The Women@Work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail
This may come as a surprise to many, but there exists a breed of fathers that change diapers, arrange play dates and as I’ve learned, buy their wife’s clothes. Sadly, these fathers that move into the traditional “mommy” domain are often viewed as a curious by-product of the rise of breadwinner wives. This troubles
me since it infers that professional success remain a zero-sum game: only one half of a couple can really succeed in the workforce while the other faces career suicide in the background.
Although I applaud the media focus on this changing dynamic of families and how that impacts the professional lives of women, we need to ensure that this transition appears in a positive light. To gain equal status at work, we desperately need it at home and that won’t happen unless we stop treating dads who raise children as a curiosity that requires our pity.
The good news is that the numbers of father who stay home are on the rise and their perception of domestic roles is changing. In 2011, dads made up 12 percent of Canadian families where one parent stayed home, up from 10 percent in 2006. In the U.S., the number of fathers staying at home more than doubled from 2001 to 2010, although they still make up only 3.4 percent of all stay-at-home parents,
according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In a 2011 survey by the Boston College Center for Work & Family, over 50 percent of fathers indicated they would be comfortable staying at home if their spouse generated sufficient earnings.
The same organization released a new survey showing that these stay-at-home fathers increasingly choose to stay home and are not pushed into the role because of unemployment.
“Nearly all of the men in our study who talked about returning to work wanted a job that would still allow them to have significant time with their children,” said Fred Van Deusen, one of the co-authors of the study.
Ted Scaldwell falls into that category of men who wanted to put his family first.
Influenced by losing his own mother at an early age, Mr. Scaldwell, who worked as a communications aide for former Ontario Premier Mike Harris, decided after the birth of his daughter in 2001 to stay at home. Over the next 10 years, his wife, Krista Scaldwell, focused on her career, which saw the family relocate three times. She currently holds the title of Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs at Johnson & Johnson and they have two children, now ages 10 and 8.
“Because my mother had a successful career …the vision of seeing my spouse at work was not foreign to me,” explained Mr. Scaldwell. “I enjoy helping others succeed and have a pattern of that – behind the scenes politically, consulting, and volunteering. So the power thing was never an issue,” he added.
Recently, Mr. Scaldwell returned to full-time work, for a company that manufactures an environmentally friendly alternative to road salt, a position that gives him the flexibility to walk his kids to and from school and play a large role in their lives.
Sometimes, even when a father’s at home status stems from job loss, an entire family benefits.
Andrew Larsen worked in the hospitality industry but found himself suddenly unemployed when his daughter turned 5. He and his wife, Esther Arbeid quickly swapped roles – she turned to full-time work and he stayed home. Mr. Larsen called it “the best thing we’ve ever done.”
“When my wife went to work and I assumed the role of primary homemaker we found things got much better between us,” he recalled. “She was not happy staying at home. I was never crazy about working…It’s as though, by accident, we stumbled upon what we were born to do,” he said.
They now have two children, ages 14 and 7 and Ms. Arbeid runs the theatre and film programs at the Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto.
“Money and power issues were perhaps present at the beginning of my staying at home, when I viewed myself mainly as an out of work breadwinner,” Mr. Larsen admitted, but that quickly receded as he found his groove as a stay at home parent and began writing children’s stories. His latest, called Bye, Bye Butterflies! recounts his son’s nursery school experience.
“Staying at home and raising your own child, be you male or female, is viewed through a constantly changing lens,” observed Mr. Larsen, who hopes that a fundamental cultural shift is underway that will encourage mothers and fathers to have an equal role both at home and work.
“The one thing I’m certain of is that parenting is an extremely important role … children and homes both need tending and nurturing. We neglect these things at our peril,” he warned.