It was in the midst of talking with my sister's husband, a stay-at-home dad for the past 13 years, that I had an attitude adjustment. For the first time, I understood that Michael's choice to stay home was not his way of avoiding work, but rather a conscious, difficult, and ultimately courageous decision to do what he felt was best for his son. The fact that he didn't hold a regular job had always been an unspoken divide between us. But during this conversation, I realized that my attitude said more about me than it did about him.
For all of my commitment to being a good and involved father over the past 18 years, I would not have relished spending long, continuous hours each day caring for my young children. The truth is that it would have been very difficult for me to set aside my own ambitions in order to function as a full-time parent. My identity was simply too dependent on what I accomplished at work. I told myself that men (and women) who choose to stay home just don't have what it takes to be successful in the work world.
Now I know that it isn't that simple.
For the past several weeks, I've been talking to stay-at-home dads. Back in 1988, when my brother-in-law Michael Arnold, now 43, made that choice, he was something of a pioneer. He didn't know any other full-time dads. But things have changed: A 1993 U.S. Census Bureau report revealed that more than 1.5 million men had primary responsibility for their young children. Today, Internet sites with names like At-Home Dad and Slowlane.com are devoted to the concerns of full-time fathers, while iVillage's "parent soup" hosts a chat room for at-home dads. And the Fourth Annual At-Home Dads' Convention, which took place last fall in Des Plaines, Illinois, attracted 85 full-time fathers.
In addition, two recently published books focus on the value to kids of having fathers who play primary parental roles -- "Fatherneed: Why Father Care Is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child" (Free Press, 2000), by Kyle Pruett, a child psychiatrist at Yale; and "The Involved Father" (Golden Books, 1999), by Robert Frank, a psychologist who was a stay-at-home dad for more than a decade.
There's more than a little irony in all of this. In 1963, Betty Friedan helped spawn the women's-liberation movement by writing "The Feminine Mystique" -- a fiery treatise on the boredom, frustration, and unrealized ambitions of 1950s stay-at-home moms. College-educated women of my generation, raised in the feminist 1960s, are committed to having it all -- careers and family -- and they reject the notion that raising kids can be a full-time job. But suddenly, a whole group of men are embracing a role that many women have shunned! Just what is it that these men find so alluring about spending their days changing diapers, cleaning, shopping, cooking, and foregoing adult conversation, all in favor of the occasional game of Candy Land or Go Fish?
One answer to that question is practical, and it partly reflects the impact of the women's movement. The full-time dads with whom I spoke echoed research suggesting that men choose to stay home with their young children for two reasons: They are reluctant to turn over responsibility to outside child-care providers, and their wives have higher incomes than they do. But a third reason, I suspect, has to do with temperament. A half-dozen at-home dads told me that they are simply more patient and more easygoing than their wives -- and thus generally better suited to the primary parenting role. "It was just natural for me to be a nurturer," my brother-in-law Michael told me. "If that weren't true, making the choice would have been much harder."
That doesn't mean that the experience is all warm and fuzzy. Stay-at-home dads frequently feel more isolated from, and more devalued by, their peers than do stay-at-home moms. Women have always had the companionship of other women who are doing the same thing that they are. But, in the same way that women still struggle against a "glass ceiling" in the workplace, full-time fathers complain about encountering a glass wall -- on playgrounds and in other social settings.
"Now I can relate to what women go through at work," says Curtis Cooper, 37, who has primary responsibility for his two children, ages 5 and 6. "You go to the park, and it's filled with women. That really makes you feel like an outsider." Other men say that women actively avoid them. Cooper's response was to found Dad-to-Dad, a loosely organized group (with chapters all over the country) that aims to help at-home dads connect with one another -- to offer support, to set up play dates with their kids, and to plan the occasional dads'-night-out dinner.
Full-time dads often struggle with respect -- getting it from others and having it for themselves. "Other dads rejected me, and I had real difficulty finding my place in the world," my brother-in-law acknowledges. "At times, being a stay-at-home dad has been devastating to my sense of self. I was raised to be a worker, but I found that I couldn't work part-time and still be a full-time parent. I feel proud that I've been a good father, and it's been fantastic to see the fruits of my labor, especially as my son becomes his own person. But I also know that I gave up a lot to do this."
In other ways, the job of a stay-at-home dad is less demanding than that of the average stay-at-home mom. Stereotypical patterns persist, even among couples who have reversed their roles as parents. Working fathers still often play minimal or secondary roles when it comes to child care. Women who work full-time while their husbands stay home commonly take on a lot of household and parenting responsibilities in the evenings, such as putting their kids to bed. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild has labeled this phenomenon the "second shift."
"Society expects working women -- but not working men -- to be very involved in their children's lives," says Robert Frank, a leading researcher in the field. In a 1996 study (which he outlines in "The Involved Father"), Frank asked several hundred couples a question: When both parents are available, which parent does the child go to? Among families in which the mother was the primary caregiver, the child went to her 78% of the time. Among families in which the father was the primary caregiver, the child still chose the mother 56% of the time. Frank believes that this is a reflection of cultural expectations, rather than of genetic predisposition.
Stereotyping also persists when it comes to household responsibilities. At-home dads, Frank and other researchers have found, are far less likely than at-home moms to do laundry or housecleaning -- in part because men seem to care less about such things. "I definitely have a lower standard for cleanliness than my wife does. I clean only when she tells me to," says Peter Baylies, 43, who takes care of his two children, ages 4 and 8, and who publishes a quarterly newsletter, called "At-Home Dad," that he writes from home. "I cleaned the bathroom the other day, but before that, it hadn't been cleaned in months." Jay Massey, 42, who stays at home with his son, Tucker, 5, cleans even less often. "When it comes down to who does the housework," he says, "the answer is nobody."
Many at-home fathers do at least some work from home, along with taking care of their children. Massey, for instance, is president of a Web-design business that he runs from his home. "My first job is Tucker, and my second job is Coco Design," he says. When his son was younger, Massey found time for his design work during nap time and late at night. Now that Tucker is in kindergarten everyday from 8 AM to 2 PM, Massey gets in nearly a full day's work before picking him up.
The bottom line is that we need to give men and women more choices -- without judging the ones that they make. The most common arrangement today, by far, is for both parents to work, above all because most families need two incomes to make ends meet. A growing body of research suggests that kids aren't suffering from having two working parents. A smaller number of parents -- though an increasing percentage of men -- prefer to be at home full-time with their kids. Children of such fathers seem to do especially well; researchers like Frank believe that the reason is that these kids typically have two highly involved parents.
For my part, I've sought a middle ground, working full-time -- but doing so from home. While our kids were little, my wife and I had the help of baby-sitters, but I still wanted to be around and available -- especially during those years when my wife was working in an office all day. Today is a good example of how my working at home benefits my kids. Emily, my 14-year-old, stayed home from school today because she's sick. A few moments ago, I interrupted work on this column to run to the local bakery to get her a treat -- although it's possible that I did so at least partly to help make my point.
The research on stay-at-home dads yields a clear message for fathers trying to balance work and family: Investing time in ordinary aspects of your kids' lives matters a lot, and having two involved parents is clearly the best of all possible worlds. For working men especially, that means that taking on at least some of the responsibilities that at-home parents do as a matter of course: setting up play dates, knowing the names of your kids' friends and teachers, getting involved in their schools, helping them with their homework, bathing them and putting them to bed, and being the one to respond to their occasional emergencies. All of this can make a huge difference in a child's life.
Of course, finding just the right balance is never easy. Consider Matt Berry. After years spent working as a stand-up comedian in the club circuit and kicking around ideas for television sitcoms, Berry, 43, got together with his partner, Ric Swartzlander, 38, to create a show based on their own experiences as stay-at-home dads. Network executives kept turning down their idea, on the grounds that audiences would never find a full-time dad sympathetic. But last fall, NBC finally gave the go-ahead for "Daddio." When I caught up with Berry in January, he was in the midst of shooting the show's pilot, which was scheduled to air in March.
"It's kinda weird," Berry said. "Here I am, making this show about stay-at-home dads, and the result is that I've seen my three kids less during the past couple of weeks than at any time I can remember. Hopefully, the show will be illuminating for others -- even if my own fatherless kids are destined now to end up in reform school because I'm not around anymore."
Tony Schwartz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer and speaker who leads workshops on life/work balance. Visit At-Home Dad on the Web (www.athomedad.com). You can order Curtis Cooper's "At Home Dad Handbook" on the Web (www.slowlane.com).