One family, two generations of stay-at-home dads. Has anything changed? by @charliecapen via @FastCompany

One Family, Two Generations Of Stay-At-Home Dads

Thirty years ago, being a stay-at-home dad merited a spot on the news. But we're still not talking much about men's careers post kids.

My dad was fired a lot. A radio disc jockey, he had issues with authority that plagued him his entire life, and his pursuit of ephemeral success put a strain on our family.

My mother was our consistent provider. She rose in the ranks to become one of the most influential women in the radio industry, ultimately serving as president of sales at Entercom, one of the largest radio broadcasting companies in the United States.

Bucking trends and social norms of the '80s, when I was born my dad opted out of the rat race to pursue at-home endeavors, namely me. For the first year of my life, he raised me as one of those then-mythical stay-at-home dads. At the time, this idea was so groundbreaking that it merited him a feature spot on the local nightly news. Why would a man in his creative prime venture out of the radio studio and into a nursery?

I’ll let him speak for himself.

His early involvement in my life, untethered from a job that would’ve kept him away from us for extended blocks of time each day, made my relationship with him very close. When he passed away, I felt like a little piece of me was carved out and thrown away. His engagement in my development, and his early death when I was 24, changed the way I look at fatherhood and my career path.

Fast forward about 30 years. I’m a father now of two boys and the once-linear path of employment our parents had has been replaced by a web of contacts, opportunities, and lateral moves. For modern parents, the stress of unsure working conditions, lack of available paid family leave, intensified and obsessive corporate culture, as well as an unstable job market, underlie my belief that the discussion about "having it all" is entirely moot. While the media and blogosphere have touted this as being "the year of the dad," we still have a long way to go to understand how fathers and mothers fit into today’s workplace.

I stayed at home with my first son for the first nine months of his life—a choice that, while not meriting local news coverage, is still considered somewhat unconventional. When we balanced all the factors—economics, our schedules, my intense desire to be an engaged father— it was simply the correct decision for us. That early investment has paid huge emotional dividends for me. Being there put me on a better footing to go after my career with greater ferocity when I returned to the workforce because I had a purpose for achievement. Fatherhood became the lens and the subject for me. Writing about fatherhood and tapping into powerful online communities of parents broadened my career opportunities as a digital strategist as well.

As my kids grow older and I get a clearer sense of my family’s priorities, I know the game now is finding a way for these two dynamics to inform each other without being in competition. I can’t imagine a career goal more important than my relationship and experiences with my boys. But they can’t survive without my income.

I won’t lie. This modern, non-linear system is very stressful. I’m not sitting on a conveyor belt waiting for a promotion after putting in my time. There is no gold watch for time served. There seem to be fewer mentors with sage advice and a hand on your shoulder.

Now, with my second son, I work full-time at 20th Century Fox Television, and co-direct a successful parenting website I founded with a father friend of mine. I have what feels like three jobs. All of them whine in unison with varying pitches. I love working and creating outside the home, but I miss my boys terribly every day. It’s a struggle that more men should talk about.

Many of my friends play hopscotch with salaries looking for fulfilling and stable work. They never stop talking about possible moves to different companies. Almost 91% of my generation anticipates staying at a job for less than three years, and that could mean many more leaps of faith over time. We’re determined to find fulfillment in our work but the search for a better employer can lead to lower-paying jobs and constantly busying ourselves with the search for that new position. It’s no wonder LinkedIn and Glassdoor have risen as they have.

My morning routine usually goes one of two ways: The first route involves a ninja-like silence as I attempt to slip out of my house at predawn hours while my family sleeps in perfect hibernation. The second involves a hive of crying children, torrential floods of emails, misplaced car keys, and at least one noticeable stain on my clothing. Thirty years on, I still struggle, as my father did, to equalize the pressures of work and life under the weight of my responsibilities and aspirations.

Today's working parents have advantages of mobility and flexibility that my father's generation did not. However, in the place of a well-worn path, I’m constantly cutting back tall brush to forge my own trail.

If we continue to treat at-home fathers as news stories and fail to back up working dads with legislation encouraging paid leave, if we don’t empower women embarking on the careers they desire, we miss out on a fundamental cultural keystone our country sorely needs. The non-linear path becomes a circle.

[Image: Flickr user George Atanassov]

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  • Spinning along on this non-linear path, your stress at your 3 simultaneously whining jobs hits the closest to home. I'm self-employed/working from home/primary care provider. I don't miss the gut-wrenching stress my husband faces at his corporate job, but it's been replaced by a feeling of helplessness sometimes.

    Thanks for sharing your past and your present. Here's to happy, stable (ish) futures for our kids!

  • RC Liley

    Great article, great message, and great, well, everything! Before thinking about being a parent, I was all about finishing college for that "awesome" job where I could move up the ranks and make "dat monay"!

    Well, I got a job in accounting where I had to call into meetings several times a day to discuss how we should get a job done, but how can you when all you do is sit in a freakin' office in a meeting!

    Anyway, my wife handles the office better, and we both agreed I'd stay home once we had a kid. Now, here I am as a stay-at-home dad to an 8 month old and even though I make $0, I wouldn't trade it for the world. Reasons being all the ones you listed. We really need a new mindset on fatherhood in America, and I'll proudly stand behind you and the others to get us on track!


    I once wrote about how unfortunate it was that the US is behind the curve when it comes to support of the working father, and ended up getting into a big back and forth with my Marine buddies that are still obligated by duty to up and leave their family.

    I'm not in that life style anymore, so when I'm personally gone for months at a time, because of a job I don't have to be doing by contractual obligation, I can speak from both sides of being gone and missing your family.

    Long story short, I recently gathered the courage up to quit my career and go back to school for a new career for the sole purpose of having the chance to come home and be a father every night.

    Great read Carlie! Thanks!


  • Wonderful article, Charlie. And the video? Oof. Our online community has been an irreplaceable version of "mentors with sage advice and a hand on your shoulder". Your (and so many others') willingness to embrace new writers and creatives is much appreciated. The older my son gets the more I struggle with my work-life balance, yet also make peace with it, if that's possible. Thanks again for this. So great and timely.

  • Jane Gassner

    This fascinates me: "Fatherhood became the lens and the subject for me. Writing about fatherhood and tapping into powerful online communities of parents broadened my career opportunities as a digital strategist as well."

    Perhaps there are mom bloggers who have expressed this for themselves, but I haven't seen it. My sense is that among the women, there is less of a specific understanding and statement of intent and more of "what am I going to do with myself now?" Perhaps they end up at the same place--I know some mom bloggers for whom that is true--but I suspect if you had said this to the newbies at BlogHer last weekend, most would have viewed you as not of their league. But maybe you did say it--and certainly you should in the future.

  • I've spoken to many female entrepreneurs who had very specific goals in mind. I think maybe the language or the way its communicated can vary. But that's true of people too.

    To clarify, I meant embracing fatherhood and finding a community online opened up doors because my expression and use of technology taught me lessons that made me valuable in digital strategy. Networking and skill sharing aside, it was an exercise in learning to tell stories, market content and develop digital plans.

    I do wonder what people think blogging and writing online is all about, if they think it's a road paved with gold.

  • Ryan E. Hamilton

    A timely, relevant, and extremely well-written piece.

    I think our society at-large needs to closely examine priorities and values in setting policies into action that are supportive of child-rearing working families.

    Promoting work-life balance strengthens families and companies alike, by increasing loyalty, lowering turnover, raising employee satisfaction, promoting work efficiency, decreasing recruitment costs, etc. The benefits are endless, and countless organizational studies bear this fact.

    Excellent to see stories like this in Fast Company. Encore!

  • Corporate life can't discount "real" life unless a company wants their employees to burn out and their loyalty bankrupted. We're too connected and visible now.

  • Larry D. Bernstein

    Work is important to me and I want to be respected for it. However, when people ask me what I do, I don't talk about work. My work does not define me. It's something I do in my spare time. My family life, my home life are what define me. I may never reach my highest potential professionally and while that would be disappointing, I have my priorities straight. I want time with my family.

  • bwieseler

    "My work does not define me. It's something I do in my spare time. My family life, my home life are what define me."

    I love that. I think I'll get it tattooed on my forehead so I remember every time I look in the mirror.

    Thanks for the insight!

  • Great article! Your Dad's story is very much like my own. I'm 61 now, and if I could change anything--I wouldn't. Thank you, I feel a little more validated now.

  • Even though we had more traditional roles in our house (I stayed at home, my husband worked, now I work about 30 hours a week from home) and my husband has a stable job (he's been there 13 years!) we balance every decision on the time it gives us with our kids.

    I won't say his job is easy, but in comparison to the challenges and choices other families we know make it's easier. His role is much more 'traditional' in the sense that there is a clear path-that comfort comes at a price though-he doesn't live up to his earning potential, but it's a sacrifice we make to have him here.

    We see families struggling with making it all work no matter what they do or what income they bring home. The important thing is to keep having these conversations so we can learn about what's working for others, and what's not.

  • Good article and I'm glad you had the chance to have your father home while you were growing. It must have been great!

    I totally agree when you say "I can’t imagine a career goal more important than my relationship and experiences with my boys. But they can’t survive without my income". I think that's the most difficult balance we dads have to do in these moderns days. We need to ensure we have the right level of income to give our children what they need (like heath and education), and at the same time give them the attention they need to grow to become great people (love, values, family).

  • Agreed. I think both fathers and mothers are struggling to establish the line between work and life, no matter what career or activity they're involved in. But you nailed it on the balance topic. Those issues are almost always front of mind. Unless I'm watching "Guardians of the Galaxy."

  • hfalber

    When my son, Aaron, was born, I had already opted out of corp. life into restaurants. Long hours but my then wife's schedule as a dentist gave me more time with my son than would've corporate life. When he turned 4, closing the restaurants & taking that year gave me even more time with him. I wouldn't give up those extra hours & days for the world. I only realized how important those extra moments in time were as I returned to the structure of consulting and full time positions taking me around the world with long periods away from him & later from his step-sister (who even now look at & refer to each other as true "brother & sister"). What I find interesting, Charlie, is that in 2014 you "cut back tall brush to forge my own trail" and have. In 1993 I attempted to launch Solo/Parenting - a magazine, cable TV show and website for single parents and couldn't get the funding. Today, I still define my life as, "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound". You Have.

  • I think the landscape has changed for online magazines and interests. The old school thread/forum version of our digital experience gave way to visual storytelling and social interaction. You could be surprised at the result if you chose to start up your parenting mag.