What should I be aware of if I’m going to stay home with the kids? It’s a move that’s being increasingly made by men, whether by choice or by necessity, via job loss. Whatever your situation, there are certainly things to be considered since the overwhelming majority of men were never raised with the thought that they’d be the primary caregivers for their children and it was never in their top 25 list of occupational choices when they were kids. So what should you consider?
What is your timeframe?
Is this something that you’re doing while you’re looking for a paying job or is this a more permanent role? It matters because it impacts how you structure the day with the kids, and with kids, structure is crucial. Children thrive when they have some sense of structure and routine because this creates a sense of security and with this sense, they’re more likely to actually feel more secure and confident of their ability to handle life.
If you understand that this is a one year gig, then give serious consideration to maintaining a bedtime/morning routine that reflects the fact that your child will have to arise early enough to make it to daycare in the future. This doesn’t mean that every morning has to be up and moving by 6:15 AM, but if you get into the habit of letting the kids awaken later, then you’ll have to be prepared to gradually work them back into that schedule when the return-to-work date becomes closer. Kids can be flexible but most will do better if they’re eased into something over a period of time. If you’re staying home with the kids while you’re looking for a job, then try to take the kids into account as you do the followups. If the kids need to be quietly occupied while you handle phone calls, then consider when those calls have to happen and build the television time into that time frame; early afternoon calls dictate that screen time occurs in the early afternoon. Bear in mind however, that having the kids in front of the television or computer for the average six hours daily is probably one of the worst things that can happen so you also have to structure other activities for the morning and late afternoon.
How do you handle being the odd-man out?
Everybody’s talked about job discrimination for women and it’s a legitimate issue with true grievances, but most aren’t aware that the issue has also existed for men who are at home with the kids. While it’s certainly better than it was and there are many women who have happily accepted my children and I into their lives, the fact is that there have been some who aren’t comfortable with their children playing at the home in which the man is the primary caregiver. While it’s not an issue now that my kids are a bit older – and we actively encourage our kids to bring their friends here – there were definitely periods when they were very young that I, and my kids by extensions, was the odd man out. When Eldest – now a high school senior – was very little, I had a real sense of being isolated as neighborhood mothers that I met at the park would balk at establishing playdates when they discovered that I was the one with whom they and their kids would be spending time. In the moment, it was terribly frustrating as my toddler was unable to play with her peers outside of the park. Was it because of me personally? Were there concerns about the appearance of any sexual impropriety? Were they uncomfortable with the fact that a historically female role was now being filled by a man?
Do you and your mate have common expectations?
The blending and shifting of parental roles has really grown in the past quarter century and while it seems like a long time on a personal level – I wasn’t even married then – it isn’t a long span on a societal level. We’ve now had roughly two generations of women who have been raised with the idea that they are every bit as capable as men professionally, but the offset is that we’ve only had about one generation of men who have begun to literally decide that they are every bit as capable raising children as their mates. Does it make the women bad mothers? Absolutely not. Does it mean that men are automatically great fathers? Absolutely not. But it does mean that there are very different levels of expectations by both parties on what’s involved in raising the kids and running the household. It also means that there’s real potential for anger, miscommunication and discord on the part of both of you.
Where’s the balance between housework and hands-on childrearing? Who’s responsible for paying the bills and the everyday finances? Who’s responsible for the longer-term financial planning? Is it one of you or do you share? Who decides the menu and does the cooking?
Even if and when you and your mate answer these questions, consider what the expectations are within each of the categories and even whether the expectations are achievable by the parent charged with the role. This is especially the case regarding men and housework since most men were never purposefully taught about housework by their parents, either what should be done or how it’s done. The result is that working women returning home are frustrated that one thing or another either hasn’t been accomplished or else is poorly done with the woman doing it herself to much exasperation on both her, and the man’s, part. Honestly, this is an area which has periodically plagued me and it’s only been through considerable effort and time that my wife has come to realize that housework simply wasn’t something that I was ever taught; I’ve had to learn to acknowledge that questions borne out of frustration are simply that and that I really should learn so that’s it done properly in the first place.
Do you define your value to the family in terms of money alone?
Men have historically been the breadwinners and have come to very narrowly define their contribution to the family in terms of how well they provide, and that’s measured in dollars and sense. Women have viewed their role in a wider sense apart from money, although that’s also been included to some degree as economic necessity dictates. Spend some time deciding how you view your role/contribution to the family and whether you actually believe that there’s more to it than money alone. Just as I’ve met women who didn’t quite know what to do with a male homemaker, there have also been men who’ve been dismissive because I have no income so you’re going to periodically hear it from both genders.
How comfortable are you with uncertainty and doubt?
This sounds odd and it’s taken me some thought to consider whether to include it, but raising children is an uncertain proposition. The uncertainty starts early – why is she crying? What’s going on with her teeth? – but is localized to a specific area bounded by the child and the immediate vicinity. But as the child grows and moves out into the world, and that’s precisely why we’re raising them, the circumstances and the reasons for the uncertainty change from the physical and concrete to the mental/emotional and the abstract. How is she developing? Who are his friends and how is he interacting with them? Because men have historically directed themselves outwards, it’s been the women who’ve focused on these aspects and these questions and concerns. Now that women are increasingly spending their time and attention with the outside world, it’s up to the father to begin taking up that particular slack. These are questions for which there are no easily discernible answers and it’s a world of grey. Understand then, that if you’re going to take much greater responsibility for the childrearing, then you have to be both willing and able to consider these amorphous areas.
Becoming the primary caregiver – the "homemaker" – was never something on my radar and when my wife first suggested it years before the birth of our first child, my response was incredulity. But despite the challenges and trepidation, it’s been an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world; in a sense, a journey in a country largely unexplored by many of my male peers. Like any successful expedition however, the trick is to have a sense of what lies ahead and some decent preparation for what’s to come.