Women represent just under half of the total workforce in the US, and it’s no longer unusual for women to be the main breadwinner in their family. As this trend continues, another U.S. social dynamic has occurred among opposite-gendered couples: A substantial increase in the number of dads staying home as the primary caregiver for the children. This is the case in my own household — and while the situation is overwhelmingly beneficial for our family, it’s not without its challenges.
Parents experiencing this change in the day-to-day household structure say it requires a special kind of strong mutual support between spouses. Andreas Wilderer, author of Lean On: The Five Pillars Of Support For Women In Leadership, calls it, “The partnership pillar, beginning with empowering your partner.”
“It’s incumbent on stay-at-home dads to step up to the caregiving role in the same devoted way that their wives do as the financial provider,” says Wilderer, who is also a Gallup-certified strengths coach and former stay-at-home-dad. “Each must take care to empower the other.” He warns that it’s all too easy for couples to take each other for granted, or begin to resent one another — especially if one person feels the other isn’t fulfilling a role in the same way they might have. “If the partners are redefining their roles in the family,” Wilderer continues, “they should anticipate a learning period and be careful not to get in the way of each other’s progress. They should build each other up rather than tear each other down.” Wilderer offers ways couples can support each other when the mother works and the father stays home to care for the children — or really in any situation when the roles you’ve become used to are reversed:
Hand over the keys with trust.
When I became the sole breadwinner in our family, some unexpected conflicts arose. My partner had certain expectations about the hours I would work, based on the schedule he’d kept in the workforce. Similarly, I’d developed a smooth routine to keep the household running, and it was jarring at first to see tasks I’d always had ownership of being done differently.
“Adjusting to new roles can take time,” Wilderer says. “Egos and pride get in the way. Neither partner should micromanage or undercut the other’s responsibilities. With patience and understanding, each should adjust well to the model that they together agreed to adopt for the good of the family.”
Ignore the whispers, rise above negativity.
Men and women can sometimes sense or hear criticism from outsiders when swapping traditional roles. For example, noting that my partner volunteers at the school daily whereas I generally only make an appearance for school functions, other parents have commented about what an “interesting” example we’re setting for our children. But our arrangement works perfectly for our family, so we try not to worry too much about what others think.
“Many women today are gaining the confidence to break the glass ceiling in the workplace,” Wilderer says. “Yet they could use more of that confidence in their home lives as well, and their stay-at-home husbands can help them with that. Why should women feel guilty about their success? They are providing well for their families. Likewise, a man who has assumed the support role in the home may imagine that people are whispering he should be making a living for his family. But none of what people say matters when the husband and wife have total respect for each other and for their respective roles.”
Listen to each other’s ‘job frustrations.’
There are always work-related frustrations and stress to vent, whether your work is in the home or outside it. What surprised me, however, was the stress and guilt we both felt around letting go of our “old” roles. My partner, seven years into this role swap, still sometimes says he feels guilty for not bringing home a paycheck. Likewise, I struggle with missing milestones or not being completely on top of what’s going on at school in the same was I was when I was a stay-at-home-mom. Just being there to morally support each other has gone a long way.
“The main focus for both should be listening; most of the time neither desires unsolicited advice,” Wilderer says. “They need compassion and understanding, a sympathetic ear. Each partner should treat the other’s heart with care and tenderness.” Great advice for any relationship, really.
“Loving partners bestow the gift of self-reliance generously on each other,” Wilderer says. “Each must be willing to step back, patiently and respectfully, to allow the other to build a sense of pride in a job well done.”