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Jewish World Review May 23, 2002 / 12 Sivan, 5762

Glenn Sacks

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Consumer Reports

Stay-at-home dads could help fertility crisis -- The subtext to the wave of concern over the much-discussed epidemic of childlessness in successful career women is that women can't have it all after all - and, further, that it's men's fault. Why? Because men interfere with their wives' career aspirations by refusing to become their children's primary caregivers, forcing women to sidetrack their careers if they want children.

Despite the criticism, men generally focus on their careers not out of selfishness but because most women still expect men to be the primary breadwinners. For women willing to shoulder this burden themselves, replacing the two-earner couple with a female breadwinner and a stay-at-home dad can be an attractive option. My family adopted this arrangement with the birth of my daughter four years ago, and it has benefited us all immensely.

My wife and I sometimes remark that if we had met in the era before feminism, we'd both be pretty unhappy. As a breadwinner, I'd feel deprived of time with my children. My wife, an ambitious woman who loves her career, would feel stifled as a stay-at- home mother. Since each of us would want what the other was doing, we would probably resent each other. Instead, the freedom to switch gender roles has allowed each of us to gravitate toward what we really want.

Men need not fear a loss of power if they stay at home. While stay-at-home dads are sometimes stereotyped as being at the mercy of their stronger wives' commands, I actually have more power in the family now than I ever did when I was the breadwinner. The most important issue in any family is deciding how to raise the children. While my wife is an equal partner in any major decision, I supervise the children on a day-to-day basis, and I make sure that things are done the way I want them done. My wife has seen that my methods work and has generally ceded me this authority.

Working mothers benefit because, with reduced familial responsibilities, they can compete on a level playing field with career-oriented men. And fathers have the opportunity to witness countless magical, irreplaceable moments of a young child's life, and to enjoy some of the subtle pleasures our fathers never knew - making dinner with a 3-year-old's "help," for instance, or putting the baby down for a midday nap in a hammock.

Still, there are adjustments that both men and women will need to make. Women will need to discard the popular yet misguided notion that men "have it all," and understand that being the breadwinner comes with disadvantages as well as advantages.

One disadvantage can be the loss of their primary status with their young children. Mom is No. 1 in most families not because of biology, but because she's the one who does most of the child care. This can change. When my young daughter has a nightmare and cries at 2 a.m., my wife is relieved that she's not the one who has to get up and comfort her. The price that my wife has had to accept is that her child insists on being comforted not by her but by me.

Another disadvantage is that taking on the main breadwinner role reduces a woman's ability to cut back her work schedule or look for a more rewarding job if her career disappoints her. This is one of the reasons many women prefer life in a frazzled two- earner couple - keeping the man on career track as the main breadwinner helps to preserve women's options.

Men will also have to make adjustments. For one, they will have to endure the unconscious hypocrisy of a society that often wrings its hands over the lot of the housewife, yet at the same time views stay-at-home dads as freeloaders who have left their working wives holding the bag.

Fathers also have to contend with the societal perception that being a househusband is unmanly - an idea that is so pervasive that even I still tend to think "wimp" when I first hear about a stay-at-home dad.

Working women sometimes complain that men in the workplace don't take them seriously, and I have an analogous complaint. Last year I attended a school meeting with my wife, my son's elementary-school teacher and school officials, most of whom knew that I drove my son to and from school, met with his teachers and did his spelling words with him every day. Yet the woman who chaired the meeting introduced herself to my wife and only as an afterthought looked at me and said, "And who might you be?"

In addition, while many stay-at- home parents face boredom and social isolation, it can be particularly acute for fathers, since there are few other men at home, and connections with mothers can be difficult to cultivate.

None of these hurdles is insurmountable, and they pale in comparison to the benefits children derive from having a parent as a primary caregiver - particularly a parent grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he never knew he wanted, and never thought he would have.

Glenn Sacks writes about gender issues from his home in Los Angeles. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Glenn Sacks