What Happens When Dad Stays Home?

What Happens When Dad Stays Home?

Fifteen years ago, Shannon Carpenter found himself throwing up in a urinal at his office. He had just told his boss that he was quitting the position he had held for eight years as an elder abuse investigator. He was becoming unemployed for the first time in his life.

It was a carefully-made decision. His wife was pregnant with their second child and they both realized that he was spending more time at work than with his family. At the time, he left his daughter at daycare at 7 a.m. and only saw her again at 6 p.m. Because of the unpredictability of his job, it wasn’t uncommon for him to leave the house in the middle of night to “fix something.” He had a college degree and a full-time job, but was basically working to pay for his daughter’s daycare. And although he was working on something he believed in, he was unhappy.

One night, he and his wife had a conversation. One of them would have to stay at home to take care of the kids, and he joked that it should be him. He laughed, in fact. But then, it dawned on him: it had to be him. He wanted to do it. He thought he would be better at it. His wife had recently been headhunted, which significantly increased her salary, so, financially, it made more sense if he was the one who would stay with the daughter. There was no way back.

After months of planning, he told his boss that he was leaving. As he walked back to his office, he panicked. He ran to the bathroom and splashed water in his face. Suddenly, the dry heaves became unmanageable. He went to the urinal where a hot wave gulped out of his mouth and kept going for three minutes. He had officially become a stay-at-home dad.

Carpenter Zooms in from a room of purple walls just outside Kansas City, Missouri. He rests his strong arms on the table and stares at the camera seriously, focused. It’s not the best frame. The top of his head is cut off the screen and a stream of light coming from above blurs the image. However, it’s still possible to see his face. He looks like Helsinki, the character from the Spanish miniseries Money Heist: burly, with a long gray beard.

He puts on a smile as he speaks, breaking the deceptive seriousness of his gaze. His voice is firm, confident. His constant use of words like “man” and “dude” help break from that first impression and hint an easygoing personality. The more he dives into his relationship with his children and his ideas of what it is to be a good man, the more he becomes Helsinki in my head: unbreakable and cold, but sensitive and full of heart.

At 48, Carpenter has three children: 17, 15 and 10 years old, and has devoted his life to raising them. In the beginning though, it was hard to accept that staying at home to raise children was his new reality.

You struggle with that identity of who you are after you quit your job.

— Shannon Carpenter, stay-at-home dad

The idea of work as a key aspect in the perception of manhood isn’t new. Joseph Vandello, a social psychologist who studies gender issues with a focus on manhood at the University of South Florida, published a study in 2014 which pointed out that men more than women saw unemployment as a potential cause for gender status loss.

“It wasn’t the case that women thought other people would see them as less womanly, but it was the case that unemployed men thought others would see them as less manly,” Vandello says.

Aiming to understand how unemployment influences a person’s perception of who they are and of how others perceive them, Vandello and his colleagues surveyed a nationally representative sample of adult men and women who were involuntarily unemployed during the 2008/2009 recession. The results indicated that men’s understanding of unemployment as an identity threat was associated with distress and anxiety.

“I think that all speaks to the issue of the importance of work to manhood,” Vandello says. “What happens when that [part of their identity] goes away?”

This is a question that likely haunts millions of men in the United States. The Pew Research Center reported that 2 million fathers didn’t work outside of their home in 2012. Although 23% of them said that they were staying at home because they couldn’t find a job, 21% said that they stayed at home to take care of their home and family, which represented an increase from the 5% who said so in 1989.

This growth pattern has continued over the years. Pew Research found that the total percentage of U.S. fathers who stayed home to specifically take care of their children rose from 4% in 1989 to 24% in 2016.

Catherine Marrone, advanced senior lecturer at the Department of Sociology at Stony Brook University, says that this increase might have to do with two factors. The first is that the perceptions of gender roles are becoming more flexible, which makes it more comfortable for men to make childcare their primary role. The second is that there are more women in the workforce potentially outearning their children’s fathers — who may or may not be their husbands.

In 2013, a Pew Research Center analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau data showed that mothers were either the primary or the sole financial provider in 40% of households with children under the age of 18. Regarding married women specifically, another report published this year by Pew Research documented that 16% of marriages in the U.S. have a primary or sole breadwinning wife. In 1972, this was the case for only 5% of marriages.

Historically, the second wave of feminism, during the 1960s and the 1970s, marked the period when women started to argue for control of their lives by, for example, having the ability to get credentials and the ability of having reproductive control.

“You also start to get changes in the number of women who are going into the workplace, and the number of women who are going to college and the number of women graduating from college,” Marrone explains.

That second wave of feminism was a movement led mostly by middle and upper middle class women, which didn’t bring much change for women and communities of color, Marrone explains. The third wave of feminism, however, is characterized by a push for more people of color in positions of power and by a bigger understanding of gender identities.

More women are assuming positions of power in the workplace, but parity still lacks, Marrone notes.

“There is still a wage gap between the earnings of men and the earnings of women,” she says.

Another study published by Pew Research in 2019 clarifies that women might be spending more time in the workplace, but they are also spending more time on childcare. Overall, mothers still spend more time than fathers on caregiving. Also according to the study, women are becoming mothers later in life.

“They’re not necessarily able to have kids at a younger age, they’re putting off their fertility, so they’re having fewer kids, and they’re having them later,” she explains.

Still, many of the fathers who are now staying home struggle to find support in their communities, Marrone says. Differently from a neighborhood in the 1950’s when all the women stayed at home and connected with each other, men who stay at home today don’t usually have peers, or the ability to connect to other men who also stay at home.

“They are kind of left out and feeling isolated,” Marrone says.

Carpenter experienced this isolation first hand. When he started as a stay-at-home dad, there were no dads groups he could contact, he says. Moreover, he wasn’t confident introducing himself as a stay-at-home dad.

“As men, that’s how we identify ourselves until we introduce ourselves,” he explains. “‘Hey, my name is Shannon, you know, what do you do for a living?’”

For him, it was almost weird that both his grandfather and his father were delighted when he told them that he was becoming a stay-at-home dad. Carpenter belongs to a family of veterans. His grandfather is a World War II Navy veteran, who, after the war, pursued a career as an engineer. His father was disabled in the Vietnam War, and became an accountant after he came back to the U.S. Carpenter describes them as the two of the most manly men he met in his life. They both had a tremendous impact on his life and they were truly his heroes.

“They told me I would never regret a single day I spent with my kids, because that’s what they missed,” he says.

From a broader perspective, Carpenter has a reason to be surprised that his grandfather and father were happy with his decision. Vandello’s research points out that men tend to seek work-life balance less than women when looking for a job because they are afraid of being stigmatized for doing so.

In 2013, Vandello conducted a study to understand the social and psychological penalties that a person experiences when deviating from the social norm of complete devotion to work, which he named “work flexibility stigma.” Vandello asked college seniors what they prioritized in a career and how much they would pursue what they wanted professionally. The study found out that having a good salary was unquestionably the main priority and, most importantly, that, although work-life balance was a priority for both genders, women were much more likely than men to actively explore career paths that led to a good work-life balance.

The gender difference in this situation is anchored not in the desire to live a well-balanced life, but in the fear that men experience when deciding whether or not to pursue this balance.

“They don’t think that they can do it,” Vandello says.

In a follow up study, Vandello created hypothetical scenarios to understand how people see workers who seek a flexible work schedule. One of these scenarios hypothesized that a person just had a baby and decided to move to a part-time position to dedicate more time to childcare responsibilities, a situation very similar to the one Carpenter found himself in 15 years ago. Vandello’s study found out that, as much as both genders were financially penalized, men were also gendered penalized as people concluded that they were less manly for wanting to work less.

“There’s a kind of an extra penalty for men,” Vandello explains.

A couple years ago, Carpenter recalls, he went to the doctor’s office and his doctor was devastated to find out he was a stay-at-home dad, as if that was an accident rather than a choice. He explains that the changing point to deal with this judgment was understanding that he could do anything in life. At the same time that he has done traditionally masculine things like rebuilding decks and remodeling bathrooms, he has also allowed himself to explore other activities such as baking tarts and cookies.

You can make this life anything that you want it to be. You don’t have to live by the expectations of others, only the expectations of yourself.

— Shannon Carpenter

Although unsettling in the beginning, today Carpenter speaks about being a stay-at-home dad with pride, convinced that his value as a man is not tied to his job. He highlights that a paycheck isn’t what makes a man a man and that, just because other men make more money than him, that doesn’t mean they are any better.

“Is Andrew Tate a better man than me? Absolutely not,” he says.

Andrew Tate, a 36-year-old former professional kickboxer, gained media attention after he started making digital content promoting the idea that men need to “escape the matrix” by becoming what he calls alpha males. Tate was accused of racism and misogyny multiple times. His hate speech violates community guidelines of most social media apps, which led to his ban from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and Twitch last August. In December 2022, he was arrested in Romania, accused of rape and human trafficking.

Yet, after Tate’s arrest, his videos can still be easily found on the Internet and his success sparked the emergence of multiple influencers that share similar thoughts to him.

Twenty-three-year-old Ares Delara introduces himself as a professional men’s dating coach. He has over 100,000 followers on his TikTok account. Delara says that he has been watching Tate’s content since before Tate became famous and that, although he doesn’t agree with everything that Tate says, he likes Tate’s lack of fear of being canceled.

“One of the reasons why I really liked [him] is because of how he was able to express himself and not care about backlash or about what other people thought,” Delara says.

In his opinion, men in today’s western culture lack masculinity, which forces women to become more masculine. For him, that’s unfortunate.

“It’s not a woman’s natural role to be the man essentially,” he says.

On the topic of stay-at-home dads, Delara believes that a man who stays at home to take care of the children must be more feminine, and that can’t be good for him.

“Men need some type of purpose, they need challenge, they need things that they are achieving,” he argues. “Especially for a guy in his 20s or 30s, I don’t see that as something that is good.”

However, Glen Henry, who was a stay-at-home dad during three years of his 30s, saw that as an opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes and see the world from a different perspective. He remembers that while his friends complained about returning from work and not finding a clean house and a cooked dinner, Henry would tell them to “cut their wives some slack.”

“You really don’t understand what your wife did that day if you’ve never been a stay-at-home father,” he explains.

Henry lives in California with his wife and his four children. He became a stay-at-home dad per his wife’s suggestion. At the time, she was pregnant with their second son, he hated his job and his salary was just enough to pay for their first son’s childcare. Following a few months of consideration, he decided to do it and, similar to Carpenter, felt frightened in the beginning.

“It just didn’t seem like that was something that was honorable,” he explains.

But his experience showed him that it was and, determined to show to the world how great it was to be a father, he decided to create his YouTube channel, Beleaf in Fatherhood.

“Once I realized how much fatherhood changed me, I wanted to be proof of good fatherhood for other people,” he explains.

For example, in a video posted one year ago in his channel, he explains the importance of teaching Black children how to swim. Talking in a confident and reflexive tone, Henry dives into the history of the relationship between the Black community and the water, from the days when slaves died in the ocean after being forced out of their homelands, to the segregation of swimming pools in the United States. While he speaks, a meditational song plays in the back and images of his children learning how to swim flash on the screen.

“I want the water to be a place of peace for my children,” he says. “I want them to go to the beach and feel amazing in their beautiful Black skin and not be afraid to dive into the ocean.”

When his wife got pregnant with their daughter, she decided that she wanted to become a stay-at-home mother to raise their daughter and asked him if he could go back to the workforce. Henry did so by making his YouTube channel into a mentorship company for fathers also named Beleaf in Fatherhood.

“We mentor and create resources for fathers and show proof of black family life,” he explains.

He doesn’t sugarcoat though. Henry mentions that, when his wife announced that she wanted to become a stay-at-home mother, he was scared. They didn’t have any insurance and didn’t have any consistent guaranteed income, which forced him to mass produce content at a rate he had never done before eventually landing on the company.

“I didn’t know that I had the ambition and drive and work ethic that mustered up,” he explains.

The personal growth that Carpenter and Henry experienced after breaking from the idea of being their family’s breadwinner is an illustration of how being open to diverge from what is considered masculine in western cultures can be positive.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All TBD Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *