Dads dive into the stay-at-home role
Written by Elaine Bowers
It was check-up day for 3-month-old Seattle twins Jack and Lauren. Their parents, Alan and Sarah Chitlik, were both there.
"Mom, how much are they eating?" the nurse asked. "Are all their immunizations up to date, Mom?"
Alan Chitlik tried not to be annoyed. He knew the answers to all those questions, because he'd been the twins' stay-at-home dad since they were born.
"I was frustrated by that," Chitlik says. "I'm their parent, too."
Yet, Chitlik says that incident was perhaps the only time he has felt ignored in his role as a stay-at-home dad to the twins, who are now 11 1/2 months old. "I think the traveling circus show of having twins dwarfs the novelty of me being a stay-at-home dad," he says. "In general, when I tell people, the response is 'Good for you.' I don't feel like an oddball by any means."
Stay-at-home dads are hardly oddballs these days, but their numbers are small. According to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Census Bureau, stay-at-home dads numbered 147,000 in 2005, although that number is disputed by some because it excludes dads who work part-time. While the number of stay-at-home dads is increasing, it continues to be dwarfed by the 6 million moms who stay at home.
Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, says the idea of dads assuming the role of primary caregiver has become more accepted but "acceptability of a behavior lags behind translating it into behavior."
For example, she says, studies show that people believed that housework and child care should be shared responsibilities at least five to 10 years before it actually was. Now, dads are doing an average of 40 percent of the housework and child care, according to recent articles in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
The stay-at-home dad decision
The decision for dad to stay at home can be the result of long, heartfelt deliberations by a couple, or thrust suddenly upon them when the father loses his job. Sometimes it just seems to happen naturally.
"It was decided even before we started having kids," says Ed Caldeira, Renton father of two boys. "We knew our children were not going to be raised in day care."
Noting that his own father had been a workaholic, Caldeira wanted something different for his kids. "It (being a stay-at-home dad) seemed like a natural thing for me to do for some odd reason -- maybe because I wanted to do it," Caldeira says.
Luis Ona of West Seattle says he and his wife also had misgivings about leaving son David, then almost 2, in day care. "He was getting more cognizant of things around him," Ona says. "I thought, 'Why not just learn from me?'"
How did they decide he would be the one to stay home? "That's easy," he says. "She made more than I did."
The same held true for Michael Cummings, a Bellevue dad of two young daughters. His wife Chris was named vice president of finance, the first woman in her company's history. "My wife was making three or four times what I was at a particular point," he says. "For some reason, my personality fits this."
A busy divorce lawyer running his own firm, West Seattle dad Larry Wallach walked away from his hectic professional life to stay home with Millie, 26 months, and 6-month-old Theo. His wife, a scientist with a bio-tech firm, got promoted to a management job requiring long hours and lots of travel. "We started with parallel careers. But hers took off like a rocket. I enjoyed what I was doing, but I'd been doing it for 20 years," he says.
Wallach says being a stay-at-home dad feels like a different career: "I like being a trailblazer in a way -- being different. I like being a bit of a rebel." His time at home has taken him in a whole new direction. He speaks passionately about his time volunteering for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), representing at-risk children in court, and for Social Venture Partners, which fund a variety of social service organizations.
Edmonds dad Larry Fuell retired three years ago from a 21-year career in the foreign agriculture service to be a stay-at-home dad to his three teenagers. His wife, who left work in 1986 when their first child was born, has started a teaching career.
"Let's face it. She did the heavy lifting for the first 15 years while I was running around saving the world," he says. "She was stronger dealing with smaller kids; I was better dealing with teenagers."
The choice came suddenly for author and screenwriter Scott Fitzgerald Gray, who got fired from his job as production and information services manager for a Vancouver, B.C. newspaper. His daughters were 3 1/2 years and 6 months old at the time.
"The idea of being a stay-at-home dad had never even occurred to me; I didn't think it was feasible or practical," he says. "I decided to take a couple of weeks off and hang out at home with the kids. I spent two weeks with them, and I said 'screw it. I'll never have this opportunity again.'"
Charles Greer moved to Mercer Island two years ago, because of his wife's job offer from a biotech firm. His business (publishing an Internet ski resort guide) and nine employees stayed behind in Colorado, so now he runs it long-distance from home while he takes care of his son, 11, and daughter, 7.
"It's certainly a challenge. I try to schedule my time around the kid's activities," he says. "Every six to eight weeks, I go back for several days and my wife picks up the slack."
Stay-at-home dad data
When dads are more involved in their kids lives, good things happen, parenting experts say. "Study after study after study is showing that father involvement and warmth and emotional availability to young children predict intellectual functioning and emotional functioning in both sons and daughters," according to John Gottman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington.
Bernie Dorsey, founder of Conscious Fathering, which offers courses for expectant fathers throughout the Puget Sound region, says that dads and moms have very similar parenting styles in the first three years of a child's life. From ages 2-5, the differences start to emerge: Dad encourages physical play and exploration while Mom concentrates more on the immediate environment. Neither style is superior, just different, he says.
"With the exception of breastfeeding, it's my conviction that dads can nurture and care for a child as well as mom," he says.
Stay-at-home dad Cummings also dismisses the worry that men are not nurturing. "If we focus correctly, we can do a good job of being able to handle parenting from a different perspective. We're able to enforce policies that over-nurturing mothers may not be able to. That works out better for the children overall; we don't have those emotions that get in the way."
Evergreen Professor Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, says there are interesting benefits for children of stay-at-home dads. "When boys have dads as their primary caregiver, they are more empathetic and better able to talk about feelings," she says. "Girls tend to grow up with higher confidence and achievement in non-traditional fields."
Coontz says the benefits of this gender reversal can reach from these families into the broader society. She points to an expression among sociologists who talk about "doing gender."
"It refers to the way people play out gender roles," she says. "Undoing gender, challenging it, has to be a conscious act because of the habits we all have. But it can be tremendously liberating for the marital relationship and for the children."
The men say they handle the bulk of household chores -- laundry, cleaning, cooking dinner -- and they seem to harbor no resentment toward the domestic drudgery. But, like many moms, Chitlik laments the fact that he never seems to get anything done. He looks back fondly on his former life. "I would wake up in the morning with a list of 10 or 12 things I wanted to do, and I would start to work through them," he says. "Right now, I don't even have time to make a list."
Stay-at-home dad identity
Although some dads miss their professional identity, they don't feel diminished in their new role as a stay-at-home dad.
"I don't know if it's a guy thing... but we do tend to identify ourselves with what we do," Fuell says. "I sometimes yearn for a professional identity, but I have no regrets." Wallach agrees. "I was afraid I'd be marginalized, but I don't think that's happened," he says. He and others believe the Northwest may have a more laid-back attitude than other parts of the country. "I'm a New Yorker," he says. "To my friends on the East Coast, this is incomprehensible."
Ona says his mom was worried about him. "She kept saying, 'The man's supposed to work.' But I'd rather stay home with my kid." When he meets other dads in the park and tells them he stays home full-time, they don't raise an eyebrow, Ona says. "They're like, 'Man, I wish I could do that.'"
There is recognition that dads who want to return to work may face the same problems that have confronted moms for years. "You have to account for all those blank spaces on the resume; raising kids is not an acceptable entry," Fuell says. "Why is that?"
No stay-at-home dad network...yet
If these dads have any major complaint, it's likely to be breaking into the moms' network they see all around them.
"When you go to the mall, you always see the natural communication, the natural gravitational pull of the mothers," Cummings says. "There's a certain amount of trust a lot of moms have just amongst themselves. It's hard for us because we're not invited into that naturally. We have to work our way into that. You have to have them feel comfortable around you to the point they don't even realize you're a man."
Caldeira agrees. "I keep trying to tell the guys that these co-op preschools are OK and it's OK to be the only guy," he says.
Early on, Wallach joined a Program for Early Parenting Support group (PEPS) in which he was the only man. "If I ever had a problem, that's the first place I'd turn," he says. "I'm just one of the girls."
Wallach finds many rewards in being his kids' primary caregiver. He is certain that his calmer lifestyle has lowered his blood pressure, helped him sleep through the night and added 10 years to his life.
"I must spend an hour or two a day just hugging them and that's pretty calming," he says. "They give me so much positive feedback. There are little rewards almost daily, almost hourly, with kids."
Fuell likes to point to his favorite moment in the movie "Jack Frost." The main character, a musician, admits that he was so busy trying to be successful, he didn't realize his kids were his mark on the world. "I know my children are my mark on the world," Fuell says.
Cartoon becomes reality for 'Adam' creator
Adam Newman was born in July 1984. He emerged, full grown, from the pen of Seattle Times cartoonist Brian Basset, who thought of him as a new man in society at that time. He was a stay-at-home dad.
Basset did not create Adam, the comic strip, as a social statement. In fact, when Adam first appeared he was a single guy, a gardener beset by slugs and talking flowers. People at Universal Syndicate said they liked the writing, but not the subject matter.
"So I took that character and gave him a wife and kids and kept him at home; I gave the wife a job," Basset says. "That's how Adam got started."
Basset didn't even have kids at the time. He was the Seattle Times editorial cartoonist and started working on the strip as a way to stretch himself. "I had no expectations or goals or hopes for it to get syndicated. I thought I would see what would happen," he says.
Basset's knowledge of parenting came from recalling his own childhood and reading parenting magazines around the office. "We had our first son in '86, and I was able to tap directly into the infant years," he says. "That's why I brought in baby Nick (to the cartoon strip)." During those years, Basset would go into work each morning at 4 or 5 a.m. to do his editorial cartoons, and then come home early in the afternoon to take over child care and give his wife, Linda, a break.
In 1994, when his sons were 5 1/2 and 7, he left the Times. "I became a full-time dad overnight. I set up my studio at home, and Linda went back to work," he recalls. "It was a shock." To meet deadlines for the comic strip, he would stay up until 3 or 4 a.m. "At the time, it was a blur and it was exhausting," he says. "In retrospect, I think it was great."
Basset relishes telling stories about school field trips with his sons' classes. "Because I was the only man, they always gave me the problem kids -- the future mass murderers, the ADHD kids who couldn't sit still. I NEVER had a good experience. My wife kept reminding me it was material for the strip."
But it wasn't all bad. He was art docent for a class and loved putting together the Spam carving contests. Every contestant, of course, got to eat the Spam. A few years ago, Basset changed the name of the strip from "Adam" to "Adam at Home." "I found myself writing less about a stay-at-home dad and more about a work-from-home dad," he says.
For years, Bassett gave presentations to groups on his work-from-home survival guide. He's found more stay-at-home dads in those groups fitting the work-from-home description.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the creator of "Adam at Home" was eventually pushed out of his own home to do his work. About four years ago, Basset got a studio on a quiet street in downtown Issaquah. The reason? Both sons are now in college and one of them started a garage band. "My studio was right over the garage," he says. "They would practice for three hours and I couldn't get any work done."
Freelance writer Elaine Bowers lives in Seattle with her husband and twin teenage daughters.
Resources for stay-at-home dads
It is a cool summer day, with Seattle's famous sun breaks slicing through the cloud cover. Under the towering trees of West Seattle's Lincoln Park, a handful of men with toddlers and young school-age children begin to arrive at a nearby playground.
For these dads, it's not a day off with the kids in the park. They have come to a play date scheduled through Seattle Stay-at-Home Dads, an organization created by a Redmond stay-at-home dad looking for ways to find other full-time dads.
Founder Bruce Reynolds says he found that some of his work friends drifted away after he quit his job to take care of his kids. "I found it pretty frustrating," he says. "It's lonely and isolating and sometimes you get funny looks from people."
He created the website more than a year ago and soon began to get 100 hits a day. Now there are 85 names in his database and an additional 30 names he has added from personal contact with other dads. The organization offers opportunities to meet other full-time dads at regularly scheduled play dates and dads' nights out, a photo gallery of outings, and links to information.
"I don't know how it is for moms," Reynolds says. "But it's hard organizing guys to get together."
Ed Caldeira, Renton father of two boys, organizes SeattleDads events and was an early member of the group. How did he come to join? "Do I have to admit it?" he says. "My wife found it."
In addition to the regularly scheduled events, Caldeira is hoping to put together a family picnic this fall. Members come and go, he says. "They'll tell me how great it is to be able to talk while the kids play. And I think, 'So why do I only see you every six weeks?"
John Kaiser, who brought his 2 -year-old daughter Madeleine to the park, moved back to Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood in December after living in France near the Swiss border. He says he found out about SeattleDads before leaving Europe. He'd tried to organize a group in Geneva, with no success. "We went to play groups and it was almost always all moms. Half of them were open and accepting, and the other half ignored you," he says.
Although he was too small to play, 6-month-old Andrew came with his dad Patrick Lindsay of Bellevue. Lindsay says he's taking his son for his check-up the next day. "Give him Tylenol about an hour before," Caldeira advises.
Staying at home was "tough getting used to -- being at home a lot without any adult interaction," Lindsay says. "I've been coming for awhile now. It's nice to know the other dads."
SeattleDads is one of two local websites, along with a growing number of national sites, that offer stay-at-home dads the opportunity to blog, contact each other, get together and share useful information. The other local organization is Puget Sound Stay-at-Home Dads (PSSAHDads).
Classes for new dads:
Conscious Fathering: Designed to educate and prepare dads for fatherhood, Conscious Fathering classes are offered monthly at local area hospitals. Visit or call 206-824-8388 for more information.
Boot Camp for Dads: Offers support and education by pairing veteran dads with rookie fathers. Workshops are offered at Northwest Hospital and can also be found on the national website, newdads.com. Visit or call 206-368-1784 for more information.