NORTH ANDOVER, MASS. — Glen Wade still remembers the mixed emotions he felt five years ago when he quit his job as a computer-systems analyst to care for his newborn son. On the positive side, he enjoyed being with the baby and watching him grow and develop. At the same time, he found himself almost totally isolated during the day. ''You're used to working, working, working, and all of a sudden you have no job to get up and go to,'' says Mr. Wade of Coppell, Texas. ''You're just alone.'' That isolation continued for two years until Wade met another at-home father, Bruce Drobeck. Together the two men established a network of at-home fathers in the Dallas area. Now, in an effort to extend that support coast to coast, they are among a small group of fathers launching the National At-Home Dads Association, the first nationwide organization for men who are their children's primary caregivers. ''Nobody is supporting dads on a national level,'' explains Wade, chairman of the new association. ''There are some local groups, but there's no real cohesion to help these men get together.'' Census Bureau figures show 2 million fathers stay at home. Yet actual numbers may be higher, Wade says. The census doesn't count fathers who work part time, and many fathers don't admit their status. ''Men are hiding in their houses,'' says Peter Baylies of North Andover, who publishes a newsletter called At-Home Dad. (See story below.) ''They say they have a consulting job, a home business, but it just turns out to be a hobby. They're staying home with the kids. They're reluctant to admit it because it threatens their macho image.'' Most full-time fathers become primary caregivers by default after a layoff. For others, the role is a choice, made with their wives. ''It's overwhelmingly an economic decision,'' says Robert Frank of Glenview, Ill., who has studied such families. ''If the husband is making $50,000 and the wife is making $25,000, who's going to stay home? Now that's changing as more women outearn their husbands.'' On a sunny Saturday in mid-August, Dr. Frank and five other founders of the National At-Home Dads Association gathered to share insights into a role that is often misunderstood. ''Men don't tend to identify themselves primarily as parents, for obvious reasons,'' says Steve Harris of Cumberland, Maine, the at-home father of a seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. ''It's not considered manly to take care of children. It has little real status for women, and it's a zero or a minus for men.'' As publisher of a three-year-old newsletter called Full-Time Dads, Mr. Harris, whose wife is editor of a computer-service newsletter, receives many letters and calls from at-home fathers. ''They say, 'I thought I was the only one doing this.' '' Full-time fathers face other challenges: lack of status, guilt about not earning money, a changing balance of power when wives become the breadwinners, and housecleaning - how much and by whom. ''Society defines you by what you do - how much you make, what kind of title you have,'' says Dr. Drobeck, a veteran of 13 years at home rearing two children, now 12 and 8. ''Americans are geared more toward outward signs of success, such as a corner office.'' To which Mr. Baylies quips, ''No matter how many diapers you change, you'll never get a corner office.'' Even so, Harris's mailbag often contains letters from men who, he says, ''are just blown away by the depth of the emotions they feel for their children, which they had no idea were there. It isn't that men can't nurture. They're just not given much chance.'' Nor are they given much respect. As one example, Drobeck, whose wife is a vice president of Mary Kay cosmetics, tells of a woman living across the street who asked him, ''When are you going to get a real job?'' His turquoise T-shirt sums up his attitude. It reads: ''Fatherhood. It's not just a job, it's an ADVENTURE.'' ''People kind of look at you strange,'' adds Wade, whose children are now 5 and 3. ''They give you that smile - 'Oh, that's nice.' Or they say, 'Oh, you're baby-sitting.' I tell them, 'No, this is my full-time job. You cannot baby-sit your own kids.' '' Such dismissive attitudes often leave at-home fathers wondering: Am I doing the right thing? Is this good for me - and my children? To answer those questions, Frank, who holds a PhD in child development, conducted a national study of 93 families, 49 with fathers at home. Full-time fathers, he says, ''are doing basically the same things as moms who stay home.'' At the same time, breadwinning mothers remain strongly involved in family. ''Working moms may help prepare dinner and do bath and bedtime routines,'' explains Frank, whose wife is a hospital administrator. ''That's a nice thing for the children, who are getting a very strong male influence as well as a strong female influence.'' Yet that ''strong male influence'' is routinely played for laughs in entertainment media. From the comic-strip househusband Adam to the movie ''Mr. Mom,'' at-home fathers are portrayed as all-thumbs fools who can't figure out how much detergent to put in the washer or which side of a diaper is up. ''I've never had a vacuum cleaner chase me around, and I've never made grilled cheese sandwiches on an iron,'' says Drobeck, referring to scenes from the movie. ''Mr. Mom belittles the whole role, not only for men but for women,'' adds Wade, whose wife sells computer software. ''Society has gotten away from having a parent stay home and take care of a child. But that's the most important job.'' To make that job less lonely, Curtis Cooper of Roswell, Ga., the at-home father of a two-year-old son and six-month-old daughter, organized a Dad-to-Dad support group in Atlanta. More than 30 fathers bring their children to weekly play groups. The men also enjoy a monthly Dad's Night Out at a restaurant. Similarly, the North Texas At-Home Dads Network, organized by Drobeck and Wade, includes 38 fathers, more than 10 play groups, and a monthly newsletter, News From the Home Front. No one pretends that full-time fatherhood is for all men. But by identifying fathers like themselves, these co-founders hope the national association will supply not only moral support but practical ideas. Area coordinators will link fathers to local resources. Conferences in various cities will carry messages to a wider audience. ''It takes a long time to change society's stereotypes,'' Frank says. ''We just naturally assume that mothers know the right things to do. Fathers do it differently, but that doesn't make it wrong.'' Frank calls his eight years as primary caregiver ''the greatest experience of my life. So many dads say this. We're experiencing what females have known for a long time, that it's a wonderful thing to stay home and be a nurturing parent.'' Summing up the group's dreams for their fledgling organization, he says, ''We're hoping stay-at-home dads change how we look at parenting. We want to educate society that we're here to stay, that we can nurture our kids, and it's acceptable.''