Moms Make it Work: Vanessa + RJ | Working Mom, Stay at Home Dad

Today we have a special entry for the Moms Make it Work series, with Vanessa posting as a working mom and her husband, RJ also wrote for the post as a Stay at Home Dad. I loved reading both of their responses to the questions because it felt a bit like sitting in on a deep conversation with this parenting team. Plus, RJ's obvious love for being a SAHD made me tear up a bit while reading this post. Besides this great dynamic between husband and wife within the actual post, um...they live in a 'dry cabin' in Alaska. What? I know, so cool to read about that part of their lives, too! Enjoy!


Hello readers! Thanks to Julia for this series - I have loved reading all the entries and found it helpful to read about all the different ways that families make things work. Originally, we had planned to write this entry when RJ was a stay-at-home Dad, but it took us forever to get around to sitting down together to do it and in the meantime he found a job he is excited to start!  So by the time you read this, we’ll be onto a new normal, but I interviewed him about his experiences “making it work” since the upcoming changes are bittersweet.  (I answered some of the questions that he didn’t want to.) Hopefully someone will find this helpful in the way that I have found it helpful to read the other entries.


What is your background story? What was your career/schooling before you became a mom? And where are you now?

My husband is a Native Alaskan of Ahtna and Eyak descent.  He was born in Anchorage and other than one year “Outside” to play college football, he has lived in Alaska his whole life.  He earned a BS degree in physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and we met while he working as a programmer in the space physics department.  He is a total computer nerd and has worked various jobs as a programmer, data analyst, network engineer, and stay-at-home dad for the past 6 months. Now he is about to start a job as a software support specialist in medical IT at the hospital here in Fairbanks. We were friends for years before he finally convinced me to go on a date with him.  
I am from the western United States (New Mexico, Texas, Colorado) and followed family tradition after high school to attend Texas A&M University (whoop!) to study physics and Spanish.  I joined the Peace Corps after college and taught high school for two years in Tanzania.  At that point I wanted to go somewhere cold, and met RJ while earning my master’s degree at UAF. While in grad school, I worked as a teacher aide for a distance education physics class for students in rural village schools. Since that was a part-time gig, I also waited tables and tended bar.  Now I work at a non-profit housing research center as a research scientist, and still bartend part-time.
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RJ asked me to marry him in 2010.  At the time, we were both working full-time and really hadn’t thought that much about kids.  Our income went to paying off school loans and plane tickets - attending family events like weddings isn’t cheap when you are starting in Alaska. To save money, we sold one of cars that didn’t work anyway, leaving us with one car to share and bicycles, and moved into a one-room dry cabin, or a cabin with no plumbing.  We got married in 2012.
[What?!?  A few things about, dry cabins are pretty common in Interior Alaska ( and two, they have a lot of advantages in our climate. In fact, we live in a neighborhood with over 100 other dry cabins right across from the university. Rent up here is expensive (often more than $1000 a month if you want a place with water) and much of the land is permafrost, meaning that you can’t put in a septic system because it would thaw the ground.  Dry cabins also have the distinct advantage of not having to pay to steam thaw frozen pipes when the temperature gets to -40 Fahrenheit in the winter...a side effect of many of the residences up here being built during the oil boom with it was cheap to heat and insulating homes well wasn’t a big concern.  And, yeah, the small one-room cabin makes the heating bill a lot more attractive than a bigger place.]

When we talked about having kids, I think we both always had this vague idea that if we had kids then it would happen when we had a nice house, nice jobs, and two cars.  But eventually I think we just realized that if you wait until things are “perfect” then you are going to be waiting a long time.  So our son was born in February 2014 and we are 1000 times happy that he is here and he is healthy.

As for deciding for RJ to stay home, I think getting pregnant caught us both a little off-guard since we had never really talked about what we would do if we actually had a kid.  We (obviously) are not really people who spend a lot of time making plans. At the time, I was working my two current jobs, and RJ was working for a small IT firm that set up and maintained networks around town.  His job didn’t have family medical leave (since they have less than 50 employees), health insurance, or retirement.  Also, the hours were pretty long, frequently requiring him to work nights and weekends even when he didn’t want overtime.  He was wanting to take a class or two at the university to earn some more IT certifications and the job didn’t allow the flexibility for him to do that.  Having John was the catalyst for him to be able to leave that job on a high note - it was great experience and he liked the work - but still be able to be home with John and earn his certifications at night. On the other hand, my full-time job was/is enjoyable, does not require OT, offers health insurance, and has so many other benefits - great co-workers, the shower (!), and it is located only 3 miles from our cabin, making a bike or walking commute easy. Unfortunately, it also did not offer FML in the traditional sense because it too has less than 50 employees.  However, the management worked with me to allow me to take two weeks off and then work part-time (30 hours) for 3 months and still keep my health insurance after John was born.  Bartending is, well, still to date the most lucrative job either of us have ever worked.  Ha! And I work at a small bar in a hotel, not anything crazy like a club or something.  I took a few weeks off there and then went back in time for the March tourist season for my two nights a week.

As you read this, things will have changed.  RJ will be working full-time at the hospital, a job with traditional benefits. This will allow me to work part-time and be at home part-time.  The hospital has a daycare where John can attend part-time.  I asked RJ some questions though, looking back on the last 6 months.

I loved having you home.  Practically, it was so nice having someone at home.  I didn’t have to worry about John having to get up and going, and you took care of so many chores, like changing oil in the car and the grocery store, so the weekends were more relaxing. But mostly, I loved that you sent me pictures of John during the day, and that you told me about the funny/good/bad things that happened.  I liked coming home to a warm, friendly cabin with both of you there to greet me.  I loved watching the two of you interact, and listen to you talk about your routine, and seeing how John grew to always want to know that you were around. It makes me smile every time he is concentrating on something, like learning to crawl, and he’ll just pause and look around to see where you are.  I imagine him thinking, “Oh, ok, there you are Dad.  Watch this!  I can rock back and forth.” When you went dipnetting for the weekend to get our salmon, he would cry and I would go to comfort him, and when he was calm, he would always look around, I think wondering where you were.  I’ll never forget his huge smile when you walked in the door. What were your favorite parts about being a stay-at-home Dad?

Spending time with John has been the best time of my life. I was woefully unprepared to be a parent, but I like to think John and I raised each other each day. He taught me to be gentle and patient while I helped him grow. There are so many wonderful things about being a stay at home Dad, so it’s hard to pick one. I’ll be brief and say that the look on his face when he learns something new is the greatest joy. The smile he has and look of achievement he gave me when he first grasped his rattle, the smile he showed the first time he was up on his hands and knees, and the reaction he displayed after his first solid foods, are a few examples.

I didn’t like when you tried to bake (that sourdough bread was gross!) or when I would come home and you were like “John slept all day and I played a few hours of Diablo to unwind, want to see my character?”  Umm, hello jealously, ha, ha, although that didn’t happen often. For about a month, I really resented you too - I’d be getting ready to go to work in the dark, and you and John would still be sleeping peacefully.  And I was like, I want to be asleep!  I was just up all night with John and now I want to sleep! And pumping (milk) sucks! But then I came around and I wasn’t resentful anymore. There were too many things I appreciated that you did, and I saw how you and John were interacting, that I became grateful you were still sleeping when I left, so you could both get the extra rest. Finally, I was nervous that if John got older and you were still at home with him, one day I would walk in and be ambushed by nerf guns! What were the challenges of staying at home for you?

I realized early on how selfish I had been my whole life. I always wanted my way and I used to make you conform to my way as well. John doesn’t do things my way and I’ve learned to accept and love him for it. I believe that the patience and understanding I’ve learned from my time with him have helped me in every aspect of life. I’m more understanding of you, my wife, and to the world at large.
I gave “kids” not a lot of thought before we had John.  Even when I was preggo we were so busy with you working OT at your job to finish up that I felt like I pushed things like THE FUTURE to the back of mind.  How did you expect it to be before he was born?  What came true?  What was different than you expected?

I had no idea what to expect even after partially reading a book (in contrast Vanessa read many many books), so I prepared myself for the unexpected. My father was a police officer for 27 years and taught me skills to deal with the unknown. He went to work everyday not knowing what he would see or do. As he raised me, he taught me how to take stock of a situation and move on with the known variables. When John was born I mentally told myself “Brace for impact!”

Many of my guy friends told me horror stories or said they would mourn my loss of manhood. The attitudes shaded my view of being a father and it took a while to adjust. Thankfully none of those things are true. I love being a dad and the greatest surprise is how wonderful it is to have a child. All the love in the world can come from a child.

Clearly, you staying home while I worked two jobs was not our ideal situation, as you are going back to work and I get to work less now!  What IS your ideal situation?  [Realistic - You can’t say win the lottery and live on a beach for the rest of our lives]

I believe we are a team and that we should both contribute. While John was less than six months old we both valued one of us staying home with him. Now that he’s a little older I like the idea of working again. He is still very small, but a mixed schedule will have him in daycare for just a few days a week. I think this is my ideal schedule. I value your time at home and have always wished you could have more of it. I’ll be very happy to go back to work so you can reduce your total hours.

You told me a few times that people we knew gave you a hard time about staying home while I worked. Those people made me so mad! I wanted to shout at them, “He is a good Dad!” and “You try working a job with required OT and no benefits and see who decides to stay home.” Very mature of me, I know. What did you choose to say to them?

Well, they are my friends still, I just see them less. My self esteem really took a hit every time someone would tell me to get a job and support my family. Traditional values have taught us that this is how it should be. I, along with many other men, have broken this mold, but society still pushes back. I think men feeling paternal emotions is a grey zone that makes other men think about feelings. The whole tough guy routine goes out the window when emotions get involved.

To answer the questions, I really said nothing. I love my family so much and to hear criticism about how to spend my time is so shocking. Raising children is one of the most rewarding and time consuming jobs I’ve ever had. The joy I feel from John on a daily basis is immense and I’m just not prepared for negative comments. These comments bother me to this day because I can’t understand why my friends would judge me in this way. I feel like I’m better able to handle the criticism now, but I’m also headed back to work, so I might have just moved past this phase of sentiment from my friends.

My advice for new Dads is to prepare for people to question your judgement, work ethic, and manliness. I chose not to argue, but that’s not everyone’s style. Being a stay at home dad raises emotional questions for everyone around you and your buddies might not want to think about them. Most of my friends came around eventually.


You just got a really good job in medical IT.  Do you see yourself doing medical IT for the long haul, or as a step toward another path?  Also, do you ever see yourself being a stay-at-home Dad again?

Well, we made a deal that you would get to stay home for the next child. Is this a trick question? I feel refreshed from staying home with John even though it was hard work. I had previous medical problems and John and I really did take care of each other. I would never be the man I am today without my son. Being a stay at home dad is transformative and healthy. I feel very lucky that I don’t have to go back to work. I had picked out this job as one of two that I would apply for if they opened up during the time I was home was with John. It’s been a scramble to get things squared away so quickly, but I owe you a lot of thanks for helping. I am excited for medical IT. I like doing IT work, but working in the medical field is IT with a purpose. I’m hoping to make a career out of this job, but who knows what the future holds.
There is a question about tips on how we made our situation work. I’ll write three things down, all practical, that I think we will do for the rest of our lives.  Anything you would add?

1. We are a team. This goes without saying but I think for us, we really have to say it out loud.  Like, when we are fighting and one of us says “well, we’re a team, so we are going to have to be adults now and compromise.”  Or when we had to buy another car since ours decided to die and we didn’t really plan for that: “Well it sucks our savings is going away, but we are a team and we will both help to rebuild it.” Or when we know a hard week is coming up and we say “this week will be hard but we are a team and we will handle it together.”  Each time we say it makes me pause and think of walking back down the wedding aisle after saying our vows, hand-in-hand.  We are indeed a team!

2. We anticipate the bad days and plan to make them easier.  For instance, these past 6 months we always knew Tuesday nights were bad because I bartended on Sundays and Mondays so on Tuesdays we were always tired and cranky.  So we plan ahead to cook something really easy, like a quesadilla.  And we plan either no activity or something small for exercise.  For some reason, this was a huge revelation to me when we started doing it - before I always felt guilty for being tired.  Now I’m like, I’m tired, so dinner will be something easy!

3.  We give ourselves an “allowance” each week for free spending money and eating out.  The amount depends on how much money is in the bank, and we re-evaluate it every 6 months or so.  But allowance is so freeing!  For instance, if I want to buy something like a nice sushi dinner, then I don’t have to worry about whether or not it is a good idea financially.  Either I have the allowance now, or I have to wait until the next week.  Yes or no.  No long thought process.  And no guilt if I do have the allowance and decide to go for it!  And no getting angry at you.  If you buy something really stupid, like a computer monitor that doesn’t work and that you think you are going to be able to fix - hey, you are only wasting your allowance.  It is yours to spend on what you want, so how can I be mad about that?  But I do get to laugh at you when you can’t fix the monitor!

RJ: I agree with all of these points. The overall thought process here is having a working relationship first. We can’t be good parents if we aren’t good to each other. My childhood was not good and I used to stay awake at night listening to my parents fight. I’ve always been of the mind to discuss problems with Vanessa in front of our child/children. I want them to learn how adults talk and resolve problems. All relationships have disagreements and I’m hoping my children can learn good problem resolution skills from us the parents. I love John and Vanessa both dearly, so having a healthy functional relationship with both of them is key to my happiness.

Vanessa and I have identified areas that make us argue. As an example I’ll choose one of her points. Money was an issue for us from the beginning. We decided to try an allowance system to cut down on fighting and it really worked for us. I have friends that think it’s crazy and would never do it. I’m an overspender. I’ll just come out and say it. I’ve always had a problem with this and the allowance system has helped me cut back my spending habits and keep us out of debt. Vanessa never wants me to go without and would always let me purchase whatever I want, but that isn’t the point of allowance. The point is for me to be able to set my own limits in a fashion that works for me and my spending goals. The fact that she helps me by sticking to an allowance with me shows good teamwork and she’s found some perks of the system as well.

It takes a lot of work to make any system of parenting work. I’d say the biggest challenges we’ve faced haven’t been parenting related. Maintaining a healthy relationship, extended-family drama, financial woes (car), and the income/benefits puzzle are the hardest things to tackle. I would advise all new dads to prepare for these issues and just enjoy the actual parenting aspect. Parenting is a wonderful thing even when it’s hard ( teething, sleepless nights, fussy babies), but it’s the other life aspects that provide the real issues.


Moms tend to feel guilty about things.  Did you experience any guilt when you stayed at home, either about not making money, or about not doing enough activities with John?

I experienced a lot of guilt at first. My friends made me feel terrible about not making money, but I soon realized that John took up so much time that I felt justified in taking care of him. I always felt like I was contributing even though I wasn’t contributing money. I also found ways to contribute around the house with chores and reducing my spending even more to ease the burden on my family.
I do as many activities as I can with John. I used to worry about not reading enough books with him or developing his manual dexterity enough, but all those things came in time. Newborn babies don’t really have the attention span for books. As he grew we found a rhythm and it all started to fall into place. We do activities before breakfast, some after first nap, and so on.

I had a really hard time going back to work after having John.  He was so small!  I knew you would take good care of him, but I wanted to be there, holding him, loving him.  Thank heaven I bike to work and it was February because I cried the whole way and was able to blame my red face on the cold temperatures.  I remember standing outside and telling myself, now, you are going to grab the door handle, walk in with your head up, and do yourself proud at your job.  I gave a tour of the building features that day for a group of energy raters and I told myself I would give the best tour that I ever given.  And then I walked in.  What will you tell yourself when you go back to work on the first day? Or, will you just walk in without a second thought because you are a guy :) ?

I already know I’m going to miss him like crazy. I haven’t left yet and I already miss him. Every baby cuddle I get now I enjoy a little more than before because I know I’ll get fewer soon. I’ll be happy to be back at work though. I have enjoyed my time with John so thoroughly that I feel ready to contribute to my family’s success in another fashion now. I’ve always wanted you to have more time with John and I know soon you will. We also wanted a more balanced work/home life and we’re getting there now. To be honest, John is already growing up! I find myself missing him as a fresh newborn. Every day is precious and everyday is a new challenge. I will continue to have my close bond with him even after I go back to work. I think I value my time with him more now and I’m sure I will after work when I see him.

When I am at work and I am missing John, I remember something I read when I was pregnant about working moms.  The article said that without working moms, there wouldn’t be as many caring pediatricians, competent business leaders, or ladies smiling at you at the bank.  I think of that at work.  Without me, there wouldn’t be as many kids in Alaska with warm, healthy homes.  When I am missing John, I think, yes, but somewhere there is another kid who has a better house because of something I do today. That is what I would say to moms who go back to work.  Think of how you are making the world a better place for your child, for every child, one task, one courteous interaction at a time.  What would you say to people thinking of going back to work?  Or thinking to decide to stay at home?

I’m going to jump in and say that what Vanessa has done for this family is extremely hard and I could tell. I know how much she loves him and how much she misses him when she’s gone. It would be difficult for her to come home and see John and I cuddling knowing that we cuddled and bonded most of the day. I tried my best to be respectful and allow her to express her feelings of loneliness. I’m not sure that’s the right word or if there are any words for how it feels to go back to work and be torn from your newborn child. All I know is that she was out there busting her butt for our family and providing for us. I will always be indebted to her for providing not only the opportunity for me to stay home with John, but also providing food for the table. I know somedays Vanessa would come home and feel guilty about missing out on John, but she was taking care of him in a big picture sense. That’s a really hard thing to do.

Going back to work is a hard choice. I know it was for Vanessa and it is for me as well. We have to be able to provide for John though, so it’s a necessary choice. Staying home has been a wonderful time, but I know it doesn’t work for everyone. Vanessa and I will not buy a house or move to a larger place any time soon, but I believe it’s worth it for the time I’ve had at home. I think Vanessa values all the time I’ve had with John as well. She’s told me in the past that she worries so much less knowing I’m home taking care of him and sending her photos throughout the day. Money isn’t everything, so if either parent can afford to stay home for a while I strongly encourage trying it.

New questions submitted by readers (Ness started these, RJ finished up):
-How do meals work in your family? Meal planning? How often do you grocery shop? Who is in charge of this task in your family??

Two things that help here is that we love to cook and are not picky eaters.  We write a weekly menu.  We share cooking responsibilities depending on workload or what other chores need done, except that I usually do the baking and RJ usually does the grilling.

In Alaska, many people try to put away as much food as they can during the summer, so there is also  “meal planning” that occurs on an annual basis.  We work together on this as well, and many summer weekends are devoted to fishing, berry picking, and tending the garden and then canning the vegetables. I like that we get to eat so many local foods and that we maintain some of the traditional diet of RJ’s ancestors although I still buy the huge bag of pinto beans at Sam’s club and regularly make tortillas since I can’t leave my culture behind either!

Once again, I [RJ] used to be a poor planner. In my undergraduate days I’d eat out or shop each day. Writing a weekly menu has helped reduce our overall spending and also allowed us more time at home. This is especially important with a newborn. Each trip to the store can be a challenge. Vanessa and I are both in charge of meals. We write out menu together and shop together. We try to plan healthy meals and stick to them during the week. As she said above we plan some easy meals on hard days and that does help a lot. Not only do we have less to cook on hard days, but there is less to clean up which can also be a challenge when John is not having a good day. We try to shop once a week, but as a stay at home Dad, I’ve had the luxury to go back during the week for any forgotten items. We are starting John on real food now, but we feed him the healthy foods that we eat. As with a few of the other tricky situations answered above, we worked out a system for our busy lives previously and it’s really not changed that much with John.
-How do you keep your house clean? Power cleaning after bedtime? Staying out of the house as much as possible? Cleaning while kids are awake? Purging often? Cleaning schedule?

Well, now here is where the dry one-room cabin turns out to be really handy.  Cleaning the outhouse consists of doing...nothing. [TMI TMI stop reading if you don’t like outhouses...technically a few times a winter RJ has to knock down the poop stalagmite or as we prefer to call it the “tower of power.” And in the summer we put lime down the hole into the black abyss.] Cleaning the floor of the cabin takes all of ten minutes. We do this together every weekend.  I sweep the tiled area in the kitchen, the tiled area by the door, and the Arctic entry while RJ vacuums the carpet and John supervises. We wash the dishes during cooking or right after dinner while the other person reads John books. Other tasks (filling water jugs, shoveling snow, bike maintenance) we handle in a divide-and-conquer fashion over the weekends or days off.

RJ: We clean with John awake. He doesn’t seem to mind and we usually clean as we go. We do dishes after every meal so they don’t pile up. We do laundry once a week now because infants go through a lot of outfits! I do tidy up the house a little during nap times, but that usually consists of making sure dirty diapers are disposed of, making the bed, and picking up items strewn about the cabin while John plays. We try not to do chores after bedtime. The bedtime routine with John is sacred in our household and it’s almost more important for Vanessa and me than for John. After he goes to bed we talk and catch up on our lives and cuddle with each other. It’s a very important part of my day and It’s nice to relax before bed and just enjoy the peace and quiet before John wakes up again for feeding or comfort. John doesn’t sleep well still, so the nightly rituals are good for all of our sanity.

Thank you RJ for letting me interview you! I love you!  And thanks for letting us contribute to the series!

{Thank you, Vanessa and RJ! Find the rest of the MMIW series here}


  1. This was a fascinating post! I loved hearing both perspectives, and the allowance tip is really valuable!

  2. I knew you two were marvelous parents when I met John for the first time. He was so content. And no one is ever prepared to be a parent, even when one thinks they are. A lesson quickly learned on the first day. :) You both are awesome! Thank you for sharing with this great post.

  3. So intriguing - the lifestyle, the education/careers, the multiple perspectives, the beautiful mountains! Thanks for sharing, both of you.

  4. This was really interesting, especially because my husband and I also had our first son in February, and my husband is also a stay-at-home dad! It was neat to see another family in a similar situation!


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