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 more than 10 years ago, when stay-at-home fathers were rarer than they are now. For one thing, the percent of pink slips today in the U.S. are handed out to a growing majority of men, making for more stay-at-home dads. 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.
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, 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.
"Perhaps the woman can focus on the fact that her career is expanding and she is earning enough to take care of the family," Smith says. "The man is gaining the opportunity to bond with his child and grow as a person. Especially if he knows he'll only be staying home temporarily, he should try to enjoy the time he has."
Expressing gratitude to each other can go a long way, says Smith, who offers good advice for all couples—regardless of who stays home. "Say the following aloud to each other as often as possible: 'Thank you for working so hard to support this family financially' and 'Thank you for taking such good care of the baby.' "
Pitfall: Different parenting styles | Solution: You both need to communicate and compromise
Many dads do not care if the kids' clothes match, their hair is combed or they eat organic at every meal. Generally speaking, women and men have different parenting styles, which can lead to conflict. Coleman and Smith say research shows that working mothers usually expect the house to be cleaned before they come home, for instance, but most SAHDs don't spend their day doing that.
"Many men stay out of the house for the most part, all day if they can," Smith says. "They strap the kid on and head to the park or into town. Women, on the other hand, typically stay home more with the kids, then go on one outing." So what can you do about it? Communicate clearly and respectfully what you want and be prepared to compromise. Perhaps it's not crucial that he get the baby out of her PJs to go to the park, but having dinner ready may be high on the list.
Pitfall: Micromanaging the dad | Solution: Mom needs to let go
Yes, you are the biological mother. Do not, however, repeatedly call the house and tell your partner how to do his job. Barbera recalls asking a friend's wife, "How would you feel if your colleague kept popping his head into your office to say, 'Don't forget to put this in your presentation. And don't forget to call back yesterday's interviewee.' " Barbera added: "She was micro-managing her husband at home and needed to respect the job he was doing and let go."
Pitfall: Clueless comments | Solution: He needs to turn the other cheek
"So is this your day off?" "Babysitting?" "Man, I wish I could stop working and just hang out with the kids." All stay-at-home dads encounter these kinds of comments by (usually) well-meaning people. He needs to brush them off. The mindset held mainly by an older generation is, thankfully, fading away.
No Man is an Island Helpful resources for stay-at-home dads (SAHDs):
The Stay-at-Home Dad Handbook by Peter Baylies and Jessica Toonkel (Chicago Review Press) Offers practical advice by addressing everyday issues, as well as emotional topics, such as the wife's breadwinner status.
Athomedad.org Articles on a variety of parenting topics, as well as a search engine to help find other SAHD groups near you.
Dadlabs.com SAHD parenting articles and links to message boards, blogs and resources.
Greatdad.com E-mail newsletters offering age-specific advice from a dad's viewpoint.
Thechestpains.blogspot.com Comic relief for stay-at-home dads.
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