Paul Schwartz figured out a way to simulate bobsledding in a warm climate. In an effort to teach his son about the Winter Olympics, the stay-at-home dad perched the 4-year-old atop a light green cooler with wheels. He then dragged the cooler down a paved incline, covering about 100 feet in less than 10 seconds. For that, he won the gold medal.
Known as the “beer-cooler bobsled,” the event was just one of several celebrated recently on a playground in Montclair, along with warm-climate versions of curling, slalom, and figure skating. The competitors were the East Bay Dads, a group of about a dozen stay-at-home fathers and their children who meet for weekly play dates.
Schwartz and the dads represent a growing contingent of men who are quitting their day jobs to change diapers while their wives work full time to support the family. Though the recession has played a part in the shifting demographic, for many families, the dad’s transition to domesticity was a calculated choice. The trend is strongest among middle- to high-income families, and often helps boost the wife’s career, affording her the freedom to work long, uninterrupted hours or arrange her schedule around her career — not family.
Last year, the number of working mothers who also were sole breadwinners reached an all-time high, according to a US Census report. Although women still make less than men overall, earning an average of 71 cents to the man’s dollar, the percentage of women who out-earn their husbands has jumped from 4 to 22 since 1970, according to a study released this year by the Pew Research Center. Women also are more likely to hold higher degrees than their husbands. Men are more educated only about a fifth of the time.
Stay-at-home dads are still a minority, however. And how many they number is open to debate. The last Census counted only 159,000 stay-at-home dads. But according to Aaron Rochlen, an assistant professor and psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin who studies non-traditional male roles, the number of fathers who assume primary childcare responsibility is actually closer to 2 million and growing.
So what’s changing the structure of the American family? There’s no doubt that many dads have been forced to stay home because of the economy. Men account for 75 percent of those who recently lost jobs to the recession — making room for a 1 percent increase in working women. But Rochlen believes the growing stay-at-home dad phenomenon has more to do with the ever-expanding boundaries of familial norms.
In families where the wife has a stronger career, the husband is freed up to fill the traditional role of housewife — or in this case, househusband. And many dads are finding that they’re comfortable being the primary caregiver. “In my research, we’ve been hearing that dad is the more patient one,” Rochlen said. “Dad likes cooking and cleaning.”
The shift makes sense to Paul Schwartz. He quit his job as an attorney several years ago, shortly before his son was born. He recalled a profound moment when a law professor declared equality in the workplace would come only in the wake of joint childcare responsibilities. “I heard that, and I was like, ‘Wow,'” he said. “Some women are crashing through the glass ceiling, and some men are picking up the slack with the house.”
Schwartz’ wife Amy Wilson happens to be such a woman. After graduating from Cornell University, she worked her way up the corporate ladder, and now is a senior director for product strategy at Oracle. Since giving birth, she has been promoted twice, an accomplishment she attributes in part to her husband’s position as a stay-at-home dad and de facto life coach.
Wilson said she’s “amazed” by career moms who also juggle household duties. She said her husband’s role allows her to focus fully while at work. And she said that when she leaves the office, it’s nice not to have to run errands, plan dinner, and pick the kid up from school. Instead, she comes home to spend quality time with her son. “I don’t have a lot of guilt,” she said. “I can work really hard and put a lot of energy into my work, and I don’t feel like that’s hurting anything else.”
But while having one parent at home may make life a little easier, the men who fill that role — just like the at-home moms who came before them — must face the hurdles of parenthood.
In the French documentary film, March of the Penguins, dad stays at the breeding grounds to incubate his mate’s egg after she goes to the sea to fill her belly with fish. For two months, male Emperor penguins shield their eggs from excruciatingly cold temperatures and snowstorms. When the egg finally hatches, he regurgitates a milky, nutritious substance to sustain the young chick until the female returns. By the time she does, the male hasn’t eaten anything — except snow — in about four months. In nature, the penguin male fills this role seamlessly. In the frigid Antarctic, it takes two dutiful parents to raise a chick.
So, too, the role of a stay-at-home dad makes perfect sense for some couples. And for Schwartz and Wilson, the decision for him to stay home was made before the egg was even fertilized. She recalled him being bored with his government job and telling her one night: “I just really want to be a dad.”
So the couple started trying to conceive, a process that took some time, a fertility coach, and in vitro fertilization. In the meantime, Schwartz had landed his dream job as an attorney at a small labor and employment law firm in Oakland. But achieving his goal had come with a hefty price tag. “The job was starting to conflict with what he wanted in life,” Wilson recalled. “He could never say no to anything and he was working 90 to a hundred hours a week.”
The stress took a toll on Schwartz. Right before the couple started fertility treatments, they flew to New Zealand to reassess their life goals. Wilson recommended her husband quit his job, manage the remodeling of their Redwood Heights home, and take care of the baby. Schwartz was thrilled. “These grey hairs are from that job,” he said. “When I quit it was like I could breathe again.”
Wilson eventually got pregnant, and toward the end of her third trimester, she left work on maternity leave. But she said that once her four months of time off were over, both she and her husband were more than ready for her to return to work. Knowing that he would be home with the baby made the transition easy. “Two parents home was a little too much,” she recalled. “It was all so seamless. One day I just went to work.”
That’s not to say she didn’t cry a little. “For me, having Malcolm was a personal milestone,” she said. “I’m only going to do this once. … If Paul hadn’t been home, it would have been a lot more shocking.”
For Lafayette residents Brad and Alison Crane, the decision for him to stay home with the kids was equally simple. As a lawyer, Alison’s salary accounted for 75 percent of the couple’s combined income. Brad was an assistant manager at Peet’s, a $35,000 a year job that wasn’t something he aspired to or particularly enjoyed. The couple wanted to provide the one-parent-at-home lifestyle for their kids — now ages six, three, and one. But Alison said it was never a viable option for her to be that parent.
In the years since Brad’s been home, Alison was promoted to partner of her law firm, a position she said she would be happy with for the indefinite future. “Having my kids at home with the person who I know loves them more than anything else in the world allows me not to be stressed at work,” she said. “I like to think my life would have panned out the same way if a different decision had been made. I like to think that I’d still be an attorney. On the other hand it really does make my life as a working mom much, much easier.”
And for Brad, full-time fatherhood is more rewarding than the job he left behind. He said he always assumed he’d return to work when the kids got older, but he’s starting to realize that parenting doesn’t get any simpler when kids start school. “As they get older their lives get more complicated, which makes having a parent around even more important,” he explained in an e-mail. “They need someone helping them to make good decisions.”
But not every stay-at-home dad decides to become the primary caregiver before the baby comes. Fellow East Bay Dad, Joel Turner, quit his construction job after his son Gabriel was born a year and a half ago. Turner initially took some time off to stay home with his wife and infant. Three weeks then turned into three months. And when his wife, Cathy Barragan, returned to work, they decided that Turner wouldn’t go back at all.
The arrangement wasn’t what the couple had in mind when they decided to have a child. Barragan said she and Turner planned to co-parent with each working part-time. But in order to maintain her family medical benefits, she needed to work about 30 hours a week. His company was downsizing anyway, and because she earned more, they agreed it would be economically safer for him to stay home with the baby.
Since college, Turner has earned a living as a photojournalist, a commercial fisherman, and a construction worker. Most recently, he worked in architectural salvage. He said when he eventually returns to work he’ll look for a job in early childhood education, a position that caring for a baby has prepared him for. But for now, full-time fatherhood suits him. “I complain about being bored, but I know that I’ll look back on this as the best job I’ll ever have,” he said. “It’s a unique opportunity that you may never get again. Down the road I hope that this will have an effect on him.”
Dressed in a black hoodie sweatshirt emblazoned with a white skull and a baseball cap, Paul Schwartz looks a little like an overgrown kid. His manner with his young son is both parental and conspiratorial. They’re almost like a pair of pals roaming around looking for their next big adventure.
But being a stay-at-home dad isn’t all fun and games. Schwartz admits to ups and downs. The ups include being present for Malcolm’s first word: “Dada.” And the downs mean occasionally feeling ostracized from the adult world.
Several years into the gig, the Mr. Mom jokes — or, in Schwartz’ case, the “Mrs. Wilson” remarks — still sting. “I’ve definitely felt the stigma of being a stay-at-home dad,” Schwartz said. “It’s funny, when people ask me what I do, I still start with the word ‘actually.’ Why do I say that? Maybe it reveals some self-embarrassment. It’s a little sales job.”
Schwartz also recalled feeling isolated and lonely during his early days of fatherhood, when Malcolm was an infant. He didn’t know many other stay-at-home dads, and chit-chat proved impossible during trips to the park — all the other adults with small children were non-English speaking nannies. “As a stay-at-home parent, you’re ostracized,” he said. “I realized I was getting kind of weird, so I started to schedule things to get me out of the house and interact with other adults.”
Feelings of isolation can be much more pronounced in men because stay-at-home dads are relatively rare, explained Rochlen, the University of Texas psychologist. Male identity also is closely tied to financial and career success. So for new stay-at-home dads, the transition can be daunting. “I have yet to meet a man who grew up thinking ‘I want to be a stay-at-home father,'” Rochlen said. “But there might be one in thirty years.”
Although Schwartz misses the social interaction and political discourse of his former life, he insists that watching his son grow up has been worth it. The wonder of fatherhood shows up on his blog, BigDaddyPaul.com. “Fully potty trained and able to eat exotic foods like salami, [older preschoolers], for the most part, talk and function like real people!” Schwartz noted in one post.
He also revels in his good fortune — trading a career that forced him to leave Super Bowl parties early for a life of father-son museum outings, bowling, football, golf, baseball, and trips to the horse track. For Schwartz, a sports lover who fancies himself a “soccer dad” and a “third-base coach,” another of Malcolm’s milestones came before the Tiger Woods sex scandal. “The first time he recognized Tiger Woods on TV. I said, ‘Who’s that?'” Schwartz recalled. “He said, ‘That’s Tiga.'”
One rainy morning, Schwartz took Malcolm to Habitot, a “hands-on children’s museum,” in Berkeley. Habitot is a paradise for messy kids, complete with a fake grocery store, cafe, and barnyard. There’s also a crafts room with a wall you can paint on and a mountain of gak, a sticky Play-Doh-like substance. Malcolm was especially drawn to the train set. He played peaceably enough until another mom grabbed a toy boxcar out of his hand, explaining that it belonged to her son.
Schwartz watched, annoyed. “We teach our kids not to grab things out of others’ hands, and to share,” he said. “And then we go and break the rules.”
Confused, Malcolm turned to his dad and said, “Let’s play with the sticky stuff.” And they were off.
Later, in the water playground with a tub of floating, anatomically correct babies for washing (or drowning), Malcolm grabbed a doll and dropped it into a tub, submerging it in water. “I didn’t grow up playing with dolls,” Schwartz reflected, watching Malcolm with the baby. “And I don’t want to now, but we’re trying not to enforce gender stereotypes.”
When Malcolm took his shoes and socks off, it became obvious that Schwartz wasn’t kidding. The boy’s toenails were painted blue. “That’s something he did with Amy,” Schwartz explained.
Trying to raise a kid without enforcing gender stereotypes isn’t the only challenge. In a blog post, “A World Without Tantrums,” Schwartz contemplated the Montessori-style parenting technique of allowing his son to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, thus avoiding the ritual outbursts that follow rule enforcement. “Each subsequent meltdown would cause me to fall farther into the chasm of parental self doubt,” Schwartz wrote. “What was I doing wrong?”
In the post, “Whoops,” Schwartz detailed the time he bought Malcolm a fake shaving kit (a big hit), but forgot to school the four-year-old in the danger of real razors. Malcolm later confused his mom’s razor for a toy and attempted to shave his face, gashing his lip in the process. “Sometimes, I don’t think I’m even fit to raise a llama,” Schwartz lamented. A commenter then tried to comfort Schwartz, writing: “A friend of mine found her two year old scarfing down her birth control pills and washing it down with the last of the wine from the previous night. So cheer up, she’s almost as unfit as you guys.”
Schwartz also has written openly about his son no longer taking naps, not yet reading, and having a fetish for Mary Poppins. He documents small humiliations: “Today, Malcolm threw pitchers of water on toddlers and took pretend eggs away from little girls,” and milestones: “In the blink of an eye, Malcolm is potty trained.”
Alison Crane said the hardest thing to sort out initially was the division of labor. “I’d get home and he’d want to pass [the baby] off to me — he thought he was off the clock,” she said. “On the weekend, he’d say, ‘It’s your day.’ And I thought, ‘Where’s my time in all this. Where’s my me-time? Or is my continuing to work my me-time?'”
Women are often conflicted about the role of sole breadwinner, and the long hours that sometimes come with the gig. Some say they feel guilty that they aren’t the ones raising their children. Others feel like they inevitably work harder than their husbands, juggling the demands of a full-time job and motherhood.
Barragan now works full-time as a marketing coordinator at a nonprofit organization in Oakland. Although the arrangement has pushed her career forward, that wasn’t really her goal. And sometimes, she feels like she has two demanding jobs, while her husband has only one.
She also said she now understands how working fathers might feel. “Gabriel doesn’t understand why I leave him all day,” she said of her son. “When I leave in the morning, he’ll blow me kisses. It’s heart-breaking. His memories are of me coming and going, and I hope that it doesn’t affect him in the future.”
Of course, having one parent out of the job market often costs a household half its income. That’s been a challenge for Turner and Barragan. They live in a one-bedroom apartment in Alameda, and Turner said they’ve had to sacrifice to make it work.
But Barragan hopes they can eventually work out a schedule where co-parenting is possible. Still, she said she considers herself “spoiled,” despite the challenges. “It would feel weird to have someone else with the baby,” she said. “I can check in whenever, I can call and say, ‘What are you guys doing?'”
Not every at-home father chooses the role. For many, the transition comes only after being laid off. The number of unemployed, married dads doubled between 2007 and 2009, jumping from 3 to 6 percent, according to a recent Census report. And for those dads, the transitional challenges are intensified; the sudden drop in household income unwelcome.
Frank Schellenberg is a scientist with a doctorate from Stanford University. He lost his lucrative job in the electronic design automation industry in May. Since then, Schellenberg, his son, nine, and his wife get by on his severance package and his wife’s salary from her full-time job as an attorney.
Though Schellenberg is busy looking for funding for a new start-up, he spends most of his days around his Palo Alto home and finds himself parenting his son in ways he didn’t always have time for in the past — like shuttling the fourth grader to and from school, enforcing homework rules, and regulating movie time.
Schellenberg even guest lectured his son’s class when they were studying electricity and magnetism, instructing elementary-schoolers in the secrets of microwaves and radio building. “He’s gotten huge credit from other kids for having a dad who can work magic,” Schellenberg said. “If I were working, I would not have been able to do that.”
Schellenberg’s job required him to put in fifty-hour weeks and travel frequently. But even though he knows his son likes having him around more, he worries about the impact a laid-off father can have on a son. “I’m not the greatest model of what having a career looks like at the moment,” he said. “Encouraging him to be a scientist like I have been would ring pretty hollow right now. I’m not sure what I would encourage him to be.”
And after working full-time, nonstop, all of his adult life, Schellenberg stresses over no longer providing for his family. He clearly regrets the impact it has on his wife. She works longer hours and later nights than she used to, and she’s had to put her dream of working for a nonprofit on hold. “She’s boxed in,” he said. “She has to work harder not to lose her job. … And it’s not what she dreamed she would be doing when she was in law school.”
As demographics shift to meet the changing needs of the modern family, it’s increasingly common to see a tired child with a scraped knee reaching through tears for dad. And in a decade or so, perhaps it will become common for dads to take their daughters shopping for prom dresses, creating a whole new type of role model for young children.
Joel Turner said he now has an emotional closeness to his son that would have been nearly impossible to attain had he been working. He believes a mother’s bond to her child pre-dates birth, and that his son will always yearn for his mother, whether she spends all day with him or not. Not so for the father, he said.
Likewise, Paul Schwartz said his young son Malcolm has always favored his mother, even though he’s the primary caregiver. After a long day with dad, Malcolm’s enthusiasm for his mother is evident when she walks through the door at 6:05 p.m. He shrieks, dives at her feet, and begs to show her a recent accomplishment. She follows him to the train tracks he built hours before with his father. Schwartz then retreats to the kitchen to prepare dinner.
The East Bay Dads also admit to feeling anxiety over reentering the job market after being out of the game for two, five, or ten years. Turner said that after only a year and a half out of work, he feels “outdated.” And Brad Crane wrote in an e-mail: “Realistically I’d be a 40-something-year-old applicant with no experience. That doesn’t look so good on a resume.” Schwartz also admits he’s worried. “We used to have a longer-term game plan,” he said. “If anything happened to [Wilson’s job], I’d probably go back to working as an attorney.”
When the economy eventually does perk up, laid-off stay-at-home dads will likely return to work, and even those who chose the role will have more opportunities, which has led some to wonder whether better times will lead to more women, once again, staying home to be moms. But Rochlen believes the trend will not necessarily reverse itself. “The greater presence of men in these roles has an impact, even if it’s on an unconscious level,” he said. “Men will be willing to give it a shot. It’s easier to jump on the bandwagon than to be a trend starter.”
Unsure of what the future holds, Schwartz is certain he no longer wants to work as a lawyer if he doesn’t have to. But what will he do when Malcolm gets older and starts school? “I’d like to publish a book, something about Malcolm and I, maybe based on my blog,” he said. “Like a memoir.”