7 Secrets of Stay-at-Home Dads

In the 1983 comedy film Mr. Mom, an automotive worker becomes a reluctant stay-at-home dad (SAHD) when laid off from his job. Hilarity ensues, including diapering the wrong end of the baby and making grilled cheese sandwiches by pressing bread and cheese slices on an ironing board.

Ultimately, the point of the movie is that dads can love their kids and be at least as effective in the caregiver role as moms. Fast-forward 20-plus years to 2006 — the last year U.S. census data is available on this subject — and there are an estimated 143,000 SAHDs. Not only are these guys competent and confident, they have a few parenting secrets to share.

Secret 1: Stay Calm

Marcus Reynolds believes in keeping stress levels down through outdoor play and physical activity. The Chapel Hill SAHD of two says this attitude is common among his SAHD friends.

“Perhaps it’s because we have less social outlets,” he adds. He also thinks SAHDs tend to be more physical and risk-taking when playing and allow kids a bit more latitude.

Maybe the perception of SAHDs as less stressed than their female counterparts comes from a tendency to embrace a more playful experience with their kids. They also encourage their children to do more for themselves.

Bob Apostolico, an Apex SAHD of four, says, “Moms try to bend over backwards. I give my kids more credit in terms of doing things.” Apostolico also takes issue with the idea that you have to choose to be a friend or a parent.

“I can do both,” he assures. “If you listen to me, I’ll go fishing with you, I’ll wrestle, I’ll build a fort with you. But if you don’t listen, you’re going to hear from me,” he explains.

Secret 2: Seek Friendships, Not Competition

Since there aren’t too many SAHDs, friendships spring up between them, even when the dads may not otherwise have a lot in common. Unlike the publicized mommy cliques, SAHDS try not to focus on comparisons.

“I certainly don’t feel any competition with other SAHDs, but I’m not very competitive overall,” says Mark Terry, a Chapel Hill SAHD of two. He adds, “I’ll sometimes notice how other SAHDs are interacting with their kids and might steal a trick or two if it seems effective. I don’t think we’re struggling for the title of ‘best dad,’ though.”

Reynolds occasionally sees some competitive parenting among SAHDs, but he agrees that dads more often will assess how other SAHDs parent their kids and evaluate if that style would work for them. “You want to see what the competition is doing and then decide. You have to give it consideration,” he says.

Secret 3: Focus on Daily Successes

Part of the trick to staying mellow is to focus on the good moments of every day. Also, having realistic expectations of what can be accomplished sets up kids and dads for success.

“Keeping my kids occupied and happy counts as a successful day,” Terry says. “Of course, keeping myself happy is nice, too. No tantrums equals success.”

Reynolds agrees that days with few time-outs feel successful. He also thinks a healthy mix of outdoor time and educational time is the perfect SAHD day.

Secret 4: Understand the Challenges

Just like their mom counterparts, SAHDs can miss adult conversation. Dads who were previously in the work force find it particularly challenging.

“It can get lonely — more than I anticipated,” Reynolds says. Formerly an attorney, he had thought there would be more SAHDs or that he might have more in common with SAHMs, but confesses to feeling alienated when conversations turn to birth stories and breastfeeding.

As much as he misses the office conversations, however, Reynolds is confident with his decision. “It’s a bit of a sacrifice. But I can’t get these years with my kids back once they are grown,” he says. “I can work until I’m in the grave and I won’t get these years back.”

Admittedly, the daily grind gets to even the most devoted SAHD. Although Apostolico remembers former co-workers complaining about the monotony of the work day, he says that with parenting, “I really know what each day is going to be like.”

In addition, most working adults are used to measurable benchmarks: deadlines to meet and tasks to accomplish. Parenting doesn’t have the same tangible, measurable outcomes, which can be difficult for formerly employed SAHDs.

For example, since Reynolds is unwilling to use the television as a babysitter, he says it can be frustrating when he doesn’t get as much done around the yard or house as he would like. “Some days, I have trouble getting the home-making chores done. I feel like I didn’t accomplish much,” he says.

Secret 5: Respect the Work

One of the biggest hurdles SAHDs face is the perception that they are home watching soap operas or off fishing rather than doing real work. SAHDs are the first to emphasize that they are not babysitters. And the perception that they are loafing is offensive and unwelcome.

“In my experience, my male friends in the work force think I have it made and that I have it
easy,” Reynolds says. “I hear it all the time. They are describing me to a mutual friend [and] they will say, ‘He doesn’t have to work. He stays at home with the kids.’”

To Reynolds, anyone who thinks that staying home with small children isn’t work obviously hasn’t tried it. Apostolico agrees that men who have not stayed home for any length of time with their children really cannot grasp the magnitude of the work SAHDs do.

“I don’t sit on the couch and watch children. I make sure my kids are clean, fed, have clean clothes, and are well cared for,” Apostolico says. He also keeps the house tidy and makes sure dinner is ready when his wife gets home from her job. And that’s a lot of work.

Secret 6: Escape Stereotypes

Despite the strides SAHDs have made, cultural influences are hard to ignore. It’s difficult to let go of the idea that Dad should be the breadwinner. Some SAHDs pick up work from home to combat the feeling that they should be making a financial contribution.

Terry started two businesses, one of which involves visiting new moms and dads in the hospital to take photos and videos of their newborn. “Not making any money isn’t something I’m really happy about, which is one of the reasons I started my businesses,” he explains.

The financial impact of having one parent out of the work force has to be evaluated, whether the stay-at-home parent is a mom or a dad. “You have to be able to sacrifice a little financially. It has its own drawbacks,” Reynolds says.

Secret 7: Appreciate the Bond

Terry, Reynolds and Apostolico agree that the most rewarding aspect in being a SAHD is being an involved dad.

“I definitely feel like I’ve spent way more time with my kids than most dads get to do, so that’s fun,” Terry says. “I guess I’m shaping how they grow up more than other dads get a chance to do as well, since they’re with me so much.”

Reynolds also appreciates that his relationship with his kids is as deep as his wife’s. “They are just as excited to see me as the mommy,” he says.

And after 20 years in the work force, Apostolico’s ‘retirement’ to raise his children has given him insight into their lives and enhanced his relationship with them. “The highlight of my day is just being home with the children — being there for them,” he says. And that’s no secret.

Robin Whitsell lives in Chapel Hill with her husband and three children. She can be reached at www.robinwhitsell.com.