Stay at Home Dads Finding their Way

As a counterpoint to my blog post about Rick and Eleanor Hemmert (“Because Rick lost his job, his wife says I’ve just lost so much respect for him'”), read this article about stay-at-home dads (Sacramento Bee, 4/15/09).

The Rick and Eleanor piece was a horror-show parable of gender role reversal gone awry. Rick had lost his job and was staying at home caring for their daughter, cleaning house, preparing meals, etc., while Eleanor pulled long hours at the office as the family’s sole financial support. Although looking for work, Rick was happy with the arrangement, but Eleanor was anything but. She had lost respect for Rick because he wasn’t earning a living. Needless to say, that created a good bit of stress in their lives, on top of the stress of losing his income.

But the lives of role-reversed couples are not all gloom. In the Sacramento Bee piece, Chuck Hammond (pictured with daughter Reagan) lost his job in the downturn and his wife Debi is now the family’s sole earner. She works 12-hour days and he stays at home and cares for their daughter Reagan who just passed her first birthday.

Like Rick, Chuck seems to be enjoying his new job. The only downside to it is that he gets the cold shoulder from stay-at-home moms. Their groups, play dates, etc. are closed to him, and there aren’t many Mr. Moms around to take up the slack.

So Chuck’s started a blog for guys like himself. Read it here. It’s an interesting site, full of pretty much what you’d expect – experiences of childcare, tips, reading resources, the best packs for baby gear. It also has a comment section which Chuck says is about 95% positive, but gets the occasional “you wimp, get a job” offering.

Like so many single mom stories that never get around to interviewing the dad, this one never lets us in on Debi Hammond’s thoughts on their work/family arrangement. Chuck tells us that, when he lost his job, they were at first thinking only about him finding another one, and hiring a nanny, a gardener, pool guy, etc. Then he broached the topic of his staying at home and doing all that. They ran the numbers and decided to give it a try. So, at least according to him, it was a carefully considered joint decision. That may be why it’s working.

One of feminism’s early and accurate criticisms of 1950s American life was that, if all women did was raise children and keep house, they never learned how to do anything else. Aside from the fact that that squanders many of the resources women offer to the society, culture and economy, it can put individual women in a real bind. If hubby dies, becomes disabled or they get divorced, how does she support herself? The answer in most cases is, “not very well.”

The same is true today. If Chuck and Debi get divorced tomorrow, he’ll probably be OK. He has a recent work history to use in finding a job. His childcare should get him primary custody and child support. But what if their arrangement goes on for 10 years? He’ll be far out of the employment loop and, yes, he’ll get some child support and maybe some alimony, but is that what he really wants? Will he be truly satisfied to be nothing more than father to a child who’ll be just a few years away from college? How will that background appeal to women he might want to date? What will it take for him to get back into the job market?

For both sexes, the wisdom of being a stay-at-home parent depends a lot on the stability of the marriage. It’s fine as long as the marriage lasts, but if it doesn’t, Mr. or Mrs. Mom is in trouble.

And as Rick Hemmert can tell us, it may be that, in the man’s case, staying at home is the very thing that runs the marriage onto the rocks. A man’s decision to be a stay-at-home dad may be what destroys the marriage on which his decision to stay at home depends. Catch-22.

Dads, proceed with caution.

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