Stay-At-Home Dads, Breadwinner Moms And Making It All Work For decades, the role of breadwinner was reserved for men, but today, more than a quarter of American working women earn more than their spouses. That means more fathers are opting to stay home with the kids.

Stay-At-Home Dads, Breadwinner Moms And Making It All Work

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Well into the 20th century, an American working woman could be fired for getting married. That's because the role of breadwinner was reserved for husbands. That was enshrined in state laws as late as the 1970s.

But since the '80s, more women than men have been graduating from college. Today, more than a quarter of married working women earn more than their spouse, and more breadwinner wives can mean more dads home with the kids. As part of our series on the changing lives of women, here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: A sunny spring afternoon in Alexandria, Va., and it's time to meet the school bus.


LUDDEN: Jonathan Heisey-Grove pops open a stroller with one hand and expertly transfers fussy, 4-month-old Zane into it.


JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: OK, buddy, come on. Shhh.

LUDDEN: They stroll up a winding, suburban block to a corner where two moms also wait.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Bus is coming...

LUDDEN: Five-year-old Egan is first off the bus with a run, and a big bear hug.

JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: Egan! What's up, buddy? Oh, yeah, hi! How are you?

LUDDEN: Jonathan and his wife, Dawn, a public health analyst, didn't exactly plan for him to be a stay-at-home parent. They were both working full time when Jonathan lost his job as a graphic designer, two years ago. That also ended the company day care. Back in their townhouse, Dawn says Jonathan stayed home full time at first just to save money on child care.

DAWN HEISEY-GROVE: And suddenly, the world just became much calmer and quieter. And Egan wasn't as upset, and he wasn't as tense, anymore. And our relationship, I think, even though we were stressed about not having money, we weren't rushing around when both of us got home. And so it was just a happier place.

LUDDEN: Jonathan agrees. He was crazed, trying to balance work and kids. He talks while cradling baby Zane, bouncing on a large, blue ball to try and get him to sleep.

JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: I missed out on doing this kind of thing. I would do it, but I would be too worried about work to be able to really focus on my child, at that point.

LUDDEN: Dawn was surprised - and happy - to discover two colleagues whose husbands are also stay-at-home dads. But when I ask if she feels she's missing out on anything, I don't even finish the sentence before she's nodding her head.

DAWN HEISEY-GROVE: Like, I showed up for the preschool graduation, and they all looked at me like, who are you? (Laughing) And I kind of felt like, the bad mom moment. Like, he's got the Dad of the Year Award, and I'm kind of sitting on the sidelines a little bit.

LUDDEN: More hurtful is when even family members don't quite get their choice. When paying a dinner bill once, Jonathan's dad chastised him for "spending your wife's money." And Dawn's younger brother recently wondered why she doesn't just tell her husband to get a job. Jonathan says societal expectations have not kept pace with their reality. He sees it out shopping with the kids.

JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: I get the, oh, look, it's a dad! Oh, that's so sweet. And my own assumptions are saying, yeah, they just think it's just one day.

LUDDEN: Still, he's found people who can relate...


LUDDEN: the Wednesday morning playgroup of D.C. Metro Dads.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, how are you doing?

JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: Hey there, good. How are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good to see you.


LUDDEN: The front hall of this home in Arlington, Va., is lined with shoes, backpacks, strollers.

CARL NELSON: The first time I got here and saw 15 other dads, I was kind of blown away.

LUDDEN: Carl Nelson is standing in the kitchen, 6-month-old Jack tucked under one arm, football-style. Before discovering this, his only organized social outlet had been a mother's playgroup, which he still goes to now and then.

NELSON: I generally look for another conversation, when it steers toward summer swimwear. (Laughing) However, you know, a discussion of nursing and other issues, I'm perfectly comfortable with. I get to see those details on a daily basis with my wife. So I've actually participated in those conversations, in a productive way.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Kiss me on the hair.

MARK BILDNER: On the hair?

LUDDEN: The host of this get-together used to be a workaholic in the tech industry. But Mark Bildner says losing his parents changed his attitude. He's been a full-time dad, by choice, for five years now and is proud to have helped his wife advance her career.

BILDNER: She took a position at her company that involved a lot of travel, last-minute work, late nights and so-forth. And I have some understanding of how it feels to be in that position, so I try to be as supportive as I can.

STEPHANIE COONTZ: Men today are now reporting higher levels of work-family conflict than women are.

LUDDEN: Stephanie Coontz is with the Council on Contemporary Families. She says men's ideals have shifted closer to what many women have long felt.

COONTZ: Not just pressure but desire, to be more involved in family life and child care and housework and cooking. And at the same time, all of the polls are showing that women are now just as likely as men to say that they want to have challenging careers.

LUDDEN: The census finds fewer than 4 percent of stay-at-home parents are dads, though that has doubled in a decade. But Coontz says the number's vastly underreported. It doesn't include the many men who do some work but are still their children's primary caregiver, a trend that cuts across class and income.

COONTZ: The place where you see the greatest sharing of child care, interestingly enough, is in blue-collar and union workers who often work split shifts and then trade off the child care.

LUDDEN: So what of the contention that so heats up the blogosphere, that women are somehow better suited to manage house and home? Coontz will have none of it. For 150 years, she says, men have been trained not to detect dirt on the floor or a child's needs.

COONTZ: So we really have to make an effort to let the other person succeed at something they've never done before, and to give them the chance to get comfortable with it.



LUDDEN: Back home, changing Zane's diaper, Jonathan Heisey-Grove does indeed coo, smile and baby talk with the best of them.


LUDDEN: He says the impact of what he's doing struck him one day when a college kid in the neighborhood stopped his car and rolled down the window. He told Jonathan, "I wish my father had played with me as much as you play with your son."

JONATHAN HEISEY-GROVE: And it became another point in my development as a stay-at-home dad that OK, this is really important, and people see it.

DAWN HEISEY-GROVE: I think that our view's changing. Every time we interact with somebody, we're changing their perception of what is...


DAWN HEISEY-GROVE: ...appropriate gender roles or parenting roles.

LUDDEN: By the time their boys grow up and have kids, they say, maybe - just maybe - no one will be talking about that at all.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.


GREENE: And there is much more from our series on the changing lives of women, online.


Our She Works sign generator has over 1,000 submissions, illustrating various approaches women have for operating in the workplace. One says, "No is a complete sentence."

GREENE: Another, "No is not an option."

INSKEEP: There's "don't bring in baked goods, if you want the corner office."

GREENE: And "there's more to life than work." You can see those for yourself, and make your own sign, at


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