- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2001

Peter Steinberg of Burke says he thought his wife was joking at first.

Stay at home with their newborn daughter, Natalie? Him? He had a master´s degree in social work and a job he loved in that field. She had to be joking, he thought.

So for the next two years, he and his wife worked full-time while Natalie and her sister, Kali, stayed in day care. Two seminal moments in Mr. Steinberg´s life changed all that, he says.

The first came when Kali, then 4, asked him one day why he worked, and the only answer he could give was, "So we can afford day care for you." The second came one day not long afterward when a truck accident on the Beltway delayed him for four hours from picking up Natalie. He recalled her saying to him, "I thought you´d never come."

So for the past year and a half, Mr. Steinberg has been a member of a small but growing segment of the population known as stay-at-home fathers, a group that faces an uphill struggle for acceptance and understanding in a stay-at-home mom world.

"It´s the greatest thing I´ve ever done, in a way," says Jeff Reed of Germantown, who recently quit a job at a photo processing company to stay at home with his 5-month-old twin girls, Keeganand Sydney. "But in a way, it´s the most frustrating thing I´ve ever done, too. When both of them are screaming, it´s more frustrating than ever.

A new culture

The stay-at-home father culture is a fairly new one, so new that when Robert Frank took his first class for his doctorate degree in 1990 at Loyola University in Chicago and mentioned he was a stay-at-home dad, his professor asked him what that was.

"She said, 'You´ve got to do research on this topic,´" Mr. Frank recalls. "That´s how I got into it. I found there was substantial little research and very small articles on the whole issue of stay-at-home dads. I got thrown into it because there were no books on it. Parenting books are written to moms, primarily, and if dads are mentioned at all, it´s for moms to get the dads more involved. I was going to take a different perspective on it all and write a book on stay-at-home dads, but all the publishers said the same thing: 'The world isn´t ready for this yet.´" He never did publish his book.

In 1995, he completed his doctoral dissertation on primary caregiving fathers, comparing thousands of them to primary caregiving mothers, and received his doctorate in educational psychology. He followed that up with another study in 1996. Among the things he discovered in his research are that children of stay-at-home fathers bond equally with both parents, which he says came as a consolation to working mothers.

"If you´re in what we´ll call a regular, traditional family, where mom stays home and dad goes to work, if a child gets hurt or wakes up in the middle of the night and both parents are there, the child will go 80 percent of the time to the mother and 20 percent to the father," says Mr. Frank, who is an assistant professor of psychology at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill. "In a stay-at-home dad family, it´s 50-50. It´s a plus for the child that there is a major attachment there to both parents, and the moms were happy to hear that they weren´t losing a lot of bonding with their child."

The other discovery he made in his research was that stay-at-home fathers were able to switch back to their "traditional" roles when their wives came home from work or on the weekends.

"Dad still cuts the grass, changes the light bulb and paints the house," Mr. Frank says. "A lot of people make comments that it´s emasculating, but it´s not in any way. Dads still keep a lot of their traditional roles."

Most families with stay-at-home fathers made the decision because of two factors: finances and a desire for one of the parents to be at home with the young children. Many of the stay-at-home fathers of the DCMetroDads, an informal group of stay-at-home fathers in Northern Virginia, say their wives made more money than they did, or were further along in their careers, which made the decision easier for them.

"I wasn´t real hard-core at my business," says Mr. Reed, whose wife, Julie, is a firefighter. "We just figured that it would cost us as much to put them into day care as it would to bring me home. And having twins, it was too hard to find a good day care that we could put them in."

The wives themselves say the decision has allowed them to focus more on their jobs.

"It has made a huge difference," says Sonya Sasseville of Burke, whose husband, Marc, stays at home with their two daughters, Anna, 5, and Bailey, 3. "I do have a very demanding job [with the Environmental Protection Agency], and it is kind of hard to focus. I was always pulled. When I was at home, I was thinking about work, and when I was at work, I was thinking about being at home. This has made it easier in a number of ways. When Marc is taking care of the girls, he´s taking care of me, too. He has dinner on the table when I come home and he runs errands during the day."

Mrs. Sasseville does admit there are times she wishes she could be the one at home with the girls, particularly when she considers that they see other stay-at-home mothers and might be tempted to think she loves them less than other mothers.

But still, she says, the decision "seemed like the sensible thing to do, and it´s working."

Pamela Stuart of Crystal City, whose husband, Thom, stays at home with their 6-month-old son, Cameron, says the decision has taken away "the guilt factor" for her.

"I think there are a lot of guilty feelings that go with being a working mom, at least for a lot of moms," says Mrs. Stuart, a consultant for Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting). "To come to work every day and leave the children with somebody else, there is just a wave of guilt that comes over you. What else could be more important than your children? How could you put anything in front of them? What are you thinking? But when it´s dad, there is no guilt. You´re not leaving the child with just somebody."

Some stay-at-home fathers say their children´s health even im-proved once they left the day-care setting. Anna Sasseville had suffered from bronchial problems, which was one of the reasons the Sassevilles made the decision for Mr. Sasseville to stay home, because both of them were taking considerable time off to care for her.

He says her health has improved greatly since he quit his job as an accountant. Mr. Stuart says Cameron´s digestive problems and skin irritations have improved since he quit his job as a project manager for Autometric, a mapping company in Springfield.

Need for connection

Mr. Steinberg recognized the need even before he stopped working to stay home full time.

"My biggest fear was that I´d be isolated," he says. "We do live next door to a mother who stays at home, but I was really needing other males. I tried to make a pretty good effort after I stopped working to find other people."

His search quickly turned to the Internet, where he found some dads groups and some chat rooms that helped. Eventually, he contacted another stay-at-home father in the Northern Virginia area and they met and hit it off.

Other fathers joined the group, and soon the DCMetroDads, an informal support and encouragement group, was born. Mr. Steinberg has turned over leadership of the group recently to Mike Stilwell, a father of three in Alexandria, but he still participates regularly.

Mr. Steinberg says his experience has showed him that stay-at-home fathers struggle trying to connect with others.

"They all came along reluctantly," he says of the men in the group. "They came along reluctantly. They didn´t want to meet other stay-at-home fathers. It was like a family secret. Their wives searched us out in some cases. They saw that their husbands weren´t doing anything, or the kids needed more stimulation. We get it from both ends. I´m kind of a person in the middle. To me, it would have been nice if there had been a group, but I wasn´t dying to find one. I just thought it would be good to start."

Jay Massey, a stay-at-home father in Pensacola, Fla., who runs a Web site for stay-at-home dads (www.slowlane. com) says isolation is the biggest issue men in his situation face.

"That´s why we put so much energy into this Web site," he says. "It´s not an accident. Men are tool users. Women roam the streets, take their strollers out. They see another woman with a stroller, they hook up. Men are not going to do that. They are tool users. Guys on the street don´t think about putting up signs advertising that they´re stay-at-home dads. So they come to the Web site, find out ways to meet other guys and understand their perspective.

Gender profiling

Stay-at-home fathers say they think they are gaining in numbers and respect, but the road is still long and uphill. The Census Bureau reported in 1993 that there were 459,000 "pure" stay-at-home fathers, men who provided primary or secondary care for their children (ages 14 and younger) and who didn´t work at all.

Kristin Smith, a family demographer for the bureau, says there were about 1.9 million men who were primary caregivers for their children (14 and younger) that year, but the data fail to differentiate how many of those men were working full time, part time or at all.

Ms. Smith also says Census Bureau data consistently reported from 1985 to 1995 that around 16 percent of all preschool-age children were cared for primarily by their fathers.

"We´re trying to do a separate analysis on the 2000 data to see how kids are being cared for now," she says, adding that the bureau doesn´t have statistics in these areas beyond the early 1990s.

Mr. Massey says the increase of "family" bathrooms in shopping malls and stores, and the number of men´s rooms that have changing tables, is evidence to him that the stay-at-home-father culture is gaining a foothold, at least in retailers´ minds.

He recalls a conversation he had with a local Sam´s Club manager when his son was an infant.

"I asked him, 'Do you have a baby-changing station?´" he says. "He was about to say we just had one installed in the ladies room. And I said, 'Will you escort me into it?´

"He got the idea," Mr. Massey says. "But two years later, they still didn´t have one. But still, I realized a couple of years ago we´re almost there. That´s when I noticed that almost every men´s room I was in had a baby-changing station."

Peter Baylies, a stay-at-home father in Massachusetts who runs a Web site for men like him (www.athomedad. com), says that Hollywood and the entertainment industry have started to recognize the impact of stay-at-home fathers. He notes that the 1980s movie "Mr. Mom," one of the most famous films dealing with stay-at-home fathers, features Michael Keaton as a bumbling dad with virtually no clue about how to raise children. Ten years later, "Mrs. Doubtfire" featured Robin Williams´ character (disguised as a woman) in a much more sympathetic, more passionate light in a similar role.

Similarly, in recent years network television has offered shows with stay-at-home fathers in central roles, such as "Daddio" and the new sitcom "My Wife and Kids," featuring comedian Damon Wayans.

But stay-at-home dads still struggle, despite the progress they´ve made. Mr. Stilwell says mothers of his daughter´s friends are reluctant to have their daughters play at his house knowing he is the only adult in the house. Although he understands their feelings, he is still bothered by it a bit.

Hal Levy, a former stay-at-home father in Manalapan, N.J., who started a Web site for stay-at-home fathers (www.daddyshome.com), says he has heard of stay-at-home fathers who have been approached by police in parks.

"They want to know why these guys are hanging around in the parks watching little kids play in the middle of the day, especially if they have little girls with them," Mr. Levy says. "It´s gender profiling, if you ask me. I can´t say I blame the police, but still, it´s kind of disturbing."

Mr. Frank says the culture has a long way to go to fully embrace stay-at-home fatherhood.

"It´s getting there, but it´s probably not going to go all the way," he says. "Our gender roles are still too entrenched, even though society has changed. I prove this all the time. Every time I lecture, I pull a woman out of the audience and say, 'If you see us walking down the street, who knows more about child development?´ And they always pick the woman. They´re entrenched in their thinking process, like it´s an instinctual thing that women know more about raising children than men."

Still, Mr. Frank says, "My dream is one day to go to the park and see five moms and five dads, and nobody asks the dads why they aren´t working. And stories like this won´t be news."

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