Have you ever had the experience when, all of a sudden, you find the people you’ve been looking for? You could call them your tribe - the people who get you, who can honestly nod their head and understand what you’re talking about from a real place of knowing, of true empathy. That feeling of knowing someone understands your struggles, joys, fears, and daily life challenges, is like a hot shower – at once soothing and reassuring, as well as reinvigorating and motivating.
I found my people in an unexpected place, at the annual conference of the National At-Home Dad Network (aka, “HomeDadCon”) in 2014. I participated in a panel of working mothers whose partners (in my case, my husband Richard) are stay-at-home parents. I realized, these people - these families - understood how I love my work and my family and how, for my family, having Richard be the primary caregiver for our kids, and me the primary breadwinner, just works.
Since then, I’ve met other successful women in higher education whose partners (typically fathers, but I also know successful same-sex couples in the same position) are stay-at-home parents. Through informal conversations, I’ve learned that some of the professional women I admire most in Higher Ed have (or had) a stay-at-home parent spouse. They include a CFO, academic department chair, directors, assistant directors, even residence hall directors – all successful professional women, who are (or were for a time) primary breadwinners for their families – and all with stable, loving, and enriching environments for their families.
I’m conscientious about when and with whom I choose to let it be known that my spouse is the primary caregiver to our kids. I’ve gotten my fair share of both negative and positive reactions. People have said, “Oh, did he lose his job?” Or, “When is he going to start working again?” (My response: He is working – raising our kids and running a household.) In higher education, people are generally open-minded to our family arrangement. Outside of work, we’ve received more judgment, often from perfect strangers. When Richard gets criticized in the grocery store or the library (“Well, where is their mother?”), I take it personally. A judgment against a stay-at-home dad is just the flip-side of the same tired script against working mothers that I’ve heard since I was a kid, watching Murphy Brown become one of the first working mothers portrayed on TV. But I also get positive reactions: “Oh, that’s so awesome!” or “Wow, I’ve wanted to be a stay-at-home dad too.”
I am incredibly fortunate to have financially supported our family of four for nearly eight years on a single income. It’s not been easy by any means. We make sacrifices. Yet, I know this is a privilege that most American families do not have. Sometimes I feel guilty for this privilege, because I know childcare is prohibitively expensive for many families. Yet not working in favor of being a stay-at-home parent can be equally or more costly in the long run – for both men and women.
My guilt may come from feeling that having my spouse as a stay-at-home parent has been my “secret weapon” in my professional success. Surely, I’ve been successful because of my own talent and efforts, but it’s not lost on me that I’ve had two promotions and significant salary increases since Richard started staying home with the kids. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. For me, having a true partner in life, love, and family has meant that I can be fully engaged in my career. I walk through daily life with a peace of mind that my kids are cared for, safe, encouraged, and enriched. My kids think that having a working mom and stay-at-home dad is as normal as any other family arrangement. In fact, they both want to be a stay-at-home parent and a scientist, veterinarian, college professor, computer coder, and video game creator (depending on the day).
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. I’ve given up some of my personal hobbies and ambitions in order to have a life of balance and fairness for the whole family. I used to perform in an orchestra up to 12 times a year, and meet up with friends for drinks or brunch at least weekly. I’ve put my ambition to earn a doctorate on hold for the time being, because being present with my family when I’m not at work, and giving Richard space to pursue his dreams and ambitions beyond parenting, are more important to me right now.
I know we’ve been lucky – for example, with the housing market, or with unexpected income or gifts that arrived at just the right time. But other women, including in higher education, should have the opportunity to benefit from a similar family arrangement, if it works for them. What would it look like if salaries in student affairs/higher education truly allowed for professionals (especially women) to earn enough to fully support their families? If salaries were adequate to allow a spouse or co-parent to be a stay-at-home parent, especially during the preschool years when childcare is particularly expensive, I believe institutions would benefit greatly from employee stability, performance, and commitment. My ability to focus 100% of my effort on serving my students and colleagues, with the peace of mind that my family is taken care of, and my home life ordered and organized (if somewhat chaotically), has directly and significantly benefited my institution. This is a life that works for me and my family. I would like to see more professional women in Higher Ed and their families offered the same opportunity. They just might find out it is a life that works for them too.
Rebecca Flintoft is passionate about serving others through leadership in higher education. She serves as Associate Vice President of Student Life at Colorado School of Mines. She is a mom of two super kids and is married to Richard Blake, a stay-at-home dad and creator of STEMpunkEd.com. Rebecca is a Board member of the NASPA Center for Women.
The National At-Home Dads Network has compiled a summary of research about stay-at-home dads and their families.