For Howard Ludwig, the decision to stay at home with his newborn son while his wife worked was a no-brainer.
“We started talking about these issues even before we were married,” says Ludwig of Chicago’s Morgan Park. “And when we got pregnant, we looked at how much child care would cost. When you subtracted it out of my salary as a journalist versus my wife with her master’s degree, it became clear. My wife had a higher earning potential. We were lucky enough to be able to tighten our belts and go without my salary.”
That was almost three years ago. Now, Ludwig, the father of two toddler-aged boys, cherishes his role as a stay-at-home dad.
“I think I’ve gained a lot by staying at home,” Ludwig says. “I see a lot of things that I would otherwise not be exposed to if I was at work.”
Twenty-five years ago an image of the typical stay-at-home dad might conjure up the memories of Michael Keaton in an apron wreaking havoc in the kitchen. Fast forward to today, however, and the picture of a stay-at-home dad is much more serene.
Stay-at-home dads are becoming more and more of the norm. The U.S. Census bureau estimates there were 140,000 stay-at-home dads in 2008, the latest numbers available.
While the statistics are still fuzzy, 25 percent of children aged 0-4 were estimated to be in their father’s care while their mother was at work, the Census reports.
Some dads are pulled into the domestic sphere by choice, others by chance.
Sam Shepard, father of Lucy, 2, found himself in the fortunate position of having options. He and his wife lived in Chicago’s Mayfair neighborhood before relocating to Southern California for her job.
“We were able to make our parenting choices based on what type of care we wanted for our daughter,” Shepard says. “We are acutely aware many other parents don’t have the same luxury.”
Jason Avant, founder of the popular dad Web site, Dad Centric (www.dadcentric.com), found himself on the other side of the equation when his job as a consultant for a defense company was cut. “My wife’s job has been very successful so we decided I’d be the primary caretaker for our kids.” Avant says. “But losing my job actually opened up opportunities for me to pursue my other interests.”
Although Avant’s main job is to “make sure the house is clean, the kids are fed and there are groceries in the refrigerator,” he’s now able to spend more time cultivating his blog and other writing projects.
“I’m trying to put a unique stamp on fatherhood with the site,” Avant says. “And, I’m trying to move away from those typical negative stereotypes of fatherhood.”
Finding outlets to express the joys and frustrations of parenthood are crucial to maintaining the sanity of not just fathers, but any at-home parent.
For example, Ludwig, a former business writer, writes a weekly online column for the Southtown Star.
“I know what I deal with every day and now I can put it into words,” Ludwig says. “Plus, it’s something that keeps my feet in the door in the industry.”
Luckily, there are many resources for stay-at-home dads to connect with each other in the Chicago area. On the Web site Meetup.com, a search for “stay at home dads” returns more than 30 different groups. The online forums at www.chicagodads.com abound with discussions about parenting, relationships with wives, professional advice and pregnancy and dads-only play groups.
But in general, common misperceptions still abound about stay-at-home dads.
“I’ve been out with my kids on a weekday afternoon and I’ve had people come up to me and say things like, ‘well, I guess it’s mom’s day off, eh?'” Ludwig says. “Sometimes it’s just not worth it to explain.”
Avant echoes Ludwig’s sentiments.
“While it’s not that uncommon to see dads out in the middle of the day in San Diego, there is still the notion that my parenting skills aren’t as good as a woman’s,” he says. “If my daughter is crying, I’ll get all kinds of moms coming up to me with advice.”
Not to mention the sacrifices that dads make, just like their mom counterparts. While the choices women make about work and family are often played up in the media as the “Mommy Wars,” dads have to give up a lot too.
Shepard and his family are now moving back to the Chicago area after his wife was relocated again for work.
“In sunny California, getting outside to the parks all year round made it simple to find good activities for us,” Shepard says. “Now, by moving back to Chicago we’ll have to start over a bit to find some parks, programs and new friends that (Lucy will) enjoy.”
But even if Chicago’s winters are long and gray, there are many sunny prospects to being a stay-at-home dad in Chicago and elsewhere.
“At least in Chicago we’ll be a lot closer to the grandparents,” Shepard says. “I didn’t realize it until I had my own child how important having family around can be.”
Dad facts by the numbers
36 percent Percentage of children under 6 in 2006 (the most recent data available) who had 15 or more outings with their fathers in a month.
64.3 million Estimated number of fathers in the U.S.
25 percent Percentage of the nation’s 11.3 million preschoolers who are regularly cared for by their fathers during their mother’s working hours.
1966 Year President Lyndon Johnson issued a presidential proclamation honoring fathers and designated the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day.
$3.3 billion Amount of child support custodial fathers were owed in 2005 (most recent data available.) This compares to the $34.7 billion in support owed moms.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau