When Jessica Knauss moved to Somerville with her family in late 2013, she found the stigma of stay-at-home-parenting was much less palpable here than it had been in Pennsylvania.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Do you get to stay home with your kids?’ instead of, ‘Oh, so do you just stay home?’”
Knauss never thought she’d want to be a stay-at-home parent. It’s not exactly an easy decision—according to the U.S. Department of Labor, a paltry 12 percent of private companies offer some kind of paid parental leave. But when her husband landed in Boston on a two-year work agreement, it just made sense. Their decision turned out to be for the best; Somerville, she says, actually has a culture of stay-at-home-parenting. She’s found a large community of parents in the city who have chosen to stay with their kids at least part time, a far cry from her experience in Pennsylvania.
Financial obligations and social stigma aside, stay-at-home parents face a litany of unique challenges—and rewards!—that often go unseen by society at large.
“Anybody knows how to run a load of laundry,” says Todd Easton, a stay-at-home dad to three children. “The mental side of being a stay-at-home parent is the harder part.”
The mental side includes (but is not limited to): fear of leaving your career behind, lack of control and isolation. The toughest part for Easton, especially in the beginning, was going without the water cooler banter that happens naturally at an outside-the-home job. “The sidewalk for a stay-at-home father can be a lonely place,” he reflects.
And if loneliness was a problem for Easton, a Somerville resident for almost 13 years, it certainly was for local mom Kat Rutkin. Rutkin was seven months pregnant when she and her husband made the move to Somerville from Brooklyn in 2011. She faced making a whole new group of friends—a challenge she says she would have had to navigate even if she had stayed in New York after having her first son. “If your friends aren’t on the same baby-having schedule as you, you have to make all new friends,” she explains.
But Rutkin is ambitious and enthusiastic about community engagement, which went a long way in helping her find a new social network. She took over Somerville Local First from founder Joe Grafton in 2012 and served as its director for three years. She also became the moderator for the Somerville Moms listserv, an online community that has grown to include more than 2,500 moms (and dads) since it was founded in 2005.
The listserv is an indication of how welcoming the parenting community in Somerville can be. Knauss and Rutkin didn’t just find other parents through the network, they found friends they might not have ever met had they not had children in common. “It forces you to overcome social biases you may have,” Rutkin notes. Parenthood can serve as a common ground among different social spheres. There’s a universal desire among parents of all backgrounds to just get out of the house and have a cup of coffee with another adult. Ironically, the isolation also broadens horizons. Easton explains that Somerville is indeed a special place to be a stay-at-home parent. “There are a lot of different outlets that allow those parents that are home to connect with other parents that are home,” he says, noting a multitude of online communities through which he’s made connections. “You’re constantly being informed of things that are going on.”
Despite the strong parenting network Rutkin, Easton and Knauss say they’ve joined, there are still challenges to doing a job that’s literally impossible not to take home with you. On one hand, you’re craving the company of other adults. On the other, you’re craving just five minutes to yourself.
“Someone else is driving the bus,” Rutkin says. “You can’t take a break whenever you want … you have to respond to the needs of your child, first and foremost.”
Sometimes, you can’t even manage a bathroom break.
“I can’t tell you when the last time was that I went to the bathroom by myself, with the door shut,” says Knauss. With two children to look after, showering and answering the phone have become Olympic sports. “It’s a lot harder to juggle things than anyone gives you credit for,” she says.
Knauss emphasizes the importance of developing a healthy perspective when you become a stay-at-home parent. She’s developed a level of patience with and understanding for her child that she wouldn’t have cultivated had she not been with her kids day in and day out. That’s particularly true because her first son threw her some extra curveballs—Knauss explains that he was colicy and had a less easygoing temperament than other children.
“You better accept the role you’re stepping into, otherwise you’re going to be miserable, whether you’re the man or the woman of the house,” Easton adds. “If you put yourself first and foremost and you’re not happy, it’s not going to change with kids.”
With all the mental—and physical—gymnastics one has to go through as a stay-at-home parent, what keeps people in this city so keen on it? Parks, for one thing.
“You can’t go four or five blocks without finding a park,” Rutkin says—even in the winter months. “If their face won’t get damaged, we’re going outside.”
Somerville’s stay-at-home parents aren’t just taking their kids out for walks or playdates. Many are heavily involved with their neighborhoods, and they maintain creative and professional outlets on top of parenting—even if that means strapping a baby to their body for meetings. Easton has dabbled in a number of extracurricular activities throughout his tenure as a stay-at-home parent. In 2011, he ran for alderman while managing three children at home. He also served as the president of Somerville Youth Soccer League, has coached youth sports and is now moving into substitute teaching.
Sarah Read, who cares for her 11-month-old daughter full-time, laid the groundwork for a nonprofit while she was still teaching, and now devotes more time to it as a stay-at-home mom. Read’s organization, called The Story Café Project, connects adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to local businesses for volunteer and eventually paid work. Her daughter consequently rubs elbows with clients, human services workers and local businesspeople, like the owners of Aeronaut Brewing Company and Somerville Chocolate.
While Read loves being a stay-at-home mother, she sees The Story Café Project as a way to make her full-time caregiving even more sustainable. “Because of that nonprofit, I would say that I could stay at home longer than if I didn’t have that in the works. I have that outlet.”
“I am very lucky,” Read notes. “Since [my daughter] was born, she’s been to a million meetings. She just goes along for the ride … and it’s been neat for me because rather than see her as an addition or something to be worried about, she’s totally an asset. People are so excited to have a baby around.”