The following was produced in partnership with our friends at New York Life, who are committed to helping families be happy, successful, and good at life.
Chris Routly is all of those things. The artist and animator turned stay-at-home dad has spent the last few years focusing on the needs of his sons and the empowerment of fathers like himself who have embraced the role of full-time caregiver. Routly is keenly aware of the financial and emotional planning that goes into making his role work and committed, through his role as President of the National At-Home Dad Network, to helping other men make the strategic decisions necessary to make life after the office work. Here, in his words, is the story of how he found his tribe.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Stay-At-Home Parenting
If you’d told me when I was younger that someday I would not only embrace “full-time stay-at-home dad” as my job but do so to such an extent that I’d end up the President of a nonprofit organization for caregiver dads, I wouldn’t have believed you. In retrospect, my current job is the role I’ve been preparing for my whole life. I didn’t know it at the time because I was surrounded by other men who were on different paths.
The option to have me stay home as a primary caregiver following my wife’s maternity leave was firmly on the table when my first son was born. I’d served as a temporary caregiver for my brother’s three young sons when number four came along a few years earlier and that experience had — to my great shock — opened my eyes to the joy of parenting and full partnership. Still, having me stay home wasn’t the first option. I was employed full-time creating web games for kids and big-name clients, which was pretty much a dream job. Then life happened: My wife was laid off during her maternity leave and I was given a pink slip just a few months later. We had time to talk and decided that her earning potential as a biomedical engineer offered more security for our family and that she should cast a wide net for opportunities. In almost no time, I found myself in Pennsylvania and at home in the afternoons.
I loved it. Truly. The songs. The stories. Playing together. I even liked cooking and bath time. But, above all, I loved being such an active presence in his first steps, first words, and first experiences of the wide world. I was there for him when he was a baby, when he was a toddler, and when he became a big brother. Was it easy? Absolutely not! Still, it was and remains not only the most exhausting job I’ve ever had but also the most rewarding.
The decision I made isn’t for everyone, but I strongly recommend it for the caregiving inclined. Still, it’s important to go in aware of both the potential perks and the potential pitfalls of a new gig. It’s important to speak with your partner about creating systems to manage money, hours, and expectations. It’s important to understand that the stakes go up when you go home and that emotional labor can be trying.
The hardest part — and the part that needs to be planned for in concrete ways — isn’t the lack of sleep, or the teething, or the potty training. It’s the isolation. Ask any stay-at-home parent and they will likely tell you the same; at some point, they crave adult conversation, struggle with some aspect of parenting, need a supportive community to offer advice and empathy, or just want to get out of the damn house. The difference between moms and dads, as I discovered, is that when a mom makes the decision to find community and support, it’s generally easily accessible. If she doesn’t fit in with one group of moms, there are others to choose from. Dads have it harder in that respect.
Finding other at-home dads is next to impossible in many smaller communities and rejection from local mom groups is exceptionally common. Resources like local library storytimes or music classes are routinely marketed as “Mommy & Me” programs and leave dads feeling unwelcome. Toss in the anxiety many dads feel walking into those environments burdened by the stereotype of the dilettante father and the situation starts to get untenable. Though it seems likely that cultural progress will ameliorate some of these problems over time, men considering stay-at-home fatherhood right now need to have the discipline to ask for help and support.
I eventually found a weekly story time run by moms who were hugely supportive of me in my role as a caregiver and went above and beyond to help connect me to the community. After dozens of cold stares from moms on the playground and facing rejection from playgroups, two women I’d never met got my back. It made a big difference. Still, I knew enough to know that I’d benefited from both planning and raw luck.
But I was fortunate in the interim. During the transition, I had a partner who continually demonstrated how much she valued what I did for our family — in the absence of a salary, this is critical — and the flexibility I gave her to take on more work and flex her ambition. We didn’t just talk about money (though we did talk about money) or practical issues, we talked about how we could use that moment to help build a life for both of us. We planned together. I started to feel like I was working for my family. I was.
When I found my way to the National At-Home Dad Network, a nonprofit run by volunteers who make it their mission to advocate for and support at-home dads, I decided to go to the annual convention. That event quickly became the most important thing I did every year. It made me proud. I felt like I’d found my tribe and I wanted to be a leader in it. A few years later, I was elected to the Board of Directors and I now serve as the organization’s President.
Many people, particularly other dads, tell me that they wish they could do what I do. Some of them misunderstand my role but I don’t think most of these men are patronizing or romanticizing the idea of dropping out of the office workforce. I think they are genuinely jealous of the opportunity I was given — and for good reason. My work is incredibly rewarding. As with any pursuit, it comes with specific, recurring trials. Loneliness doesn’t evaporate. The desire to financially justify oneself is baked into the competitive mentality many men, myself included, are raised to have.
Becoming an at-home dad is an increasingly real and immediate option for new fathers. It is not the easy option. That’s why, when I talk about the path I took, it can sound more like a warning than a celebration. So, let’s be clear. It’s great. I love what I do. I just believe it has to be done with a profound sense of purpose.