When mom goes back to work and dad stays home with the baby, pitfalls can arise. Here’s how to surmount them.
For the first two years that new father Greg Barbera stayed home to care for his son while his wife returned to her job, he didn’t refer to himself as a stay-at-home dad (SAHD). He wasn’t ashamed—Barbera knew that his was an important, challenging and rewarding opportunity. But the arrangement didn’t sit as well with a lot of people the Durham, N.C.-based journalist encountered, so it simply became easier for Barbera to say, “I’m staying home right now and freelancing while I look for another job.”
That was nine years ago, when stay-at-home fathers were rarer than they are now. For one thing, an estimated 64 percent of pink slips today in the U.S. are handed out to men, making for more stay-at-home dads. U.S. Census Bureau figures for 2009 counted 158,000 such men, though the actual figure is much higher as that number includes only dads who were exclusively home and whose spouses were fully employed for the previous 52 weeks. In many cases the switch in traditional roles is simply a matter of choice rather than event-driven necessity: Some couples just prefer this division of labor.
This trend may also reflect the acceptance that accompanies social change and familiarity: In some areas of the country in particular, it’s routine to see men going about their business—in public!—with infants strapped to their chests while their partners are at work. Either way, avoiding the following pitfalls can make the transition easier and more rewarding for both parents.
Pitfall: isolation and depression
Solution: He needs to join (or start) a gang
Regardless of gender, staying at home with a baby can be a lonely experience, particularly if you’ve left a job you liked and your friends and neighbors are all at work. It can be especially so for a man. “I didn’t know any men who were doing that in any of the places we have lived, including New York City, Connecticut and the Carolinas,” says Guy Adamson, who has stayed home with Joey, now 7, since the boy was born. Even worse, he recalls how a mom once slid away from him on the bench at a local playground where he had taken his toddler.
Isolation can contribute to depression; and new at-home fathers, especially those thrust into the role due to a layoff, are especially at risk. “For many men the source of their identity and self-esteem is their career,” says psychologist and author Joshua Coleman, the Oakland, Calif.-based co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families. “Being deprived of that is traumatizing for anyone, but it is particularly hard for men.”
As difficult as it is for many guys to reach out for advice, connection and support, that’s the best solution. Options include joining or starting an SAHD group and searching for local families via Facebook or online (for resources, see “No Man Is an Island,” on the next page of this article).
Pitfall: identity issues/resentment
Solution: You both need to focus on the
upside of the situation
The mom who goes back to work may be resentful of the setup and miss being able to be with her newborn. The dad who’s staying home may feel bad that he’s not the family’s provider. Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family (Beacon Press) and former at-home dad to son Liko, now 6, points out that all the couples he interviewed for his book who were successful in transitioning into this role shift were the ones who could articulate to each other how they were benefiting from it.