: more time. “With my kid, I’m always around. I got to see his first walk. We do everything together.” Jeremy’s choices have afforded him the most precious commodity for all parents–shared time and experience.
How representative these Cajun fathers are of the larger population of the stay-at-home dads is up for debate. Some research argues that the recent rise in stay-at-home fathers is a residual function of the 2008 economic collapse–as male breadwinners lost their jobs, more fathers transitioned from professional work to primary care-giving in the home.
That’s not the case for these stay-at-home dads. In fact, their experience shares a common sense of ownership over their decision to stay at home–a sense of purpose that helps propel them through car seat blowouts and sick toddlers, and professions placed on the backburner. It’s easy to romanticize the role of stay-at-home parent, however. Jeremy tells me that some of his friends “thought I was just drinking beer and hanging around the house.” The reality, however, is that this is hard, but rewarding work. For moms and dads. ■