The Mr. Mom joke is wearing thin. Millions of fathers are caring full time for their kids, turning the "stay-at-home dad" from an exotic rarity to just another breed of modern parent.
But what makes it work? New research is giving first clues to how fathers can transition smoothly from breadwinning to homemaking. Call it a tool kit for caregiver dads: Those who are most happy in their new roles have strong support from friends and kin, along with confidence in their parenting skills and in their masculinity. That's the finding from a new series of studies completed this year by psychologist Aaron Rochlen and his colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin.
"These few key factors essentially predict how well the adjustment process goes," both in terms of the dads' happiness in their marriage and as individuals, says Rochlen, an associate psychology professor who estimates there are roughly 2 million stay-at-home dads.
So, how do dads fare with this troika of challenges, and hit the ground running?
Taking a cue from Rochlen's intriguing findings, Balancing Acts talked to three new caregiver dads to see how they are coping with diapers and playtime, wisecracks from in-laws, spilled milk, and lost paychecks. Each found his new role challenging, but worthwhile.
Lone Man in the Playground
Dan Boucher's first day as a stay-at-home dad in late April was so tough that when his wife returned from work, he grabbed the car keys and fled to a sports bar near their home in Worcester.
Although he and his wife had long planned that she would stay home with their two daughters, ages 9 months and 2 years, he wound up quitting his management job at
Boucher's friends and family have been supportive, and he's happy with his new life. But he's yet to meet another stay-at-home dad, and that makes playground life a bit lonely sometimes. To navigate this baffling, new, largely female social realm, he's studied playtime protocol. "The best opening line is, 'How old is your daughter or son?' " says Boucher. "An adult conversation, even if it's only two to three minutes, is great."
Conquering the Diaper "Gag Factor"
Brandon Davis wasn't so sure he could pull off full-time parenting, and, knowing he'd never been especially kid-friendly, his family agreed. "They thought I'd fall on my face," says Davis, who began caring for his now 10-month-old twin sons in January, partly because he'd recently been laid off.
The transition was stressful. Diapers? "The gag factor was pretty high at the start," admits Davis, who lives in the Rochester, N.Y., area. But because his wife Linda, a teacher, had needed lots of help while on maternity leave last fall, Davis at least had some practice in Baby Care 101 when he took over.
Now, Davis works five to 10 hours a week as a consultant in his former field, fund-raising for nonprofits. And he's such an expert parent that he urges his wife to go out with friends sometimes. "As these guys get bigger and start walking, and all that stuff, I am very happy where I am and with what I'm doing," says Davis. "This has been a great experience for me, to get the bonds with my sons going."
Taking the Stares in Stride
When Bobby Smith brings his 16-month-old son to story time at the library, he gets curious looks from the mom corps. When Smith decided to stay home in Gaithersburg, Md., with his son full time more than a year ago, some older family members were wary.
But Smith doesn't mind going his own way. His main advice for new stay-at-home dads, don't be so self-conscious. "I don't worry about what other people think," says Smith, a former Trader Joe's manager who still works 13 hours weekly for the grocery chain. His wife, Amy Powers, who's long earned more than Smith, is a policy analyst for the federal government.
Hosting two weekly play groups helps Smith keep perspective. "You find people going through the same things you're going through," he says.
Perhaps we as a society haven't fully accepted stay-at-home fathers if we're still giving them curious stares. Still, day by day these pioneers are helping to broaden our ideas of what it means to be a father.
"The concept of the male as a breadwinner - that's shifting," says Rochlen. "We're hearing a lot from men who say, 'I'm providing for my family - and for me, that means doing whatever is necessary.' "
Maggie Jackson's Balancing Acts column appears every other week. Jackson is the author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age." She can be reached at maggie-jackson.com.