Reflections, Writing Archive

The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned as a Stay-at-Home Dad

“So, what do you do for a living?”

As someone who’s been serving in ministry for over seven years now, I have learned to anticipate receiving strange looks when I respond to someone asking me about my profession. But in this past year I got even more blank looks when I responded by saying I was a stay-at-home dad.

Last month, my wife and I relocated to Illinois to serve as co-associate pastors of a church. With this new call, my wife and I are both able to pursue our desires to work, but also be at home with our year-old twin boys. This arrangement, along with living closer to family, has been a tremendous blessing for us.  But while I am glad to be doing the work that I feel called to do once again, I do have some sad sentiments about saying goodbye to being a full-time stay-at-home father. This is especially true since it was only recently that I finally learned to embrace being one.

When my twin sons were born last year, I decided to take a step back professionally and concentrate on being a stay-at-home dad while my wife resumed her previous full-time commitment as a church pastor following her new parent leave. Make no mistake, being a stay-at-home parent is exhausting. Like most infants, my twin sons required near constant attention while I still juggled other household responsibilities such as cleaning, doing yard work, and never-ending loads of laundry and dishes. Yet, it wasn’t this juggling act which caught me off guard—especially since my wife had a flexible schedule and we did benefit from some awesome help from babysitters. Instead, what was the most challenging was the sense of loneliness, embarrassment, and guilt that came from being a stay-at-home dad.

Granted, loneliness is something which any stay-at-home parent might struggle with—especially if you have young children whose only verbal responses include a mixture of coos, giggles, and a furor of angry grunts when their demands are not being met. But as a stay-at-home father living in a small town at the time, I felt that I was not only being judged by others, but I was also “less of a man” because I wasn’t working full time like society raised me to believe was my responsibility as a father.

According to the Pew Research Center (cited by Forbes Magazine), an estimated 2.1 million fathers were stay-at-home dads in 2021—up 8% since 1989. Yet, our society still struggles to accept the idea of a father deciding to be a stay-at-home parent while the other parent works full-time. And because of this, many fathers feel embarrassed admitting they are stay-at-home fathers.

Despite the sense of isolation which came from being a stay-at-home father, I was fortunate enough to have found a Facebook group for fathers like me who were stay-at-home parents, whether by choice or necessity. Being in this group allowed me to find affirmation that it was okay to be a stay-at-home father—especially from other men.

While the fathers in the Facebook group all left different professions to stay at home with their children, they found commonality by sharing their experiences as a stay-at-home dad. From sharing stories about receiving awkward looks when they push their children’s strollers by themselves to posts seeking advice on the best way to treat a diaper rash, deal with a child refusing to take a nap, or even how to tackle home improvement projects, dads would respond to one another often humorously, but always supportively. Especially when fathers would seek advice on their struggles related to their mental health, problems in their marriages or relationships, or just the fear of not being a good parent to their children.

As I shared in my previous post, there is such a high demand for mental health support geared toward men, and this is one of the reasons I have decided to go back to school to become a mental health counselor. We as men struggle with so many toxic perceptions of what it means to be “a man.” A lot of this toxic masculinity was inherited from our fathers and male role models as children and why we see so many men dealing with mental health issues as adults. But it’s also our responsibility as men to break down the gender stereotypes our fathers and grandfathers passed onto us, especially those associated with raising our own children.

Looking back on my experience being a stay-at-home father, I can see many areas where I could have addressed the sense of loneliness that I felt at the beginning. For starters, I could have found a hobby to do in my limited spare time, and I could have made a better effort to find other men who were stay-at-home fathers to find commonality and support. In fact, there was one who lived down the street that I could have reached out to and coordinated afternoon stroller walks!

But most of all, what I could have done is not felt embarrassed to admit that I was a stay-at-home father—especially to other men (and sometimes women). For me, I felt sharing that I was a stay-at-home dad would make me look less masculine to others Instead, I should have felt proud to share that I had the opportunity to be a stay-at-home father. This is a privilege that many men may not have—especially those whose families cannot live solely on their spouse or partner’s salary.

Yes, our society still has a long way to go: not only to embrace women as equals in the workplace, but also to embrace the benefits of stay-at-home fathers. For that to happen, we as men who are (or were) stay-at-home fathers must be willing to embrace our identity without thinking we need to maintain a full-time occupation to prove our masculinity.

So, to any current or potential stay-at-home father, I leave you with this, don’t let outside stigma or your own fear stop you from taking on this role if you can do so, especially if your partner has the ability and desire to work fulltime to support your family. Being at home during the day feeding your children, doing the laundry, and memorizing the storylines of each episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood when other men are out working doesn’t make you any less of a man.

I have learned there should be no shame in admitting to others that I had an opportunity to be home with my sons during the first year of their life. And while I have returned to work (at least half-time) and my sons will not remember the time we spent together during the first chaotic year of their lives, I will only appreciate it more each year as they get older that I got to be home with them – even if it took me some time to fully appreciate it.