How I Ended Up a Stay-at-Home Dad

stay-at-home-dadNow that I’m a couple months into being at home full-time and it appears that this family arrangement is going to work out for a while, I have been reflective about how I got here. It has been an interesting journey.

Like many men my age, I was raised in a home where gender roles were pretty clearly established along the modern norm: Dad worked outside the home a minimum of 40 hours per week and earned the lion’s share of the income, while Mom stayed home with us kids and managed the household. So, when I entered into my own marriage and work- and family-life, I aligned myself along this same pattern without much thought of alternatives. Before we had kids, Darah and I both worked outside the home, but as soon as kids were on the way, Darah quit her job and entered into stay-at-home mode.

This was a tough transition because Darah really loved the job she had and was very talented at it. But, because it involved fairly regular exposure to industrial paint fumes, it was pretty much a given that she could not continue on while pregnant. Then we ended up moving from Illinois to Kentucky, where we had our first son, and then quite quick on the heels of that, our second — and before we knew it, any “career” for her was well in the rearview mirror.

Meanwhile, I bounced around a fair bit in work. Having no strong career interests or goals, I studied philosophy in college, mostly for the mental challenge of it. To help pay for some of my expenses while in school, I worked in one of the computer labs and ended up, with the help of some very long-suffering friends, teaching myself the basics of web development. When I graduated, it was into this field that I went, as jobs are fairly scarce for non-PhD philosophers. I achieved some modicum of success in computer work over the next decade or so, but it was never something I felt strongly enough about to become heavily invested in.

Some people really enjoy the “baby years” with their kids, but for us they were the hardest ones. And as soon as they were pretty much over, Darah was urgently in need of getting out of the house. So she went back to work purely as a sanity-preserving measure, as her income covered only the cost of daycare for both boys.

Then our older son reached school age, and, for a host of reasons, we decided we did not want the boys to go the public-school route. But Darah did not feel equipped to teach them herself, so we sought other alternatives. Again, Darah’s income only just covered the costs of education. As our younger son entered the school years, we re-assessed and Darah decided she would commit to homeschooling the boys. So she left her job, we selected some curriculum, and our homeschool adventure began.

Meanwhile, things were becoming more difficult for me at work. IT jobs are scarce in our rural community, and work-from-home was not yet as common as it is now. After being laid off from one job, I spent five months out of work before I could find anything comparable. In addition to the lack of jobs, I was also finding myself increasingly unable to cope with the accelerating pace of change in the IT world. My work responsibilities had evolved from developing web applications to managing development projects, and the constant inundation of email, phone calls, and meetings was, to me, a very heavy burden. The computer world was always one I had borne with some degree of indifference; IT project management tipped the scales into outright dislike. To further exacerbate the situation, I did start working from home, and I did not have good boundaries around when I was “at work” and when I was not. As a result, I felt I was always at work and never really able to relax at home.

Unfortunately, as I become more unhappy at work, I became simultaneously much less fun to be around at home. I decided I needed to make a change. One of the things I would do to alleviate the stress of desk work was work with my hands in various capacities. So, having few other marketable skills that did not involve sitting at a desk all day, I decided I might try my hand at some sort of skilled labor — basically, something as far away from a desk and a computer as I could manage. So great was my dread at facing another day behind the computer screen, that I was willing to start over at the bottom of the pay scale in order to make this job change. I discussed the impact of this with family and, most importantly, with Darah, and got their blessing.

The timing must have been right, because God honored this decision in an amazing series of events. I made one phone call to one friend and had a job offer to start as a plumber’s helper within less than an hour. By the end of the month, I had left the desk work behind and launched into a new career in plumbing!

After just a couple weeks, Darah said I seemed to be a much happier person. And I was! Much of my first year was spent in training, since I knew about as little about plumbing as one can. It was good to work with my hands and see a job through from beginning to end in one go. It was fun to work alongside someone else all day long. It was pure joy to tackle 4 or 5 jobs in a day, as opposed to the hundreds of details I would juggle every day in my IT work. I made far less money, but this was more than made up for in my having significantly less responsibility and in being able to leave work at work and really enjoy just being at home with my family.

After about a year of this, I was asked to begin handling the emergency after-hours plumbing jobs. This meant I would be on-call for work six days a week starting at 4 pm, all through the night, and until 6 am the next morning. It was a tough transition, but I decided to do it for a number of reasons: 1) it would help out the rest of the guys because they would not need to be on-call except for one day per week, 2) some days I might not have any work at all, and, most importantly, 3) assuming I was not usually going to be working past midnight, I would be at home and awake during the day with my family and thus able to participate in their lives and the home school more actively.

This was great fun for me. At heart, I am still a student. I really enjoy the process of learning, and it is fun for me to help others as they learn new things. Over the next few months, as my work schedule permitted, I got more directly involved in teaching the boys. I was worried I might be stepping on Darah’s toes, but she was actually happy for me to take on some of the load. In fact, somewhere along the way, she took a part-time job at the local library and was soon a vital part of their operation.

After a few months of this schedule, I was approached by another plumbing company interested in having me do their emergency on-call work. They offered me an additional day off each week for about the same money, so I jumped at the offer. It wasn’t long before I realized, though, that this company had a far lower after-hours work volume, and there started to be a lot of days where I had little or no work.

Since I was still being compensated, I made the best of it. To fill the time, I started doing some of the housework. Darah, never especially fond of these duties, was only too happy to let me take on as much of it as I wanted. After just a handful of months, the inevitable day came when I was laid off by my new employer for lack of work. Other than the sudden lack of income, we never missed a beat at home. Without any intentional plan to do so, on the day after I was laid off, I started teaching the boys full-time and began putting together a cleaning and chores schedule for myself. It was work I naturally gravitated toward, and barely seemed any effort at all.

We had a little bit of money saved up, so there was not an urgent need for a full-time paycheck to be coming in for a few months. Darah and I discussed what we would do next. She was somewhat interested in working full-time, and so was I. We were both committed to seeing the boys’ education continue on unabated. So, we decided that we would both look for something full-time and see what the Lord brought to us.

In short order, full-time work actually ended up finding me! I was approached by my original plumbing employer with an offer to help start a full-blown emergency services division of the company. I met with the company’s GM for lunch to discuss the opportunity. It would pay better than the on-call work I had been doing previously, and there was good opportunity for me to move up as the division grew. The job was mine if I wanted it.

That evening, Darah and I talked it over. It did seem to be a divinely provided opportunity. By this time, I had made quite a few changes to the school process and the schedule for household management, and I wanted to make sure Darah was going to be all right with taking all that back over. With some small reluctance, she was willing to do so for the overall good of the family.

That night was a long, sleepless one for me. I could not get comfortable with the notion of going back to full-time plumbing work and turning over my finely-tuned, handcrafted home and school schedule to Darah, who, admittedly, was not nearly as enamored with it as I was. I had not realized how attached I had grown to this “house” work until I was at risk of having it taken away from me.

Another dynamic was at play here, too. In all of my 20-year-plus work career, I had always harbored a secret, barely acknowledged grudge against my managers and bosses. Through my schooling, I had learned to manage my time well. I was most definitely a “self-starter”. So, in my work, I always felt I could work best if I was left to manage myself without much supervision. When I was left to do my work unimpeded, I was content, but I bristled under close supervision or when given tasks that did not seem to me to be productive or sensible. I often considered starting my own business but was unwilling to do so after seeing in the lives of a few entrepreneurial friends how all-consuming sole proprietorships inevitably became. Ever since the boys were school-aged, my priorities were the formation of godly character within them and the overseeing of their education, so much as each were in my power. I did not want work to require so much of my time and attention that it would interfere with my ability to parent effectively.

In the opportunity to be at home during the day and take a greater role in both the management of the household and the education of the boys, I had found exactly what I had been looking for unsuccessfully throughout all my working years. As a “homemaker” and homeschool teacher, I was almost entirely unsupervised, left to set my schedule and establish work priorities apart from any merely artificial constraints. I was in control of my environment and my schedule in a way I had not been since college, and, faced with losing this new-found freedom, was very reluctant to let it go.

The day after my sleepless night, I relayed all this to Darah as best I could, although I am sure my manner was halting and unsure. I would not cling to what I wanted if it meant she would have to suffer in the least degree. The role of breadwinner was, for me, never an especially light burden (it always seemed that the less money I made, the happier I became!), and I was loathe to saddle her with it. But after understanding where I was coming from, Darah assured me she was willing to work full-time in order for me to carry on at home. In fact, she said that she had always done the housework and schooling somewhat grudgingly, so it might actually work out better all the way around if we swapped roles. And, if it didn’t seem to be working out, we could always a make a change down the road. So, we decided to move forward into this new territory as a grand experiment.

This was in late September. Our savings would allow us to pay the bills through the end of the year without any income. We agreed that she would need to find something by the end of November in order to ensure income would resume at latest by the first of the year. If she could not find something by then, I would start looking again.

It was a tense couple of months. Numerous opportunities emerged, some of which seemed like a perfect fit, but none ended up panning out. She had a promising interview in early November, but then we never heard back. It seemed like the perfect arrangement of parts was going to come unraveled and both of us would be reverting to our long-time but less ideal roles. But we continued to hope, and we trusted that God would bring about the best. And, on the very last day of November, Darah finally heard back and learned that she had the job!

We spent December celebrating our incredible blessing, and I started putting plans together for school and household stuff in the new year. We gave the boys a two-week holiday break. This ended up being too much free time, during which I was struck by the idea of putting myself through school alongside the boys — but that is another story.

Since this “grand experiment” began, I have not looked back. I am fulfilled by managing this household and the school schedules of myself and my two boys in a way I have never been in any other work I have performed. I am so glad for the years Darah had at home with the boys when they were very young, and I am blessed to now have the opportunity to be at home with them myself for this stage of their lives. And, so far, all signs point to Darah being equally fulfilled in her new role as primary breadwinner. I pray I am able to consistently honor my commitment to smoothe the path for her in bearing this load by giving her nothing to be concerned with here on the homefront.

Once again, as so many times before, I have seen God’s hand in all of this, equipping us and helping us find the good work He has “prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). I am reminded again, as on so many past occasions, of how good He is and how great His gifts are. I am incredibly blessed!

Jeff Herron

Homeschooling dad of two boys. Husband of one terrific woman. Disciple of and disciple maker for Jesus. My cup runneth over!