Russ Louch answered the phone a little breathlessly. "I'm just putting brownies in the oven," he explained, and laughed. Some banging and clanging started in the background. His children, Melanie, almost...

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WASHINGTON — Russ Louch answered the phone a little breathlessly.

“I’m just putting brownies in the oven,” he explained, and laughed.

Some banging and clanging started in the background. His children, Melanie, almost 4, and David, 2-1/2, were graciously lapping up the leftover brownie batter in the bowls.

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This is a typical day in the life of Louch, who decided to become one of 105,000 stay-at-home dads with children under the age of 15, according to 2002 Census Bureau figures.

As women increasingly go back to work after a child is born and start to close the wage gap, alternative family arrangements of all sorts have been turning from alternative to the norm.

The number of stay-at-home fathers still is nominal compared with the one in four mothers who drop out of the labor force, but Louch is one of a slightly growing number of men who stay at home while their wives head off to work each day.

“I think society and the workplace are changing to accommodate the economic realities of today’s environment,” said John Challenger, head of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Although there is a long way to go in terms of gender-based pay equity, he said, “more women are breadwinners. … That creates more opportunity for couples to align their parental and work responsibilities and their personal and work lives in ways that work out best.”

Louch gave up his life in the information-technology industry, where he worked 65 to 70 hours each week, in February 2001, not long after Melanie was born. He and his wife, Maria Elena, an occupational therapist, had Melanie in day care at a neighbor’s house for about six months. That neighbor had to leave the country for a month, so Louch took the month off under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

During that month, Louch and his wife saw a difference in their daughter’s behavior. She was laughing and interacting more. After long discussions, the Louches, who live in Derwood, Md., decided Russ should stay home. Maria Elena had a better salary and benefits and worked more normal hours than he did.

Louch, like the many other fathers dipping their toes into the waters typically inhabited by mothers, admitted his at-home life isn’t all he had dreamed of.

“I had grand visions. … When we decided I’d stay home, I immediately had a list of all these projects I’d get done,” Louch said. “I was rather naive. It’s a lot of work taking care of little kids.”

Louch is just one kind of stay-at-home dad. The 105,000 stay-at-homes the census counted are those not in the labor force at all.

Many other fathers have decided to put their job on the back burner, taking on short-term projects while spending most of the day watching their children. Others have started a business while staying home with the children — at least when the kids are young enough to take several long naps during the day.

In a study released recently by the Program on WorkLife Law at American University’s Washington College of Law, working-class fathers risk pay loss, disciplinary action and even dismissal when they choose family responsibilities over work.

The study followed 31 labor arbitrations that involved family care. Of those cases, only 10 percent of men won their cases, while 45 percent of women did.

Granted, the number of stay-at-home dads keeps growing and has likely doubled since, say, 10 years ago, said Joan Williams, law professor and director of the WorkLife Law program. Williams is the author of “Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It.”

“Part of that is because there were very few to begin with,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s amazing it’s happening at all.”