The next time you see a father out shopping with his kids, you might need to check your assumptions.
"I'll get the, 'Oh, look, it's a dad! That's so sweet!' "says Jonathan Heisey-Grove, a stay-at-home father of two young boys in Alexandria, Va., who is pretty sure the other person assumes he's just giving Mom a break for the day. In fact, he's part of a growing number of fathers who are minding the kids full time while their wives support the family and who say societal expectations are not keeping up with their reality.
He and his wife, Dawn, a public health analyst, didn't exactly plan for Jonathan to be a stay-at-home parent to Egan, 5, and Zane, who's 4 months old. The Heisey-Groves were both working full time when he lost his job as a graphic designer two years ago. That also ended the company day care. Dawn says Jonathan stayed home at first just to save money on child care.
"And suddenly the world just became much calmer and quieter. Egan wasn't as upset and he wasn't as tense anymore. And our relationship, even though we were stressed about not having money, we weren't rushing around when both of us got home. And so, it was just a happier place," she says.
Dawn was surprised — and happy — to discover two colleagues whose husbands are also stay-at-home fathers. But she does feel like she's missing out sometimes.
"I showed up for the preschool graduation, and they all looked at me like, 'Who are you?' And I kind of felt like the bad mom moment. Like, he's got the Dad of the Year award, and I'm kind of sitting on the sidelines a little bit," she says.
Mostly, the Heisey-Groves and others say they are doing what works best for them to create happy lives for their children. And they hope to change long entrenched attitudes about the proper role of mothers and fathers.
The Heisey-Groves' arrangement is still an outlier. The Census Bureau finds that about 3.5 percent of stay-at-home parents are fathers, though that's doubled in a decade. But Stephanie Coontz of the Council on Contemporary Families calls the figure vastly underreported. It doesn't include the many fathers who do some work yet are their children's primary caregivers, a trend that cuts across class and income.
"Men today are now reporting higher levels of work-family conflict than women are," Coontz says. They feel "not just pressure, but the desire to be more involved in family life and child care and housework and cooking. And at the same time, all of the polls are showing that women are now just as likely as men to say that they want to have challenging careers."
This is all evident at a place where Jonathan has found camaraderie — a daddy's playgroup in Arlington, Va., part of a national support network.
"I didn't want to be the dad who was never around," says the host, Mark Bildner, who's been home with his children for five years. He chose to leave an all-consuming job in the tech industry and is proud that his decision has allowed his wife to advance.
"She took a position at her company that involved a lot of travel, last-minute work, late nights and so forth," he says. "And I have some understanding of how it feels to be in that position, so I try to be as supportive as I can."
For others, the decision over who stays home with the kids is an economic one. Coontz points out that 28 percent of women now outearn their husbands, a trend driven by the fact that more women than men now earn college degrees.
We put out a Facebook query looking for breadwinner wives and stay-at-home fathers, and many of the hundreds who replied report being happy with their "role reversal." But others say it can be tough on a relationship, and some wrote of the challenge of reshaping their personal notion of self-worth and in bucking social norms.
A few excerpts:
- David Patrick in Grapevine, Texas, writes that on his third date with his now wife, Monica, she asked if he'd ever considered being a stay-at-home father. He was a struggling actor who'd worked waiting tables and in sales, and his answer was, "Yes!" Today, he stays home with their two young girls, and Monica is an OB-GYN. "In her practice of six doctors (all women) only two of the husbands are currently employed outside the home," Patrick writes. "Monica's father was a doctor, and her mother was a homemaker, so my mother-in-law and I joke about how hard it is to be a doctor's wife. I love it."
- Chris Bublik of Orlando, Fla., has been a full-time father for six years and writes that he's grateful to be able to shape his children's lives this way. "But there are real impacts to us as men," he writes, "impacts that none of us expected as we reveled in those first few months of sweats and grubby t-shirts, and not shaving...and the 4:30 dash to clean up the house so our wives won't think we're completely useless (you stay-at-home daddies know exactly what I mean). Feelings of inferiority, loss of self-esteem, self-respect."
- Alison Gary of Greenbelt, Md., writes that her husband, Karl, has been home with their daughter for four years. "His friends think he has nothing to do all day and want to come over and party on federal holidays, and find him lame when he's too tired to hang out on a Friday night. I received some pushback as well. ... I even had a fellow mom tell me she couldn't believe I trusted my husband with my daughter all day."
So what of that notion — that so heats up the blogosphere — that women are somehow better equipped to tend to hearth and home? "I don't buy that at all," says sociologist Coontz.
She says for 150 years both men and women have been trained to fulfill certain, distinct roles and to explicitly not be responsible for others. Spotting dirt on the floor? Changing a diaper? "As long as a woman is going to be there doing it, and actually, often telling him how to do it better, why should he learn to do it?" Coontz says. "We really have to make an effort to let the other person succeed at something they've never done before and to give them the chance to get comfortable with it."
Coontz says for generations, children have been conditioned early for their respective gender roles — boys, for example, have been discouraged when they express interest in cooking or dolls. ("And they all do," Coontz says, "especially when dads are not looking. We've done studies on that!")
So perhaps it's fitting to close with this reply to NPR's Facebook query on stay-at-home fathers. Katie Shell writes: "My son wants to be one when he grows up."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well into the 20th century, an American working woman could be fired for getting married. That's because the role of breadwinner was reserved for husbands. That was enshrined in state laws as late as the 1970s.
But since the '80s, more women than men have been graduating from college. Today, more than a quarter of married working women earn more than their spouse, and more breadwinner wives can mean more dads home with the kids. As part of our series on the changing lives of women, here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: A sunny spring afternoon in Alexandria, Va., and it's time to meet the school bus.
JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: There we go.
LUDDEN: Jonathan Heisey-Grove pops open a stroller with one hand and expertly transfers fussy, 4-month-old Zane into it.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: OK, buddy, come on. Shhh.
LUDDEN: They stroll up a winding, suburban block to a corner where two moms also wait.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUS DRIVING UP, BRAKING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Bus is coming...
LUDDEN: Five-year-old Egan is first off the bus with a run, and a big bear hug.
JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: Egan! What's up, buddy? Oh, yeah, hi! How are you?
LUDDEN: Jonathan and his wife, Dawn, a public health analyst, didn't exactly plan for him to be a stay-at-home parent. They were both working full time when Jonathan lost his job as a graphic designer, two years ago. That also ended the company day care. Back in their townhouse, Dawn says Jonathan stayed home full time at first just to save money on child care.
DAWN HEISEY-GROVE: And suddenly, the world just became much calmer and quieter. And Egan wasn't as upset, and he wasn't as tense, anymore. And our relationship, I think, even though we were stressed about not having money, we weren't rushing around when both of us got home. And so it was just a happier place.
LUDDEN: Jonathan agrees. He was crazed, trying to balance work and kids. He talks while cradling baby Zane, bouncing on a large, blue ball to try and get him to sleep.
JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: I missed out on doing this kind of thing. I would do it, but I would be too worried about work to be able to really focus on my child, at that point.
LUDDEN: Dawn was surprised - and happy - to discover two colleagues whose husbands are also stay-at-home dads. But when I ask if she feels she's missing out on anything, I don't even finish the sentence before she's nodding her head.
DAWN HEISEY-GROVE: Like, I showed up for the preschool graduation, and they all looked at me like, who are you? (Laughing) And I kind of felt like, the bad mom moment. Like, he's got the Dad of the Year Award, and I'm kind of sitting on the sidelines a little bit.
LUDDEN: More hurtful is when even family members don't quite get their choice. When paying a dinner bill once, Jonathan's dad chastised him for "spending your wife's money." And Dawn's younger brother recently wondered why she doesn't just tell her husband to get a job. Jonathan says societal expectations have not kept pace with their reality. He sees it out shopping with the kids.
JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: I get the, oh, look, it's a dad! Oh, that's so sweet. And my own assumptions are saying, yeah, they just think it's just one day.
LUDDEN: Still, he's found people who can relate...
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL RINGING)
LUDDEN: ...at the Wednesday morning playgroup of D.C. Metro Dads.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, how are you doing?
JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: Hey there, good. How are you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good to see you.
JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: Good to see you.
LUDDEN: The front hall of this home in Arlington, Va., is lined with shoes, backpacks, strollers.
CARL NELSON: The first time I got here and saw 15 other dads, I was kind of blown away.
LUDDEN: Carl Nelson is standing in the kitchen, 6-month-old Jack tucked under one arm, football-style. Before discovering this, his only organized social outlet had been a mother's playgroup, which he still goes to now and then.
NELSON: I generally look for another conversation, when it steers toward summer swimwear. (Laughing) However, you know, a discussion of nursing and other issues, I'm perfectly comfortable with. I get to see those details on a daily basis with my wife. So I've actually participated in those conversations, in a productive way.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAYFUL NOISES, KISS)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Kiss me on the hair.
MARK BILDNER: On the hair?
LUDDEN: The host of this get-together used to be a workaholic in the tech industry. But Mark Bildner says losing his parents changed his attitude. He's been a full-time dad, by choice, for five years now and is proud to have helped his wife advance her career.
BILDNER: She took a position at her company that involved a lot of travel, last-minute work, late nights and so-forth. And I have some understanding of how it feels to be in that position, so I try to be as supportive as I can.
STEPHANIE COONTZ: Men today are now reporting higher levels of work-family conflict than women are.
LUDDEN: Stephanie Coontz is with the Council on Contemporary Families. She says men's ideals have shifted closer to what many women have long felt.
COONTZ: Not just pressure but desire, to be more involved in family life and child care and housework and cooking. And at the same time, all of the polls are showing that women are now just as likely as men to say that they want to have challenging careers.
LUDDEN: The census finds fewer than 4 percent of stay-at-home parents are dads, though that has doubled in a decade. But Coontz says the number's vastly underreported. It doesn't include the many men who do some work but are still their children's primary caregiver, a trend that cuts across class and income.
COONTZ: The place where you see the greatest sharing of child care, interestingly enough, is in blue-collar and union workers who often work split shifts and then trade off the child care.
LUDDEN: So what of the contention that so heats up the blogosphere, that women are somehow better suited to manage house and home? Coontz will have none of it. For 150 years, she says, men have been trained not to detect dirt on the floor or a child's needs.
COONTZ: So we really have to make an effort to let the other person succeed at something they've never done before, and to give them the chance to get comfortable with it.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)
JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: That's right.
LUDDEN: Back home, changing Zane's diaper, Jonathan Heisey-Grove does indeed coo, smile and baby talk with the best of them.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY TALK)
LUDDEN: He says the impact of what he's doing struck him one day when a college kid in the neighborhood stopped his car and rolled down the window. He told Jonathan, "I wish my father had played with me as much as you play with your son."
JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: And it became another point in my development as a stay-at-home dad that OK, this is really important, and people see it.
DAWN HEISEY-GROVE: I think that our view's changing. Every time we interact with somebody, we're changing their perception of what is...
JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: True.
DAWN HEISEY-GROVE: ...appropriate gender roles or parenting roles.
LUDDEN: By the time their boys grow up and have kids, they say, maybe - just maybe - no one will be talking about that at all.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: And there is much more from our series on the changing lives of women, online.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Our She Works sign generator has over 1,000 submissions, illustrating various approaches women have for operating in the workplace. One says, "No is a complete sentence."
GREENE: Another, "No is not an option."
INSKEEP: There's "don't bring in baked goods, if you want the corner office."
GREENE: And "there's more to life than work." You can see those for yourself, and make your own sign, at NPR.org/SheWorks.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.