My dad’s at home!

Stay-at-home dads

Justin and Michele McCarthy of St. Louis Park always planned that one of them would stay home once they had children. The decision of who would continue to work would simply be a matter of who had more earning potential and job stability. So four years ago, Justin McCarthy gave up his job in corporate marketing and traded it for playgroups and baby food.

"I was working 12-hour days, and Michele had a little more regular schedule," says Justin McCarthy, 36. "But it really came down to who was earning more money, and her career had greater earning potential." Michele, 35, is a computer software engineer. The couple has two daughters, Erin, 4, and Allyson, 2, and expect a son in January.

"I was pretty comfortable with our decision," he says, "but I didn't tell my employer right away. I was a little uneasy of what was I getting into. At the time, there were very few resources out there for stay-at-home dads. There wasn't much to go on. There were a few books and articles."

In the beginning, he admits he questioned himself. "'Am I dong the right thing? What about my career?' But as time moved on, it felt right," he adds.

When Justin McCarthy left his job, he felt overwhelming support from co-workers and most of his family. "I didn't hear many negative comments. I think everybody understands in this day in age, you gotta do what you gotta do," he says.

However, two of his older brothers suggested he take a leave of absence and not quit his job because they were concerned it would be tough to get back into corporate America after a long absence. "But that doesn't concern me," he says. "I can always start [over] at a lower level and work my way up."

Justin McCarthy says he approached staying home as if he landed a new job. "I got up every morning and shaved and showered. I wanted to overcome the stereotypes. I didn't want to be walking around unshaven and have people think I was a dad down on his luck and had to stay home. I'm careful about my presentation."

He says sometimes he hears comments like "Oh, you're babysitting your kids," but he doesn't let it bother him. "I'm confident in my ability as a parent and in our decision. For the most part, stay-at-home dads are becoming more common," he adds. "People aren't so surprised."

He says the decision for him to stay home is a collaborative effort. "It's a true partnership. Sometimes Michele wishes she was at home with the kids," he says, "but I've heard her tell people that she's happy that one of us is home."

What's most rewarding for McCarthy is "just to spend so much time with the kids and see them grow. It's nothing you can put a price tag on," he says.

His advice for other dads considering being the primary caregiver is, "Right off the bat, make that commitment to the kids and put away the nonsense. Look at your role as if you're taking a new job, and put your best foot forward. Put doubts aside, like 'Am I adequate?' and 'Can I handle it?'"

Helpful resources

Justin McCarthy says resources are available for fathers, including Minnesota Dads at Home (MDAH), which he joined a year ago. The organization has about 100 dads caring for more than 160 kids in the Twin Cities and across Minnesota.

"I've met some really great guys through MDAH," he says. "It's important to get out and join groups for your kids and for yourself." He hosts a weekly playgroup and attends MDAH's monthly Dad's Night Out.

"It's extremely valuable to connect with other dads." McCarthy says. "It's definitely filled a void I may or may not have know was there."

MDAH's website, www.mdah.com, includes a resources page that can help dads find anything from the best local playgrounds to how to prepare a meal that kids like. It offers suggestions on books, seasonal activities for kids, home finance, regional and national dads groups, and past MDAH topics discussed on its Yahoo Group email list. Also, dads can find parenting classes offered by area Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) centers and links to other helpful websites, including www.slowlane.com, a searchable online reference, resource, and network for at-home dads and their families.

A growing group

Peter Baylies, founder of the At-Home Dad Newsletter and Network (www.athomedad.com) in North Andover, Mass., and author of the recently published The Stay-at-Home Dad Handbook, estimates about 2 million stay-at-home dads nationally.

Baylies, 47, has been a stay-at-home dad for 12 years; his sons John and David are 12 and 9. In 1992, he was laid off from his job as a computer software programmer. At the time, his oldest son was 6 months old. He says it was a blessing in disguise.

"I was secretly glad," he says. "My wife hated daycare; she was worried sick all day. I was excited to be a full-time father." His wife Susan, 43, is a schoolteacher. "I was comfortable with it because it was important for my son, and my wife supported me 100 percent."

Of course, not everyone was so sure of Baylies' decision. "My sister was taking bets on how long it would be before I went back to work," he laughs.

Baylies launched his newsletter in 1993, after realizing the lack of resources available for at-home dads, which he estimated numbered 500,000 back then. He also wanted to do something while his son napped. He admits he felt isolated and missed his co-workers. He says isolation is the number one challenge many stay-at-home dads face. Today, Baylies lists 50 organizations for at-home dads in cities around the country, many offering playgroups and networking opportunities.

Baylies believes the primary reason the number of at-home dads is growing is more women are landing power positions with high pay. Couples often decide the one with the greatest earning potential will keep working.

"Ten years ago, an at-home dad was bizarre," he says. "It's more accepted today. Now it's just a little unusual." However, he points out that at-home dads are still outnumbered by at-home moms about 10 to 1.

Another challenge at-home dads face is stereotypes, Baylies says. They can include the "Mr. Mom syndrome" or being perceived as lazy or losing masculinity. Of course, none of these stereotypes is true, Baylies says, but it's helpful to talk with other at-home dads for support. "Support is crucial. Even if you find just one other father to help you over the humps," he says.

Bringing home the bacon

Another challenge is finances. Some fathers worry about not being the primary breadwinners. "It can be a blow to some men's egos," Baylies says. For his new book, Baylies interviewed hundreds of fathers. "One dad told me he'd like to give his wife roses, but he feels weird spending her money to buy them," he says.

Some dads Baylies spoke with launched part-time businesses in their homes-such as consulting work or Web design-so they can earn a little money for themselves and continue to develop professionally while caring for their children.

Baylies says how men relate to their wives with the role reversal also can be challenging. "Now you're on her turf doing the cooking and cleaning. It takes six months to a year to adjust. Work out a schedule, and keep communicating," he suggests. "One couple even wrote up a contract of what they expected."

Changing careers

Aaron Osborn, 30, of South Minneapolis recently quit his job as a physical therapist to stay home full-time with his 19-month-old son Emmett. His wife Megan, 35, is also a physical therapist and professor at The College of St. Catherine and is working toward her Ph.D.

For Osborn, staying home was not a big issue, and it came down to who was better suited to stay home. "I'm a nester and my wife isn't," he says. "I was very much in favor of it." Also, he's not concerned about his career. "Physical therapy is very flexible. I work one weekend a month. I maintain my license and attend courses to stay on top of the field. I'm not worried about getting back to work one day."

However, Osborn says his parents and some of his male friends were surprised at his decision. "I heard reactions like, 'What will you do? Won't you be bored? How are you going to keep busy?' I think it's ignorance of what it takes to raise a child," Osborn says. "I try and not let reactions of certain people get to me, but sometimes I do. Some have said to me they never would have seen me doing this, but life changes when you have a child. I'm not going to fall off the face of the Earth. This is my job now. I've just changed careers."

Making it work

Dave Weiss, 36, and his wife Georgi, 37, of Stillwater, are making their arrangement work. Dave Weiss, who heads up public relations for MDAH, has been a stay-at-home dad for seven years. The couple has two children, Jordan, 7, and Toby, 2.

"Ultimately, we knew one of us would be home with the kids," Weiss says. He was a deejay in Central Minnesota when they were expecting their first child. Georgi had a full-time job in banking with good benefits and steady hours. Today, she's a Realtor.

Weiss says it made most sense for him to stay home. Plus, he says, he couldn't wait to have children. "My family used to joke and call me the 'family man' even before I had kids," he says.

He left full-time radio in 1998 to pursue part-time videography work, which he says provides a nice supplemental income. He and his brother run Weiss Productions. Weiss works weekends, so he can be home with the kids during the week.

Weiss received support from his family and most of his friends on his decision to stay home. "My family is very open-minded. They're not stuck in traditional roles," he says. "I've never been a corporate guy, never had a 9-to-5 job. I never fit that mode. Family is number one with me, and a career has to work with the family."

What's been most rewarding for Weiss staying home? "Without a doubt, looking into my kids' eyes when they discover new things. You're there to witness it. You're also there to witness the falls. You're there every step of the way." He anticipates being at home until his kids are in college because he doesn't want latchkey kids.

He also appreciates what MDAH offers. "Isolation for at-home parents is huge," he says. "MDAH is a casual group. We hang out and have a connection with each other through weekly playgroups and monthly Dad's Night Out. It's great to be in an environment where dads are so into their kids. We support each other. Society still has the mom staying at home as the norm. You still get looks like we're slackers or babysitting, but we're nurturing our children just as women would. These other guys are going through what you're going through-the good and bad."

Weiss also realizes that some at-home dads don't necessarily want the role, but their wives have better jobs. "Some have said they have a burning desire to work and be the primary breadwinner. They feel moms are the ones who should stay home." He says one dad recently told him he was going to his high school reunion and was trying to decide if he was going to tell his classmates that he's an at-home dad. He feels like he should be bringing in the main income. "But I believe it's honorable," Weiss says, "and it will benefit your kids."

Weiss' advice to other dads considering being an at-home parent is talk over the decision thoroughly with your wife. "I encourage couples to know each other's expectations, like daily chores. I also highly recommend some form of support, whether it's MDAH or ECFE classes."

Facing the challenges

Joe Hutton, 35, of North St. Paul also changed careers and is at home with daughter Zoe, 2 1/2. He and his wife Tricia, 34, are expecting a second child in February. Hutton was working in sales for a local food company and got burned out. He quit and was pursuing a degree in environmental science when Tricia found she was pregnant, and they decided he'd stay home with the baby. Tricia is a corporate accountant for a major insurance company and has been aggressively working her way up the corporate ladder.

"At first, I had the attitude that it's not a man's role to stay home," Hutton admits, "and I didn't have a lot of support." He says he actually lost friends over his decision. Some thought he was wasting his life. "They kept asking me when I'm going back to work."

"I feel stereotypes wherever I go," he adds. "It's hard to meet people. I feel isolation. Being a dad in this situation is a bit more challenging than being a stay-at-home mom." He says he has tried ECFE classes and the YMCA.

However, he knows staying home is best for his family, and he's becoming more comfortable with the role. "Watching Zoe grow and mature each day is rewarding," he says. "I'm happy to be there for all of it, and my wife is totally supportive."

As for going back to school and pursuing his career, Hutton says the future will always be there. "My main concern is the kids right now. I want to make sure they get a great start in life."