Mr. Mom's world

Stay-at-home dads face down stereotypes and learn how undervalued the work of child care really is.

By David Case

Published May 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When we imagine what it takes to raise a happy, healthy child, most of us picture fresh air, a green yard with a blow-up wading pool and maybe even a golden retriever standing guard. Most important, we imagine a nurturing, attentive caregiver willing to dedicate endless days to encouragement, discipline and guidance. In this perfect parenting scenario, most of us probably visualize ideal moms like Carol Brady or June Cleaver, no matter how progressive we may be.

Most of us probably wouldn't conjure up someone like my old friend Tal Birdsey. Here's a guy who, when we met during college, could go for months without washing his hair, a guy who bragged about laundering his sheets only once a semester. The closest he came to taking care of another human was nurturing his gut, a jiggly beast widely known as Joe, which he kept healthy on a strict regime of barley and hops. And now he's molding in his image not one, but two tiny lives? Simultaneously? With no help?

"It's like this," he says. "When I was first taking care of the kids, my wife Blair had to come home every three hours to breast-feed the baby. One day she's real late. The baby starts wailing hysterically -- I worry he's gonna drop. So I fix him a bottle, which he's never had before. I'm trying to convince him the plastic nipple works just as well as him mom's, then nature calls -- urgently. I don't know, maybe the stress loosened my

"Next thing, I'm sitting on the loo, cradling the baby, balancing his bottle under my chin. After a few moments repose, 'brrrrrrnng, brrrrrrnng.' It must be Blair calling from a pay phone. I've got to get it before the voice mail picks up.

"So with my trousers around my ankles, the baby in my arms, I scurry, bent at the waist, across the living room. I pick it up -- a man's voice. The bank calling about our mortgage application. From behind, the 3-year-old senses my momentary vulnerability, and attacks. Giggling like a madman, he starts spanking me. Funniest thing he's ever seen -- his daddy bare-assed in the living room cradling the baby and talking on the phone."

This certainly isn't a scene that could have transpired under my
mother's roost. But a growing number of men in their 30s find themselves at home full time, changing diapers, hunting down lost socks, playing daddy rides the hay wagon.

By the 1970s, women had earned their right to careers -- and why not? The American family could, of course, use more income. But when the revolution spawned offspring, women were left with a heavy weight to carry. Sure, society said, you can work, but you'd better be ready to juggle, to multitask, drop your kids off on the way to work, stop at the store on the way home and run the vacuum cleaner while everyone else sleeps.

Where, pray tell, was dad while this was going on? The tacit assumption was always that men would continue to work, that the wonder woman of the '70s and '80s was so empowered she could somehow continue her role as full-time mom. No one expected dad to soil his business suit with drool. And statistically speaking, he didn't.

"When I was a child," remembers Tom Funk, 33, who shares the parenting and income-generating more or less equally with his wife, Liz, "I remember a neighbor's father, during a rare bout with solo parenting, being confronted with a dangerously dirty diaper. He packed the crying child in the back of the car and drove 45 minutes to find a woman who could change it for him. That doesn't cut it anymore."

Well, men, we've got something to thump our chests about. More and more of us are pulling our weight at home. In the late '90s, men in dual-earner couples take on 60 percent more child care than did our fathers. And we do an impressive 2.5 times more housework, according to Scott Coltrane, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Riverside and author of the book "Family Man: Brotherhood, Housework and Gender Equity." Sadly, that brings us to a mere 28 percent of the housework and 33 percent of child care. The emerging class of stay-at-home dads, or SAHDs, are no doubt helping our stats.

So who are these domesticated dads, and what are they thinking? Some are the disillusioned progeny of workaholic fathers -- stockbrokers, lawyers and executives -- sons who seek a closer bond with their kin. For others, office politics out-repulse even the most colicky child. "This is a lot better than most of the jobs I could get," points out Yale Lewis, a
journalist and, for now, stay-at-home dad. Many, like Lewis and Birdsey, have advanced degrees, though these days they're more apt to cite "Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel" than Milton.

Along with their wives, SAHDs feel strongly that even the best day care can't replace an attentive parent. When both Birdseys were working, Tal says, "The only time I ever felt comfortable, the only time I stopped thinking about the baby was when he was napping. Then I knew he was all right."

The SAHDs may be the first significant group of men with little lingering notion of male superiority. While they may remain haunted by societal biases, some readily admit that their wives are more clever, more energetic and better able to cope in society -- or at least that they had played their cards more effectively.

Andrew Stockwood has great admiration for his partner, Shirley, a lawyer and political advisor. "Shirley has the education, experience and talent to make lots of money," says Stockwood, who recently passed up a job as a roving photojournalist in the South Pacific. Having relished two years with his first child, he prefers to stay home in anticipation of "oogling" his soon-to-arrive second. "I love the fact that this lets us live an alternative lifestyle and still be very comfortable. Her skills are extremely valuable and sought after.

"Succeeding as a professional still feels like a triumph for women," Stockwood muses. "I was always expected to be a successful professional, so that route seemed boring and constraining to me. And given the choice, I would rather bake the bread than buy the flour."

Yet the men fret that women are not necessarily happy with the setup. "I think Shirley dreams that I will one day transform myself into a real man who goes out and makes lots of money and lets her stay home with her children, at least part time," Stockwood says.

For some women, the rise of domestic paternity means that their hard-earned career right is morphing into a responsibility. Lewis says, "My wife would like it if I could earn more. She wants to stay at home with the kids. But she's a doctor, and the huge difference between her income and mine makes it ridiculous for her not to work. If I were supporting us, we'd be living in a shack."

While many SAHDs expected child care to be a light, midlife sabbatical (chalk this up to lingering male hubris), the consensus is that it's not easy being a househusband. They complain of grueling 100-hour work weeks, with no breaks, vacation, bonuses or income. They are, no doubt, getting a taste of the bitter reality that traditional moms have suffered for generations: Society belittles the care giver's vocation. But the hardest part, they say, strikes at the heart of their masculinity. Men are uneasy taking on a role that women scorned loudly a generation ago.

"What?" Birdsey objects when I call to interview him. "You're writing about a poor sap who got off the career path and started going nowhere fast?" Birdsey is a poet and painter who has studied in the hallowed halls of Oxford University. After recovering from his college years, he was a popular teacher at an alternative school in Atlanta. Now he's a full-time SAHD and lives in Vermont.

No matter how egalitarian they may feel, "Men are programmed to go out and conquer things, to bring home the game," Birdsey says. "In our 30s and 40s, we're supposed to be establishing ourselves. Suddenly I have nothing that's rewarded by the wider society. When people ask what I do, I tell them I take care of kids, but that doesn't really cover it. There are 500 little things I do every day, but none of them really seems significant. I pack lunch, I make sure that the car is warm when the boys get in it, I keep track of their mittens. Sure, I'm educating them to do this in the future, but it's hard to see that as an important thing to do."

For the time being, some SAHDs say they feel isolated. Away from the workaday adult world, they're often alone in their convictions, and are outcasts among the generally more traditional moms they see during the day. "Yesterday at the playground there was a little boy who got along so well with Emily," says Andy Murray, referring to his 2-year-old, an adorable firecracker with an Einsteinian flop of white hair. "I wanted the kids to get together again, but there's this whole thing about me, a man alone with a child, giving out my phone number to a woman."

The flip side is the sandbox-as-pickup joint, a throwback to the parents' own schoolyard days. Some moms admit to going gooey at the site of a man with a stroller, a male counterpart deft at caring for a child in a way that perhaps their spouses aren't. The dads, however, contend that they're family types, and are not apt to notice this feminine yearning. Instead, they're preoccupied with the "Mr. Mom" stigma -- the hairy eyeball from older relatives and neighbors who still believe that it takes three men to handle a baby.

"You should see the stares I get at the playground," says Walter Garschagen, a photographer whose wife is an actress. "It's like, Why isn't he working, and why does he make his wife toil 80 hours a week to support him? I love taking care of Emma (another 2-year-old), but I'd feel better about myself if I were out moving rocks. At least I'd be sweating."

The complaints of some dads smack of role reversal. One father in Houston gripes that his wife "just doesn't get it. She works late, and when she comes home she'd prefer to open the mail than say hello to her toddler. It kills me."

Distraught dads can seek solace during nap time at slow lane, where they can network with localized groups across the country, or commiserate with literature aimed at their travails. "Wife's an inconsiderate lazy slob?" writes David Epstein, father of Leo, 22 months. "Smile and relax. Emotions like anger just deplete your energy -- energy that will help you meet your housework objectives." Epstein takes on the kids as well: "If your child were your boss, you'd quit. Your boss never threw a screaming tantrum on you in the supermarket, and topped it off by pooping one and a half loads in to a one-load diaper, then made you wash his or her butt."

Gripes aside, the SAHDs often have solid careers behind them. Though they may be relegated to a daddy track, at least there's something they can rekindle if life throws them a curveball, unlike old-style moms who had few income options should the man turn rotten. Stockwood's partner, Shirley, points out, "Almost every SAHD has the benefit of an emotionally involved partner to help him out," an assertion that is shared by academics.

While relatively little research has been done on the impact of father-reared families, so far the pundits say that generally, everyone wins. When men participate in routine child care, women enjoy a higher public status and share political authority with men, says UC-Riverside professor Coltrane. "Men who do more parenting report they are more in touch with their emotions, are more compassionate, and can relate better to their wives. [They] are unlikely to celebrate their manhood through combative contests, vociferous oratory and violent rituals."

And growing up with dad around benefits kids in unique ways. "Compared to mothers, men spend more of their child-care time in games or rough-and-tumble play. We know the children learn important skills in this kind of interaction, such as how to regulate their emotions," says Coltrane. Joseph Pleck of the University of Illinois adds, "Children with involved fathers tend to do better socially and academically, they generally have better self control, confidence and self esteem and they avoid gender stereotyping."

The academics predict that society as a whole will benefit as the trend catches on. "If more men care for children, daughters' and sons' emotional dispositions and cognitive frameworks will become more similar. This will prepare future generations for a world that is less polarized by gender than the one we know," Coltrane says. "By instituting gender equity in the family, we will move closer to achieving gender equity in the larger society."

But don't let all this mushy man-speak fool you into believing that America is finally achieving domestic parity. Women, it seems, are still routinely over-burdened. While the SAHDs deserve kudos for their efforts, even they tend to kick back when mom gets home. Whether it's guilt or higher standards that drive them, even some women who are the sole wage earners put in an extra effort at home. As Birdsey's wife, Blair, an ad copywriter, puts it, "Tal is a typical guy. He's never cleaned the toilet, he doesn't even notice the hair balls gathering dust on the staircase, or the musty towels in a ball on the bathroom floor. I still have to do all the housework and cook." But, she adds, "I guess it's fair, because I like to do it."

Funk admits late one evening while his wife washes the dishes, "I'd like to think that we do half and half, but in reality it's probably more like 30-70." Men, he says, justify this by comparing themselves to other men who do even less. Like most guys, Funk finds child care much harder than office work. "On the days when I have the baby, we're more apt to just get a pizza for dinner."

Women, he concedes, are just more capable of working long hours.

David Case

David Case is a senior writer and editor at GlobalPost. Follow him @DavidCaseReport.

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