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Who Takes Care of the Kids?
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Readers and others discuss the changing norms of parental caregiving based on gender. If you have your own experience to share, let us know: hello@theatlantic.com.

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The Loneliness of Being a Stay-at-Home Dad

Radu Sigheti / Reuters

Several readers have responded to a callout we made in our Daily newsletter yesterday (as part of our Working series) asking for perspectives from stay-at-home dads and how their experience is different from being a stay-at-home mom. One of the most prominent themes is the lack of social support—and even stigma—experienced by men. A reader elaborates on that theme below (with tweets added by me), and his name is Chris Bernholdt, who blogs at DadNCharge:

As a board member of the National At-Home Dad Network and a stay-at-home dad for the past eight years, it was always our family’s plan for me to stay home if the opportunity arose. I was a public school teacher who put my career on hold so I could be home with our children. My wife, as the primary breadwinner, embraced her role, as did I, and we did what was best for our family.

The majority of people see 2008 as a defining year for stay-at-home parents. While many men lost their jobs and fell into the role as the primary caregiver, many of us made the conscious decision to be home with our children instead of having a stranger raise them in daycare. For many of us, this choice has meant everything to our relationships with our children.

I can’t say that it’s all good. No job is perfect and it has had its ups and downs. Most notably, being a stay-at-home dad can be isolating. While our numbers have steadily increased over the past 10 years, it has been difficult to find other dads to connect with.

Another one comes out of the woodwork:

I am a working Stay At Home Dad. My daughter is six months old, and I have been the primary caregiver for all but the eight weeks of my wife’s maternity leave. While I am the primary caregiver and I always watch the baby Sunday to Friday 9 - 5, I have always felt the need to work on the side. I nanny a friend’s infant 35 hours a week, write for a publishing company, and tutor. I love being with my daughter and the child I nanny. This has been the best six months of my life.

Why do I do all of these side jobs in addition to being a SAHD?

A reader with a stay-at-home husband emails the hello@ address:

I’ve been following your discussion about work, parenting, and gender. It’s one that my husband and I have been working through over the past couple of years, and I wanted to share my experience.

I was a National Merit Scholar in high school and went to college on a full scholarship. I was able to cram my bachelor’s and master’s degrees into 4.5 years of college, which meant I graduated with no student loans. I work in financial risk management, and my job pays well enough that, since I’m not repaying student loans, my income is enough to support us.

My husband has a high school diploma. He started his career selling cellphone contracts, and was promoted every year or so until he was running five cellphone stores in our city. He was making a good income, one which could have supported our family if we were willing to make some sacrifices in our lifestyle.

However, managing retail stores is a stressful job. He spent evenings and weekends taking phone calls and handling crises, and 60-hour workweeks weren’t uncommon. While I was pregnant, he had started having medical problems that his doctor partially attributed to workplace stress.

When I became pregnant, we both just assumed that we’d both continue to work.

Li has a post up exploring themes from The Mindy Project that dovetail with our reader discussion on shifting norms of parental caregiving:

The Mindy Project’s overall portrayal of parenting provides a spot-on reflection of the current moment, but doesn’t dare to question its constraints. “Being a working mom is really tough,” says Danny in “The Bitch is Back,” glossing over how hard it is to be a “working dad.” In a recent interview with our business editor, Becca Rosen [embedded above], Anne-Marie Slaughter notes that the term “working dad” isn’t even part of broader vernacular because the responsibilities of fatherhood and work have long been viewed as ones that don’t coexist.

The assumption that Danny wouldn’t even consider being the stay-at-home parent—all other things equal—captures the prevailing nature of existing norms about parenting and the need for a fundamental shift in perspective. The question shouldn’t by default be, “Will Mom stay home?” if parents decide this would be best for their child, but rather: “Which one of us will?”

If you have anything to add to the parenting discussion, drop me an email. Update from a reader:

Just a note that as a single dad, I can still remember the absolutely withering looks I got when my then young daughter and I would be out in public and she’d cry or have some normal three-year-old meltdown. The reaction of almost every woman around was to look at us as if I were some kind of either incompetent boob or evil molester. Those experiences completely changed my perceptions about where the issue were regarding the responsibility for child care in this society.

A reader laments:

As a dad, I’m generally assumed by the world to be less competent at parenting. When I’m out and have the kids with me, I often get compliments on the apparently enormous achievement of being a dad capable of shopping with children (I’m sure almost any dad can relate).

One extension of this unequal treatment that I don’t often see discussed is that other people (usually women) constantly question my knowledge or choices as a parent. I can’t tell you how many times someone has “corrected” a parenting choice, or said, “why don't you just ask mom” if I hesitate for even a second in answering a question to do with my children. They do not behave this way with my wife; they assume that she is innately capable because she’s a mom.

So your reader’s husband may simply be responding to the feedback he receives from the rest of the world that he is not, in fact, an equal parent in their eyes.

Another dad can relate:

Josh Levs wrote a thought-provoking piece for us last week insisting that “‘primary’ caregiver benefits sound gender-neutral but aren’t,” making the case that companies should drop the “primary caregiver” distinction because it’s based on traditional stereotypes that presume one parent—the mother by default—is mostly responsible for parenting. A reader responds:

What the author calls stereotype, I call a Bayesian prior. Without Bayesian priors, nothing really works. The idea that a woman is more likely to be primary caregiver than the man:

1) Isn’t always true
2) Is true enough for a company to use that as a prior.

Welcome to Life, where everything isn’t all equally likely for our convenience.

Another reader is on the same page:

Some people still don’t understand that free enterprise businesses in a capitalist economy aren’t charity organizations; they are in competition with one another.