At-Home Dads Give Their New Career High Marks

Scott Hahn of Richmond, Va., observed an unusual anniversary last month. Three years ago he left his job as a customer-service representative to begin a new career -- that of at-home father, caring for his then three-month-old daughter, Caitlin.

Thirteen years after the movie "Mr. Mom" treated at-home fathers as a subject for slapstick, a survey to be released next week - the largest ever taken of fathers who are primary-care givers - finds growing numbers of at-home fathers like Mr. Hahn who see their role as serious, committed, and long-term.

Although a competent baby sitter had been taking care of the Hahns' infant in their home while the couple worked, Hahn says he "just could never get comfortable with the idea of a stranger raising our child." His wife, a teacher, earned slightly more money than he did, so he suggested that he stay home.

"I liked it from the beginning," Hahn says. Explaining that their second child will be born soon, he adds with a laugh, "I've got a further measure of job security."

Census figures are vague on the number of fathers who are primary caregivers, although the number of at-home fathers of preschool children stood at about 16 percent in 1993. Nevertheless, refuting stereotypes that fathers stay home only because they are unemployed, a majority of respondents say their choice is deliberate, reflecting a desire to avoid day care.

More than 1,000 at-home fathers took part in the study, conducted by Dr. Robert Frank, an adjunct professor at DePaul University in Chicago and himself an at-home father for the past eight years. He and co-author Dr. Michael Helford, a survey research analyst at Roosevelt University in Chicago, narrowed their focus to 371 men who spend at least 30 hours a week alone with their children.

Among fathers in this group, more than half describe themselves as "extremely satisfied" with their role. On average, they have been at home for almost three years.

More than 40 percent of their wives also express satisfaction with the arrangement. Almost 70 percent of the wives earn more money than their husbands did.

One survey participant, Steven Amaya of Thousand Oaks, Calif., is an at-home father of a five-year-old daughter, Avery. "I'm very satisfied," he says. "It's also given my wife the opportunity to spend as much time on her career as necessary."

Yet Mr. Amaya, a writer, notes that in taking Avery to the park, to preschool, and to Mommy and Me classes, he has often found it "more difficult to make contact with other adults simply because I'm a man."

This partial isolation squares with survey findings. Nearly two-thirds of fathers at home report feeling "somewhat isolated." Another 6 percent say they are totally isolated.

"I expected that," says Peter Baylies of North Andover, Mass., who publishes a quarterly newsletter, At-Home Dad. "From all the calls and letters I receive, the biggest comment I hear is, 'I feel isolated.' Dads don't reach out for support the way moms do."

That isolation is intensified, Baylies continues, by stereotypes at-home fathers confront from people who regard them as baby sitters rather than as primary-care givers.

He offers an example: "When a father goes to the supermarket with his child, people will look at him and assume he has the day off from work or he got laid off. They don't view him as a full-time father."

Until Hahn organized a local chapter of Dad-to-Dad, a national network of at-home fathers, he too felt alone. Now he and Caitlin spend one morning a week with four other fathers and their children. In addition, he joins other men for a monthly Dad's Night Out dinner.

A companion survey of at-home mothers, also conducted by Dr. Frank, shows that less than 40 percent of mothers feel isolated. Mothers surveyed have averaged four years at home. They typically spend 58 hours a week alone with a child, compared with 47 hours for at-home fathers.

Not surprisingly, staying home carries economic penalties. At-home fathers report that their role costs them $26,600 a year in lost income. For mothers who leave the work force, the average loss is $24,000.

"This indicates a very strong commitment on both parts to stay home with the kids," Frank says.

That commitment continues to grow, according to Mary James of Simi Valley, Calif., the founder of MOMS Club, a 13-year-old organization for mothers at home that has 325 chapters nationwide.

As the mother of two daughters, ages 16 and 13, she says, "When I first stayed home with our older daughter, absolutely no one stayed home. It was very hard to meet other mothers. In the last seven years I've seen a real reversal of that trend. There really are more mothers staying home."

A majority of the 15,000 mothers in her organization have finished college, Mrs. James says. "But even with the opportunities the college degree has brought, they've still decided to forgo the economic benefits of working a regular job."

At the same time, she adds, "You can no longer assume that a mother at home is a mother who does not work." A previous survey of her own MOMS chapter showed that 58 of 60 at-home mothers did some kind of income-generating work at home. This included catering, pet sitting, tutoring, bookkeeping, teaching piano and ballet, selling cosmetics, and transcribing court records.

One-fourth of at-home fathers in the survey also report that they run a home-based business. Even so, many men say they miss their former job and their contacts with co-workers. Nearly 40 percent expect to work outside the home once their children are in school. A quarter intend to work at home.

Hahn, who now works four evenings a week as a technical support representative, says, "There are odd moments when I envy people who are in the corporate world, but by and large, I haven't missed a regular job at all." He adds, "We're planning to do this indefinitely. We're not putting any money in savings, but we're breaking even."

Nearly one-third of the fathers say that being home with children has hurt their career somewhat. Another quarter think it has affected their career a lot.

Only 15 percent of survey participants say they have taken a childrearing class. That compares with 30 percent of mothers in the companion survey.

"We aren't teaching males to be nurturing in our society," Frank says.

Even fathers who are satisfied in their role find challenges. "I've been surprised at how much sexism there still is among women," Amaya says. "I've often gotten an attitude from them that I was somehow not as qualified as they were as the primary-care giver. It was not so much in the words they used but in the attitudes they held."

Frank concedes that his survey sample is "skewed" because most participants are middle-class and 96 percent are white. But he thinks the findings have relevance for other families as well. "Working dads can also look at this and think, 'Maybe I shouldn't work the extra hour but spend that time at home with the kids,'" he says.

"You have to balance how much money you need to make and how much time you can spend at home," he adds. "That's difficult - you have to pay the bills and feed the kids. But in the long run, if more parents can find a better balance and spend more time with their kids, maybe some of society's ills will fade."

Amaya puts it this way: "I came to the understanding that for me real wealth could be measured in the time I could spend with my child, so I'm feeling pretty wealthy these days."

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