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Fears and jealousy
Not only may strangers, friends and even family castigate a couple’s stay-at-home-dad arrangement, but sometimes even the people involved can find the adjustment difficult. For working mothers, there may be fleeting feelings of jealousy and competitiveness over relinquishing the domestic domain to their husbands.
“I’m jealous because he gets to experience so much more with our children,” says Janet Dunlap, who still insists she wouldn’t have it any other way. “They go fishing and go for walks and then come home and say, ‘Mom, I saw a worm and a centipede.’ It’s selfish; I just want to be a part of it.”
But were she the one staying at home, Janet Dunlap admits, the kids’ lives would be less spontaneous and adventurous. “I would schedule everything,” she says.
Not surprisingly, men do tend to have a different parenting style than women. “There are things that men and women do differently when staying at home,” says Kyle Pruett, M.D., a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University whose book, The Nurturing Father (Warner Books, 2000), is based on a 1983 study of 18 families in which dads cared primarily for the children. Men play with children differently — they tend to use their bodies more than toys in child’s play, Pruett says.
Why it works
The benefits of having a father as the primary nurturer are significant, according to Pruett, who has tracked the children in his study into adolescence. Fathers’ more playful, roughhouse style encourages babies’ curiosity and helps foster children’s sense of mastery of the outside world. What’s more, he says, when fathers take a very active role in raising their children, boys are more willing to cuddle babies, and girls exhibit a more daring spirit in play.
“Having a very involved father in your life gives you a greater sense of self-regard,” says Pruett. “There is less gender stereotyping by the children in the friends they choose and in friends who choose them.
“By and large,” Pruett adds, “the role of the stay-at-home parent is determined by the needs of the child, and those don’t change whether it is the mother or the father.”
Counter to the cliché, stay-at-home fathers don’t automatically become Mr. Mom, and working mothers don’t necessarily turn into heartless career animals. If anything, there is often a more equal division of parenting duties in these households. Many mothers take four-day workweeks to spend more time with their children. And there is no retreating to the den with a martini and slippers upon arriving home from the office.
“I come in, and the kids jump all over me,” says Janet Dunlap. And leaving the children for work does not make her feel bad. “I never leave teary children,” she says. “The arrangement is something that is right for the whole family.”
The peace of mind is worth the emotional price, says Sanders, the California physician. Knowing that her children are with their father helps lessen the pain, worry and guilt that might otherwise throttle her at work. But working mothers still lay fierce claim to certain inalienable maternal rights.
“You have to let go of the idea that you have to be a perfect mother, and you have to let him be the primary person in your kids’ lives,” says Janet Dunlap. “But I am the one who knows that they are making spaceships at preschool. I am the one who takes the kids to their doctor’s appointments. And I am just as likely to talk to someone about play dates as he is.
“Because — I am still Mom.”