Full-time dads want to move beyond Mr. Mom moniker


Raising kids is a career move for these men By Maridel Reyes :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

photo by Josh Hawkins Brian Chalmers left an advertising career to care for son Jack and daughter Marisa.

Brian Chalmers says he used to wake up grumpy when he worked as an advertising director. Not any more.

"When your son wakes you up, it's hard to be grumpy," says the Northwest Side resident who has been a stay-at-home dad for four years. "There are different stresses, but it's much lower than before."

Chalmers is part of a group of men who have traded briefcases for diaper bags, opting to care for their kids while their wives work. While the exact number is hard to pin down, full-time dads still comprise only a fraction of the full-time parent brigade, which continues to be dominated by the 5.2 million full-time stay-at-home moms, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 2 million of the country's 66.3 million dads are the primary caregiver for their children while still working at least part time. An additional 105,000 men are full-time dads to children under 15. Still, children who live with both parents are 56 times more likely to live with a stay-at-home mom than a stay-at-home dad.

And in honor of Father's Day, we're tipping our hats to stay-at-home dads. In Chicago, the stay-at-home dad population numbers around 4,000, which Chicagoland At-Home Dads considers big numbers. The group, which boasts about 150 members, drew 110 stay-at-home dads to what it says is the country's largest At-Home Dad convention at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines in November.

Chalmers decided to join the numbers of stay-at-home dads when his wife, Debby, was pregnant with their first child, Jack. "We're not a fan of daycare," says Chalmers. "There's not one teacher out there that loves your children more than you do."

Chalmers was also tired of the long hours and lack of respect at work. He was ready to quit. "The last straw was when I was working at 2:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve. I felt like I was in ‘A Christmas Carol,' " says Chalmers, 40. Debby, a partner in an accounting firm, had the bigger paycheck. They looked at their budget and found a way to scale back. The two planned for him to try staying home for a year, and "four years later, it's still going," Chalmers says.

The changing role of dad Fathers are more involved in their children's lives-whether it's helping with homework or doing chores with them-than in previous generations, says Scott Coltrane, associate director of the Center for Family Studies at the University of California at Riverside. But it's not a trend he sees exploding into the mainstream because women statistically still earn less than men.

University of Maryland researchers found about 11 percent of households in 2001 had more than 60 percent of the family's income coming from the wife, up from just 4 percent in 1970. These women, dubbed "Alpha Earners," are found in all classes, races and occupations-even public office. Take Daniel Mulhern, husband of Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. He quit his job to support her career and help raise their three children.

While men's wages have declined since the 1970s, women's wages are increasing steadily. But that's not the only reason some dads are choosing to stay home while moms work.

"Young couples now have more expectations," says Sara Raley, lead author of a University of Maryland study of dual-income families. "Women are expected to work and moms with kids are expected to work. People are more open to the idea of a nontraditional, bread-winning arrangement."

Stay-at-home dads encounter obstacles more daunting than potty training and spilled juice boxes. They must often bear the label of the unambitious loser from outsiders or jealousy and frustration from their wives.

But when the arrangement works, children benefit from having a full-time dad as caregiver. Preparing for Successful Fathering by Dr. Ron Klinger, founder of the Center for Successful Fathering in Austin, Texas, suggests that when a father is active and involved, children benefit with higher grades, greater ambition, fewer anxiety disorders and a reduced risk of delinquency or teen pregnancy.

Communing and commiserating Ten men sit around a dark, glossy wooden table, drinking beer and exchanging the latest school photos. They are members of the Chicagoland At-Home Dads group, which holds weekly meetings at various members' homes. Every month they get together for a "dad's night out." This night, they gather at Dave and Buster's near Clark and Division streets in Chicago for dinner, drinks and a little bit of support.

"It's a mental health group," says member Bruce Culbertson of Crystal Lake. "We have the same problems ... even with different timing of kids, situation with in-laws [or] our wife is crazy. It's a sorority in and of its own."

Culbertson, 38, takes care of his two sons, ages 18 and 7, and 11-year-old daughter. His family flip-flopped from a traditional, stay-at-home-mom scenario to a stay-at-home-dad situation.

"It was making her crazy staying home, and it was making me crazy working," says Culbertson, who now has his own handyman business. "I don't regret it for a second. We're a team. Our job on this planet is to make our kids be decent citizens and have a conscience."

This is Todd Winer's first time at a Chicagoland Dads meeting after stumbling across the group on the Internet. He works 15 hours a week for a nonprofit agency while his wife works for the Quaker Oats Co. His wife has a bigger salary and the "desire to work," he says. He wanted to stay home with the kids.

"It's something I've always wanted to do since I've been a teenager," says Winer, who has been an at-home dad for one year. "It's hard but I really enjoy it. There's nothing like it. If I had my choice, I'd stay home full time."

Winer came to dad's night out for advice on touchy topics such as how to deal with his wife's jealousy over the amount of time he spends with their son.

"He comes to me [first] and it's tough for my wife," Winer, 38, says to the other dads. "Now I find myself on weekends holding back and giving her time."

Another dad nods and tells Winer that "sad feelings are inherent in the situation," but time will make everything easier.

Winer doesn't know any stay-at-home dads in his Lakeview neighborhood, and many dads say they didn't know any either until they found the at-home dads group.

"I think there's a lot of closeted stay-at-home dads," says Bob Noonan, 50, who has been a stay-at-home dad for 12 years.

Between trips to the bar, members compare their experiences with parenting to that of their fathers, some of whom were described as "workaholics."

Winer's father worked all day, came home to eat dinner and then tackled more paperwork. "My memory of him is that he would sit at the dining room table doing work," he says. "Part of my motivation [to be a stay-at-home dad] is not to do that."

Murvin Enders, 39, worked as a financial manager before quitting to take care of his infant son. He says many people don't understand what he does. People look at him and assume he simply lacks ambition and "settled for staying at home."

"In many ways it's a selfless job," says Enders, who lives in Wrigleyville. "It's a labor of love."

His proudest moment that day was when a stranger told him that his son, just 20 months old, had good manners. "I felt as proud as for anything I've accomplished in 15 years in corporate America," Murvin says. Other dads nod emphatically.

HOMEDAD Chalmers drives his silver SUV with "HOMEDAD" plates to White Steeple Preschool in Norwood Park and points to the large houses with immaculately manicured front lawns.

"I always tease Debby, ‘So, when are you gonna buy me a house around here?'" he laughs. While he now jokes about his wife buying him cars and houses, it took him awhile to get used to not bringing home a paycheck. Now, he says he has a different family role.

"Right now my goal is to make sure they're covered," he says. "While I don't do that financially, I do everything else."

About 15 mothers huddle by the doorway of the school while a gaggle of children play in the leaves and run across the grass. Chalmers is one of three men at the scene and manages to escape with son Jack without too much chitchat.

Chalmers says the hardest part about being the one at home is when the kids have milestones-such as first words-and his wife isn't there to hear them. "I feel sorry to have to call Debby and say, ‘Guess what happened?'" he says.

Sometimes he doesn't make that call and lets Debby witness the feat. He waited to feed Marisa solids so they could do it together.

"My time during the week is so short," says Debby, 33. "It's hard. I miss my kids, but I like the work I do. And they're so happy. Most people say, ‘Oh I feel sorry for you because you have to work.' But it was so important that one of us stay home; it didn't matter if it was Brian or me."

While she says it would be perfect if they both had well-paying, part-time jobs, Debby knows they're lucky that one parent can be home with the children. That helps her walk out the door every morning at 8:30 a.m.

Dads on the bus "Good morning everyone!" Bob Noonan bellows at about 50 dads riding a yellow school bus at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning. "Good morning, teacher!" they shout back cheerily. The men are heading to the At-Home Dad convention at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines.

(The 2004 At-Home Dads' Convention will be Nov. 20 at Oakton Community College, 1600 E. Golf Rd., Des Plaines. Register by calling Bea Cornelissen at 847-635-1812.)

Some 110 dads from 25 states-one of the biggest turnouts ever in the eight-year history of the convention-spend the day attending breakout sessions, listening to keynote speakers, getting tips on how to deal with the media and listening to a comedy routine about stay-at-home dads. But most men don't come just to pick up parenting tips and listen to psychiatrists. They come, year after year, for the sense of community and camaraderie. "This is a group that will stay with you," Chris Colby says to the dads in a speech. "You'll leave here today, but you won't leave the group behind."

While Web sites, newsletters and play groups help stay-at-home dads feel less isolated, family remains their priority. They aren't out to change the world-just their kids' lives.

"It's all about childcare," says Jay Massey, executive director of www.slowlane.com, a stay-at-home dad Web site. "It's not a men's movement."

Chicagoland At-Home Dad member Bruce Culbertson tells of an experience he's had since becoming a stay-at-home dad. Three years ago, he volunteered to be the "room parent" for his child's classroom. The teacher had to change the job description-usually it's called the "room mom"-and his first task was to organize a Halloween party. To the surprise of the teacher and several moms in attendance, the party was a success.

"The teacher is standing there in shock and awe," says Culbertson. "We threw a great party. It's not quite how they always did it. It's not better. But it works."

Maridel Reyes is a student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.



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