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The daddy's liberation front: As women earn more, some families' men stay home

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 22, 2008- Seventeen years ago, George Gould convened a meeting in his family room.

Present that day were little girls in tan uniforms, a mom, who was Gould's co-leader, and another mom who just wanted to see what the male leader of her daughter's Brownie troop was really doing. Mostly, it was building birdhouses or visiting the water treatment plant or taking field trips to bakeries. Eventually, the curious mom stopped coming.

But at first, staying at home with his children while his wife worked was tough on both Gould and his ego. "It was a bit much," he says. "But I also thought we were doing it for our kids."

In 2006, the Census Bureau estimated that 159,000 men made the same decision, though many groups think that number isn't accurate and should be higher.

In Gould's time during the 1990s, he volunteered at his children's school, went on field trips and ran the house. And he was considered a bit of an oddity.

More men stay at home now, including most recently Todd Palin, the husband of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

But seeing other stay-at-home dads is still pretty rare, says dad Brian Sirimaturos.

"It's almost like a Big Foot sighting."

YOU DO WHAT?

In Gould's daddy days, other men often envied him. But they didn't really get the scope of his new job.

"He's not playing golf," Kim Gould would tell them. "He's hand-washing my bras."

The perception is still shared by the Census Bureau, says dad Kevin M. Mitchell, who says that the Census Bureau underreports the number of men who choose to stay home with children.

"It is totally increasing, but it's all anecdotal."

Part of the problem is the Census Bureau only counts men who have been out of the work force for one year, according to its Website. So, men aren't counted if, like Mitchell, they work part-time or have flexible schedules.

And, like the men who envied Gould, the attitude that stay-at-home dads aren't really working is pervasive.

A few years ago, Judi McLean Parks and some colleagues at Washington University conducted an experiment. The professor of organizational behavior at the Olin Business School sent resumes out to H.R. managers nationwide. The resumes were the same in experience and education with two exceptions -- names and unexplained gaps in employment.

The female resumes, the Robertas, were offered less money for the same work. No surprise there, McLean Parks says. And the gaps were considered a good thing because motherhood was now out of the way. But the male resumes, the Roberts, were viewed negatively for gaps. People assumed the men were deadwood.

"Women have glass ceilings," McLean Parks says. "But men have glass walls. Society doesn't want them to switch between roles."

CAN YOU HANDLE IT?

Usually when a couple does make the decision to switch roles, the issue is financial. The woman can make more.

The Goulds earned the same amount, but some of George Gould's income came from commission.

Mitchell was making six figures as a head writer and producer of a corporate training company for Fortune 500 companies. He decided to stay home because his wife, Lauren, loved her job at the Missouri Historical Society.

And Sirimaturos turned a lost job in computer sales into an opportunity both to be with his family and make a living doing something he loved -- photography.

"It was one of those kind of light bulb moments," he says.

"My reaction was, 'Are you crazy?'" says Sirimaturos' wife, Amy Bertrand. "I didn't think he could handle it."

She was totally wrong.

BADGE OF HONOR

Regardless of the parent, families who choose to have one parent stay at home obviously don't bring in as much money as they would if both were working. 

 

The financial part is a sacrifice.

But loss of an identity not wrapped up in a suit and tie can be another.

At his high school reunion, Gould, formerly in pharmaceutical sales, got to update old classmates on his new job. "I stay at home and cook."

That was weird, he says. And it still can be.

Mitchell, a freelance writer, tends to tell people that's what he does first, then that he stays at home.

Before staying at home full time, Sirimaturos thought the job looked pretty easy. "I had no idea what I was getting into."

For a while, he felt the need to explain his situation. But not anymore. "Two years into it," he says, "it's almost like a badge of honor for me."

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THE REBEL ALLIANCE

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At the park, if a dad's not in pressed khakis and a dress shirt, cell phone to ear, he probably stands out, Mitchell says.

But the community of full-timers often find ways to connect online, and in more traditional ways stay-at-home moms depend on. There are Web sites such as Rebeldad.com and At Home Dad, with the logo "Men who change diapers change the world," a few books and an annual convention, now in its 13th year.

Mitchell has never gone. "Do moms have a conference?" he asks.

And if they did, would they let dads in?

Gould felt accepted by women, often more so than men.

Mitchell has, too, for the most part. He followed the blogs and eventually wrote a book in 2007, "St. Louis Dad: A Manual for New and Expecting Dads," with a chapter about staying home. He developed interests outside of parenting, including playing in a jazz band, and the friendships from the playgroup proved as vital for him as for his kids.

But Sirimaturos says it's been tough to fit in the mom world, where women are comfortable with each other, not with a man around. Even if he is a dad.

He's been stood up on two play dates.

THROUGH THE GLASS WALLS

Shortly after becoming the breadwinner in her family, wife Kim Gould started acting like it. She often worked late and called home one night to tell her husband, George Gould, she'd miss dinner.

"It's just tacos," she told him. "He got upset."

The Gould family was like the traditional ones on television, wife Kim says, except she was in the dad's role. Kim finally stopped working so much when her daughter told her she was never around.

She also learned to give husband George feedback, something she got at work but he didn't in the home. When he cleaned or cooked, she complimented him.

Geroge did the majority of the cooking and cleaning, but says Kim helped more than most working husbands ever would.

It took Bertrand about six months to give up control of how things were run, she says.

Work is shared in her home. Taking care of kids is a full-time job, Sirimaturos says, and keeping the house is another. But if he had kept working full time and Bertrand, the lifestyle editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, had stayed home, he probably would have expected her to do it all.

Still, he says, Bertrand is more efficient.

Mitchell is in charge of the laundry, he says, "and that's a big thing. I help out as much as I can."

He's also in charge of dinner a few nights a week, which is usually take-out or mac'n'cheese. "I should probably do more."

THE BEST FIT

Though it's been a long time since her husband stayed home, Kim Gould says it sounds like not much has changed.

Her husband was successful at it, she thinks, because of his nature -- helpful and hardworking. He dove into being at home like he would a career and ended up volunteering at his son and daughter's elementary school so much that he became a permanent substitute teacher and still works there today.

Mitchell has been lucky, he says, because he does the kind of work that can be done from home, at nights and on weekends.

Sirimaturos started a photography businesses.

In all three houses, the dads handle the day to day, but the couple makes the bigger decisions together.

And Mitchell's marriage is better for it, he says. "I think it makes you stronger because you're more of a team. You can really talk about problems."

Bertrand agrees. She stayed home with both boys for four months each, so she gets what it's like to stay home and her husband gets what it is to work full time.

Her husband has more patience than she ever could. He's the dad playing paleontologist with his sons, digging in the front yard for dinosaur fossils.

Not that any of the kids understand having a full-time dad isn't common. "What a kid grows up with is normal to them," Mitchell says.

That totally bugs him.

Once they're older, his kids will probably realize that things were different.

But, like with children from more traditional families, they probably won't appreciate it until they have kids of their own.

WHATCHA CALL 'EM?

Mr. Mom isn't a favorite.

George Gould never minded, Kim Gould says, but it depended on who did the calling.

The most common term for men at home with kids is stay-at-home dad. But the acronym, S.A.H.D., isn't too encouraging.

Rebel Dad is another term, coined by former stay-at-home dad Brian Reid on his Web site, rebeldad.com.

Kevin M. Mitchell prefers full-time dad, which he has been for six years now.

Kristen Hare is a freelance writer living in Lake St. Louis. 

Kristen Hare

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