Almost a year ago, our family upended itself and moved from Boston, our home of nearly 15 years, to central Virginia so my husband could accept a position at Southern Virginia University, an up-and-coming liberal arts university.
With a PhD in molecular biology from Columbia University, Roger had published a paper in Nature and was pursuing a promising career as an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts Medical School. That was a decade ago.
Our children were eight and four, and I was constantly traveling for business. We decided that our children needed more parental involvement, a scenario faced by many dual-career couples.
And so my husband paused his career to become a stay-at-home dad. In 2012 only about 21% (420,000) of the 2,000,000 stay-at-home fathers in the U.S. were home to care for their children; the rest were home for other reasons. It’s a small club.
Our children benefitted tremendously — and of course I did, too. My husband, frazzled from the solo juggling of work and family during my frequent business trips, was relieved to put family first, a closely held value.
What didn’t benefit was his career.
When we were ready for him to on-ramp, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett calls it, we found that men returning to work face different obstacles. For women, relaunching is tough but increasingly doable — the path may be arduous, but at least it is well trod. A woman’s sabbatical for family reasons can be explained, and such leaves of absence are comprehensible if still disadvantageous. But for men there effectively is no path. Some of our biases about gender roles are stubbornly persistent. People think there must be something wrong with a man who leaves his career to rear his children; they wonder if he’s hiding something, or least think there might be more to the story.
In fact, during that first year, Roger’s colleagues were incredulous. Was he really leaving? Or just looking for a new opportunity? Job offers appeared out of nowhere. He declined them repeatedly.
Seven years later, with our kids in middle school and high school, Roger started to make inquiries, still believing he was marketable. His superb credentials didn’t garner even a nibble, except for the suggestion that he try volunteer work. It was discouraging, depressing. Beyond the perceived oddness of his career hiatus, academia, with its tenure track, is not especially friendly to career interruptions. He nearly gave up, thinking his career was over.
But last year, with our oldest child graduating from high school, he doubled down, tapped into his network, and got a shot at teaching biology, chemistry, and biochemistry at Southern Virginia University. If he’d stayed in the workforce originally, his path would have led him in the direction of research. Now he’s focused on teaching and aiding the entrepreneurial effort to expand this small university. He loves the classroom, where there is potential for both career and personal development. In the academic world, focusing on teaching is seen as a step back — but to my husband his new job is a promising step, with new space to grow and flourish.
Because I’m self-employed now, I can live and work anywhere. That’s a luxury I wouldn’t have enjoyed earlier in my career — when working on Wall Street, for instance, not only because finance requires a foothold in New York or London, but also because in those years there wasn’t sophisticated technology to facilitate working remotely. It is impossible to overstate how these technological developments have expanded the choices available to many working couples. At this stage of my career, the question was never would we move to Virginia to accept my husband’s opportunity; the question was how could we not do so.
The dilemmas faced by dual career couples involve trade-offs — often very difficult ones. It is usually only as we pursue a particular path that we discover what all the challenges will be. They are largely opaque at the start of the journey, and they vary depending on situational specifics. But here are a few of the things we’ve learned from our experience that may be helpful to other couples who consider this option:
First, it’s more difficult to on-ramp in some professions than others. My husband’s field is science, which is always rapidly evolving. And academia, as noted, doesn’t make this easy either. Carol Fishman Cohen, cofounder of iRelaunch, has a lot of experience with on-rampers and emphasized this: “I’ve seen thousands of relaunches, but only four into tenure track positions. Your husband would be the fifth.” In many fields of endeavor we can quickly become dated and left behind. Regardless of your industry, plan your workforce reentry — including how to remain current in your discipline — before you exit, especially if you plan to be out for more than a year.
Second, although Roger’s gender seemed to be an impediment to on-ramping — since stay-at-home dads are still a rarity — we did see some specific advantages from it. A man’s professional network, if cultivated and maintained, seems to provide avenues back into a career that are often more helpful than those enjoyed by women. Our networks tend to tilt toward our own gender, and men are more likely to be in positions of influence in organizations. In contrast, women seem to have less ability to give other women a leg up (research backs this up, and unfortunately the same is true for people of color). Perhaps that won’t be true for you, but it has been true in our experience.
Third, attention has been directed toward the impact of income inequity on the male ego, but the bigger challenge may be adjusting to the loss of a “work” identity. This can be difficult for anyone, but for men the effect may be amplified. It can take an emotional toll that shouldn’t be underestimated. And a stay-at-home dad won’t have the same network of support that stay-at-home moms may be able to develop. I have a huge network of women who are lead parents, but for a variety of reasons that wasn’t a network my husband could plug into.
Fourth, while mothers are often portrayed as doing “the hardest job in the world” or “the most important job there is,” fathers are more likely to be portrayed as incompetent buffoons who can’t figure out how to change a diaper or dress their children properly. Some of this comes from women, some from other dads, and some from the media. But fathers who take primary responsibility for the care of their children make important contributions — they shouldn’t be mocked or emasculated. No one benefits from a dialogue that demeans the work of anyone who chooses to be a career parent.
Fifth, when you do relaunch, talk about it. Says Fishman Cohen, “Part of the problem is there are not enough examples of men returning to work after years away. One of our priorities at iRelaunch is to feature hundreds of return-to-work success stories in our articles and on our website. However, we have trouble getting men to go on record when they successfully return. They keep telling us they would rather everyone forget they ever took a career break in the first place. That shows the stigma is still alive and well. As more men take career breaks for caregiving reasons and then successfully relaunch careers, I expect this will change.”
For every family, there are multiple roles to be filled. As couples — whether they’re dual-career, career/job, career/stay-at-home, off-ramped, on-ramped, or otherwise — we divide and conquer depending on our respective circumstances. I got used to my husband managing an awesome array of details at home. I still don’t really know how to cook. Someday that may need to change. Perhaps the key to success is adaptability — being able to invent and reinvent, shifting priorities as needed within the constant context of satisfying both our personal and familial needs and ambitions.
This article was coauthored with the on-ramped Roger Johnson, an assistant professor of biology at Southern Virginia University.
This post originally published at Harvard Business Review