Work-at-home dads learn new balancing act
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Jeff Lash has a standing lunch date.
His commute involves opening his office door, plodding down carpeted steps and scooping up the bouncing 2-year-old who waits for him at the bottom each day.
At their kitchen table, Lash and Brynn share lunch. Then, he leaves his daughter with the nanny, heads upstairs and gets back to work.
Since September, the research director for SiriusDecisions has been a work-at-home dad, trading the commute and office space for a more flexible schedule and more time with his kids.
Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 189,000 married men are stay-at-home dads, caring for about 369,000 children under the age of 15. But the census only counts those stay-at-home dads as men who have remained out of the labor force for at least one year.
In a 2010 report, the Census Bureau notes that, since 1997, the number of all employed people working from home has increased significantly.
In 1997, people who worked exclusively at home made up 4.8 percent of all workers. In 2010, they made up 6.6 percent of all workers. The numbers of people who worked a combination of at home and outside of the home also increased.
What they don’t count specifically are the dads who, like Lash, are at home and also working.
He still works full time, but for Lash, there are lots of little things that he’s now present for, including preschool pick-up and drop-off with his older daughter, sudden trips to the doctor’s office when necessary, and his daily lunches with Brynn.
At home, even with his job, he’s more present, he says.
“I think it’s more just a lot of little things.”
The Census Bureau may not specifically count dads who work from home, but they’re out there and likely increasing for a number of reasons.
Those men probably fall into three categories, says Judi McLean Parks, a professor of organizational behavior in the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis.
There are men who work traditional jobs from home offices, men who freelance and work more project-based jobs from home, and men who have started their own businesses from home.
The reasons they’re at home are also varied, from technology to finding new ways to work in a bad economy to increasing workplace flexibility, she says.
For Lash, whose work is based in Connecticut, as long as he has a phone line and an internet connection, “it really doesn’t matter where you are.”
Kevin Mitchell, a St. Louis-based freelance writer and work-at-home dad, recently had to go to Boston and tell the entire editorial staff of a music industry trade magazine of which he’s the editorial director to go home and work from there.
Several weren’t sure how that was going to work, but Mitchell’s own career is sign that it can.
When Mitchell and his wife, Lauren, had their first child, they agreed that it was important for one parent to be home with him. Mitchell’s wife, who works at the Missouri History Museum, loved her job, so Mitchell volunteered.
He took on freelance work, and today is the author of books, magazine articles, documentaries, plays, and is creating web content.
“I definitely was accidentally successful,” he says.
The agreement Mitchell and his wife had was that when it was time for their second child, he’d go back to work full time and she’d be the one to stay home. Mitchell was having a lot of success, meanwhile, and, thanks to the cost of health insurance, after about three years, his wife headed back to work full-time.
Today, Mitchell’s boys are 10 and 7, and he’s still the parent at home and the one shuttling to school and play dates. For Mitchell, who’s comfortable with women, being the lone dad in the group of moms has never been a big deal.
And he suspects that the recession and layoffs have created a lot more work-at-home dads, but he wishes more men would embrace the role and appreciate what it is to have a work/life balance and be with their children.
Public sentiment is mixed on the questions of whether a parent should stay home and who that parent should be.
In a recent report from the Pew Research Center, the majority of Americans think women shouldn’t return to traditional, stay-at-home roles, but the report also shows that what’s acceptable for men and women still differs.
Of those surveyed, 51 percent said children were better off with their mother home, while only 8 percent felt that way about fathers.
But the stigma’s less than it was, says McLean Parks. Remember “Mr. Mom” she says? The movie about Michael Keaton losing his job and staying home to raise his children while his wife heads back to work was funny, she says, but also sad. Their marriage nearly falls apart. The movie ends with Keaton going back to work, and his wife deciding to stay home after all.
“Now,” McLean Parks says, “I think there’s much more acceptance of alternative work arrangements, whatever shape those arrangements take.”
One size does not fit all
Working from home, Lash misses the water cooler conversations, but not the ones that dragged on and on, eating up his day.
He doesn’t miss the daily commute. And, he says, he’s actually more productive working from home.
A lot of workers, regardless of gender, could be, McLean Parks says. Working styles for adults are like learning styles for children. One size does not fit all. Lots of people may work well with structure and walls, but a lot of people do better on their own, without distractions.
Not every kind of job can accommodate work from home, of course. The Census Bureau’s 2010 study found that for both men and women working at home:
- One in 10 were over 65.
- Nearly half were self-employed.
- Between 2000 and 2010, home-based work increased by 69 percent for people with jobs in the computer industry, engineering and science.
- One fourth worked in management, business or the financial industries.
- The majority were white, married and the numbers were split evenly between women and men.
It takes a progressive company to let people work from home, McLean Parks thinks, but if people are productive, there’s no reason it can’t work and work well.
“The potential is there to be able to maximize the productivity of people who work in very different ways.”
Lash's wife, Leslie Hinyard, is an assistant professor at St. Louis University. Having her husband home has changed things for her, too, she says.
“It’s been really great. It’s definitley taken a huge burden off of me.”
Knowing her husband can pick up and drop off their children and be there when the nanny needs to leave helps Hinyard feel there’s no huge rush anymore. She can stop by the gym on the way home if she wants.
Having her husband present in the home has not just made his work and life more flexible, she says, but hers as well.
Mitchell thought he’d go back into something more traditional one day, but by being home with his boys, he’s found new ways to work and new kinds of work.
And as long as Lash’s office is in another state, he’ll be upstairs in his home office. Until lunch time, at least.
Brynn is waiting, after all.
“No offense to anyone I’m working with,” he says, “I’m never going to get that kind of greeting at the office.”