Episode 58: When men stay home

March 9, 2015

"I thought it was interesting that people would say, 'Oh, so your husband doesn't want to work?'...The next question would be, 'Does he cook?'" - Kathryn Clifton

 "I think any dude would love to at stay home with their kids and not have to work, but their sense of purpose and those role reversals are a little bit intimidating." - Eric Bryan

Eric Bryan and Alton during our Skype interview

25 minutes.

More and more men are staying at home to look after kids while their wives or girlfriends support the family. In this show we explore what that situation means for women's careers, and what these role reversals mean for men. Evidence shows society still doesn't wholly accept stay-at-home fathers - that, in essence, we still view men as type-A go-getters who aren't 'real men' if they take on a caregiving role (see links below for more reading on this). In the US even taking a brief paternity leave can be a fraught issue depending on where you work. But will women ever be truly equal at work until more men become caregivers? 

Alfredo Ramirez, Kathryn Clifton and their daughter Elisa

My guests are Kathryn Clifton and her husband Alfredo, fatherhood blogger Christopher Persley, and Jenn Vasquez Bryan and her husband Eric, with some extra input from their twin boys. 

Jenn Vasquez Bryan with Emmett, Alton's twin brother

Christopher Persley, his wife Jenelle Timmins-Persley and their daughter Camilla

More reading:  Growing Number of Dads at Home with the Kids, from a Pew Social Trends survey (US).

Society Still Doesn't Like the Idea of Stay-at-Home Dads, from the UK's Daily Telegraph. Includes statistics from the British Social Attitudes Survey.

Paternity Leave Dads Seen as 'Not Man Enough' from Canada's Globe & Mail.

Guys Want it All, Too from Cosmopolitan.

Check out the Modern Dads podcast from City Dads Group. The latest one is about re-defining modern masculinity.

Study from Chicago University's Booth School of Business: Gender Identity and Relative Income Within Households. 



Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show, we talk to men who stay home and women who are the main breadwinners.

“A lot of it is relief for me, thinking that I can really just pay attention to taking care of patients the best that I can do, without necessarily having to worry about getting out, and picking them up from daycare.”

And just like women, male caregivers get a lot of unsolicited advice…

“I actually had someone say this was career suicide. I’ll never forget that phrase.”

Coming up, reversing traditional roles, and what that means for everyone.

If you’ve been listening for a while you may remember a podcast I released last year called Stop Fixing Women, Start Fixing Companies. My guest was Avivah Wittenberg-Cox. One of the points she made was that women as a group won’t progress at work until more men are able to focus on their role as parents…

“It’s often managers who talk about women and children, mothers and children. They have to start talking about parents and children. And they really have to let fathers be fathers if they ever want to get women to be leaders.”

In other words until we recognize that not all men want the corner office – and lots of men would love to spend more time at home – women don’t have a chance of true equality in the workplace.

A few months after that interview I got an email from a listener called Kathryn Clifton. She said, ‘I couldn’t have the career I’m having if it weren’t for my husband staying at home with our daughter.’ Kathryn and her husband are my first guests on today’s show. They spoke to me on Skype from their current home in the Middle East.

“I think one of reasons I reached out to you is that I think Daf’s been a really great stay-at-home dad, and it’s been so interesting to see people’s reactions to us, and I’ve had to learn how to handle that. I let it affect me at first and then I learned to say, maybe women are getting some of negative feedback as well. Which is unfortunate because it’s a tough job, and it’s a job, it’s a fulltime job.”

Kathryn is originally from Texas. She’s an agricultural researcher and her job has taken her family to the Philippines, then back to Texas, and now they’re living in Jordan. Her husband Alfredo is from Mexico City – they met when she was based down there for a while. He’s a graphic designer by trade but when the couple moved to America he found he couldn’t get that kind of work in the US. When their daughter Elisa was born a few years ago, it made sense that he’d be the one to stay home.

Oh and Alfredo has 2 names – and the one you’ll hear Kathryn use is Daf or Dafne. I know, but around the time he was born his mum was studying Greek… she loved the name Dafne so in it went as his middle name. And it stuck. Kathryn says his role as the stay-at-home parent is often met with bemusement or just misunderstood…

“I thought it was interesting that people would say, oh, well, you know, so your husband doesn’t want to work, or he doesn’t work…and then, does he cook? You know, these kinds of things that I always wondering if it was the other way around would you be having these kinds of questions? I once told some male friends that my husband had decided to stay home with Elisa – they said, oh, I’d love to go to the park and hit back some brewskies with my buds – I thought, I don’t think you’ve been a stay-at-home dad, you’re not doing any of those things. The park, yes.”

So how does Alfredo-slash-Dafne feel about other people’s attitudes?

Alfredo: “I’m a very outgoing person and I don’t get offended, bad comments, like…”

Kathryn: “Yeah, he doesn’t care, he cares less than I do…”

Alfredo: “…so in a certain way I enjoy, like, being in Philippines for me was like, I’m in a movie…on the streets, well especially in malls, stores, they look at me weird, why…because our daughter looks…”

Kathryn: “She is very white, she was born with red hair and blue eyes…and then it changed to brown when she was two, so there’s a contrast there…”

Alfredo: “Especially women, they made comments with me especially when I was with Elisa on the streets, shopping, everything. But at a certain point it was not upset but…’we can take care of her, don’t worry, we can do things for you’, and I said, no, I’m OK, I’m OK. ‘Really, you don’t need help?’ I’d say, no, no, no…”

So he had a lot of concerned ladies in the Philippines wanting to help him out, incredulous that he could actually take care of a baby by himself. Kathryn says she was sometimes asked, is your mother coming over to look after the baby? Or ‘why don’t you send the baby back to the US so your mum can look after her?’ She had to explain, well, no, I want her with me, and my husband can do this. She says hearing these questions though, it was good practice as she learned to say, ‘This is what works for us” and not to care so much about what others thought.

As for Alfredo, he says at the beginning being the main caregiver was a tough adjustment, in part because he missed his career…

“Yeah, I was frustrated, in the sense of I miss many, many years of being a graphic designer. So the first time I was like, argh, I was hit on the head, like, I don’t want to do this.  And also an example is this thing: I never learned how to cook until that happened. So everything was like, you just feel that heavy weight, like, how am I gonna manage this?”

He says street food in Mexico is so good most guys don’t learn how to cook. But nowadays he’s quite keen – better than her, Kathryn says. And he adjusted well to fatherhood, even as he began to develop a different career path.

After the family came home from the Philippines Kathryn got an opportunity to go on a fellowship at the UN in Rome. She took it, and she went alone.

“That was probably the hardest thing I’ve done – it was just, he was gonna come with me, and then he was teaching in Texas, and it just didn’t work out, and when you move a kid…you realize that taking a kid out of a school, and a house, everything that’s familiar, and you have family there, just to be with me on the other side of the world…you really think hard. Is it really worth it? It was difficult but that was another interesting thing that I would get as well from people: Why did you come? Why did you leave your family? And it’s funny because guys do this all the time and they don’t get ‘why did you leave your family?’ or ‘why did you even take the position?’ I’m getting it from women, mind you, which is the funny thing.”

Alfredo: “And also this thing changed my perspective because I entered to do primary school, this primary is exactly what I was doing with Elisa.”

AM-T: “Ah…so being with your daughter so much and seeing her develop – that made you want to be a primary school teacher?”

Alfredo: “Yes.”

AM-T: Kathryn, what was it like for you being away for a whole three months in Italy, away from your husband and your daughter?

“Not something I want to do again, that’s for sure, that was really tough for me – but I think the thing that was motivating me was that I wanted to further my career. It was a big opportunity and I didn’t want to live with regrets. I didn’t want to pass it up and so I guess the way I looked at it was she’s really young, she probably won’t remember this…”

Elisa did fairly well. They had a video chat every day. Alfredo told Kathryn sometimes their daughter would get sad, but he’d take her out and distract her. And just the year before Kathryn had stayed at home alone with Elisa for 3 months while Alfredo was in Mexico with his dad - he was dying of cancer. So she knew her daughter could be with one parent for an extended period and be OK. She’d prefer not to repeat the experience, but…

“I know it’s not the end of the world, my family’s not going to implode if I step away for a month or two.”

They’re enjoying their time together in Jordan, but because a man in a caregiving role is so unusual there, they’re finding a bit of prejudice lurks in unexpected places…

“Daf was looking at being an elementary school teacher here but he didn’t get his residency visa before the start of the school year so he couldn’t do it. He has many schools that were interested but finally someone told him the truth about elementary school and said – here – most schools are not going to hire a male elementary school teacher. And I thought – you know, as a woman working in agriculture I hadn’t even thought of it the other way around, and that those reverse – because we always think about improving the place of women in the workplace but I think the theme that was coming up to me was I think there are some improvements us women, and men, can do to help improve the place of men in female-dominated environments.”

Alfredo himself is going with the flow. He’s happy he took the plunge into fulltime caregiving and he says more Latin American should try it. It’s changed his life.  

“I love it in the sense, it’s like you learn something new that helps you understand so many things…”

He’s looking forward to taking up his newfound teaching career again when they return to the US.

Christopher Persley would probably agree with Kathryn and Alfredo about  improving the place of men in more female settings. He’s been in education in New York City for a long time – as a teacher and an administrator. He’s married to a microbiologist who left the lab to go and work at a pharmaceutical company – they have a little girl who’s almost four. A few years ago Christopher had just got his master’s degree and gone back to his school when he realized he didn’t want to be there any more. And he wasn’t even excited about the next job he might land, he was excited about the idea of staying at home…

“I wanted that time with my daughter. We made some plans financially, we really crunched the numbers, it made sense for me to stay at home, it made a lot of sense for her developmentally so that we could have some consistency in terms of what was most important to us. And it was something I felt I needed to do, especially having grown up without my father around I really wanted that connection and to develop a really rich relationship with my daughter.”

Christopher’s dad left when he was young, and he was raised by a bunch of strong women – his mother, his grandmother – his aunt was often around too. He credits them with bringing him up to be the person he is today.

I told him about this idea that’s come up in past interviews, including one I did recently on women their 20s – that men actually have fewer choices than women today – that women are now told ‘you can do anything, including stay at home with your kids’ whereas men still get one message from society: go out and earn money – it’s not for your to take career breaks, there’s no room for you to be less ambitious. So I was curious about the reaction to his and his wife’s decision.

“It’s very interesting, when I made public the choice to stay home, I had people who tried to talk me out of it because they thought it would be a career-ender for me. I actually had someone say this was career suicide. I’ll never forget that phrase. I thought what was more important to me at that time and to our family was for me to be home and provide that sort of care for our daughter…what was more important than anything else was her wellbeing, her path, and for me to pause my path just seemed like the right thing, and the obvious thing, and I certainly don’t regret that. But I was in this program that was all about trying to develop people to be heads of school…and what do I do months afterwards, I decide to stay home…so I think a lot of people taken aback by that and thought this was certainly not right thing.”

He’s forged a new career as a writer on fatherhood and he still does education consulting. He’s open about the fact this makes the most sense because his wife’s earning power is far greater than his. And she’s done well since he opted to stay home – she’s had two promotions.

“It’s been important for me to support my wife in her career especially after she made a transition and left the lab and went more corporate. That was a really challenging decision for her. She can’t go back. That’s just kind of how science works unfortunately. It’s been important for me to have a role in that – she’s thriving, she’s doing well there, people respect her, and there’s still room for her to grow. I needed to do something different for my personal growth and for my mental health. My wife also supported me in that – that’s the other thing, I need support in what I’m doing, in being home, and she does, she gives me some time if I need it…”

Time to decompress, time to talk about his day with their kid…

“…but it’s interesting, you mentioned the idea of not being as ambitious, I think it’s not encouraged to be someone who might want to be an assistant head of school and not want to be head of school…people view that as being someone odd and not the right way to go about your career, when I went through the interview process people said, so what’s your 5 year plan? And I kind of realized I don’t know exactly what I wan to do other than this job I’m interviewing for. And I felt as if that wasn’t enough for people to say I want do this job and do it exceptionally well.”

I hate that 5 year question

And looking toward the future now? Like a lot of women who leave work to take care of children, Christopher has ended up loving his at-home job. He’s not ready to go back to the world of education yet.  He says he and his wife will keep talking about their future roles and the family budget.

So at this point I have a quick ask. As an independent podcaster I have to keep working on building my audience. So many of you have told your friends about the show and I’m really grateful – and I’m delighted by the progress the podcast made last year. But I want to keep expanding. Maybe some of you have ideas about how to get this show to many more people’s ears – if that’s you, and you’d like to help, I’d love to hear from you at ashley at The Broad Experience.com. Thank you.

Now I’ll just say this final interview was with two people. But you’ll be hearing from 4 people. Jenn Vasquez Bryan and her husband Eric Bryan recently moved from the Pacific northwest, a town called Wenatchee in Washington state, to Goshen, New York, about 60 miles north of New York City. Jenn is a doctor and they moved for her job. Eric is an industrial designer – he’s worked on the Boeing Dreamliner as well as plenty of other projects.

AM-T: So how did you come to be the one looking after your children?

“Jenn, all those years of education, she wanted to be a doctor, right. I can do what I do from home. While the kids are napping I can sit in front of the computer and get lost in my work, do my work…also, I’ve already had my career, in the 10 years I’ve been doing stuff I’ve already had huge accomplishments that a lot of people don’t have in their whole working careers, so I’ve scratched that itch. I’ve always wanted to have kids, so yeah, to take some time off to start a family is huge. I can go back to designing stuff in a few years, it’ll work out.”

But that return to fulltime work could take longer than he originally expected. They already had a little boy, Owen, he’s now two and a half…and then Jenn got pregnant again – with twins.

“Yes, learning it was twins…that was humungous.  Um, gosh, my career of being a designer means I have to be hugely adaptive and be sort of the hub to the wheel so having a family of 3 with twins is sort of the same way – and considering what we’ve gone through in the last 9 months, from moving across the country, Jenn switching job, having twins, it’s been monumental, so it’s got to get easier from there, right…[laughs]. Emmett and Alton – identical boys, they just turned 6 months on Monday.”

Eric says when he told his former boss what he was about to do, the guy was envious. And according to various surveys in different countries, an increasing number of men would like to take on this role if they could.

“I think any dude would love to at stay home with their kids and not have to work but their sense of purpose and those role reversals are a little bit intimidating…I’ve met other stay-at-home dads who were sort of forced into it, they didn’t choose it like I did, and they had to learn how to cook and stuff and they never even cooked before.”

As we’ve heard.

But what about Jenn? I wanted to know what this arrangement has been like for her.

AM-T: What has it meant for you and your career to have your husband be the one to stay home?

“A lot of it is relief for me, being able to care for patients the best that I can do without having to think about getting out, pick them up from daycare, someone who shares the same values as me, it’s quality care. Again for every family it’s different, daycare works for some people, we wanted to be part of our kids’ lives the majority of the time especially in the beginning. I feel bad sometimes I’m not around as much…but for me, the biggest thing for me that helps me is he takes care of all the other little things – so I don’t have to come home and worry about doing laundry, cooking and cleaning, I can come home and spend time with the kids like I need to.”

AM-T: “Do you love your job, how do you feel about your job?”

“I have… I love medicine…from time I was 4 years old I wanted to be a doctor, that is all I have ever worked towards. I managed to get master’s in public health between all that. And that was what my life was dedicated too. On the other side I also wanted to have a family, but it seemed medicine first, and family somewhere in there.  I love what I do. Do I love my job every single day? I have my bad days. There were times I thought maybe medicine wasn’t what I wanted to do any more. But every day I do come back to it and say this is the right thing for me. “

She’s joined a new practice and she wants to become a leader in that practice.

The two of them are happy with their situation, but when they told their families what they were planning to do the reaction was mixed.  

“His family was overall supportive. My mom was supportive, she loved the fact that Eric would be willing to stay at home and do that – um, the primary caretaker, sort of…I hate to say that because it makes me feel like I’m not part of it or something…but my dad was the one who, he didn’t agree – I think he saw Eric as a lazy bum taking advantage of me working hard and him just staying at home and laying on the couch or something.”

She thinks her dad has changed his mind during the past 6 months in particular, but she says he’d never come out and say it. And talking of perceptions I wanted to ask them about some research you may have heard about – it’s not specifically about stay-at-home dads, it’s about couples. It found that in couples where the woman earns more the relationship can suffer.

They both had the same answer but here’s Jenn voicing it:

“For us it hasn’t been a problem because we had discussed all of this ahead of time – it was never a situation of all of a sudden an unexpected pregnancy and then we were forced to do something we hadn’t maybe really planned. We have some good friends back in Wanatchee where it was that kind of situation. She’s a doctor, she was making more money, she found out she was pregnant, it made sense for him to stay home. But you could tell that he wasn’t ever fully satisfied because it wasn’t ever what he had planned on doing. It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy being with his son or contributing to the family in that way. But you always got the sense it wasn’t what he had envisioned for his life. And I think that plays a huge role in satisfaction, right? If that is what you have envisioned for your role and you are fully satisfied, the relationship is going to be good.”

And she says there’s that other influence on heterosexual relationships: tradition.

“The womanly roles, the manly roles, the masculine, the feminine, those kinds of things, and I think that’s something that is still in our culture that is still very present. And as much as we want it to go away, it’s hard.”

Dr. Jenn Vasquez Bryan – thanks to her, her husband Eric and my other three guests on this show. I have photos of all of them – and their kids – under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

I’d love to hear from you – you can post a comment under this episode or on the Facebook page. Or you can email me at ashley at TheBroadExperience.com.

Thanks to Mailchimp for supporting the show – sign up for my newsletter on the homepage at TheBroadExperience.com – I create it using Mailchimp.

And thank you again to April Laissle for her help.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.