The Freaks of Father's Day

The day started ordinarily enough. I came home from my office at noon. My wife Shelly went to work. I took our toddler Liko to a cafe for lunch and then we strollered to the playground.

From noon until 7 most weekdays, I'm a Mr. Mom -- a term that bothers some stay-at-home dads as a knock on their masculinity. Personally, it doesn't bother me. The reader will not be surprised to hear that I'm usually the only dad I see at Liko's swim and music classes. I don't mind that, either. After a hard period of adjustment, I came to accept the relative isolation that goes along with my role.

But on the day in question we stepped through the playground gate into a parallel universe where the laws of gender bent and vanished (cue Twilight Zone theme): Liko and I found ourselves surrounded by … men. Three men playing with three toddlers. No women in sight.

One dad left, but another arrived. At 1 p.m., it was still only dads and kids. Naturally, we dads compared notes about the unprecedented situation in which we found ourselves. It emerged that one of us was a full-time stay-at-home dad but looking for a job; two of us had quit careers to take care of our kids, but still, out of necessity, worked part-time as freelancers; the fourth was finishing a Ph.D. All four of our wives worked more hours than we did.

This was the second time around for the Ph.D., Nick Chapin; he has a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old. "There are definitely more dads on the playgrounds now than there were five years ago," Nick said.

At about 1:30, the first mom arrived with her baby. Liko and I went home for a nap. This incident raised the question: How many of us -- and by "us" I mean men who are primary caregivers -- are out there?

The 2004 census says that there are 143,000 stay-at-home-dads caring for 245,000 kids under 15. That's about 1.7 percent of all U.S. parents who are taking care of children, a pretty marginal group, but it's also double the number who stayed home in 1995, which suggests a trend. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that about 2 million dads work part-time for "non-economic reasons" that include child care, a category into which I fit.

So what? Those numbers are small, and it's still mostly women taking care of children, often pulling double shifts as workers and mommies. If there is a trend toward more paternal involvement in child rearing -- and there is, no question, and that's a good thing -- we should still keep it in perspective.

On Father's Day, we stay-at-home dads are the freaks. I'm happy to fly my freak flag, while acknowledging that today it's hard for any parent, male or female, to find enough time for their children. In her report, "One Sick Child Away From Being Fired: When Opting Out is Not an Option," U.C. law professor Joan C. Williams found that only 16 percent of working-class families enjoy the luxury of having one stay-at-home parent.

Williams discovered many, many examples of blue-collar workers (mostly women, but some men) who were fired for offenses like being three minutes late because of a child's asthma attack. For many moms and dads, staying home is not an option, and a "balance" between work and family is not possible. What white-collar workers gain in flexibility, they often lose in boundaries: How many of us have spent evenings and weekends massaging PowerPoints and spreadsheets?

Most stay-at-home dads I've met are relatively privileged, creative guys doing what they want to do, and they're happy doing it.

"None of us at-home fathers go into it in order to be some sort of social role model," says Stephen de las Heras, 38, a digital artist who lives in Manhattan and is the primary caregiver to his 4-year-old son. "We don't deserve medals. At least not for that. If anything, the correct response from people would be a completely neutral one. But we do have to put up with some shit from the less enlightened crowd, and face some additional obstacles in a mom-centric world. For that, a pat on the back once in a while can be nice, but is not required."

Exactly. In my view, dads-at-home are significant primarily to the degree they are bellwethers of a wider change in the culture, toward more flexible definitions of masculinity and femininity. Thanks to feminism -- which has tried to teach us to ride the shockwave created by massive economic change -- women now have more choices. So do men.

When I was born in 1970, my parents debated only whether my mom would work or stay at home. "We opted for her to stay home," says my father, Dan. "That was the question of the day. The idea that a mother could have a career and be a mom was the radical thought of the time. The thought that Dad would stay home was not considered. If it was, nobody told me, and the thought never entered my head."

In caring for Liko, never have I felt more secure in my masculinity; at the same time, never have I felt less "masculine." I'm learning, slowly, to let go of the link between my self-worth and the contribution I make at work; more and more, I measure myself against women I see as successful mothers. Does that make me a girly-man? Does anyone besides the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the world care? I'm not replacing my wife, who is Liko's mother. For seven or so hours a day, I'm simply adopting a role that in my father's day was automatically assigned to the biological female.

In many respects, a man out in the middle of the afternoon with his toddler, who is known to neighbors and neighborhood shop clerks and waitresses as a "Mr. Mom," is a man in drag, and queer in the most political sense of the term. That's fine with me. Yes, I've gotten criticism from relatives ("A man is supposed to support his family, and a woman is supposed to stay home") and I know that I'm facing an uphill battle when I get back into the full-time job market. I'd be lying if I claimed that I have no doubts.

But mostly, I don't care what anybody says. When Liko and I are blasting Yo La Tengo or the Strokes or Blondie (his favorites; he has a thing for punk, new wave and indie pop; anything that bounces, really) and I'm dancing and he's careening down the hall, arms flailing, hopping from one foot to the other, and then he runs up and hugs my leg and yells "Dada!" -- life can't get any better. I helped make a new life, and that's staggering: a new human being, and a new life for me. I don't want to give him to a nanny; as much as possible, I want to take care of him and see him grow.

Many dads, both breadwinners and caregivers, seem to share my desire. A 2003 survey found that 40 percent of guys would consider staying at home with their kids. A 2004 Spike TV poll put that number at a fantastical sounding 56 percent.

Though the exact numbers are questionable (why should anybody trust a Spike TV survey?), it reveals a para-numerical truth about changing attitudes. I suspect the number of dads-at-home will continue to grow, at least in affluent Blue State urban areas, and I'll keep getting more and more male company on the playground.

Now here's the really interesting question: what impact will our choices have on the next generation? My son might not see "mothering" and "fathering" the way I do. If current trends continue, there could be a huge generation gap between us and our children, with many unexpected consequences. Revolutions -- maybe I should say evolutions -- have a way of leaving the revolutionaries behind.


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