In the last decade, the number of men who have left the work force entirely to raise children has more than doubled, according to recent United States census data.
In 2006, James Griffioen was a litigator at a national firm in San Francisco with an 18-month-old daughter and a problem.
“Having to go back to the office and work 70 hours a week — or 90, if you want to make partner — that cracked something in me. Something broke,” he said. “It was all the drive and ambition I had as a lawyer. I looked at it over the next five years and thought, ‘There’s no way I’m even going to see my kid.”‘
So he huddled with his wife, a public interest lawyer. They took a hard look at their relative career satisfaction, discussed their desire to have one parent stay home instead of relying on day care, and decided that it made sense for the family to flip the ’50s sitcom vision of the American family and have Griffioen, now 35, leave the work force and join the nation’s swelling ranks of at-home dads.
Six years later, he considers himself less a Mr. Mom than a new archetype of the father as provider.
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“I sort of take things upon myself,” said Griffioen, whose family has added a son and moved to Detroit. “I don’t go to the store to buy my kids toys. I make them toys. I do woodworking, leatherworking. I learned all sorts of manly skills that I never would have had time to learn if I were sitting in an office 28 stories above San Francisco.”
Until recently, stay-at-home fathers made up a tiny sliver of the American family spectrum. Few in number, and lacking voice, they tended to keep to themselves, trying to avoid the inevitable raised eyebrows.
In the last decade, though, the number of men who have left the workforce entirely to raise children has more than doubled, to 176,000, according to recent U.S. census data. Expanding that to include men who maintain freelance or part-time jobs but serve as the primary caretaker of children under 15 while their wife works, the number is around 626,000, according to calculations the census bureau compiled for this article.
Meanwhile, the identity of the at-home dad is evolving, on the playground and in the culture at large. To this new cohort, the decision to stay home with the children is seen not as a failure of their responsibilities as men, but a lifestyle choice — one that makes sense in an era in which women’s surging salaries have thrown the old family hierarchy into flux; and men have embraced a more fluid interpretation of a career that places a premium on fulfillment, not money and status.
‘I’m the new normal’
In May, The New Yorker ran a cover illustration that at-home dads hailed as proof that their day was finally dawning: a stroller-pushing mom stands frozen at the entrance of a city playground, a blank look on her face as she notices that every other Baby Bjorn-wearing, bottle-wielding parent there is a dad.
“I live that every day,” said Lance Somerfeld, an at-home father and a founder of NYC Dads Group, a support network and activities group with 600 members.
In the four years since he founded the organization, similar groups have popped up in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Portland, and attitudes among the women on the playground have shifted.
“Just a few years ago, I was usually the lone dad on the playground during the day,” Somerfeld, 39, said on a recent sunny Wednesday morning, while hanging out with eight other dads at the Heckscher Playground in Central Park. “The moms and nannies gawked at me like I was an exhibit at the zoo. Now, I’m the new normal.”
It is a new sense of acceptance that is mirrored in popular culture, where the at-home dad is no longer simply played for cheap laughs of the “fish out of water” variety.
Will Arnett’s Chris, on the NBC sitcom “Up All Night,” is a lawyer turned at-home dad who is harried and exhausted, like any new parent, but he’s not ashamed of his decision. Far from a “Mr. Mom” buffoon, he might even be considered a postmodern form of hunk, despite his spittle-stained sweatshirts. Similarly, the new novel “Triburbia,” by Karl Taro Greenfeld, reflects an elastic family structure (at least among the economically privileged), where being an at-home dad is no longer considered exceptional.
The main characters, who include a sculptor, a sound engineer and a playwright in Manhattan’s bourgeois-bohemian enclave of TriBeCa, spend their days huddling with their children at pottery class while their wives labor in their office towers. But no one really talks about what that means for their identity as men.
“That’s the evolution,” said Greenfeld, who lived just such a life while writing the book. “Whoever has more time can take on more of the domestic role. There isn’t any shame, or even any social awkwardness. It’s not even observed as being anything distinctive or worthy of comment.”
There was little discussion of male ego when David Worford, a former Web editor in Fort Collins, Colo., and his wife, Cherie, an obstetrician and gynecologist, agreed that he would stay home with their young sons a few years ago.
“Most of my income was going directly to child care,” he said. “Throw on that I was handling most of the domestic workload anyway because of the hours Cherie was working. It just made sense to make the move both economically and for family life. It was great to have a constant at home.”
The decision, Worford said, actually frees her from “mommy guilt” over leaving her children for the day to pursue a career. “I know he loves them and nurtures them,” she said. “It makes my job way easier, knowing that I don’t have to worry.”
Without question, more men are available to tackle family duty around the house because of fallout from the financial crisis. Federal statistics show that men lost two and a half times as many jobs as women did in the recession.
But Brad Harrington, director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family, who has conducted multiple studies involving fatherhood, said that many men now feel the freedom to choose to be at-home dads for the deeper rewards, even when their jobs are secure.
Of those who had made the choice, Harrington said, “many expressed, ‘This may be the most meaningful work I’ll ever do.”‘
Ward Cleaver as web designer
At-home fathers might strike some as a threat to the “Leave It to Beaver” family structure, except that such a thing barely exists anymore.
In 2011, only 16 percent of American households contained a breadwinner husband and a stay-at-home wife, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Indeed, a modern version of the show might feature June pulling in six figures as a management consultant, while Ward works out of a home office as a Web designer, carving out time between freelance projects to shuttle the Beaver to the skate park.
It would be no surprise if Ward suffered paycheck envy. About 40 percent of women now make more than their husbands, the bureau’s statistics show, and that may be only the beginning of a seismic power shift, if new books like “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, And Family,” by Liza Mundy, and “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” by Hanna Rosin, are to be believed.
Rosin argues in her book, which hits shelves next month, that many professional couples are evolving into free-flowing partnerships, or “seesaw couples,” in which each spouse continually adjusts his or her role in response to changing family circumstances.
“A husband can work to support his wife through school and then she can take over and be the hotshot lawyer,” Rosin writes.
“Anyone can play the role of breadwinner for any period,” she adds.
Such an arrangement is alluring to couples (Brooklyn is full of them) in which the wife maintains a lucrative professional career and the husband works in a creative field, say, as a screenwriter, where the hours are flexible.
That is the case with Christopher Michel, an at-home dad in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. A former Fulbright scholar, Michel, 35, spends 12 hours a day answering to the needs and whims of his 21-month-old daughter, Akiko, while his wife, Karen Shimizu, heads off to Manhattan to cover the rent as a magazine editor.
But that’s not where his daily duties end. Although, technically, he has no job, in a sense he has two. He also squeezes in work as a freelance writer and poet between 5 and 7 a.m., before his daughter wakes, or during naptime. For the bulk of the day, the muse takes a back seat to household duties.
Last week, he recalled: “We were walking through the park, and I had a nice alliterative line drop into my head, so I pulled out my phone, opened up the tiny little word editor, trying to frantically type this good line. And of course, as soon as I opened my phone, she wants to show me this bug that she has found.”
The artisanal father
In a way, the decision to opt out of the rat race to pursue a more “meaningful” career as a parent echoes the classic Plan B narrative of the stress-addled professional who bails out to immerse himself in roll-up-the-sleeves work — say, craft-whiskey distilling, or beekeeping. (Given the drudgery and muck involved, parenting might be considered the ultimate “artisanal” pursuit.)
“For the creative, freelance, DIY-type guy,” Rosin said in an interview, “being a stay-at-home dad feels like a form of rebellion, like living off the macho grid and showing people that you are not tied to your father’s notion of what men should do on weekdays.”
In that spirit, Mike Adamick, 35, who left his job as a newspaper reporter to be an at-home dad in San Francisco six years ago, often spends weekday afternoons sewing clothes for his daughter, Emmeline, who is 6. Most recently, he salvaged the flannel from a ’70s-casual sports jacket from the Salvation Army into a thigh-length skirt. “It turned into this nice gray number with some distinguished flair,” he said proudly.
“This ain’t the 20th century,” he added. “There are 300 million people in the U.S., so there are 150 million ways to be a man.”
Sewing is not his only do-it-yourself pursuit. Like several of those interviewed, he said that his life as an at-home dad has spun off a side career: blogging about being an at-home dad. He writes a popular daddy blog, Cry It Out (http://mikeadamick.com/), and contributes parenting articles to Jezebel and other sites.
He is not alone. Since bailing out of law to become an at-home dad, Griffioen has begun an active side career as a blogger, writer and photographer, even though parenting remains his day job. Griffioen’s blog, Sweet Juniper! (http://www.sweet-juniper.com/), attracts up to 300,000 page views a month, and spins off a healthy side income, thanks to advertising on it.
But, many of the fathers interviewed said, blogging also taps into a support network of other at-home dads and helps you stay sane after too many hours chatting with pint-size conversational partners still trying to master the multisyllable noun.
“My blog is my way to share the rebooting of my life with the world,” Griffioen said.
Betty Draper disease
Even if at-home fathers are finally coming “out of the pantry,” as some like to joke, challenges remain. The modern at-home father is not immune to Betty Draper disease: the isolation and tedium familiar to housewives throughout the ages.
When he lived in Brooklyn, Matt McGuire, an at-home dad who recently moved to Manhattan with his family, recalls scouring a Park Slope parents forum for meet-ups with other parents, only to find posts like, “Hey ladies — who’s up for some breast-feeding and decaf skinny lattes?”
Questions about the division of labor can be a challenge, even when couples enter the arrangement willingly.
“Make sure you define it really well with your spouse,” said Dan Bryk, an at-home father in New York. “There are times when your working spouse will come from a particularly tough day at work and will just forget what a tough gig this is. As I’m sure men did for a century, they just take for granted, well, ‘What did you do? You kept him from injuring himself for eight hours?’ There’s a lot more to it than that.”
And even with the shifting power dynamic at the playground, there remains something of a line in the sandbox, said Matthew Pritchard, an at-home dad in New York. How does a lone man approach a lone woman at the teeter-totter without giving her the wrong impression?
“I feel like some moms have been resistant to me at the playground or wherever we meet because maybe they think I’m flirting or have a hidden agenda,” said Pritchard, 47. “As a new father, I find that kind of amusing. Not only do I have no desire for anything else but a play date, I have no energy or time, either.”