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Don't Call Him Mr. Mom: The Rise/Reign of the Stay-at-Home Dad

Though we might like to think that our roles as men and women have become fluid enough to swap Mom for Dad and vice versa, I'm not sure it's quite that easy.
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Calling all tired, overworked, underappreciated moms: The times they are a-changing.

According to recent studies, men are shouldering more of the domestic burden -- and spending more time parenting -- than any generation before them. They're more involved with their families. They hug more, they say "I love you" more. They're no longer mystified by the dials on the washing machine. Fathers' desire to be involved with their children "is to the twenty-first century what women's desire to be in the workplace was to the twentieth century," wrote Dr. Warren Farrell in his book Father and Child Reunion. And though the numbers are still relatively small, the number of stay-at-home fathers -- about 154,000, according to the 2010 Census -- is on the rise, with an estimated 16 percent of preschoolers being cared for by Dad while Mom is at work.

In short, men are acting more like moms.

Isn't this what we've been waiting for?

Sort of. More full-time fathers generally means more high-achieving woman bringing home big paychecks -- hooray for us. But just because mothers are working more outside the home doesn't mean they're getting a break inside the home. Studies show that women still carry out about 70 percent of the domestic work (even though men believe they are doing half) -- an allocation of responsibility that appears to hold even when Mom works and Dad remains at home. This, as you might imagine, can create a potentially explosive atmosphere when financial tensions are already running high.

Take Lauren, a high-powered magazine editor who works upwards of 80 hours a week while her husband stays home with their daughter. After realizing they were spending much of their already-scarce alone time fighting over dirty dishes in the sink or piles of unwashed laundry, Lauren hired part-time help, though finances were already tight. "I felt it was almost necessary to save our marriage, or at least to restore some sanity," she said. "I hated coming home, exhausted, to a big mess and a crying child, and he hated that I expected him to be taking care of all of it just because he's there all the time. Though I did."

A friend of mine, a mother of two whose husband was laid off from his job on Wall Street, told me that the threat-alert to domestic tranquility in her house is constant-orange, easily going to red. "Little things so easily become big things," she said. "If I ask him to do a simple thing like pick up a gallon of milk or take one of the kids to practice, there is always this unspoken implication left hanging there: I can ask you to do these things because I have a job and you don't.'" (Of course, not all full-time fathers are without jobs. Thanks to technology and changing work rules, there's a new breed of "dadpreneurs" who can make a living working from home most or all of the time. But that begs the question: Can a workday accommodate a break for a pick-up from soccer practice?)

In Breadwinner Wives and the Men They Marry, Randi Minetor writes that many unemployed men, already wounded by what they see as their diminished status, see taking on "women's work" as another blow to their manhood. Lots of guys don't care: They shrug off what anybody thinks in return for the rewards of watching the kids grow up. But in general, when Dad goes from breadwinner to bread baker, his self-esteem can suffer, which, in turn, can affect a marriage. A recent study by the Council on Contemporary Families, which looked at the relationship between employment status and divorce, found that although the social pressures that once discouraged women from working outside the home have fallen, the pressure on husbands to be the primary earner remain. The study concluded that a woman's job has little impact on the strength of a marriage, but her husband's employment status can be a threat. Meanwhile, a 2007 Pew Study on working mothers revealed that 60 percent of full-time working moms would rather be part-time -- up from 48 percent 15 years ago. Despite our evolving gender roles, the ever-breaking of glass ceilings, are we somehow hard-wired to see men as the provider?

The answer, most probably, is yes. Though we might like to think that our roles as men and women have become fluid enough to swap Mom for Dad and vice versa, I'm not sure it's quite that easy. While stay-at-home fathers may get applause for their enlightened self-confidence, cultural respect is another matter. Though there are more of them, including the husbands of powerful women like former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm and Bare Escentuals founder Leslie Blodgett -- as well as many examples of strong, full-time-by-choice fathers on television, including shows like Parenthood and Modern Family -- in some circles, full-time fathers are still something of a curiosity. Remember the movie Mr. Mom? Michael Keaton mastered domesticity. But it wasn't a happy ending until he got his old job back -- with a raise.

In addition to their struggle for respect, full-time fathers often find themselves wrestling with the same issues of isolation and boredom that have long been the complaints of stay-at-home mothers. Of course, stay-at-home dads aren't without support. There are many resources for them, from playgroups to group counseling to dedicated blogs with titles like "At Home Dad" and "Dad Stays Home." They even have their own convention, held annually in Kansas City. But mastering the home can lead to turf issues -- and power struggles. When our daughter was younger, my husband stopped working for a few months. After having breakfast with her every morning, he would take her to school, go on all class field trips, pick her up every afternoon and take her to practices or home to play with friends. I was glad to have the help, of course -- or was I? It wasn't long into his sabbatical that I began eyeing him like white corpuscles look at a splinter: Get out!

Could that in part be because I thought I made the better "house-wife"? Thankfully, we're long past the days when men looked at a stove as if it were a Japanese street sign. That doesn't mean they've mastered the ways of the house -- or that we necessarily want them to. The truth is that men are more likely to apply the five second rule (anything dropped on the floor for fewer than five seconds is still perfectly OK to eat), mis-match shoes, and uphold the belief that dishes left in a sink for the afternoon do not cause Ebola. There can be a nagging feeling on the part of moms that, in their absence, things might not be running with mom-like precision.

I think it's wonderful that more dads are staying home to take care of the kids -- honestly. It just might not be as clean a swap as we'd like. But the arrangement does have its benefits. Studies show that this new generation of dads views family as the center of their lives -- and that's new. Maybe it's because their wives are working or maybe it has something to do with the distance these men felt from their own fathers, whose sole responsibility was to be the financial provider. Maybe it's just another evolutionary click of the wheel. Whatever the combination of reasons, there is a new dad in the house.

Just don't call him Mr. Mom.

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