There exists a breed of fathers who change diapers, arrange play dates and even buy their wives' clothing. Sadly, these fathers who move into the traditional "mommy" domain are often viewed as a novel byproduct of the rise of breadwinner wives. This troubles me because it infers that professional success remains a zero-sum game: Only one half of a couple can really succeed in the work force while the other faces career suicide in the background.
Although I applaud the media focus on this changing dynamic of families and how that affects the professional lives of women, we need to ensure this transition appears in a positive light. To gain equal status at work, we desperately need it at home and that won't happen unless we stop treating dads who raise children as a curiosity.
The good news is that the number of fathers who stay home is on the rise and their perception of domestic roles is changing. In 2011, 12 per cent of two-parent Canadian families had a stay-at-home dad, up from 7 per cent in 1996. In the United States, where parental leave programs are much less generous than in Canada, the number of fathers staying at home more than doubled from 2001 to 2010 – although they still make up only 3.4 per cent of all stay-at-home parents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In a 2011 survey by the Boston College Center for Work and Family, more than 50 per cent of fathers said they would be willing to stay home with the kids if their spouse earned enough to do so comfortably. A new survey by the centre found that stay-at-home fathers increasingly choose to care for their children and are not pushed into the role because of unemployment.
"Nearly all of the men in our study who talked about returning to work wanted a job that would still allow them to have significant time with their children," said Fred Van Deusen, one of the study's co-authors.
Ted Scaldwell, who worked as a communications aide to former Ontario premier Mike Harris, falls into the category of men who decide to put family first. Mr. Scaldwell, who was influenced by the loss of his mother when he was young, decided after the birth of his daughter in 2001 to stay at home. Over the next 10 years, his wife, Krista, focused on her career, which saw the family move three times. She is now vice-president of communications and public affairs at Johnson & Johnson, and the couple has two children, 10-year-old Chloe and 8-year-old Brendan.
"Because my mother had a successful career … seeing my spouse at work was not foreign to me," Mr. Scaldwell said. "I enjoy helping others succeed and have a pattern of that – behind the scenes politically, consulting, and volunteering. So the power thing was never an issue," he added.
He recently returned to full-time work, for a company that makes an environmentally friendly alternative to road salt, a position that gives him the flexibility to walk his children to and from school and play a large role in their lives.
Sometimes, when a father's at-home status stems from job loss, the family benefits. Andrew Larsen worked in the hospitality industry but found himself suddenly unemployed. He and his wife, Esther Arbeid, quickly swapped roles – she turned to full-time work and he stayed home with their five-year-old daughter. The move was "the best thing we've ever done," he said.
"When my wife went to work and I assumed the role of primary homemaker we found things got much better between us," Mr. Larsen said. "She was not happy staying at home. I was never crazy about working … It's as though, by accident, we stumbled upon what we were born to do."
Their two children are now 14 and 7, and Ms. Arbeid runs the theatre and film programs at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.
"Money and power issues were perhaps present at the beginning of my staying at home, when I viewed myself mainly as an out-of-work breadwinner," Mr. Larsen acknowledged, but he said that quickly receded as he found his groove as a stay-at-home parent and began writing children's stories. His latest ("Bye, Bye Butterflies!") recounts his son's nursery-school experience.
"Staying at home and raising your child, be you male or female, is viewed through a constantly changing lens," Mr. Larsen said. He hopes a fundamental cultural shift is under way that will encourage mothers and fathers to have an equal role both at home and at work.
"The one thing I'm certain of is that parenting is an extremely important role," he said. "Children and homes both need tending and nurturing. We neglect these things at our peril."