TUSTIN, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)–On a cloudy Tuesday morning eight fathers and a gaggle of toddlers and preschoolers converge on the Cedar Grove Park playground for their weekly playgroup. Between shooing their tots away from mud puddles or chasing them across the wide field that borders the play area, the men swap advice on nap times and getting their little ones to eat veggies.
Occasionally, a curious mom at the park will approach the group and ask them if they have theday off, said Tom Gomez, who, with his 4-year-old son, Sean, has been part of the Orange County Dads’ Group for nearly four years. His response is, "No, do you?" He knows taking care of young children is work. Gomez takes care of Sean during the day while his spouse, Maryann, heads to her job as a senior administrator for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Gomez is part of a small, but growing number of fathers who care for their children while their wives are at work. Though there are no hard figures on the number of such men who forgo jobs to stay home, data show that just over 20 percent of preschoolers in married-couple households are cared for by their fathers–up from 17 percent in 1997, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And while at-home fathers still make up a small percentage of fathers in the United States, they are finding each other in playgroups and online.
Together, they are navigating a course through diaper duties, teething and the terrible twos. At the same time, they are challenging traditional expectations of men as fathers–and carving out a space for themselves.
More Than Just a Day in the Park
For many families, the decision about who will stay home with the kids hinges on who brings in the bigger paycheck. While women still earn 76 cents for every dollar earned by men, 15 percent of wives earn at least $5,000 more than their husbands. That number is likely to grow as young women pull ahead of men in higher education, with its ticket to a higher income. Thirty-three percent of women, ages 25 to 34, have completed college, compared with 29 percent of men in the same age group, according to U.S. Census Data.
Early indications are that moms reap career benefits when dads stay home with the kids. More than one-third of the women on Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 most powerful women in business have a husband at home either full- or part-time.
Libby Gill, a media consultant and author of "Stay-At-Home Dads: The Essential Guide to Creating the New Family," said having her husband at home with her two sons made it much easier for her to make business trips and keep up with the crunch times that come with running a consulting business.
"The fact that he was home with the kids gave me the freedom to have an erratic schedule," she said in a phone interview.
But it’s not just the moms who reap the benefits. Many dads said they were developing a bond with their kids they wouldn’t have if they held full-time jobs outside the home.
"I can already envision me missing this," said Don Burrell, who cares for his sons, Samuel, age 2 and Christopher, age 4, while his wife, Angela, works as a county park ranger. "I tell my friends they are missing these memories."
At-Home Dads Want a Little Respect
Despite the advantages when fathers stay home with the kids, it can be hard to adjust to the arrangement. From movies like "Daddy Day Care" to "Mister Mom," pop culture is rife with images of bumbling dads floored by filthy diapers and shocked by spit up that send a message that taking care of young children is women’s work.
These worn-out attitudes about men’s role in the family and their capability to care for young children alienate at-home dads. Though they spend most of the day caring for their kids, home dads often aren’t accepted among at-home moms. And while many work from home–and some pull swing shifts in the evenings or on weekends–home dads don’t quite fit in the male breadwinner mold either.
"When you admit you’re a stay-at-home dad, you’re coming out of the pantry," says Hogan Hilling, author of "The Man Who Would Be Dad" and founder of Proud Dads, Inc., a motivational seminar program that he runs out of his Irvine, Calif., home. Hilling has been an at-home dad for over 12 years. His wife Julia works as a speech pathologist in the local school district while he cares for their three sons, Grant, age 15; Wesley, age 13 and Matthew, age 9.
A lot of men measure their success as a parent through their careers and their ability to provide for the family, says Hilling. When he first started staying home with his kids, people assumed he was out of work–or that his decision to stay home was a sacrifice on his part, instead of a choice he made willingly. Those attitudes haven’t changed much.
"Guys staying home now are still getting the same comments and looks that I was getting 12 years ago," he said.
Jay Massey is working to overcome some of the alienation at-home fathers feel. When he first stayed home he felt isolated and found an absence of resources for fathers like him, beginning with men’s rooms that offered no diaper-changing stations. Then Massey discovered the At-Home Dads Network, which started in 1995 as a newsletter and AOL chat group for home dads. Massey signed up for the At-Home Dads newsletter, joined the chat group, and attended the second annual Dad-to-Dad convention. Not long after that, he volunteered to take over Slowlane.com, an online resource for fathers, created by a fellow at-home dad.
Massey, who runs a Web design company out of his Pensacola, Fla., home, spends 5 to 10 hours a week running Slowlane.com. He also takes care of his 9-year-old son, Tucker, while his wife, Joann, works full-time as a psychologist at a local hospital. Since he took the helm in 1997, the site’s audience has grown from a trickle of visitors to over 4.5 million hits a year. Slowlane now offers 1,500 pages of information for the at-home dad, including how to find, or start, a local dads’ playgroup.
"If there’s a dad out there who’s feeling isolated, we’re hoping this is one way he can connect," said Massey.
Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.
For more information:
Proud Dads, Inc.:
At-Home Dad Network: