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SPOTLIGHT: As A Reporter Bids Farewell, He Asks: What's It Like To Be A Stay At Home Dad In Idaho?

Adam Cotterell
Boise State Public Radio

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Boise State Public Radio is bidding farewell to a familiar voice. Adam Cotterell has been a reporter on our airwaves for nine years. But starting next week, he will become a stay-at-home dad instead. (He's not leaving the radio station entirely. He'll work as a part-time podcaster on a special project set to debut in February.) For his last daily reporting assignment, we asked Adam to tell us about stay-at-home fatherhood in Idaho. 

Sure, there’s a giant racetrack for tiny cars in the middle of the living room, but Michael Matson keeps his Meridian home really clean. Really, really clean.

“I’ve been a stay-at-home dad now since 2011, summer of 2011,” Matson says.

Matson has two kids, a seven-year-old girl and a boy who’s five. Matson is six feet five inches tall with broad shoulders. Dressed in gym shorts and a hoodie, he looks more like he’s going to workout than to pick up his kindergartner from school.

But in many ways Matson is totally typical. At least from what Brad Harrington says. Harrington is a professor at Boston College and head of BC’s Center for Work and Family. He writes an annual report on trends in fatherhood and has studied at-home dads.

“When they and their spouse had conversations prior to having children, the conversations seemed to go that they really valued having one parent be at home with the children,” Harrington says. “Who ended up making that decision really seemed to have to do with one of two things. One was who had the kind of personality or characteristics that would best lend itself to being a stay at home parent.”  

Men with nurturing personalities got picked to stay home. That was true for Matson.

"I’ve always had a very nurturing side to me," Matson says. "You know, just our roles and our personalities of who we were, I jumped at the chance to do that.”

The other reason couples pick the husband to stay home? The wife makes more money. Harrington says in the interviews his team conducted, stay-at-home dads had mostly left jobs that require a college education but don’t pay much.

“The father was a school teacher, the mother was a corporate executive,” Harrington says, listing examples. “The father was a social worker, the mother was a lawyer. We had a couple of ministers.”

“I was a youth pastor beforehand and resigned from the church to stay home with my kids,” Matson says.

Matson's story fits very closely with Harrington's profile of at-home dads.  But there’s one big way Harrington says that Matson is not typical of stay-at-home dads. He lives in Idaho.

“It seemed to us to be more likely that these guys would be in or around major urban centers,” Harrington says. “And especially centers with good economies, so places like Boston, like Washington, like New York, like San Francisco, L.A., Seattle, places like that.”

Pew Research estimates there are more than 2 million at-home dads nationally, accounting for about 16 percent of at-home parents. Pew says the number has doubled in the past 25 years. But Harrington puts the total at less than half of Pew's figures. That’s because Pew includes fathers who say they are at home because they can’t find work or are disabled. Harrington only counts those who have chosen to stay home. 

Using the broader definition, the U.S Census Bureau says there are about 11,600 stay-at-home dads in Idaho.

Matson says he’s met other dads like him in the Boise area, but not many.  And when he tells people what he does, he gets jokes.

“You know, ‘what’s your video game high score?’ stuff like that.”

But he says a more common reaction is an uncomfortable pause.

“Because they don’t really know what to ask next,” Matson says. “'Gosh, I don’t have an experience with that so it’s hard for me to identify.’”

Harrington, the researcher, says a big challenge at-home fathers face is social stigma. He says despite big advances toward gender equality in the U.S., there are still widely held beliefs about men’s proper roles in the family and society.  Matson says his wife has encountered disapproval about their non-traditional gender roles but he hasn’t heard any.

Another big challenge faced by at-home fathers Harrington says is feeling isolated. He says stay-at-home mothers also struggle with social isolation but it seems to be much worse for men. Matson says early on that was hard for him.

“Because I’m more outgoing and extroverted than probably the average guy is, and so I wanted to be able to have other connections and be able to talk to guys and meet up and have my kids be around other kids. And that was a hard situation to find myself in because there just wasn’t a lot of opportunities out there.”  

A national organization has a list of hundreds of social and support groups for at home dads. The list has groups in the vast majority of states but none in Idaho.

Harrington says there are other difficulties at-home dads face. Many men who have defined themselves by their job have an identity crisis of sorts. But Harrington says that seems to go away after a while. And he says most at-home dads who have been doing it for at least a few years say they’re glad they made the choice.

“And one of the things some of the fathers said to us is, you know, if I really reflect on my life this is probably the most meaningful work I’ll ever do,” Harrington says.  

“I was just thinking a couple weeks ago that this has really been an absolute blessing to be able to watch them grow up,” Matson says. “To be able to go to their schools and help out and play dates and the learning how to ride a bike. I mean, I get to be there for all those times. And it’s just been an absolute thrill.”

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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