This week please welcome my husband, Greg Berchelmann, as my guest blogger. Everyone asks me how I am raising 4 (soon to be 5) homeschooled children while working full time as a pediatrician, especially since I wrote “18 Reasons Why Doctors and Lawyers Homeschool Their Children” and “’Are you Done Yet?’ In Defense of Our 5th Child.” I could never do it without my husband Greg and his willingness to make many unconventional life choices, including quitting his well-paid job at a major St. Louis company so that he could be more committed to our family. He’s not alone—according to 2010 census data, 17% of preschool-aged children have dad as their primary caretaker while mom is at work . This is our family story of how we grappled with gender roles and swallowed our pride so that we could spend more time with our children and be the parents we wanted to be.
An Expanding Family
My wife and I knew we wanted a fourth child, but it seemed logistically impossible. We knew we couldn’t be the parents we wanted to be and still maintain both of our full-time jobs. Something had to change.
At the time, Kathleen was working twelve hour night shifts as a hospital-based pediatrician and I was working a standard work day during the week as a software engineer. Most mornings were “hi and bye”, and we both had substantial duties around the house apart from our work obligations. We were over-worked, over-tired, and constantly dropping our children off at various child care facilities. We were not present and available to our children the way we wanted to be. We really wanted to have another child and we were prepared to make some potentially big changes in support of our desire.
Who Is Going to Quit Their Job?
We are logical in our decision-making, and we listed out the pros and cons of each option. Who was making more money? She was. Who was more invested in their career? She was. Who could still make money from home? I could. The questions went on, but just like the electoral college map during the election, so too our answers were pointing to me as the “elected” stay-at-home parent. How would I begin to accept such a nomination, and would this be good for me, for my marriage, and for our family?
Many Questions to Wrestle With
Though it was easy to determine who should stay home, at least from a pros-and-cons perspective, it was very difficult for me to fully grasp how to handle such a change in mission. How would I maintain a “provider and protector” self-image if I wasn’t providing in the traditional sense? Would this change cause a “power struggle” in our marriage? As a Mr. Mom, how would I be perceived by my friends and family? Would I be viewed as less of a man, one who was not able to fulfill his natural/traditional duties to spouse and family? Would I be thought of as a failure in terms of career? I probably felt at the time that only men who lose their jobs or who otherwise have no career path are forced to stay at home. No self-respecting man would actually choose to stay at home, right?
Differences Between Men and Women
I’m convinced that the solutions to the above dilemmas come from re-examining the foundational nature of men and women, that is to say gender roles. The answers I came up with were built upon the roles my wife and I established over the course of our almost 13 year marriage. Also, as a disclaimer, I should say that I have not read any books, research papers, or other publications on relationships, gender roles, marital counseling, etc. My understanding of things is based on what I know of myself, of my wife, and of the relationships I’ve seen modeled by our parents and grandparents. I guess you’d call that the school of life.
Being a Dad, Yet Still a Man
As a married man and father, I have a deep desire to take care of my wife and kids. I get great satisfaction from this. And for me, taking care of my family means working hard (providing), keeping them safe (protecting), ensuring their success even, at times, at my personal expense (self-sacrifice), and leading us towards better places (leadership). So to be a stay-at-home dad and also be happy and fulfilled, I felt I needed to maintain ways to provide, protect, sacrifice, and lead.
Providing After Quitting My Job
Being a software engineer made it possible to continue my career from home. I traded my desk job for the dual job at home of parent and software developer. Although I spend most of my time parenting and maintaining our household, the time I spend in the evening working for my clients allows me to keep my technical skills current and earn money for our family. So maybe I don’t earn nearly as much as I did before, but I feel satisfied knowing “I work from home” and my wife feels better having the supplemental income and knowing I could easily re-enter the traditional workforce if I had to.
I often wondered why it matters so much to me that I earn money for our family. Is it because I want the freedom to spend “my money”? Or maybe it is because I need to have a job to save face when talking with (especially male) friends? Perhaps having employment would prevent me from having to take ownership of the unmanly “homemaker” role?
The truth is that having a wage keeps me from feeling idle (as if raising a bunch of kids is some kind of idle, non-productive, non-important job). My computer works gives me something to think about while I change diapers or fix lunches. I can sketch out technical solutions in my head while I drive the dreaded mini-van. Without clients keeping me accountable, I might be tempted to begin filling that idle time with less productive or even damaging activities and concerns. Mental and physical sloth could quickly sneak up on me.
So the saving grace for me in my new role as stay-at-home dad was the ability to work as an independent software consultant from home. I don’t use it as an excuse for having a messy house, nor as a reason why the laundry isn’t done. But the little paid work I am able to do keeps me out of trouble and fulfills my need to contribute to our family budget, to keep my skills fresh, and to save face when asked the “what do you do?” question.
A Mini-Van Sacrifice
I hate mini-vans yet I drive one. I stay up late and I get up early. I clean up water, juice, milk, food, spit, vomit, poop, blood, and urine. I change diapers, cook meals, do dishes, cut the grass, fix cars, vacuum the house, pay bills, and home school our kids.
All parents sacrifice themselves for their kids. It is what good parents do. As a stay-at-home dad I have found no end of opportunity to take that humility-pill. At times it isn’t fun, but I take a lot of pride in what my wife and I do for our kids.
Leadership, Decision Making, and Power Struggles
I think men subconsciously fear becoming a stay-at-home dad because they fear they will also lose the power to lead their families. If you aren’t the bread winner then how can you make a “final decision” about this issue or that?
Of course this line of reasoning is flawed, and it is the problem women have been facing for eons. In marriage, making money does not grant one an authoritative power over the other. Spouses are supposed to be one, right? My wife trusts me in decision making because she values my reasoning and intuition, and she knows which decisions she needs me to make. Accordingly, I value her reasoning and intuition, and I know which decisions I need her to make. We are equals, but different.
So I don’t think becoming a stay-at-home dad affected our power balances, decision making processes, leadership roles, or any of these other areas of relationships that get people all bent out of shape. If having your husband home with the kids causes a major change in the way you relate to each other, then perhaps there are other issues going on that have nothing to do with who is home with the kids and who is working to make the money.
Final Advice for Men and the Wives Who Support Them
Before you quit your job and become a stay-at-home dad, I thought I’d include some advice for you and your wife to think about. This is mostly common sense, but I wanted to at least highlight a few explicit examples:
- Make specific arrangements to keep your professional skills active, preferably in way that generates income. If you are a teacher, find a way to teach one night a week or during the weekend. If you are a construction worker, pursue a side-job business where you have small jobs that can be done over the weekend or during the day while the kids are in a parent’s day out program. If you are computer guy like me, get online and find little contracting jobs to maintain your skills and bill rate. For me, and I suspect for many men, having a job and generating money plays a big role in a man’s self-image and his relationship to other men in his life. Don’t underestimate this!
- Don’t attempt to be a stay-at-home dad if you don’t have anything planned outside of the normal household/parenting duties to keep idle time to a minimum. Idle time, they say, is a dangerous thing. Specifically, consider if while at home you might: a) be tempted to drink alcohol on a regular basis; b) be tempted to “let yourself go” from a physical standpoint (e.g., over-eating, not shaving, not showering, etc.), or from a mental standpoint (e.g., apathy, sloth, etc.); c) get addicted to pornography or other marriage-undermining activities;
- You might want to think twice about staying home if you don’t know how to cook, change diapers, operate a vacuum, or drive a mini-van. The glories of homemaking can be the bane of your existence if you aren’t willing to accept these kinds of tasks as part of your new job. There is no shame, just get it done!
- Maintain your “band of brothers” as you transition from work life to home life. With your wife’s support, make sure you maintain your relationships with other men. You won’t get invited to that weekend campout or evening sporting event if you effectively fall off the planet after leaving the workforce. Use your new found life-flexibility to call your friends when they are commuting to work, of text them during the lunch hour just to check in.
- And finally, wives, be ready to support your husband. Your attitude and support are key to making this work. Don’t upset the balance of power because of your newfound role as sole provider (men should do the same, of course, when the roles are reversed). Instead, give your husband good things to be prideful of in his new role as stay-at-home dad: a) tell him how his efforts at home are the rock you stand on; b) keep yourself put together and looking nice so he can see (men are visual) the awesomeness (you) he is sacrificing for; c) let your children be the glue that binds your love and dedication to each other. This is why he is staying at home, right?
Being at home with my kids has given me a tremendous opportunity to teach and form them in ways that would be impossible if I had stayed in the workforce. I hope these thoughts are helpful to parents who are thinking about non-traditional family arrangements like mine. I can tell you that things can be really good, and I believe kids greatly need fathers today. I have no regrets at all and I wouldn’t want things any other way.