Carolyn Hax: Husband is a good dad, not a great stay-at-home parent

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We asked readers to channel their inner Carolyn Hax and answer this question. Some of the best responses are below.

Dear Carolyn: The pandemic was hard on us financially and so in July, my husband and I decided to let go of our expensive nanny, and my husband left his job to stay home with our 6- and 1-year-old kids. It had to be him, because I make more money and my career relies on momentum (whereas he can probably return to his when things change down the road).

He is an excellent dad. But (I know this sounds horrible) I don’t know if he’s a good stay-at-home parent. I routinely get home to find the baby in a very old diaper. Zero housework gets done while I’m at work, which means that’s what greets me at the end of the workday (while my husband goes to rest after a long day of childminding). And try as we might to get my older kid’s school to correspond directly with my husband, I seem to spend half my workday answering questions about scheduling, food, illness, etc.

It feels a bit like leaving my kids all day every day with a teenage babysitter: someone who can keep them safe and happy but do absolutely nothing else (no big decisions, no larger projects that benefit the family). I’m not saying I would do a better job, just that I don’t think this is quite meeting the standard for stay-at-home parenting. Yet my husband seems happy to be doing it instead of grinding away at work. What do we do?

Anonymous: Neither of you knew what it was like to take care of two little kids all day. Now one of you does. Take a week off and care for the kids yourself, sending him away on vacation so you can see how much work it is to keep two kids safe and happy, day after day. Then you can respond with some grace and like a partner instead of an employer who is unimpressed with their new hire.

He might still be getting used to this, unlike the experienced expensive nanny. He might value playing with the kids more than strategic planning. This might be too much work for one person: I presume the nanny who left the house clean at day’s end was not expected to also call the school. He might just have different standards than you do.

If the tables were turned, would you feel it a fair expectation that the stay at home parent takes the entire domestic sphere off the other partner’s plate? The diaper example is the only one that sounds like a real concern rather than misguided, dated resentment that you’re doing all the “real” work and should therefore get to kick back at the end of the day rather than relieving your exhausted spouse. If he’s truly not keeping up properly, hire a cheaper nanny to come in a few hours a week so he can stay ahead of picking up and emails to the school. It doesn’t matter if you would do everything better if it were you: He’s the one staying home.

Anonymous: What kinds of conversations have you had with your husband about this? From where I’m sitting, the issue could range from, “I had no idea I was supposed to do X (diaper changing, house cleaning, cooking),” to “I know I should do X but I feel overwhelmed by Y so I couldn’t do it,” to “I don’t know how to do X,” to “If I don’t do X, I know you will do it and that’s easier for me” to something completely different. Each warrant has different response. It seems like you’ve short-circuited this inquiry by deciding that he’s just a bad stay-at-home parent.

It’s time to have a very clear conversation about what your expectations are regarding the division of household labor between you — what you envisioned your tasks would be as the working parent and what you expected him to take care of as the stay-at-home parent , and what his expectations are. Try to see things from each others’ perspectives and see if problem-solving is possible.

A true partner will not want to coast by while overburdening their partner, so try assuming that this is a misunderstanding until proven otherwise (eg, he does not realize so much of the burden has fallen to you, rather than that he is acting intentionally or is unable). I’m pretty sure he is capable of changing a diaper or cleaning, which means something else is likely happening here, and he won’t change until you and he find out what it is.

Anonymous: On behalf of all stay-at-home parents: Ouch. Safe and happy is what you say your kids are, and that’s exactly what you should be aiming for. THAT is “the standard” for stay-at-home parenting. If your baby is prone to diaper rash, there is nothing wrong with reminding your husband of the need for more frequent changes, of course. The health of your children is priority number one. It sounds like you had a professional nanny who also did housework (many caregivers do not clean), and you are expecting your husband to equal the performance of this person who had chosen that work and specialized in it.

Did the two of you discuss what exactly his new role would be before this huge transition? It’s quite possible that he never intended to be the housekeeper or knew that you expected it. I recently left my career after having a child (pandemic child care being unreasonable or unattainable where we are, and my spouse makes significantly more than I did). I love being home with my son, and he is safe and happy. However, my home is not any cleaner than it was when I was working full time. I don’t enjoy cleaning, and I spend the time I have when the baby is napping simply trying to get my house back to the condition it was that morning (cleaning up toys, dishes, etc.). I’d go as far as to say that most stay-at-home parents I know are the same. Caring for children is a full-time job in itself and leaves very little time and drive to spend every quiet moment (should you get any) scrubbing the floors.

Anonymous: When I was laid off my husband and I decided that any job I took would basically pay the child-care bill, so I pivoted to stay home. I went through a period of transition (and mild depression) where I had to redefine my self-worth. It was hard going from being a civil engineer to “just a mom.” I realized I didn’t fully value myself without my career, so I had to recognize the value my staying home gave to my family. It may be helpful to discuss this new career with your husband and the value your whole family receives from it.

Part of that is also fairly dividing the workload. What did the nanny do during the day that allowed you and your husband to have quality time together after work? What work did you both do after you came home? It’s time to discuss the expectations of the new normal. Including fair division of the house work, changing the school’s priority contact, when you will both get down time (either together or separately) and talk about the benefits your children receive by seeing you work as a team (no such thing as Mom jobs and dad jobs). Check in with his mental health and if all is A-okay, hash out both of your expectations.

Anonymous: Staying home with kids is exhausting. It’s a full-time job, just as full as yours, except he gets no breaks and no lunch away from the work like you may get (and no commute to listen to his favorite kid-inappropriate music or podcast and decompress). I agree the school needs to get your husband on their list and stop contacting you; it’s probably a pain for him, too, to get info secondhand from you when he’s the one with the kids all day, but housework isn’t child care, and shouldn’t be a part of your expectations. That you can do together, and appreciate how hard you both worked all day (and either get the kids involved in a fun way, or hire someone to clean if it’s too much — a good house cleaning service costs less than a good nanny). If the diaper issue is causing a rash, definitely bring it up in a kind, kid-focused way; if not, let it go. If your kids are happy, and your husband likes this new job (again, a very real, very crucial, and very hard job that most people don’t appreciate enough), that’s the best situation for everyone. You and your kids are lucky to have him.

— Wish My Kids Had A Stay-Home Parent

Anonymous: I see two areas to address based on my experience about eight years ago when my husband became a stay-at-home parent/spouse. The first is that we talked honestly and openly about the division of labor, down to specific tasks, and had a good but flexible agreement. That is: he handles the cleaning, the laundry, the child care, the shuttling around, doctor appointments were on the line optional; I work, take care of my own clutter (he doesn’t pick up after me), cook and take care of the yard.

Then the second part: The first year was a marathon of letting me go of my need to control and direct. I am major Type A, running things is what I do. I had a LOT of self talk about letting him figure things out. And it took a while for him to find a routine and a schedule for doing his new job. He said, and I agree, he worked far harder at home than he ever did in the office. I offered help when asked but restrained myself (and my GOSH it was HARD) from critiquing or telling. It probably helped that I don’t care if the house was messy or the kids had mismatched clothes. Everyone was happy. And having a stay-at-home partner is honestly the best thing ever.

Talk to each other, make sure you are on the same page for responsibilities. Let go of anything not in your new role, really let go. Stop answering the school’s calls; they will HAVE to call him. Embrace the positives, give your spouse grace and support. As you said (and I have always felt also), I couldn’t do any better.

Every week, we ask readers to answer a question submitted to Carolyn Hax’s live chat or email. Read last week’s installation here. New questions are typically posted on Fridays, with a Monday deadline for submissions. Responses are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself and are edited for length and clarity.

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