Manning the Home Front
Life as a stay-at-home dad
At some point, all parents must decide on childcare. Once upon a time, that role traditionally fell to the woman, who became a stay-at-home mom, or “homemaker.” If both parents worked, then it might be a nanny, au pair, or day-care provider, but nevertheless usually female. But the times, they are a changing.
The number of men who are staying at home to raise their children has increased. The shift may be attributable, in part, to the current economic climate, but there are more and more situations where the reasons for turning societal gender roles on their heads run deeper. One thing is certain: it’s an education for all concerned. A decade ago, a stay-at-home dad was sure to raise eyebrows. “People assumed there was something wrong with the guy,” says Juan Martin, a Wilton stay-at-home dad of three boys. “The first play date I took my son on, the mom had two neighbors sitting with her as back up, just in case.”
For the Martins, as with several other couples in Wilton, the decision for Juan to stay at home made sense. His wife, Libby, an obstetrician and gynecologist, had a well-established medical practice when they married. “Our first date was on Labor Day,” Juan jokes.
Kidding aside, Juan and Libby discussed who would stay home before she got pregnant. “We decided that when Libby resumed her job after maternity leave, I would step out of my professional life to become the primary caregiver,” says Juan, who is a lawyer and worked for the State of Connecticut judicial branch. Juan made Libby a promise and stuck to it.
Mark and Pam Keough were spending all of Mark’s income from construction work to pay for day care, so when their girls started school, he switched to doing construction part-time and became a stay-at-home dad. He was grateful that his wife, who works in information technology, made enough money to support the family and enable him to take on that responsibility. “It has made the family unit function more successfully, which was our priority and our vision,” he says.
While the social stigma once attached to men staying home to run the household has faded, that certainly was not the case when Jeff Spiewak did so almost 15 years ago. Informally known around Wilton as the pioneer of stay-at-home dads, Spiewak says he landed in the position by default. “We had always thought one of us would stay home when we had children. I just assumed it would be my wife,” admits Spiewak.
In 1996, the Spiewaks were living in Bethel and “cruising along” with their careers: Jeff in financial planning, Linda in financial services. But when Linda became pregnant with the first of their three sons, the company Jeff worked for relocated to Canada. He left his employer and began a job search. Their son was born later that year. Jeff was still out of work while Linda was on maternity leave. “We had a lot of fun,” he remembers. When she returned to work, he decided to try manning the home front.
Under Linda’s tutelage, Jeff learned to cook, do laundry, run a household and care for their son. Around the same time, Linda was promoted and her salary was enough to support the family. They decided he would become the stay-at-home parent permanently. “At first the idea of not getting a paycheck was a hit to my ego, even though I really enjoyed being home,” Jeff recalls.
Not surprisingly, these dads didn’t think it was going to be that hard to take on their new roles. Jeff thought it was going to be a vacation. He was in for a shock. “I had no idea staying at home involved so much physical and emotional endurance,” he says.
“It is a lot more challenging than I expected,” Mark echoes. “You’re on 24/7. There’s no ‘going home from work’.” As his girls have grown, he has noticed the workload ease a bit, but the mental aspect has become more challenging. “The tasks get smaller but the problems get bigger.”
Some of Juan’s buddies were jealous of his situation. “They thought I could just sit around, and go to the gym. My stock reply is, ‘Are you rated to run a vacuum, do laundry, and cook?’ Being a stay-at-home parent is multi-dimensional. You’re not just raising the children. You have to take care of the house, do yard work, and home repairs. It’s emotionally and physically draining. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, but also the most rewarding. It has also given me a greater appreciation of the traditional roles of male versus female. I have a much healthier respect for all the moms that have come before me.”
Over the years, other men have told Jeff they would switch roles with their stay-at-home wives in a heartbeat. “But they say that because they think it will be a break from ‘work’. Ha ha,” he laughs.
Besides the financial dynamic, these Wilton parents all had similar philosophical reasons for their decision. “I have no problem with Pam being the bread winner,” Mark says. “We do whatever it takes to make the family core work.” Many moms tell him they think it’s great he’s home because most fathers either don’t or can’t spend enough time with their children. By having one parent home, the Keoughs feel they have been able to instill values in a way Mark doesn’t think would have happened if they both worked. “The girls clearly understand our expectations and feel comfortable coming to either one of us to talk.”
Jeff adds that staying home has made him more in-tune with his kids. “I know what they are thinking and going through. I’ve been able to get more involved with activities like scouts and sports, filling in for dads who have to work late. I’ve had a lot more time than a traditional father to instill the values and behavior we expect from our kids. Now we are reaping the rewards. It is gratifying,” says Jeff, adding, “The role reversal has worked well for us.”
Another dividend is that he has gained a better understanding of women along the way. By the time the Spiewaks had their third son in 2000, the older boys were in preschool and going on play dates. “I hadn’t done much socializing and was surprised at how accepting other moms were,” Jeff says.
What surprised him even more was realizing they were all dealing with the same issues. But one thing did disturb him. “I knew that women felt a need to vent, but I never thought I would. Then I heard myself venting. ‘Oh my gosh, I’m venting,” he laughs. Indeed, he knew he’d truly been accepted when moms would forget he was in the room and get on a topic he wasn’t at all comfortable with. “I’d have to raise my hand and say, ‘I need a time out here’.”
Mark, who grew up in Wilton with brothers, says parenting girls put him in an unfamiliar realm. “You have to be sensitive to their nurturing side, not to mention the way they play. I found myself putting on fashion shows and having tea parties.” He has enjoyed being involved in the girls’ lives in other ways too, such as volunteering as a room dad and sports coach.
Despite their role reversals, these families approach parenting as a team, making joint decisions and setting short- and long-term goals. For example, when the Spiewaks moved to Wilton in 1998, their goal was to keep Linda’s commute under an hour so she could see the children in the evening. “Sometimes, she stays a little later in the morning so she can put the kids on the bus,” says Jeff. “Her role as a mom hasn’t diminished. She has made a huge effort to be involved with the children and focus on the family. “
Juan says the same thing about his wife. “Libby is my hero,” he says. “She works especially hard to be home for dinner, to help with homework and to put the kids to bed, unless she is on call. When they were younger, she would come home at lunch after seeing 20 patients, just to stay engaged with the kids and ask about their day.”
Mark draws an analogy to explain his and Pam’s roles. “In the relationship with the kids, I’m the structural backbone of the family unit. If there is a tragedy, I hold the family together. Pam is the emotional structure and support. I’m the one who is protector, soother and giver, but she is the heart and soul of the family. The girls run to her when she gets home and want to share their day. They have a great relationship her.”
These families don’t wrap gender labels around tasks women are supposed to do at home and men aren’t. They work together to do what needs to be done, and make a concerted effort to communicate and keep on the same page in raising their children. “Everybody deals with ‘ifs’,” admits Juan, regarding his situation. “I wouldn’t change a thing if I had to make the decision all over again, “says Mark. “I’ve really enjoyed seeing my daughters develop into little ladies.” Reflects Juan, “When I have a quiet moment, I realize if things had been different, think how much I would have missed.”