The Mr. Mom Dilemma

There are more stay-at-home dads than ever, but men still grapple with the non-traditional role.

Bryan Reardon was discussing his first book with his literary agent as they headed to lunch in New York City. The novel is based on a stay-at-home father whose son is involved in a school shooting. The problem is, the father doesn’t know if his son is the shooter or a victim, so he struggles with whether he may have made some mistakes along the way. 

Reardon, himself a stay-at-home dad, has struggled for years over how to view his role and wondered whether his family had made the right choice. During the discussion with his agent, he asked how she thought about men who stay home to raise their children. “I think they’re all losers,” she said. Reardon felt liberated by her response because he knows that a stigma still exists in the minds of many, despite the fact that stay-at-home dads are more numerous than ever.

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A Pew Research Center analysis of government data shows that the number of fathers who stay at home with their kids has nearly doubled during the past 25 years. There were 1.1 million stay-at-home dads in 1989. Now the number is 2 million, comprising 16 percent of parents who stay home.

Reardon, who grew up in Pike Creek and once worked in Gov. Tom Carper’s office and for the state Department of Finance, has stayed at home during the past 10 years, helping to raise his 11-year-old twins, Lily and Ben, while his wife, Michelle, pursued her career at DuPont as the family’s breadwinner. “For us, we both wanted someone to be home with the kids,” says Reardon, 44. “With her job, it was possible. It just made so much sense.”

Though the family is happy with the way life has gone, Reardon has always wondered whether they made the right decision. He admits that some of his doubts stem from contending with the departure from traditional gender roles.

“You feel like you should be the one that’s providing and your wife should be doing what her parents did and what their parents did,” Reardon says. “We had problems with guilt in that I always felt like I had that time with the kids and she didn’t.  And she felt guilty whenever she wasn’t here because she wasn’t giving them that time. It’s funny. No matter how much you plan, there are pluses and minuses to everything.”

Photograph by Luis Javy Diaz

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Stay-at-home dad Bryan Reardon reads with his twins, Lily and Ben. 

Dr. Rob Palkovitz, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Delaware, has researched men’s roles and what father involvement does for men in terms of their own development. He says stay-at-home fathering is good for all involved, as long as the father doesn’t feel like he had no choice.

“[It’s good] if the father has a strong, positive attachment with the child and he doesn’t feel that he was forced by default to do this because of unemployment or disability,” Palkovitz says. “If he elected to stay home, it’s a great thing to be able to spend time and invest in relationship building and facilitating a child’s development. If he’s providing positive care, then it’s a marvelous thing for both father and child.”

Palkovitz agrees with Reardon that there is still a great emphasis on the provider role for fathers, so staying at home challenges the father’s sense of being a contributing member to the family.

“We’re in this time where we’re moving from the ‘Leave It to Beaver’ family to shared, egalitarian parenting,” Palkovitz says. “That includes childcare, education, household labor and provision. If a couple feels that they’re negotiating that in a way that is best for them as a couple, then it doesn’t really matter who stays home. If they’re comfortable with their role, the vision, and they see it as the best way for the family given the context and resources, then, yeah, it’s great.”

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Though his wife never doubted his abilities, Reardon still second-guesses certain decisions and actions that he took. One regret is that he didn’t carve out any “me time,” spending most of his time with his children. He once took the twins to a play-date group, but felt uncomfortable as the only adult male. “I felt like I was a stranger in a strange land,” he says. “It was a group of women and me. It changes all the conversation that’s going on. I felt like they would have been having more fun if I wasn’t there.”

For just that reason, Tony Fiset, a 34-year-old stay-at-home dad in Newark, started his own group on Fiset is staying home with his 16-month old daughter while his wife, Kira, works as a medical resident at Christiana Care. “I started a group because there were a lot of mommy-centric groups,” Fiset says. “I was looking for ones to join, and it seems they were excluding dads. Nothing for dads. That’s one of the things, the stigma. It’s hard to find other dads. It’s easier for moms to find other moms and socialize and bond.” Fiset says there are a couple fathers who participate in his group’s events, and though five or six others joined, they aren’t active.

Reardon, who is closer to the end of his stay-at-home experience than Fiset, offers advice to those considering taking on the role. “There is no single path or single choice or single way of managing a family that works for everybody,” he says. “If there’s time when you feel pressure, when you put pressure on yourself or feel pressure from others, or you feel like you have to do what everybody else is doing—the reality is that you have to do what you can do and be OK with that.

“Now that they’re a little older and they’re making their own choices, I realize I shouldn’t have been so hard on myself,” he says. “Different isn’t necessarily bad.”  


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