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At 8:30 AM, when my friends are at their desks sorting through their morning emails and sipping their coffee, I’m still negotiating with toddlers to put on their jackets and shoes and get in their car seats. My wife Katherine and I have 3 kids ages 7, 5, and 2. I’m a freelance writer who works from home in my t-shirt and shorts, but I’m also responsible for dropping off and picking up the kids.
We used to joke about her being the breadwinner, and then it happened. My job with a real estate company disappeared in the midst of the recession, right after we had our oldest, and I started writing full-time. My MBA graduate wife never wanted to stay at home, whereas I liked the idea of flipping the script. In the past 7 years, she’s moved up the ladder and is now product owner at a tech company.
Yet when Katherine kisses me goodbye in her work clothes, I feel a little jab of jealousy knowing that she gets in a predictable 8-10 hours of work every day whereas I have to end mine early to pick up the kids. Before you tell me put on my shoes and get a real job, we’re not rich enough to afford a nanny, either. Given life’s craziness, someone has to be available to take the kids to doctor’s appointments. Don’t even get me started on early dismissal.
Balancing engaged fatherhood with a career is tricky, yet there are more and more men like me who are primary caregivers for their kids. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, the number of stay at home dads has nearly doubled since 1989, reaching 2 million. That’s still just 16 percent of the total, it’s worth noting. But more dads are also choosing this lifestyle, up from 5 to 21 percent.
The number of households with female breadwinners has also gone up: about 15 percent of all families are comprised of married mothers who earn more than their husbands.
Being the primary parent has its advantages. My kids give me flying hugs at daycare and run to me first when they scrape their knees. Whenever we’re having a nice time at the playground or doing a craft project after dinner, I think about what it would be like to do this full-time. Cue feedback loop: I fantasize about being a stay at home dad, then remember we need the money and I want to have a fulfilling career.
Katherine’s job trumps mine because she makes more money, but that comes with a price, too. She works long hours and takes home work at night. She’s always sending emails at dinner and logging onto her computer after the kids go to bed. Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women in Lean In – “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” – can only take you so far if you’re not that high on the chain of command.
We used to joke about her being the breadwinner, and then it happened.
Admittedly, I’m insecure about the fact that Katherine bears the brunt of supporting our family. Both of us had stay at home moms, and our dads were lawyers who worked a lot. My dad never cooked dinner or went to Cub Scouts. A part of me still believes I’m supposed to be the breadwinner.
Katherine and I fight way more than we should, going tit-for-tat over who will take the kids to tee-ball or ballet. We try to balance it out, but it doesn’t always work. On a practical level, it’s just easier for one person to be the primary caregiver, but that doesn’t stop me from lashing out when she leaves a pile of dirty dishes in the sink like a bad roommate.
It’s not just that I’m afraid I’ll become sidelined and irrelevant. It’s also the fact that at the end of every month our family budget looks like the scene where blood boils from the bathtub in The Shining. I’m constantly trying to squirrel away extra money to contribute to my IRA before it gets sucked out of our bank account for diapers and wipes at Target.
Recently, I’ve tried to turn off my anxieties and just be present with my family. Even on days when I’ve only checked off a couple items on my to-do list, my kids help me get into the zone of parenting. My middle son Nathan runs down the driveway with a kite. My oldest daughter Emily tells me about the Junie B. Jones book she just read. My youngest Jonathan wants to play horsey on my lap.
That’s usually enough to remind me: This is what I wanted. What I still want. You don’t have to choose between being a parent and having a career, just accept that you’re on a slower track for a while.
Lee Chilcote is the co-founder of Literary Cleveland, journalist, nonfiction writer and poet, and winner of the Leonard Trawick Prize for Creative Writing at Cleveland State University.