Hogan Hilling likes to tell a story that measures his changing attitudes as an at-home father.
One weekday five years ago, as he wheeled the youngest of his three sons in a stroller, he noticed a cluster of mothers ahead. Afraid the women would wonder why he wasn't at work, he turned around and took a different route.
Looking back, Mr. Hilling expresses amazement at his shyness. He asks, "Why wasn't I proud enough to walk right by those women and say I'm a stay-at-home dad, or even join them?"
Today a more confident Hilling would do just that. It's also the approach he urges other men to take. Standing before nearly 100 fathers who have gathered on a Saturday for the fourth annual At-Home Dads convention in Des Plaines, Ill., he says, "Being a stay-at-home dad is a real privilege."
Until five years ago, fathers like Hilling were largely invisible and alone.
Now, with help from newsletters, e-mail, Web sites, and conferences like this one, at-home dads are reaching out to one another, finding new assurance and satisfaction in their redefined roles. They also sense a greater public acceptance.
"We are no longer the circus sideshow," says Barry Reszel of Libertyville, Ill.
But they still face challenges. During this day-long conference at Oakton Community College, fathers from 26 states are eager to talk about everything from isolation, discipline, and education to managing time and communicating with wives.
Among married fathers, 238,000 care for preschoolers while mothers work. That figure rises to 1.9 million fathers for children up to age 14. Leaders of the fatherhood movement expect the numbers to increase as more women progress in careers.
For Hilling, of Irvine, Calif., the decision to stay home came after the couple's second son, Wesley, now 10, was born and diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder. His wife, Tina, a speech pathologist, had more job security and better benefits than Hilling, who owned a small business. When people ask, "How could you sacrifice your business to stay home?" he tells them, "I didn't sacrifice anything. I made the choice."
A decade ago, many fathers stayed home by default after being laid off or downsized. Today, Connie Miller of Flower Mound, Texas, a national advocate for at-home parents, finds couples considering all the odds, positive and negative, and deciding that "Dad's the one to stay home." Many men leave well-paying jobs as computer engineers, investment brokers, executive chefs, and college-level educators.
Those choices also benefit children. James Levine, director of The Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in New York, notes that child-development research shows that "the key variable in how well children do is not whether Mom is home or Dad is home, but whether Mom or Dad is choosing to be home."
Twenty-five years ago, when Dr. Levine wrote a book about at-home fathers called "Who Will Raise the Children?" people thought the role was "freakish." Today, as nurturing roles have become more acceptable for all men, more and more families, Levine says, "are moving toward a more equitable division of labor, and toward the understanding that both parents are equally capable of providing the competent care children need."
Kyle Pruett, who is conducting the only longitudinal study on families with at-home fathers, finds that children raised by involved fathers are more flexible in their social problem-solving ability and tend to do less gender-stereotyping. Dr. Pruett, a clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, Conn., adds, "Girls have a more robust interest in math and science, and boys are more interested in relationships and nurturing competence in themselves and other people."
Kent Ayyildiz of Charlottesville, Va., a filmmaker who cares for his son, now 5, calls his time at home "a gift my wife has provided us with." He has documented that role in an award-winning 28-minute film, "Homedaddy."
Yet these men are not the only trail-blazers. There is a new recognition of the essential role their wives play as breadwinners, and of the challenges they face.
Bruce Drobeck of Southlake, Texas, who has been at home with his daughter and son for more than a decade, observes that nontraditional roles can cause a lot of strain on couples. Women often feel guilty because they are working and not at home. Or they may experience jealousy, because their husbands are able to do things they cannot.
"You really have to have a commitment to this lifestyle, and you have to work at it," Mr. Drobeck says. "It requires a strong sense of identity and knowing who you are. You need excellent communication."
In a workshop discussing spousal issues, men speak frankly about domestic tension. One tells the group that he and his wife are "having some issues." Another refers to "some interface problems."
Joann Massey, whose husband, Jay, has cared for their five-year-old son, Tucker, since birth, offers her perspective on these roles, including her initial ambivalence. "My biggest emotion was negative," Mrs. Massey of Pensacola, Fla., tells the fathers. "I didn't want to leave the baby."
Still, she appreciates being able to continue her career. "There have been Mondays when I couldn't wait to get out the door," she says. "For our son, Jay was the best person to stay home."
For his part, Mr. Massey gets through challenging days by reminding himself, "This is what you want. You don't want your child in day care."
Housework can also loom as a challenge. "There's only one way to load the dishwasher - her way," one husband gripes. And Mrs. Massey tells of saying to her husband, "You've been home all day. Why is this place a mess?" She calls that criticism "irrational," adding, "It's just a culmination of all the stress and fatigue."
Relationships can be tested in other ways as well. Peter Baylies of North Andover, Mass., publisher of a quarterly newsletter, At-Home Dad, draws knowing nods from the men here when he says, "You have a wife who delegates everything at work, and comes home and wants to delegate you. It's hard for them to break out of the work mode when they come home." Wives' long hours and frequent business travel can also affect marriages.
But Curtis Cooper, founder of the Dad-to-Dad Network in Apple Valley, Minn., finds that in a majority of cases, these arrangements can strengthen marriages. Explaining that his wife has a demanding job as a marketing director, he says, "If we were doing the day-care route, our life would be a lot more stressful. If anything, it takes pressure off the family."
Ron Piarowski of Park Ridge, Ill., who is at home with a 2-1/2-year-old daughter and four-month-old son, explains that his role has freed his wife, a banker, to excel at her job. "She tells me all the time that she couldn't do what she's doing if I wasn't the one home with the kids."
But gratitude needs to be reciprocal. "Appreciate your wife," one man urges others in the group. "She's working."
Although a few fathers are home-schooling their children, others whose offspring have outgrown diapers and "Goodnight Moon" face a new stage - launching their children in school. "These dads are very concerned about taking the next step," says Dr. Robert Frank, a family counselor and author of "The Involved Father."
When that time comes, they must consider a big step for themselves - returning to work. When Baylies polled subscribers of his newsletter, 75 percent said they expect to go back to work when their youngest child enters first grade. But many express concern that they are losing skills and their professional place in line.
Mr. Ayyildiz sums up the ideal of many nontraditional couples when he says, "The best of all worlds for us would be that we both work part time."
Some men also note how attitudes have changed in a generation. Says Mr. Massey, "My dad took ridicule for hanging diapers out on the line." Massey, who operates the Web site Slowlane.com and runs a home-based graphics business, sports a T-shirt reading "I'm not a baby sitter, I'm a father."
No one minimizes the challenge of trading places. Joe McAllister of Chicago has been caring for two sons, ages 6 and 4, for just three months. Tired of working 70-hour weeks in the store they owned, he and his wife recently sold it. "Neither of us was around for the children," he says.
Yet he is still coming to terms with the idea that "this is what I'm going to do - not have the identity of a job. Calling the transition "difficult," he says, "I'm now responsible for all the things I did a little bit of."
Still, Mr. McAllister is reassured by the men at the convention. "I don't know what I expected," he says, "but I didn't expect to see a bunch of regular guys."
Many of these "regular guys" still long for less isolation and more social support.
Vince Gratton of Pueblo, Colo., who gave up his law practice to stay home with twin daughters, now 5, emphasizes that "nothing in the world means more to me than this." But he finds that fathers in his role remain "at the bottom of the barrel. The stay-at-home mom is looked down upon as a nonachiever. I'm below her."
To emphasize his masculinity, Mr. Gratton has started lifting weights. "People will see I'm strong and won't give me any problems about staying home."
Drobeck predicts that it will take another generation or two to change public perceptions of fathers as caregivers. Hilling emphasizes that fathers must stop measuring success by paychecks and titles.
"Guys," he tells the men, "don't ever underestimate the impact on your kids and your communities. Keep on daddying."
Resources for fathers
At-Home Dad quarterly newsletter
61 Brightwood Ave., North Andover, MA 01845
Groups of at-home fathers in various communities who organize children's play groups and dads-night-out dinners. To start or join a chapter, send a SASE to: 13925 Duluth Court, Apple Valley, MN 55124. Or phone: (612) 423-3705. E-mail: Dad-to-Dad@aol.com
*At-Home Dad Handbook
A 112-page booklet of essays by fathers who are primary caregivers for their children.
$12 per copy, payable by check to:
AHDH/Curtis Cooper, 13925 Duluth Court,
Apple Valley, MN 55124
Online network helping at-home fathers
National research and education program supporting men's involvement in child- rearing.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society