Working Moms & Stay-at-Home-Dads…Can it Work?

working moms

For some time, a growing number of younger, educated women have chosen to establish a career before marriage. When many eventually marry and have kids, they often continue working and may even become the family’s main breadwinner.

This has led to an interesting phenomenon that wouldn’t have been an option just one generation ago – the stay-at-home dad. Today, if a couple chooses for mom to work and dad to stay home – presumably because they can afford it and he is nurturing and a good parent – then so be it.

But if dad cannot or will not get a day job, and by “default” he stays home but does not really care well for the children, then you have a problem. In the event that the couple divorces, almost inevitably there will be a custody battle.

Picture this scenario: Janelle Doe is an accountant rising rapidly in the profession, married to Joseph, and they have one baby named Moe. Joseph is a teacher, and the couple manages to hold down two careers while beautifully caring for baby Moe.

Then Janelle is pregnant once again, and Joseph’s teaching contract is not renewed. He is unemployed. With baby number two almost due, the couple talks about Joseph taking a year’s sabbatical and being a stay-at-home dad because, in truth, Joseph isn’t employed anyway, nannies are expensive and both children are too young for preschool. It seems to make sense.

The proverbial $64,000 question: if Janelle and Joseph get divorced in the next year, should Joseph get custody simply because Janelle is working? Is she expected to support Joseph for the foreseeable future because of a pragmatic decision made in the moment of a child care need?

Fast-forward a few years. The children are now five years older, Joseph has become, by all accounts, a mediocre dad and even worse housekeeper. The children are in school for most of the day, but Joseph never seems to find a job, and spends his days at a coffee shop or improving his golf game.

Janelle has had it. She wants a divorce. But now, our working mom faces a real dilemma: divorcing Joseph may open herself up to the claim that her non-working husband should get custody of the children! What should she do?

Without question, there are many great moms and dads who decide together that one should be a stay-at-home parent. Kudos to them for making it work. But when the traditional roles are reversed and mom becomes the breadwinner while dad stays at home, it can wreak havoc on who gets custody of the children if the couple splits.

As a family law attorney who has witnessed this situation countless times, here’s my best advice: Working women, think carefully before you make the child care choice. You have options. For example, you could instead insist that dad get a job — any type of job — and then together hire a nanny. The cost of a nanny is likely to be less than the cost of a custody fight.

In fact, all working parents need to be ever vigilant about the decisions they make as to who cares for their children. This is for many reasons, including the fact that if the marriage does not work out, those child care decisions could have unintended consequences.

There’s a deeper message here. Society and the law need to come to grips with the fact that a successful working mother can simultaneously be the primary parent and the primary breadwinner.


About Gemma Allen

Gemma Allen is a partner in Ladden & Allen, Chartered, and has practiced family law for most of her career. Ms. Allen has written more than 50 articles and lectured on topics that include divorce, child support, maintenance, mediation, cohabitation, women and money, and reconciliation. She co-authored The New Love Deal: Everything You Must Know Before Marrying, Moving In, or Moving On! and helps you navigate modern relationships in “Relationship Gems.”