The XX Factor

“I Was Very, Very Mistaken”: The Reality of Quitting Work to Be a Stay-at-Home Dad

“I don’t know that I’ve developed a love for laundry or vacuuming per se. But it’s my job, and it honestly doesn’t make me resentful.”

Photo by Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about why women aren’t achieving as much in their careers as their male counterparts, even though women have been enrolling in and graduating from college in greater numbers than men since the 1980s. Explanations for this gender gap range from women aren’t “leaning in” enough, to entrenched sexism in the workplace, to husbands’ careers taking precedence, to a lack of social supports for mothers in American society.

But when we discuss the issue in a macro way, we don’t hear the stories of men and women who are making career choices not as statistics in a think piece, but as part of an often complicated balancing act between various interests and responsibilities in their lives. Here is the first interview in an occasional series, “Best Laid Plans,” about how career decisions get made over time, and are altered by the unpredictability of life. If you would be willing to be interviewed for this series (we are looking for both men and women), please email with “interview me” in the subject line and a brief description of yourself, and we’ll be in touch. [Update, Jan. 14, 2014: We are no longer accepting emails.]

Names: Monica K. Mann and Dave Mann    

Ages: Both 40

Monica’s occupation: Medical director

Dave’s occupation: Freelance illustrator and stay-at-home parent

Location: Franklin, Massachusetts

Children: Two daughters, ages 9 and 7

Hi, Monica. What were your career expectations when you first started working?

My first job was as a medical science liaison, or MSL, for a biotech company that specialized in therapies for multiple sclerosis. Graduate school had been difficult for me. While I earned my degree, there were many times I thought it would have been just as easy to walk away and join the workforce earlier with fewer qualifications. Expectations are relative. So, other than hoping to not completely suck at it, I cannot say I really had many expectations for my first job. I was excited to learn about working in a business setting (as opposed to an academic one). I was thrilled to earn enough in compensation that I could move out of my parents’ house.

Hi, Dave. What were your expectations?

When I first started working? Like first first? I just wanted to pay rent and eat like most people coming out of college, even though I dropped out. So I guess I would say I’ve never allowed myself to even call what I had a career. I’ve had lots of jobs, though. And jobs come with much lower expectations, in my experience. But if the question really refers to what I expected from watching the kids while my wife pursued a career? I expected it would be very easy, very fulfilling and gratifying—the stuff of dreams. I called it my early retirement. And I was very, very mistaken.

What was your life situation when you first started working—did you have kids or a partner then, or did you expect to in the future? 

Monica: Dave and I got married just before I started my Ph.D., but after I received my master’s degree. We had met in college through mutual friends. Because of my Indian family’s cultural views, we did not share that we were together until 3½ years after we met. We were married after five years of being together and had both our children during my time in graduate school in Milwaukee. Between the first and second child, we moved in with my parents to save money. It was also more convenient for child care because my parents helped care for the kids. However, it put a strain on my relationship with Dave. We lived with my parents for approximately 18 months before moving from Wisconsin to Ohio for my first job as an MSL. My children were 3 and 1 at the time, and Dave quit his full-time job and transitioned to the stay-at-home parent.

How does your current work situation match up with your earlier expectations?

Monica: My current work situation more than exceeds my expectations. Other than a vague sense of “Get me out of academia!” I had no real concept of what I wanted.

Dave: Being a stay-at-home parent is very different than I thought it would be. At first I hated it. I think I went through a depression for about a year because of it. This could have been due to leaving Wisconsin and all my extended family and friends. It wasn’t just that I’d left work to raise my kids. But it’s been 6½ years now, and I’ve definitely had my pity party, moved on, and learned to embrace it for what it is.

Now I feel extremely fortunate. I’m beyond busy juggling everyone’s schedules. I very often come last in family priority order. But I also am present for everything, and I know the kids better than anyone else on Earth. I know their friends and teachers and what they are having for lunch every day. So it’s better than I thought it would be, even as it’s nothing like I thought it would be. My pleasure with my current role could just be a result of overarching maturity setting in. I don’t know that I’ve developed a love for laundry or vacuuming per se. But it’s my job and it honestly doesn’t make me resentful. I like doing it well.

How does your current life situation match up with your earlier expectations?

Monica: My current life situation exceeds my earlier expectations.

Dave: Our situation blows my expectations out of the water. Monica is compensated very well. That fact has made what I do more comfortable. Removing financial strain plays a big part in meeting or exceeding expectations.

In your family, whose career has come first?

Monica: Mine. 

Dave: Monica’s.

Monica, did you ever sacrifice career advancement for personal reasons? What were they?

Monica: For every job or new challenge, my husband and I discuss what the financial and career gain will be versus financial and family loss. At one point during my graduate career, I was thinking about whether to look for a role in academia or a job in industry. Working independently and driving scientific concepts in academia was very attractive to me. But it would have entailed a minimum of six more years of postdoctoral work after my Ph.D. and then looking for a faculty position. I didn’t doubt that I could eventually achieve that goal. But the time commitment? The stress of producing scientific research that could get multiple publications and grants and eventually lead to a faculty position? All during a time when National Institutes of Health funding would have been at an all-time low? That was too great a sacrifice to make.

In 2012, we once again had to have the discussion about financial or career gain versus financial and family loss when I was offered a job that moved our family from Ohio to Massachusetts. While the career advancement opportunities were pretty plain to see, we would suffer in the short term financially due to the difference in cost of living. Additionally, there was tremendous flexibility of schedule in my Ohio job. We knew we would likely lose out on net family time together if I took the new job. 
But I did end up taking it. We do lose net family time, and there are times I really miss the flexibility. But I have also found that I do not take for granted the time I do have. So whether it’s 15 minutes of reading time or sitting with my youngest at night because she’s afraid? I cherish it. And on the nights I pass out before dinner is done? I try not to beat myself up about it.

Dave: I think she nearly sacrificed several times. But I’d like to think the answer there is “no.” We didn’t let her.

Dave, did you ever sacrifice career advancement for personal reasons?

Monica: I think he has, but he would disagree.

Dave: I do disagree. I’m a very good illustrator. But it never paid the bills. I’m also my own biggest enemy at times, and my “career” as an artist wasn’t happening regardless of my wife’s career. The 9-to-5 I quit to become a full-time father was as a clerk/admin for a bank holding corporation. I was good at that job, and I enjoyed it. But it was most definitely not a career for me and held no opportunity for advancement. So the idea that one of us might have derailed the other is a false choice.  

In fact, I’ve done my best freelance work since taking a back seat to Monica’s career. I’ve learned how valuable time is. I’ve learned how to multitask and complete several projects at once and to play the long game with regard to the kind of involved and complicated projects I typically pursue. Plus the tiny bit of admitted jealousy I have toward her success? It fuels me, both to keep our home running smoothly and to try and accomplish career stuff, too.

How did you make these life and work decisions?

Monica: We decided as a team. We evaluated who could bring the financial support to the family, who could be the caregiver, and was it worth it to have both parents working? Did we need this and why? Most importantly, we talked and continue to talk about emotional needs of each other as we continue to divide and conquer our family life.

Dave: We talk about them till we’re blue in the face and so sick of our opinions and biases that all pretense, agenda, and self-pity falls away. What’s left is the logical and correct course of action.

What is your child care division of labor?

Monica: Dave does all child care work.

Dave: I do about 90 percent of it. Monica paints nails and reads to them before bed. I pack the lunches and shuttle them to and from activities and school and appointments and stuff. But she’s game for all of that. On her limited time off, she dives right in.

What is your housework division of labor?

Monica: Dave does most housework. I do a couple of things. I make dinner two to three times during the week.

Dave: I do about 75 to 80 percent of it. I maintain the outdoors. I clean and maintain the indoors, and I walk the dog and scrub toilets and all that fun stuff. Once again, when she is home? On a weekend? She’ll grab a Swiffer Sweeper and give the floors hell too. She’s a worker, first and foremost. But, I have noticed a steep decline in the doing of dishes since she took this new position. So I think that’s one of the perks of being the breadwinner. And I’m happy to grant it!

How much time per week do you spend on leisure (hobbies, entertainment, solo exercise)? Does your partner have more or less leisure time than you do? How do you make sure your free time is equitable?

Monica: I try to take about 30 minutes of quiet time to read before going to bed. I also try to work out 30 minutes three to four times during the work week. 
Since I work a lot, I find it personally difficult to justify my own free time as I feel as though I should spend time with my children.

Dave: All my time is kind of leisure honestly. On the one hand, it’s not. I’m tending to what the household needs every waking minute. It never ends. The first and last thing I do each day is take the dog out, so someone else’s shit literally bookends my waking minutes.

On the other hand, you can still think while you clean in a way that you cannot while you are working. I’m not saying they aren’t equal or that staying at home isn’t a job. It is. But, I get as long a shower as I want every morning. I work out most days. I can steal a nap if I need to. Monica can’t stay up as late as me at night, so I can even play a couple hours of Xbox a week if I choose to. In the summer I take a relaxed approach to the house and the kids, and I swim every single day. I cannot begin to make that equitable in any apples to apples sort of way. What I can do (and have done) is be that much more willing to do what she wants to do when she actually has the time off. Travel more. Do more things. Watch less televised sports. When Monica is home, she can pretty much always call the shots.

Is there anything, in retrospect, you wish you’d done differently?

Monica: There are not a lot of women—and even fewer Indian women—whose husbands take on the role of caregiver. I am tremendously grateful that Dave and I have approached our life as a team and supported each other personally and professionally. It’s important to the both of us that our family and children see what can be accomplished if you are willing to work together and not become obsessed with a “who does what” mentality. So really, I wouldn’t change a thing (even living with my parents for 18 months!).

Dave: I wish I hadn’t dropped out of college. I went back and graduated 10 years later, but maybe if I hadn’t left in the first place, Monica and I would actually have to choose between two thriving career paths. I wish I could apply the calm and discipline that middle-aged peace of mind provides to the challenges I faced in my teens and 20s. Right? I feel like I’d totally be Elon Musk or something if I had youth plus experience. But everyone feels like that to some extent, and it’s silly.

I don’t wish (with any seriousness) that we’d done anything differently. The way I figure it, sons have been watching their mothers support the great works accomplished by their fathers for hundreds of years. I get to show my daughters that phenomenon in reverse, and that will have a ripple effect into the future, however small. Even if it’s just two little girls who know it’s OK to structure a family where Mom’s job (i.e., their jobs) count as well. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Check out more of Slate’s Best Laid Plans series.