When J.M. Balaji, 49, is not talking how brilliant his daughters are, he talks about what a team player his wife is. Antara Balaji, the elder daughter is 19 years old and a first year law student. She is also an athlete and a football player. Ahana Balaji, the younger daughter, is studying in class 12 and is a junior national level rowing champion. Balaji’s wife, Rashmi, 47, is a senior executive in the banking sector.

Balaji, who is a stay-at-home father (any father who is the primary caregiver of his children and may or may not work, while his partner works outside as the main breadwinner) considers himself a complete hands-on parent and that’s largely because he decided to take a back seat in his career to make time for his children. Although the choice to stay at home was more circumstantial than voluntary, it’s a role that has grown on him. “I quit a well-paying job in the aviation industry in 2000 and joined a couple of start-up ventures that didn’t do well. So I decided to dabble in business of my own and help my father on the side. Eventually, I joined my father (in his blended alcohol export business) and became a full time parent to my lovely girls,"said Balaji.

This gives him enough time to spend with his children and manage the household, a job that’s traditionally entrusted to the woman. “Rashmi is the family’s breadwinner. My income is sporadic so I don’t manage household expenses. I manage the household and whatever money I make is kept for emergencies or for other big-ticket spends that are not part of regular household expenses," he said.

While Balaji may have chosen an unconventional path, he is not alone. Stay-at-home dads is a growing breed. “We definitely see a trend of more fathers opting to stay at home and this is made possible primarily due to two reasons: our society is evolving and parenting is being shared, and the second reason is that employers are more flexible. In fact, there is a 50% year-on-year increase in employers who are okay with employees working from home. So fathers can stay at home and contribute to the family finances," said Sonal Arora, vice-president of Teamlease Services. 

There are two other aspects that make this a happy possibility—family’s support, and clearly mapped out expectations. 

Family support

A family’s acknowledgement and respect for the stay-at-home dad makes it worthwhile. “Peer comparison and the feeling of ‘what if’ is inescapable, especially in men. So, a sense of fulfilment comes if the family is respectful and grateful. This is very important for unconventional roles and demands maturity from the family as well," said Shyam Sekhar, chief ideator and founder, iThought. Balaji agrees, and says that this would not have been possible had his wife been from a “traditional mould". “It was not just about me, but also my wife and kids. They have to be evolved too," added Balaji.

Rashmi is proud of her husband’s choice; it also means she can be a guilt-free working parent. “He is very passionate about parenting so that made the choice of being a stay-at-home dad easy for all of us. He has attended every parent teacher’s meet, been there for all pick-ups and drops. He is the reason why our children have excelled in sports," she said.

Defined expectations

What also works for an unconventional household is that expectations are clearly laid out and understood. “It’s easier for women to slip into the role of a breadwinner than a man slipping into the role of a caregiver. So if the father chooses to take a back seat financially, but still expects the wife to discharge her traditional duties it can be problematic," said Shweta Jain, founder, Investography Pvt. Ltd. Rashmi said clear work division has helped as it apportions responsibilities. “I have always been a working woman so we decided to support my career but it was possible because there was always the comfort that there is one parent back home taking care of the kids," she said.

According to Sekhar there is one other aspect that needs to be dealt with carefully. “There are individual aspirations and family aspirations. It’s important to keep the two separate. Don’t make your wife responsible for your individual aspiration. If you want that luxury watch, buy it yourself; but a family vacation can be planned collectively," he added. “This is because in a patriarchal set-up, when a woman depends on a man for her individual aspiration, it’s fine. The opposite doesn’t always work smoothly," said Sekhar.

The Balajis seem to have ticked all these boxes, but there’s one added advantage that they have. They are a family that shares. “Often, a patriarchal household leaves the wife clueless about the husband’s income or his investments. Matters of money are not collectively discussed. The husband’s involvement in the household activities too is minimum," added Sekhar. But this is not true for the Balaji household. “I think women tend to consult more and share more openly. So money matters are like an open book in our house. Everything is consulted to the last detail and it’s always a collective decision," said Rashmi. 

The Balajis are close to each other and the parents enjoy their respective roles. But reaching this level needs work that starts with changing traditional mindsets.

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