Dad on Duty: Challenging Traditional Conceptions of Stay-at-Home Parenting
Photo: Joshua Huston
Seven-month-old Ramona Chavez spends her day like a lot of babies. She bobs along in the baby carrier while walking her big brother to kindergarten in her family’s Mount Baker neighborhood. She visits the park and the preschool that her 3-year-old brother attends. There’s the usual napping, eating and giggling. Ramona’s day has just one little twist. It’s dad, not mom, who stays at home.
Dad is Marty Chavez, one of a growing number of full-time, stay-at-home dads in Seattle and around the nation. The number of dads in the role of primary caregiver went from 10 percent in 1989 to 16 percent in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s 2 million families nationwide.
Why do men stay home? Increasingly, the decision is deliberate, and not just because dad couldn’t find work. According to Pew, the percent of dads who are home “by choice” rose from 5 percent in 1989 to more than 20 percent by 2012.
For Chavez and his wife Kelly, the decision to swap traditional parenting roles once their first child was born was easy. “My wife made more money than me,” Chavez explains, adding that his own job had morphed into something that no longer felt ideal. The arrangement works well. Kelly has a demanding job, including travel. Chavez shops, cooks and cares for the kids. Since Ramona still nurses, Kelly pumps breast milk to have at home.
Chavez works through day-to-day challenges familiar to most parents. Getting the kids all dressed, ready and out the door at the same time. Trying to limit screen time. Finding new and fun things to do (once, with permission from the city, Chavez and his kids painted their nearest fire hydrants to look like Evel Knievel and J.P. Patches).
Photo: Joshua Huston
If Chavez’s day seems mostly typical, it is… and yet it isn’t, according to Chicago dad Al Watts. He’s president of the National At-Home Dad Network (AtHomeDad.org) and the co-creator of a book series called Dads Behaving DADLY. The network has 4,000 members, and runs an annual conference.
“Certainly moms and dads who stay home both deal with diaper rash, doctor appointments, fussy eaters and toddler tantrums,” Watts says. But it’s a little different for dads, especially when it comes to outside attitudes. “For one, society's expectations for stay-at-home dads is much lower than for moms,” he says. “We’re just expected to keep them alive.”
What’s more, says Watts, his research indicates that stay-at-home dads tend to feel isolated. Watts remembers when he started full-time parenting 12 years ago. “Moms wouldn’t dare talk to me. They didn’t know what to think when a man showed up at the park in the middle of the day with his kids or the neighborhood playgroup.”
Pete Schaw, another Seattle stay-at-home dad, is keenly aware of this isolation. His family, with children ages 8 and 4, lives on a block in Ravenna crowded with kids and friendly parents. Yet in the broader community, like playgrounds or the zoo, Schaw sees that stay-at-home moms have it easier than he does. “Even though women may be complete strangers, when they meet each other in these places it is much easier to strike up a conversation and establish a social connection with one another,” he says. “The men, who are often outnumbered 20 to 1 in these settings, are often overlooked and left to themselves.”
Despite this isolation, Schaw says that being home while his wife Rachel brings home the bacon has been totally positive for the family. “To the kids, it's just one of their two loving parents spending time with them throughout the day,” he says. And he adds that his sense of isolation might be changing: several more fathers showed up at his daughter’s co-op preschool this year.
Back at the Chavez household, it’s late afternoon. Ramona settles in for a nap, her brothers play, and dad cooks dinner. In the evening, says Chavez, “I'll wrap up some dishes or laundry, and possibly some late-night grocery shopping.” Finally, he might sip a well-deserved beer while he and Kelly watch Game of Thrones.
“I’m glad I can be part of this now, before the kids get to be teenagers and we’re embarrassing to them,” Chavez says. “We’re happy. We’re going to stick with this.”