Paul Rosenfeld / The Atlantic

What Ruth Bader Ginsburg Taught Me About Being a Stay-at-Home Dad

A young lawyer puts his former boss’s ideals into practice.

This past summer, on the last day of my clerkship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she rose from her cavernous desk and, following a hearty goodbye hug, asked me what was next. I told her that the next morning marked the start of my new job as a stay-at-home dad. She smiled warmly and wished me luck.

My wife had just begun her pediatrics residency at Georgetown, a job that leaves scarce time for domestic duties. And throughout my year of long hours and late nights at the Court, my daughter had grown from a delicate, impassive infant to a robust toddler with personality and character. In recent months, when I was able to make it home in time to see Caitlyn before bedtime, she’d rush headlong toward the door with shrieks of “Daddy Daddy!” I’d bundle her up in my arms, squeeze, and resolve to take some time, soon, to be with her completely. I had missed out on a lot and was determined to make up for it.

The Boss (as clerks tend to refer to their justices at the Court) was legendary in her ability to navigate these obstacles with deftness and grace. At Harvard Law School in the 1950s, she was one of a handful of women in her class. Then-Dean Erwin Griswold, who later served as solicitor general under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, famously challenged the Boss, at a (small) dinner he held for the women students, to justify her presence at the school when the spot could have gone to a man. (Fifty-one years later, when I attended my own welcome dinner for incoming Harvard Law students, my dean was future Justice Elena Kagan, the first woman to hold that position at the law school. She chatted with us about the Red Sox pennant race and a tricky issue of federal civil procedure.)

Along with the Boss’s demographic isolation, she faced challenges at home that would have made most law students crumble. Her daughter, barely a year old when law school began, occupied much of her free time. That free time became even scarcer after her husband Marty, also a Harvard Law student at the time, was diagnosed with cancer. Not only did the Boss care for and support Marty, she helped keep him up to speed in his coursework, taking his class notes and typing his papers—all the while rising to the very top of her class. It was during this time that the Boss developed her lifelong habit of working into the early morning hours, a schedule that has recalibrated the circadian rhythms of generations of her clerks.

It’s easy to assume that celebrated figures like the Boss possess superhuman levels of discipline. But an insight one gains working at a place like the Supreme Court is that we all face similar constraints on our time, energy, and intellectual bandwidth. During my year at the Court, I sought to understand how the Boss managed to successfully balance her family and career. She shared many tactical pointers, offering her views on the virtues of au pairs over other forms of childcare, the advantages of having an extended period between children (an extra pair of hands and eyes with number two!), and the art of recognizing and cultivating a child’s interests and talents. But the most important and enduring advice she gave was the most seemingly banal: “be a good partner” and “take breaks.” Her husband Marty, as she’ll tell anyone, supported her career wholeheartedly and firmly implanted himself in the kitchen. As she told Katie Couric in a recent interview:

You can’t have it all all at once. Over my lifespan, I think I have had it all, but in given periods in time, things were rough. And if you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it.

It was in this spirit that I decided to take a short break from my career and experience life as a stay-at-home dad. My wife, without really even considering doing otherwise, had already taken almost a year off from medical school after Caitlyn was born, partly to support me during a challenging clerkship, and partly because she believed it would be good for Caitlyn’s development. But mostly it was for my wife herself. She valued motherhood and wanted to experience it fully, for as long as she could without jeopardizing her professional goals.

I felt exactly the same way. My deepest fear is that, decades from now, I will look back at the heart of my life and realize I made the wrong choices in favor of work. A Jewish friend of mine, as we gazed over the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, once described why Shabbat was so special to him growing up. “Shabbat was the only time I saw my father,” he explained, voice quavering. It was a touching moment, one that underscored how a ritual of rest can help build and sustain a family. But is it wrong to want more?

It goes without saying that work can be greatly fulfilling. It has been for me. But, as a general matter, mothers and fathers both report that time spent with their children is a far greater source of meaning and happiness than time spent at work. In a 2013 Pew study, 60 percent of men described their childcare hours as “very meaningful”; only 33 percent of men said the same about their paid work. And men appear to be just as dissatisfied with the stickiness of gender-based norms as women: Nearly half of fathers report dissatisfaction with the amount of time that they are able to spend with their children—twice the rate of mothers who say the same. The gender-equality debate too often ignores this half of the equation. When home is mentioned at all, the emphasis is usually on equalizing burdens—not equalizing the opportunity for men, as well as women, to be there.

As a man, when I speak of my struggle to manage my competing commitments to family and career, I’m often met with good-natured skepticism. There’s an underlying assumption that women and men have different visions of what matters in life—or, to be blunt about it, that men don’t find child-rearing all that rewarding, whereas women regard it as integral to the human experience. I do not think this assumption is true, generally speaking. I am certain it is not true for me.

Ryan Park

At the close of my 20s, it struck me that any success I had managed to achieve would not have been possible without a certain single-minded devotion to my studies and work—to the exclusion, at times, of healthy habits and relationships. A few weeks shy of my 30th birthday, when I met Caitlyn for the first time, single-mindedness dissolved as a viable life plan for my 30s. Amid the sleep-deprived excitement, frustrations, and frenetic activity of those first months as a father, my new reality sank in: For the foreseeable future, balancing my family with my career would be the defining challenge of my life.

Between the beginning of adolescence and the night Caitlyn was born, I can recall crying twice. I am no longer so stoic. After my wife ended her extended leave from medical school, I took on the task of getting Caitlyn ready for the day and dropping her off at daycare. When I tried to put her down, she would clutch at me fiercely, sobbing in desperation. As I left, she would run after me, banging on the glass door as it closed behind me. More often than not, I rushed out of the building a tearful, embarrassed, guilt-ridden mess.

Once I began staying home, my tears were more often set off by joy: a quirky new move during daily dance time, the clutch of Caitlyn’s hands as I carried her to the park, the excited applause she gave herself each time she touched and named a part of my face, an affectionate kiss on the cheek as I leaned down to clean her runny nose. Did I miss the thrill and challenge of debating knotty legal questions with a Supreme Court justice? Well, let’s just say that most of the books I was reading now came with pictures of panda bears and barn animals. But every night, even after the most pedestrian of days, I sat and reflected on the beauty of the moments that had passed.

I was as happy as I’d ever been. Staying at home with Caitlyn reminded me, oddly enough, of the time I’d spent living in a foreign country. There was the same perpetual novelty, that intense awareness that elevates even the most ordinary moments. There was the same sense of triumph at completing simple tasks: ordering a cup of coffee, enjoying a brisk walk, just getting through the day. And there was the same sense of helplessness: No matter how self-assured I was at the beginning of the day, I was bound, at times, to feel like a complete failure.

I was discovering that this was real work. I’d already known this as an abstract matter. My wife’s weary face when I came home from the Court wasn’t all that different from the look she now has after finishing an overnight shift at the hospital. But to experience it directly is another thing altogether. I had prided myself on being an involved, helpful partner when I was working. But my prior contributions now felt like glorified babysitting.

Ryan Park

Before, “covering” dinner had consisted of microwaving my wife’s prepared meals and encouraging Caitlyn to eat them. As the full-time parent, I now had to jog to the market and stock up on groceries while protecting Caitlyn from being run over by errant shopping carts. Then I’d do my best to whip up a nutritious meal while Caitlyn tried to pull down the boiling pot of water onto her head. When I’d finally present her with my efforts, I could only hope they would be tasty enough to end up in her stomach rather than on the carpet. The part that used to seem like work—sitting and eating with her—became my time to rest.

Not since I bussed tables and delivered pizzas as a teenager had I experienced work that didn’t involve a computer screen and an Aeron chair. It took some effort to readjust my waking hours, after my stint with the nocturnal Ginsburg, but soon I was waking up with my wife and kissing her goodbye as she rushed out the door at 5:30 a.m. (All those books I’d intended to get through during my “time off”? They stayed on the shelves.) The D.C. market rate for this kind of work middles out at $15 an hour. During moments of doubt and fatigue, it gave me some comfort to know that my replacement cost would easily come out to more than my salary at the Supreme Court.

But this challenge, the transition from assistant to lead, was what I had craved. Many lawyers have exciting, impactful careers without ever stepping foot in a courtroom, but others want to be at the podium. Involved and loving parents often have to limit their roles to managing segments of their children’s days, but I wanted to experience life at the helm of my daughter’s day-to-day life. Successful professional women—the Boss included—often deflect questions on the barriers they’ve faced by remarking on their great fortune to live in an age in which it was possible for women to succeed in the workplace. I feel similarly blessed to have been born at a time when I could, without apology, fully immerse myself in the joys and exertions of life as a stay-at-home dad.

Ryan Park

But do men and women really face equivalent tradeoffs between work and family? After all, as the aphorism goes, having children is supposed to help men’s careers and harm women’s. Indeed, Michelle Budig of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has found that men’s earnings increase by 6 percent when they become parents, whereas women’s earnings decrease by 4 percent. “Fatherhood may serve as a signal to potential employers for greater maturity, commitment, or stability,” Budig reports, whereas employers may “view family responsibilities among female employees as a source of instability.” Nationwide, childless, unmarried women earn 96 cents for every dollar earned by a man, while married mothers earn a mere 76 cents.

Diving deeper into Budig’s data, however, one finds that women at the very high end of the income distribution—the top 5 percent of earners—actually receive a motherhood bonus of 5.6 percent, nearly matching that of the average man. (Others have found a motherhood bonus of up to 10 percent for well-educated women.) But are these high-earners making sacrifices at home? Probably. As Budig speculates, and common experience confirms, most of these mothers likely pay others to manage a greater portion of their domestic affairs, including childcare.

The fatherhood bonus also dissipates when men become more involved at home. Drawing from data tracking the lives and careers of more than 12,000 people over 28 years, Scott Coltrane of the University of Oregon found that both men and women pay persistent and severe financial penalties when they step back from their careers. In fact, men seem to fare slightly worse. Men who take time away from work for family reasons experience a 26.4 percent reduction in future earnings, whereas women experience a 23.2 percent reduction. And men who decrease their work hours for family reasons suffer a 15.5 percent decline, while women’s salaries decline by just 9.8 percent. In other words, having a family helps men in the workplace only if they submit to their traditional gender role.

What the data show, I think, is that “having it all”—even at different times, as the Boss suggested she was able to do—may well be impossible for most people. For every Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who famously suffered no ill career effects from taking a five-year break from her career to raise her children, there are many more women and men who’ve found their professional trajectories forever circumscribed by similar life choices. But it’s just as true that every person who learns of his child’s first word the way I did—via text message during a late night at the office—has sacrificed immensely at the altar of professional success and financial necessity.

VIDEO: Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks to the author about marriage, work-life balance, and the gender-equality cases she argued early in her career.

The idea that a woman’s place is in the home and a man’s is at work once permeated American law. During the 1970s, as general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union and co-founder of its Women’s Rights Project, the Boss played a major role in challenging this. On a Sunday afternoon this past May, she reunited with one of her former clients from that era. Stephen Wiesenfeld, now 71, was getting remarried after 42 years of bachelorhood, and the Boss, who had represented him in a 1975 Supreme Court case, now presided over his wedding in the Court’s ornate East Conference Room.

Wiesenfeld became a widower in 1972 after his first wife, a high school teacher, died during the birth of the couple’s only child, Jason. Wiesenfeld, who had been earning significantly less than his wife, dedicated himself to raising his newborn son and vowed not to work full time until Jason was in school. In seeking to uphold this vow, Wiesenfeld ran headlong into Section 402(g) of the Social Security Act, entitled the “mother’s insurance benefit.” Section 402(g) provided financial support to widows—but not widowers—who found themselves unexpectedly raising their children alone.

This provision, as Justice William Brennan explained in the Court’s opinion, had been “intended to permit women to elect not to work and to devote themselves to the care of children.” It could only be justified by the assumption that women would stay at home and men would work for pay when the conflicting pressures of single parenthood were suddenly thrust upon them.

The Supreme Court was unanimous in its decision to strike down section 402(g)’s gender distinction, but its members couldn’t quite agree on why. A majority of justices believed the law discriminated against women wage earners, who paid into Social Security at the same rates as men, but whose families did not receive commensurate protection under the program. (With this ruling, the majority also rejected the idea—advanced on behalf of the government by then-Solicitor General Robert Bork—that section 402(g) was lawful because it gave mothers who chose not to work a special advantage.)

Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Lewis Powell wrote a separate opinion emphasizing the law’s discriminatory effect on men, noting that “[a] surviving father may have the same need for benefits as a surviving mother.” Even while making this point, these two justices seemed skeptical that many widowers would take advantage of the Court’s decision: “In light of the long experience to the contrary, one may doubt that fathers generally will forgo work and remain at home to care for children to the same extent that mothers may make this choice.”

Finally, Justice William Rehnquist, the Boss’s future Chief, wrote separately to note that the law’s gender distinction harmed children because it “irrational[ly] distinguish[ed] between mothers and fathers when the sole question is whether a child of a deceased contributing worker should have the opportunity to receive the fulltime attention of the only parent remaining to it.”

Taken together, these opinions showed—as the Boss likes to say—“how gender lines in the law are bad for everyone: bad for women, bad for men, and bad for children.” Or, as she told the justices in 1979 during oral argument in another case, “discrimination against males operates against females as well.” Indeed, part of what made Ginsburg’s legal strategy so effective was that she exposed the irrationality of sex discrimination by challenging laws that—at least on their faces—conferred special advantages on women. (All six cases she argued before the Supreme Court included male plaintiffs; in four, her only client was a man.)

The Boss’s greatest stamp on gender equality law as a Supreme Court justice came in 1996, when she authored the opinion striking down “separate and unequal” military institutes for women and men. The case was set in motion when a woman who wished to attend the Virginia Military Institute complained about VMI’s policy of excluding women. After a court ruled the exclusion unlawful, Virginia established a separate facility for women that was inferior to VMI in many ways and offered less-rigorous military training. Citing two of the cases she’d won as an advocate, including Stephen Wiesenfeld’s, Ginsburg wrote that Virginia had failed to prove it wasn’t relying “on overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females.”

In the decision’s aftermath, many women told her lightheartedly that they couldn’t understand why a woman would want to attend a military institute. This exposes a serious point, one the Boss frequently notes when discussing the case: Even if most women would not want to attend VMI, it is urgently important that the law protect those who do. Or, as she put it in her opinion, “estimates of what is appropriate for most women . . . no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”

It may well be that, whether for reasons of social conditioning or inborn inclination, men and women frequently choose to strike different balances between their families and careers. The goal shouldn’t be absolute parity between the genders in all things. But as the Wiesenfeld and VMI cases demonstrate, no one should be constrained by the assumption that men and women necessarily have different priorities and values.

Paul Rosenfeld

That lesson resonates just as strongly today. One of my best friends from childhood, T., is a surgical resident at a Level I trauma center in Minneapolis. After his wife became pregnant with their first child, T. cleverly arranged his schedule to scrape together five weeks of paternity leave—the longest in the history of his program. A big factor in T.’s decision was that his wife was giving birth in her native Sweden. If he’d taken any less time, he would have risked not being around when the big day arrived. Things went smoothly, and T. returned to work shortly after his son was born.

Every year at the residents’ graduation dinner, the chief residents in T.’s program bestow a “Razzy” award, intended as a good-natured public shaming for the year’s most striking miscue. One year’s recipient had managed, during a routine appendectomy, to remove large swaths of the patient’s neighboring organs. Another year, the winner had worn a t-shirt and gym shorts during a presentation to a roomful of his superiors attired in white coats and slacks. That year, the chiefs decided to crowd-source the award, asking residents to submit their nominations for the most boneheaded act of the year. T., for his record-breaking five-week paternity leave, came in second.

Meanwhile, T.’s wife, also a doctor, did what is standard in Sweden: She took an entire year off to raise her son, earning 80 percent of her pay. If T. had been living in Sweden, he could have done the same. Forty years ago, when the Boss was fighting for gender equality in the Supreme Court, Sweden became the first country to institute gender-neutral parental leave policies. Today, under Swedish law, T. and his wife would have been allotted an astounding 480 total days of paid parental leave. A couple can apportion the leave in any way they want (and use it any time until the child is 8 years old). But a minimum of 60 days is reserved for each individual, man or woman. Women still take more than 75 percent of total leave time in Sweden, but that may change, as proposals are currently being pushed to encourage more so-called “daddy months.”

Sweden’s cultural expectations mirror its laws. T.’s wife knows a Swedish cardiologist who returned to work after his requisite 60 days at home. Despite his joy at becoming a father, the drudgery of life with a newborn didn’t sit well with him. His wife, a doctor at the same institution, agreed to stay home for the rest of the couple’s allotted time. But on his return to work, the hospital’s leaders pulled him aside and delivered a stern lecture on the poor example he was setting. He was soon back to changing diapers and warming bottles, and the couple redistributed their leave more evenly.

Not surprisingly, a wide body of research shows that children who have engaged, supportive fathers are better socialized, have stronger cognitive and language skills, and are more emotionally balanced. A 2007 study by the Swedish National Institute of Public Health also found that taking parental leave was good for men themselves over the long run: Those who did it lived longer than those who didn’t, perhaps because it caused them to moderate traditionally masculine, self-destructive behaviors. And it has been shown that mothers’ incomes rise about 7 percent for each month that a father spends at home with the children.

On the other hand, when men don’t have the opportunity to take parental leave, women’s incomes suffer. As economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn have found, the cost and disruption associated with generous maternity leave “may lead employers to engage in statistical discrimination against women for jobs leading to higher-level positions.” In other words, why invest in a woman’s career if you fear, reasonably, that she might leave for a year at 80 percent pay when a similarly qualified man doesn’t have that option? There is also some indication that unequal leave harms the family unit as a whole. Divorce and separation rates, which were rising in most parts of the world, fell in Sweden after the initial institution of a “daddy month” in 1995 (it was extended to the two months in 2002).

As for T., he decided to take a year off his residency when his second child came along. He is doing serious medical research funded by a grant, so it’s a professionally respectable choice. But most days his schedule allows him to be home with the kids while his wife is at work in the hospital. Though T. is eager to get on with his surgical training, he has no regrets. “I’ve seen too many 30- or 40-something fathers rushed into the O.R. after a car crash or a cardiac arrest and never get the chance to say goodbye to their young children,” he told me. “Life is fragile and you have to focus on what is important while you can.”

Ryan Park

During my time as a stay-at-home dad, I was often dismayed by the novelty of my choice. Throughout my cycle of visits to the local toddler attractions—libraries and bookstores, playgrounds and parks, fountains and pools—I could go weeks without seeing another man between the ages of 5 and 70 during the weekday working hours. All the other caretakers were women, and they formed two distinct cliques: steely-eyed blonde mothers in yoga pants and smiling Latina nannies in faded jeans.

At first I assumed I’d have something in common with the lululemon ladies. After all, many of them had made the same considered choice to trade glass towers and business casual for playgrounds and gym clothes. My outreach wasn’t rebuffed, but it wasn’t exactly welcomed. In virtually every extended conversation with a member of the yoga-pants tribe, I encountered the assumption that I didn’t want to be doing this—that my presence at the playground was the product of a professional setback. (“I’m taking some time between jobs to be at home with my daughter.” “Good for you! My husband would go crazy. Don’t worry, something will come up.” “I had a one-year position with long hours, and I really wanted to spend time with my daughter before I started work again.” “You should consider yourself lucky! My husband is in finance; he could never do that. There’s a silver lining to every cloud, you know?”)

These assumptions are not without empirical support. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey reports that the overall number of stay-at-home dads in the United States has risen dramatically over the past two decades, nearly doubling from 1.1 million in 1989 to 2 million in 2012. But the majority of stay-at-home dads didn’t so much as choose their path as have it chosen for them: 35 percent stay home because of illness or disability, 23 percent because they simply couldn’t find a job. Nearly half of all stay-at-home dads live in poverty, and only 3 percent have a college degree. Most tellingly, a mere 21 percent actually made an affirmative decision to raise their kids full time. In contrast, 73 percent of stay-at-home moms (who number 10.4 million nationally) report that they stay at home for no other reason than they want to.

It bears mentioning that the career pauses my wife and I each chose don’t meet Pew’s definition of being a “stay at home parent.” Even so, it was hard not to feel a tinge of self-doubt as Caitlyn and I went about our days. Were the scowls from the sea of suits a sign of disdain for my professional failure, or irritation that my jogging stroller was hogging the sidewalk? Were the concerned smiles from stay-at-home moms meant to convey kinship or support for my job search? It evoked memories of feeling alone and insecure as a racial minority during childhood, wondering whether the ball wasn’t being passed in my direction because I blew that layup or because my teammates thought there was no way that Asian kid could play. I found myself rushing out the door in the early morning, or delaying excursions until the late afternoon, when other dads might be around. After getting the “you must be a professional failure” shtick one too many times, I sheepishly started pulling out the Harvard paraphernalia buried at the back of the closet for the “mommy and me” sing-along.

Part of my hypersensitivity was borne from insecurity. My wife has devoted her professional life to children—she is a pediatrician and former elementary school teacher—and she’s also the more energetic and inspired parent. I often wondered if she would have dealt with a temper tantrum better, or found a more enriching way to pass a rainy afternoon. My fears were often set off by a well-meaning word of encouragement when something went awry—a friendly “It’s not as easy as it looks, is it?” expression on a mother’s face when Caitlyn’s pants got soaked at the sandbox and I’d forgotten to bring a spare pair. Or the sympathy of the woman behind me at the checkout line who heard Caitlyn crying to escape the confines of her stroller and asked, “Aww, do you miss your mommy?”

The moments when I was able to rise above stereotypes, however, were ones of great pride. We take Caitlyn for her regular medical checkups at the Georgetown clinic, and try to time it so that my wife can stop in between seeing her own patients. The first time we came, my wife was tied up with a patient. Her co-residents sensed trouble. Fathers, in their experience, were rarely able to answer any of the basic questions at the core of toddler checkups: how much milk the child is drinking, how many words she can speak, what her bowel movement schedule is like. When word spread that I had aced the test, my wife’s co-residents expressed wonder at my level of sincerity and involvement. I can’t say I had a more satisfying moment during my clerkship at the Supreme Court.

Paul Rosenfeld

A few weeks ago, I started a new job at a private law firm, bringing an end to my stint as a stay-at-home dad. During my job search, I made it a point to mention my daughter and my commitment to family in every interview; I also tried to make it clear that no matter how hard the firm might work me, my wife would have the more demanding and less flexible job.

This may well have cost me an offer or two. Most of the senior partners I met with responded stiffly, with raised eyebrows and a bemused remark on how times have changed. (Sometimes, though not often, this was accompanied by a wistful aside about the time they’d lost with their own, now-grown children.) Younger partners of both genders, however, usually responded with warmth, understanding, and even enthusiasm, based on their own experiences managing a dual-career household.

I will forever cherish my time at home with Caitlyn. I haven’t spent such a concentrated amount of time with one person since I fell in love with her mom. And I probably won’t again until, with any luck, her mom and I enjoy a lazy retirement together one day. (Which is not to say I won’t be doing this all over again when, we hope, Caitlyn has a little brother or sister. I will.)

In the meantime, returning to work has renewed my determination to make every moment count. After a day away from Caitlyn, I come home engaged and enthusiastic, eager to pack a day’s worth of play, learning, and bonding into a few scarce hours. At the office, the encouraging reactions of the younger partners make me hopeful that a commitment to family won’t necessarily mean a future of depreciated income and stunted professional advancement. But if it does, I can live with that tradeoff. I’d far prefer it to a future of maximized career potential and personal regret.