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I never planned to be the breadwinner, but having a stay-at-home husband made the benefits of invisible, unpaid labor crystal clear

Business Insider logo Business Insider 3/10/2022 insider@insider.com (Kelly Burch)
Kazi Awal/Insider © Kazi Awal/Insider Kazi Awal/Insider Kelly Burch. Courtesy Kelly Burch © Courtesy Kelly Burch Kelly Burch. Courtesy Kelly Burch
  • As the parent with the more flexible career, I always expected to do more child and home care.
  • When my husband unexpectedly became a stay-at-home dad, our family thrived.
  • Once I became used to having a stay-at-home spouse, I realized how deeply the patriarchy penetrated.
  • This article is part of Women of Means, a series about women taking charge of their finances.

I opened my office door after a morning working from home and stepped into a living room that was transformed.

Toys and scraps of paper from the craft my kids had been doing that morning were gone. Breakfast dishes — normally waiting on the counter for me to frantically wash on my lunch "break" — were cleared. My husband was looking up a dinner recipe and telling me about the errands he would run before picking our younger daughter up from preschool. 

"Are you sure you don't want to quit your job?" I asked him, not quite joking. 

For three years, my husband was a stay-at-home dad. Scenes like this were normal. We reveled in the domestic bliss that can result when one partner has time to dedicate to the unending chores that come with having a house, children, and pets. Over time, I started taking it for granted.

But when my husband returned to work, I realized just how much easier his labor made my life — and how valuable our patriarchal distributions of labor are to those who benefit from them.

I never expected to have a stay-at-home partner

I never planned to be the breadwinner. But when I was pregnant with my second child, my husband unexpectedly lost his job. We couldn't face the stress of a job search during the last trimester, so we decided he would stay home while I continued to work from home in my freelance writing business. 


Gallery: Job listings reveal VERY unreasonable demands (Daily Mail)

The effect on my life was immediate. My husband had always been involved, as much as he could be with a demanding job and long overnight shifts. Now that being a father and partner was his job, we all thrived. I felt mentally and emotionally healthier, even through the tough postpartum phase. My daughters became just as likely to ask dad to kiss a boo-boo or answer a question as they were to pester me. A stay-at-home parent gave our family time and flexibility, which, for us, was well worth the financial hit of having one less income.

Still, I knew the situation wasn't forever. My husband didn't choose to be a stay-at-home dad; it merely happened through circumstance. I knew sooner or later, he would want more traditional employment, and I understood firsthand how having a job away from the kids could provide an important outlet and satisfaction. In the fall, he started working outside the home again.

Same dynamic, different details

When I was the sole income earner for my house, I liked that we were bucking societal norms about men, women, and their role in the family. After all, only 41% of mothers polled in the US Census Bureau's Current Population Survey in 2019 were the main income earners in their families (and this number has declined because of the pandemic). Stay-at-home dads were even more rare, appearing in less than 4% of two-parent households in 2021, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the data.

The thing is, our home was still entrenched in the very patriarchal system I was trying to break away from. We were relying on invisible, unpaid labor to survive. That type of work is what makes all other work possible — it keeps the capitalist machine churning. Yet even for someone who had held that role, it's alarmingly easy to forget the value of that labor. 

Our society doesn't give enough support to parents, which often pushes people out of the workforce. Most often this happens to mothers, but my husband encountered the same problem: The high cost of affordable childcare and low wages, particularly for people without a four-year degree, made it unrealistic for him to seek employment outside the home. 

Even more alarmingly, I realized how comfortable the system is for the people who benefit from it. My career thrived when my husband took on the majority of care for the kids and home, with my bottom line doubling over three years. My days were freer, as I knew someone else was worrying about laundry and whether there were snacks for school lunches. I would have happily kept our family's earning potential lower in exchange for the convenience that having a stay-at-home spouse brought.

Searching for solutions

These days, my husband works outside of the home for about 60 hours a week. I still earn more than he does, but because of the flexible nature of my work, I'm back to taking on the burden of child- and household-related chores. We're also spending a significant portion of his earnings on additional childcare for our little one, who is not yet old enough for public school. But he enjoys working outside the home and earning a paycheck, and there's a fulfillment from paid employment that can't be overlooked.

The past year has been eye-opening for me. Even in a very equitable marriage, I've noticed the way we default into patriarchal systems and unequal divisions of labor, whether that's falling on me or my husband. Even when we think we're breaking away from social expectations, the lack of infrastructure for families can send us careening back to the same old patterns, under a new guise. I realized how pleasant it is to be the person benefiting from these systems, and I saw why some people will fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. 

There's no easy solution to all of this, and I won't pretend to have one. Like most families, we're left searching for the best answer at each stage of our lives. This year, we found a unique one. My husband's position is seasonal, so come spring, I will again have a stay-at-home partner, at least for a few months. And let me tell you: I can't wait. 

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