On a typical day he takes them to the grocery store, plays host to their friends, coaches the kids in sports and cooks lunch and dinner. "I never in a million years expected I'd be doing this. It just wasn't what I grew up thinking a guy is supposed to do," he says. "But it made sense for us, and I really love it. I feel like I have the best job in the world."
Laut is part of a growing cadre of men who choose to care for their children at home while their wives or partners work. A diverse, zealously committed group that reflects a range of classes, occupations and ethnic backgrounds, these stay-at-home dads, or sahds, as they have been unfortunately dubbed, have become increasingly visible. They have their own online newsletter at AtHomeDad.com. They exchange tips through a variety of national and regional networking groups. They even have an annual convention in Glenview, Ill., which this November is expected to draw 100 dads from 23 states.
No one knows exactly how many stay-at-home dads there are in the U.S., but according to initial Census Bureau research, the number of fathers who choose to stay out of the work force exclusively to care for their children is 108,000, up from 11,000 in 1990. (An additional 529,000 fathers who are retired or disabled also care for their kids while their partner works.) The Internet site slowlane.com, the leading information clearinghouse for at-home dads, logged 4.5 million hits in 2001, up a million from the year before. "This is a choice that just makes good practical sense for many couples," says Libby Gill, author of last year's how-to guide Stay-at-Home Dads (Plume). With 10 million working women earning more than their husbands in 1999, there's sheer practicality in choosing the partner who makes more money to be the breadwinner. But in many cases, couples choose this role reversal because Dad is better suited for the full-time parenting job. For Illinois psychologist Robert Frank, who has studied stay-at-home-dad households and runs the annual convention, part of the decision to have children he and his wife have two, Kevin, 14, and A.J., 13--was predicated on his willingness to stay home. His wife Linda, a coo at a computer company, concedes she couldn't do his job. "He's much more patient than I am. He's much better at the day-to-day. And I think I'm a better parent for doing it part time."
For the most part, SAHD homes are the same as other households, except that Dad not Mom or another caregiver oversees the home front. There are, however, a few differences. Once they get home, female partners tend to do an equal share of the housework and cooking, unlike male partners in traditional households, who leave most of those tasks to their wives. And dads' management styles can appear testosterone driven. Building inspector Larry Picarello recalls moms in the neighborhood "freaking out" when they came over and found his two boys, Forest, 10, and Luke, 8, climbing ladders and scaffolding on the site where he was building a new house in Pomona, N.Y. Doug Ingram, a graphic artist in Decatur, Ga., whose wife Karen is an attorney, potty trained his son Nathan, 4, by acting like "a drill sergeant," he says. "We had potty-training boot camp. Once I sensed Nathan was ready, I enforced a 48-hour media blackout: no video games, no TV, just potty. He was trained in 48 hours."
Of course, those style differences and the still unusual nature of the at-home-dad arrangement can take some getting used to. Husbands and wives may be jealous of each other's work. Many moms feel guilty about leaving or frustrated by giving up control. When Stay-at-Home Dads author Gill came home from her job as a television executive to find her kids "dressed in plaid and stripes," she recalls, "I had to say to myself, 'Just let it go. That's no longer part of your job.'" To ease the stress, some couples opt to take turns every few years. Others decide to have just one kid. Joann Massey, whose husband Jay runs slowlane.com, feels torn over leaving their only child, Tucker, 8. "I love that Jay is home," she says. "But being away has been hard, and I couldn't go through this with another child."
In a society unaccustomed to seeing dads as primary caregivers, the job can be both isolating and a challenge to the ego. That can cause emotional and perhaps even physical problems. One recent study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health found that househusbands are 82% more likely to die of heart disease than husbands who stay in traditional roles. Donovan Simons, a father of four in Nashville, Tenn., says his adjustment was not helped by observers who "looked at me like 'Oh, so you wear the dress.'"