When Christine Saunders was dating Mark Haskett, a photographer, he told her that someday he'd love to stay home to raise their kids. Christine, a lawyer, thought that was just great. She knew she didn't want to stay home full-time or hire a full-time caregiver. Nine years later, Christine Haskett, 37, is a successful partner at the San Francisco law firm Heller Ehrman, while Mark, also 37, relishes his time at home with their 5-year-old son, Mills, and infant daughter, Nicola. "When my son was born, I fired all my clients and told them, 'I'm a kid photographer now,'" says Mark.
Stay-at-home dads like Mark are no longer the cultural curiosity they were when Michael Keaton kept house for Teri Garr in Mr. Mom back in 1983. Still, today's full-time fathers do remain a distinct minority: There are about 143,000 of them according to the 2006 U.S. census, tiny next to the 11 million stay-at-home moms. But the number of children living with stay-at-home dads has increased 18 percent since 1994. In addition, the salaries of white-collar women continue to rise faster than men's, and the number of women earning more than their husbands has risen as well—the 2003 census reported that at least 25 percent of women in double-income marriages outearned their spouses. For couples who put a high value on life balance, as well as having their children raised by a parent full-time, the stay-at-home dad is an increasingly appealing option.
"These men are social entrepreneurs," says law professor Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings, and author of Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. "They are challenging traditional definitions of manliness by throwing over one of the key measures of masculinity: the size of the paycheck. You need a strong and self-confident man who knows his own values to pull this off."
Clueless or Enlightened?
You also need a tolerant man. The solo stroller-pushing dad remains a target for unsolicited advice from people on the street. "People pretty much think you're an idiot," says Mark. "They'd see me and say, 'You need to give this baby some water' or 'Let me show you how to do that.' No one would walk up to a woman and say that—that would be rude."
Stay-at-home dads come to the role in very different ways. Some are pushed into it by circumstance, only to discover they have a real knack for it. Lynne and Joe Richer, both 33, of Jamesville, NY, were working at the same bank, with their first child in day care. Then Joe was laid off as part of a merger and decided to take on the child care himself. "It simply didn't make sense to pay for day care when the salary he could or would potentially earn was not much greater," Lynne says. "It was a financial decision initially, but it's also given us better quality of life. I can work well knowing our kids are cared for by someone who loves them as much as I do." And Joe has taken to the role so well that he now also watches a baby nephew at home each day.
Then there's Glenn Mercer, 52, of North Haledon, NJ, a founding member of the groundbreaking alternative band The Feelies. He and his 40-something wife, Jerry Flach, an IT project manager for an investment management firm, had the first of their two children in 1991, right around the time The Feelies broke up and Glenn decided to stay at home. "It was a natural process," Glenn says. "I felt I needed to reassess my goals and take time off to recharge my batteries." Contrary to stereotypes, Jerry says, her rocker husband was eminently qualified for the job: "He's clean-cut, values-oriented and a dedicated father."
Are all the "new dads" able to pull off playdates while maintaining their sense of identity? Maybe not all, but a lot. Although several recent studies of husbands and wives show a decline in marital satisfaction and an increase in depression after they become parents, new research from the University of Texas reveals that many stay-at-home dads report high relationship and overall life satisfaction. What's more, many say they're happier now than when they worked full-time, says study head Aaron Rochlen, PhD, an associate professor of psychology. But the research identifies challenges as well. Among at-home dads who were less satisfied with their lives, the key reason was their strong belief in traditional ideas of masculinity. "Those men tended not to be coping as well," says Dr. Rochlen, "and also reported being less likely to seek social support. They may be quietly struggling."
More Parenting for the Buck
If stay-at-home dads can endure the occasional affronts and the lifestyle changes, though, there may be clear benefits for their kids. One perk we may not realize: "If there's a choice between the mom or the dad staying at home, the child will typically end up with more parental attention when Dad stays home," says Williams. Working dads with stay-at-home wives tend to work longer hours and more easily relinquish parenting responsibilities than do working moms with at-home husbands, she says. "Generally, these working mothers are not willing to let go of their parental role to the same extent as 'breadwinner fathers.' They stay involved with their kids."
"Our kids grew up knowing that both Dad and Mom would help them," says Julia Moore 44, of Indianapolis, who works for an architecture and interiors firm. Her husband, Brian, 48, a potter, is at home with their kids, now teenagers. "I'm no less a good mom because Brian stayed home with the kids."
As proud as working moms are of their commitment to their families, many at-home dads take special pride in following a different path than their own fathers chose. "I watched my father work himself into an early grave," says Mark. "As a result, he didn't spend that much time with his kids. I thought, Is that what I want? My identity as a person isn't wrapped up in what I do. I watched my father do that. That's what led me to say, 'I'll stay home with the kids.'"
At the same time, some working moms are acutely aware that their relationships with their children are not unlike the relationships they had with their fathers. "When I was growing up, my dad would come in the door and we'd all scream, 'Dad!' and my mom would say, 'What am I, chopped liver?'" says 47-year-old Liz Ryan of Boulder, CO, founder of the online business community WorldWIT, whose husband stays at home with their five children, ages 4 to 13. "But she was with us all day, so she wasn't as exciting. It's the same thing in reverse for my kids. I walk in the door, and it's 'Mommy!'"
Stay-at-home dads who have left the workforce to watch their kids are no different than stay-at-home moms who have off-ramped from their careers. Both worry about how easily they'll be able to return to work once all their children are in school full-time. For the dads, the challenge may be even greater. "It's hard to be outside the labor force for a long time," says Scott Coltrane, PhD, associate director of the Center for Family Studies at the University of California, Riverside. "Economic data show that your wages will suffer over the long term."
Once a computer programmer, Tony Lower-Basch, a 36-year-old at-home dad in Alexandria, VA, plans to go back to work when his 6- and 3-year-old boys are older, but he realizes his prospects are a big unknown. "I was very employable before I took the break," he says, "and I'd like to think my skills have not atrophied. But there's certainly a case to be made that my doing this may indicate that I'm not totally committed to a job, and I can understand why an employer wouldn't want that."
Due to concerns about life when the kids are in college, many at-home dads stay active in their careers, keeping up with colleagues and professional organizations. Others develop new pursuits or make a change in career. Kate and Chris Espinosa of Gold River, CA, planned ahead: Some years before their first child was born in 2001, Kate, now 37, worked as a director of marketing at VSP Vision Care, a benefits company, and Chris, now 40, worked in retail management. They decided that Chris would be their children's primary caregiver, so he transitioned from retail to real estate, lining up as many clients as he could before the kids arrived. Today he maintains those relationships in his spare time. "I'm a productive person, and this transition means I can continue to work, but more on my terms," he says. "Whether I have a kid hanging off me or not doesn't affect how I think, who I am or what I know."
A New Kind of Balance
Ultimately, every family with a stay-at-home dad navigates their chosen path in their own way. Tony Lower-Basch's wife, Elizabeth, 35, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, DC, is quick to admit that there have been trade-offs. "We have less money," she says, "but we also have a lot less stress." As she recently posted on Half Changed World, the popular blog she maintains: "There are days I'm jealous of him for getting to play with the kids and there are days he's jealous of me for getting to escape to a nice quiet office. Sometimes when he spends a lot of time on his hobbies, I think it would be nice if he mopped the floor instead. I burn quietly when the preschool teacher effusively tells me how nice it is to see me for a change. But none of these really bug us for more than about a minute at a time."
At-home dads and their spouses are also realizing that their children are growing up with some very different cultural messages than they were raised on. In these families, it's most likely Dad who's the chief chef and bottle washer, the playdate and doctor-visit coordinator and the PTA liaison. And Mom? "About a year ago, we were talking to our son, Mills, about what he was going to be when he grew up," Christine Haskett says. "At one point, Mark said, 'Maybe you can be a lawyer,' and Mills burst out laughing and said, 'That's a girl's job!'"
How Dads Do It
Any mom who has sat by as her husband wrestles with their children—again—knows that dads do things differently. At-home dads manage in their own way. While some moms may disparage their partner's home-grown techniques, perhaps there are things to be learned here. Most important, these dads are forming powerful bonds with their children—and if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Sort of wild, but safe. Tony Lower-Basch lets his sons do crazier things than his wife would, "but always within arm's reach," he says. "I stop what I gauge to be a problem before it starts, precisely to let them do more things." Wife Elizabeth adds, "It's silly to say, 'You can't go down that slide,' when he lets them all day."
Special bedtime rituals. Like most dads, the at-home ones say bedtime is a special time to bond with their children. "When I put my son down every night, I say, 'Did I ever tell you you're my best mate?'" says Mark Haskett, "and he answers, 'You told me that a million times!' We're best friends."
More like buddies. At-home dads get certain bonding opportunities other dads might miss—and their wives are all for it. "I love that my husband picks up our preschooler and takes him to a restaurant for some one-on-one boy talk," Liz Ryan says. "We have four boys, and it'll be great for them all to have had that time with their dad."
Less housework, more playtime. Even moms who'd like their at-home husbands to clean more respect the alternatives. Christine Haskett is something of a neat freak, but she admits that "the time Mark doesn't spend cleaning is spent playing with the baby or our son. That's what he's so good at, and our children are thriving because of it."
Discipline and roughhousing. Several at-home dads say they set boundaries so their kids understand the importance of discipline and learn that it all can't be playtime. "I'm stern in my expectations that my kids behave well and listen," says Chris Espinosa. "But when it's time to play, I'm the biggest goof around. We love to roll around and wrestle."
Is He Thinking of Staying Home? Read This First.
There are many advantages to the at-home-dad arrangement. But relationship experts advise families who are considering this to bear these important ideas in mind:
Maintain a united parenting front. As hard as it is for some dads to take on the role of primary caregiver, it can be equally hard for some women to give it up, says Williams. "If you delegate something to somebody, it's a sign of disrespect to go back and do it all over again yourself," she says. "It's disrespectful to treat an employee that way and disrespectful to treat your husband that way. He's going to do things his way, and that needs to be okay for the most part. It sends a negative message to the children when one parent second-guesses the other parent all the time."
Set housework rules. Even in families where the dad is great at watching the kids, housework can remain "the last stronghold," says psychotherapist Olivia Mellan of Washington, DC. "Some men don't want to give up their masculine image completely." Which means they may leave housework for their wives to do after work. Experts say it doesn't matter what rules you set, as long as you both have the same expectations.
The National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org) supports dads with public policy information, mentoring and skills training.
Homedaddy, directed by Kent Ayyildiz, is an acclaimed 28-minute documentary on the struggles and triumphs of at-home dads and working moms ($25, www.moonstarfilms.com).
www.slowlane.com is a must-go for all things informative and fun for the literate SAHD (its term for "stay-at-home dad").
Homedaddy (no relation to the film), by Todd Pinsky, is a memoir of a hip dad caring for his baby daughter, with often disastrous—but always hysterical—results ($14, www.amazon.com).