There are many routes to work-family balance. For some, it’s a matter of finding a workplace that allows you to put family first without sacrificing a paycheck. For others, going the at-home route is the most attractive option.
Becoming an at-home dad is as easy as telling your boss “I quit,” but it should be approached like any other life change — with a good deal of clear-headed consideration. There are six steps that all would-be at-home dads (and their wives) should take to fully understand their choice and prepare for the consequences:
Step one: Find the goalposts
Staying home is a radical change for any working parent — male or female — and families that decide to have dad stay home need to articulate why they’ve made that decision. The responsibility of the at-home parent needs to be well laid-out, too: what are the child-rearing expectations? The cooking/cleaning/housework expectations? How do family roles change during the weekend? At night? Every family comes up with different answers to those questions, but every family needs to ask them.
Step two: Be aware of the implications
Along with death and taxes, at-home fathers can be certain they’ll have to fend off stereotypes and correct the general confusion that surrounds at-home fatherhood. The harkens back to step one: a father who understands clearly what he is doing at home and why can do a far better job of explaining his choice than a parent who elected to stay home without examining why.
Step three: Run the numbers
Having a parent stay home has huge economic consequences, and it is vital that every family ready to make the plunge reviews their finances. That means a brutally honest, point-by-point monthly budget that shows what gets cut when dad’s salary disappears. Of course, such a budget can also be a comforting document. Cutting out spending on daycare, commuting, work clothes and takeout dinners can run more than $20,000 a year for a family of four, which can takes some of the fiscal sting out of staying home.
Step four: Build in some outs
At-home fatherhood can easily become a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job, but like any endeavor, time away from the “workplace,” is enormously valuable. Any at-home parent should give themselves a chance to recharge their batteries away from the kids: enroll in a class at a local college, find a flexible part-time job, focus on a particular hobby. Those efforts carry both the short-term benefits of renewed vigor as well as long-term benefits should at-home fathers begin to transfer back to the workforce.
Step five: Consider an exit plan
Very few at-home fathers stay out of the job market forever, and coming up with a strategy for when — and how — to reenter the workforce can help both blunt the impact of leaving a paid job as well as aid in transitioning out of the home years down the line.
Step six: Shoot for greatness
It is fundamental truth that you get out of any effort what you put into it, and parenthood is no different. Waking up every day and shooting to be the best possible dad doesn’t only give the children the richest possible environment, it gives fathers a great deal of satisfaction. A dad who parks their child in front of the TV all day may be less exhausted at day’s end than an engaged dad, but they’re also less fulfilled. There’s much to be said for taking pride in your work, whether it be forging widgets or forging young minds.
If you run through the six steps and determine that at-home fatherhood isn’t quite right, that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to play an active and engaged role in the life of your children by working to make sure workplace and government policies encourage men to play a more of a significant role at home.
Advocate for an overhaul of family leave policies: Though the Clinton-era Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks of leave for men and women alike, paid leave still varies — greatly — from employer to employer. Very few offer significant paid leave for fathers. Elsewhere in the world, such government-sponsored paid leave both creates more stay-at-home fathers and creates more attentive working fathers.
Advocate for more career tracks: Law professor Joan Williams has suggested that workers be allowed to work part-time, with an accordingly pro-rated salary — and benefits and advancement. Now, part-time work is financial disaster; should Williams’ plan ever get put into place, parents could each work 25 hours a week, make as much money as — and collect the benefits of — a single worker pumping out 50-hours weeks, all without anyone sacrificing their home life.
Advocate for more flexibility in working options: Flextime scheduling and telecommuting all offer opportunities to add to the amount of time dads (and moms) can spend at home. This won’t directly add to the ranks of at-home dads, but it’ll make for better, more engaged fathers.
Advocate awareness of how parents are painted by the media: Nissan used hawks its Quest minivan, a gadget-packed, 240-horsepower machine exclusively to mothers (“Moms have changed,” purrs the ad.) Clorox still proclaims “Momma Got the Magic.” Parenting magazine has its “Mom-Tested Tips.” And sitcoms and Hollywood features still can’t resist paying homage to Mr. Mom’s blundering Jack Butler. There needs to be awareness that such stereotypes hurt the case of gender equity.
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