WASHINGTON — When his son Sean was born, Randy Meacham made the most satisfying decision of his career. He quit his well-paying job in the hotel industry and became a stay-at-home dad. He learned to change diapers, handle temper tantrums, and maintain an inner peace in times of chaos.
But now that Sean and a younger son have reached school age, Mr. Meacham is returning to the world of work, building a consulting business from his home in Breckenridge, Colo.
He is part of a trend in which stay-at-home dads - who either opted to give up careers or lost their jobs in the economic recession of the late 1980s - are going back to paying jobs. In fact, not since 1977 has paternal care for children been as low as it is now.
According to the latest Census Bureau figures, the proportion of preschool children cared for by their dads peaked between 1988 and 1991, a time that coincided with the last recession. It has declined since then.
"In times of economic crunch, families depend more on fathers [for child care]," says Lynne Casper, an expert in child-care issues with the US Census Bureau. "In part this is because fathers are more available, whether because they are unemployed or because they have more free time."
Twenty years ago, 15 percent of US pre-school age children were primarily cared for by their fathers, according to Census Bureau figures. The situation was the same in 1988.
The late '80s and early '90s saw a slow rise in the number of stay-at-home Mr. Moms. By 1991, 20 percent of American preschoolers called their constant caregiver "Dad."
But the latest figures appear to show a trend in the opposite direction. By 1993 - the latest year for which the bureau has reliable data - only 16 percent of preschoolers had primary father caregivers.
Nor are the youngest US children the only ones experiencing this phenomenon. Many experts say there's a decline in stay-at-home dads who care for kids of all ages.
In general, the father exodus seems to be driven mostly by a stronger economy and the availability of jobs. But birth rates may explain part of the trend as well. Between 1986 and '90, the national birth rate spiked to its highest point since the Eisenhower presidency. Now that the children in this "baby boomlet" have reached school age, many parents may feel less need to have one of them be at home.
BUT the census figures dealing with fathers and preschoolers raise another point: Has there been any change at all in the social roles of US fathers? The fact that dads today are providing child care at 1970s levels leads many to question whether the roles of caregiver and breadwinner have really evolved much in the past 20 years.
Some experts argue that significant change has occurred, especially in allowing families greater flexibility when deciding which parent will care for the children.
As salaries of men and women move toward parity, more men have the option of staying at home while their wives bring home the bacon, says Robin Hardman, spokeswoman for the Families and Work Institute, an independent research group in New York.
Still, society hasn't fully accepted the idea that men can stay home to raise the kids, say some at-home fathers. If mothers complain that their child-rearing contribution is devalued, fathers say that theirs sometimes seems to be not valued at all.
Those parents who stay at home often risk being seen by their peers as laggards, says Ms. Hardman. "There's a cultural bias against at-home parents, especially at-home dads. A woman can get away with having gaps in her resume for a few years, taking care of children. Men can't."
As an at-home dad, Peter Baylies has heard more than his fair share of unintentional put-downs.
"When you go to the grocery store, they say, 'Oh, you got the day off,' " says the father of two in North Andover, Mass. "I don't take offense at it. It's hard to shake the notion that women are the caregivers and men are the breadwinners."
Laid off four years ago by the computermaker Digital Equipment Corp., Mr. Baylies says he was prepared to take on more parenting duties. But he wasn't prepared for the isolation that awaits many of the estimated 2 million men who are the main child-care givers in their homes.
"Men don't network very well or reach out for help when they have questions," he says. "It's kind of a macho thing, like not stopping to ask for directions. But if you sit down with other moms in the park and talk, they warm up pretty fast."
Baylies knew he was not alone, so he decided to start a newsletter "for the home-based father." For $12 a year, subscribers can pick up laundry tips, microwave-oven recipes, and articles on discipline. A sample headline: "Men Who Clean Bathrooms and the Women Who Love Them."
Some experts say the return of dads to work could have a negative effect on how families juggle their priorities. "If more dads are returning to the work force, companies should explore ways to make work hours more flexible," says Perry Christensen, a consultant with WFD Consulting, a Boston research group.
Even so, many parents are making adjustments and giving family the top priority. Parents who can afford to support a family on one income are increasingly choosing to do so, says Hardman.
"Usually it's less expensive to pay someone to do child care than to do it yourself," she says. "But many people who can afford to stay at home and look after the kids are doing so," often because they want to take a more active part in their children's upbringing.