I Quit My Job to Be a Stay-at-Home Dad. Here’s What It’s Like.
I tend to just smile at the cashier when she asks, “Giving mom a break today?”
Every day, I get the chance to defy the chronically low expectations society has placed on dads. Yes, I can do ponytails and braids. Yes, I can bake and get my kids dressed. All I have to do is succeed a little and I’m a-mazing.
One Sunday, for example, I took my kids to have their pictures taken. As I walked up with four kids in tow and no wife, a mom who was waiting said, “Wow, here comes Super Dad.”
All I did was take my kids to a scheduled activity and get them ready for it—I don’t think it’s “super.” It’s parenting, and as a stay-at-home dad, it’s also my full-time job.
My career change, if you will, was not something my wife and I had planned for when we had kids. But as we were preparing for the birth of our fourth child, our nanny quit. My wife and I went into full-on crisis mode. We had three kids—aged 8, 3, and 1—and we were both working full-time jobs (I was a brand manager at a toy company and my wife, a pediatric anesthesiologist). The only way our double-job, double-commute life worked was having someone at home with them.
Luckily, we had a neighbor who both loved our kids and wanted some extra income who was willing to step in temporarily. And with her help, my wife’s maternity leave, and parental leave from my job, I kept thinking, “We’ll find someone we can afford in plenty of time.”
But as we searched, we also started to review the math again. It was clear I wasn’t making enough to cover the expense of a nanny. I felt so useless. I wasn’t caring for my kids, and I wasn’t making enough to pay for someone else to do it.
In the middle of all that child care calculus, we decided to move across the country from Massachusetts to Oregon, where my wife got a job offer and where we’d be closer to her family. I looked into doing remote work for the toy company, becoming a consultant, and switching to a different industry entirely. But when factoring in the cost of child care for four kids—which is equivalent to the GDP of a small country—in our new town, I couldn’t seem to find anything that worked.
Frankly, I never dreamed of not working. I liked being in a social office, analyzing spreadsheets, giving presentations, and solving problems in a creative way. But we were about to have four kids, only one of whom was in school—did we really want to pay someone else to raise them?
I told my wife I should stay home after my parental leave ended. Turned out, she’d been hoping I would have considered it long ago, but she wanted it to be my choice.
When I told my boss I was leaving, she was really supportive. Our families understood, too. Once we moved to Oregon and people I met learned I was a stay-at-home dad, I was surprised to find out how many other men had stayed home with their kids for a time and how many people had children or sons-in-law who did, too.
A few times, people asked me,“Well, what about your career?” I’d say I had lots of interests and needed to focus on family now. People who didn’t understand were mostly random strangers who felt the need to weigh in. At first I’d get annoyed. “Why do they even care about my life choices?” I’d wonder. In fact, even my own children didn’t get it at times. “Dad, why did you go to graduate school? You don’t even have a job!” one of them once asked.
But four years later, I have a different perspective. (And so do my kids, for that matter; the one I quoted has even commented about dads or moms staying home since then.)
I was somewhat prepared for the day-to-day grind of at-home parenting. I met my wife while she was finishing medical school and we had our first child while she was in her residency. With her long hours, late days, and frequent overnights, I became accustomed to being the primary caregiver—taking care of our eldest child, managing meal prep, shopping, cooking, and laundry were things I either took the lead on or already participated in.
But I didn’t expect how little I’d be able to get done on some days, nor was I prepared for the loneliness and isolation. Although Pew Research Center estimates the number of stay-at-home dads is on the rise, it’s still a small percentage over all. We’re definitely in the minority.
Some moms think you are intruding on their territory. But others are totally cool with commiserating with a dad about the challenges of at-home parenting. You know, the insanity of having to take chicken nuggets from the freezer, heat them, and then put them back in the freezer so they are cooked but cold because your kids want them cold.
For as many good friendships as I’ve formed with mothers while in the dance class waiting room, I’ve also received the same number of gazes of death when arriving at a playgroup where I was clearly not wanted. But online communities—such as the National At Home Dad Network, Dads Married to Doctors and even the super specific Stay at Home Dads Married to Doctors—help fight loneliness when I need to be with people who “get it.”
Yes, I get the occasional “Mr. Mom” comment, but I usually just shrug it off. (Though it’s worth noting that no one calls my wife Dr. Dad because she goes to work.) And I tend to just smile at the cashier when I’m with my kids at the store and she asks, “Giving mom a break today?”
When everything flows smoothly, being a stay-at-home dad is a great gig. I get the kids off to school, go to the gym, work on home improvement and yard projects, sometimes meet a friend to catch up, plan meals, and then meet the kids when they get off the bus (they’re now 12, 7, 5 and 4). Then it’s on to chores, homework, musical instrument practice, speech therapy, sports, and dance class. I’m there for my kids’ highs and lows, and then I get to wrap up the day watching a favorite show with my wife. These are the times I love being a stay-at-home parent—when I go to bed exhausted but content.
Then there are the days where the entire schedule is shot by breakfast. Kids get sick. There’s unexpected car trouble. My carefully planned meal is reviled by all. Shoes are the enemy of hope. I miss an event even though it’s on two different calendars. I can’t get anywhere on time to save my life. These are the days I hate it. I miss the business travel, eating meals while they’re hot, and I would rather pay someone to watch my kids so I can sit in a new toy engineering status meeting just for the quiet drone of milestone tracking.
People often ask if I “love” being a stay-at-home-dad. I think they want me to say, “I LOVE it. I really do!” in my best Pollyanna-Sally-Field-at-the-Oscars voice. But that isn’t reality. You take the good with the bad, adjust expectations, and move forward.
We ended up leaving Oregon after a year because it proved to be a bad fit and we’re now back in Massachusetts in the same town we left. I’m once again close to many interesting job options, including the toy company, but I’m committed to the stay-at-home dad life. Why? Because even if I found a job that could more than cover child care, being there to support my wife and children is an important, fun, exhausting, exhilarating, mind-numbing privilege. It’s what our family needs and I am very fortunate to be able to choose it.
And for more on at-home parenting, here are 33 Things No One Tells You About Being a Stay-at-Home Mom.
Jared Jones is a stay-at-home dad residing outside of Boston. He and his wife have four children. He blogs about his adventures at keepingupwithmrjones.com.
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