“What's your line of work?” It's a common conversation opener, especially toward someone like me who just six months ago moved from the other side of the country. The person asking has usually already heard about my wife and her great new job that brought us to town, so naturally it’s time to find out what I’m doing here. ... “I used to do architectural design,” I say, “but now, since the move, I'm the homemaker of the household.”
What a sweet picture this conjures: the stay-at-home dad nurturing his children, looking after the house and helping support his wife in her budding career and shelving his own big ambitions for later. Now it gets a little awkward. There is no adorable kid, nor plans to have one. No starter home that needs knocking into shape. I'm not just doing this temporarily until I find something meaningful to do. I’m actually a full-time homemaker ... not stay-at-home dad but stay-at-home dude. A conversational pause. Where do you mentally file this guy? Usually I just change the subject.
What can I say? I drop my wife off at her office (we're trying to remain a one-car couple), then clean, mend, cook, run errands, and deal with the various logistics of life. Kids are a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to breaking stereotypical gender roles, but without them homemaking is not really seen as an ambitious life-calling or even particularly time-consuming. I have to say, I don't see it that way.
A year ago, I was working the job I had dreamed of years earlier in architecture school: at a small firm doing excellent work, with respected colleagues and mentors and opportunities for growth. Within two years I could have passed the registration exam and become a licensed architect. My then-girlfriend of three years was in the process of finalizing her Ph.D. and tackling the job market. A Ph.D. is more than a full-time job, and no one becomes an architect for the short hours. We managed to balance everything, but both of us were working long days and had little energy for anything else except takeout dinners and necessities such as laundry. We were surviving with grace—a sign for me that we could spend our lives together. But we were still only surviving. We knew that eventually she would have to move for a job and that I would follow her. There are architects all over, and I wasn't all that concerned about being able to find work.
My salary was above average for a not-yet-licensed architect, and though sufficient to live on, it was nothing to write home about. When the-job-offer-she-couldn't-refuse landed, we realized she was going to be the big earner. In fact, she would make enough to support us both, and this put my vocation in an entirely new context. I had no insecurities about being outearned by my partner, but I had never really considered the idea that my job could be optional.
The expected move was now a real one, engaging my full attention. I already had experience with out-of-state moves, including one to follow a previous partner, which had taught me a lot about myself, about relationships, and about how difficult it could be to adjust. Now I was determined to do things right. With my girlfriend preparing for the final defense of her dissertation, I took on the task of finding us a place to live and packing. We arrived in our new apartment a few days before she needed to start her new job. This was just enough time to run down to the courthouse for a civil ceremony, which formalized what was already a common-law marriage.
For most couples, and for me in the past, what would normally follow is a period of managed chaos: Each person tries to navigate a new job in a new city while attempting to remain healthy and sane. Instead, because I wasn't forced to immediately hunt down a second source of income, we settled into a peaceful routine of breadwinner and homemaker. She was free to put all her energy into her career while I kept house. At first I was mainly dealing with getting us settled—unpacking the boxes, getting utilities hooked up, updating the license plates for the car, and so on. As this list of to-do’s dwindled, I found myself taking on the things we used to do in a rush in the evenings, such as laundry and cleaning, and eventually the things that we had never had time for at all, such as cooking and mending clothes we might have just thrown away. Years of old paperwork got purged or organized, unwanted books sold on Amazon or donated.
As a result, when she is done with work—if I've managed my time well—the evenings and weekends are now totally open for us to relax together. And if there is cooking and cleaning for me to do while she is home relaxing, I do it without feeling frayed and resentful, because I can relax here and there during my “work” day in a way she can’t. Her work schedule can vary considerably from week to week and month to month. I can easily vary mine to match, allowing for small things like a shared lunch during the week if she's worked all weekend, and large things like a vacation built around a summertime conference.
I have a good friend who at one time had the primary homemaking role in his relationship. His wife’s income was not enough to sustain both of them long-term, however, and he had to simultaneously job-hunt, causing him to identify more strongly as “unemployed” than as “homemaker.” We've talked a bit about the differences in our situations, and it drove home to me the fact that I don't know any other guys who have made (or have been able to make) the same choice that I have. Indeed, he said that even if he were in a situation of full financial support, he would use that freedom to pursue personal projects first and do the homemaking on the side.
By contrast, I have self-identified as a homemaker first. Certainly, I see a need to channel my creative side into something at some point. But that feeling is pretty abstract. For the time being, I have my hands full getting better at meal-planning and mending: It actually feels the same to me as improving in my “profession.” But more than that, I find satisfaction twice over in making a good home—once for supporting my partner, and again for myself.
All choices have a cost. My architectural skills have a shelf life, and it's likely that I am damaging my prospects for future employment. In general, architecture isn't something I can do halfway, and given the choice, I choose the quality of life we are afforded by me being a full-time homemaker. Our circumstances may change and I may be forced to re-evaluate, but for now, feeling that the benefits far outweigh the professional cost, I want to be a great homemaker supporting a fantastic spouse.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 33 percent of wives outearned their husbands (who may or may not have been employed) in 2006, one-third higher than the figure of 24 percent in 1987. As this number rises, more men will be faced with the decision of what to do when their work is no longer “necessary.” In the case of couples with children, I expect the decision is more sharply defined; for other couples with no plans for children (like us) how will things play out?
Me? The stay-at-home dude abides.