Mr. Mom Revisited
By: Jim Shelton, Register Staff
Staying at home may never be the dominant option for America's fathers, but these days it's a choice with something new to offer: a generation of success stories.
Yes, today's stay-at-home dads stand proudly on the (tired) shoulders of a group of older guys who schlepped their kids to piano lessons and mastered the fine art of changing a diaper in public. It's sort of a continuum of kid care, from '80s Underoos to today's diaper cargo vests.
In fact, the first ballyhooed wave of Mr. Moms is already trading in its minivans and vacuum cleaners as the kids grow up and leave home. They've seen their children through first steps, first days of school and first times behind the wheel.
"I'd recommend it to anybody, if they can work it out with the other parts of their life," says Allan Brison, 67, of New Haven, who has been a stay-at-home dad for 17 years. "It's definitely happening out there."
There are an estimated 98,000 married dads in the U.S. with kids under the age of 15 who have stayed out of the labor force for more than a year in order to take care of their children, according to U.S. Census statistics.
Meanwhile, there are scores of men in their 30s, 40s and older who served a limited tour of home duty and retain proud memories of the experience.
They and their current stay-at-home counterparts celebrate Father's Day 2006 with a unique perspective on the ups and downs of parenting.
Jeff Dyer of Orange is coming up on seven years as household honcho.
"I had a friend of mine tell me once, 'You have to be secure in your own masculinity to do this,'" Dyer, 43, reports. "What can I say? I guess I am."
He has two daughters: 14-year-old Anita and 11-year-old Abby. His wife, Jeannie, is a business executive. They live in a comfortable, red ranch house with their three dogs and various musical instruments.
On this morning, Dyer has just returned from Abby's school, which had a Battle of the Books event. He grabs a cup of black decaf coffee and sits on his back porch, before the afternoon marathon of kid-chauffeuring begins.
"I know my kids so well, from hanging out with them and doing stuff with them," he says. "I know all the kids they go to school with and I know their families. I got to be a room mom for both my girls. On Wednesday mornings, I go to orchestra rehearsal at the school and tune the instruments."
Prior to this arrangement, he and Jeannie lived the familiar lifestyle of the two-career family. It included all of the usual chaos of juggling schedules, paying for child care, racing from one appointment to the next and trying desperately to leave time for dinner and the kids' homework.
Finally they decided to crunch the numbers of their family budget.
"We looked at how much we were spending on child care and other things, to see how much we were actually taking home," Dyer says. "I was taking home an extra $300 a month. Was that really worth it to have someone else raise your kids, and have that huge stress to stay on schedule?"
So he stayed home. He did the shopping and cooking — which was no sweat since Dyer's resume included stints as a cook and a country club restaurant manager. He also took on housekeeping duties, although he fully admits his results weren't always "up to a woman's level of expectation."
Over time, Dyer learned that he needed outside activities in order to keep from going insane. He started doing volunteer work and even got involved in the local Republican Party.
Jeannie had to adjust, as well. There were times she would come home on a Friday and want to go out to dinner with the kids. Her husband would inform her, "Yes, we're going out to dinner, but we're not bringing the kids."
Occasionally, Jeannie would call to say she needed to bring a business associate home for dinner that night. "It was like a 'Bewitched' episode, except I was Samantha and my wife was bringing Larry Tate home for dinner," Dyer says.
Another time, a guy across the street asked Dyer if he could spare a couple of hours to help build a deck. "I had to tell him I had cookies in the oven," Dyer explains.
Of course, certain things in a family don't change even when it's dad at home. Dyer says his wife is much better at dealing with kid illnesses, for example. And when pondering the prospective of his daughters getting older and dating, Dyer smiles and has this to say: "I'm still the dad. Boys are evil."
For an even longer view on at-home fatherhood, you have Brison of New Haven.
Brison has been on home patrol since his older daughter, 17-year-old Rebecca, was born. His younger daughter is Diana, 16. Brison's wife, Betsy Goldberg, is manager of New Haven's public library branch in Fair Haven.
"It made sense for me to be the stay-at-home parent," Brison notes. "Betsy was much more interested in her career than I was." Brison had spent a decade working as a computer programmer and the family was living in Boston.
Just as important to the decision was the fact that they wanted to home school their kids.
"I taught my children to read," Brison says. "Most parents don't have that kind of experience. For me, I can't imagine any career that would've been as enriching as being with my children."
Looking back, Brison says his initial years with the girls were the hardest. "I think I called Betsy quite a bit for advice on how to handle situations," he recalls, as he and Diana sip tea on their deck one afternoon. "I wasn't used to babies. They always seemed to be squabbling about things. I finally just gave up on the idea of naps because one would sleep and the other wouldn't."
Yet the perks of those years were intense. Diana's first word was "Dada," for example. And Rebecca's first step was indelible. "It was one of the most amazing things I ever saw," Brison says. "Her happiness — I'd never seen anyone exuding that much joy."
The years passed and Rebecca married and left home. She lives in Utah now, where her husband is a graduate student studying molecular biology. Diana, meanwhile, is learning how to drive.
"I'll be doing most of the driving lessons," Brison says.
Diana points out that her dad's honesty and straightforwardness is what's most important to her. "I think our relationship has more to do with who he is than with how much time he's here," she says. "I'm also close to my mom."
To any young dads considering a stay-at-home role, Brison offers this advice: make connections with other parents and maintain other interests in addition to parenting. For example, he says getting his kids involved in play groups was crucial for him, to stave off isolation. Also, Brison has had an active role in the Green Party for a number of years.
Those fathers who stick it out for the long haul may discover a dramatic, cumulative effect.
"I feel I have two of the best friends I've ever had," Brison says.
YOUR FATHER'S HOME
That's not to say short-timers don't experience something compelling, too.
Yale law student Nels Ylitalo is convinced he built a strong foundation with his son, 3-year-old Sasha, by being a stay-at-home dad for the first 18 months of Sasha's life.
"It forged a bond that's going to last," Ylitalo, 31, says. "When he's 13, I'm not going to be asking myself why I didn't spend more time with him."
Here's how it started. Ylitalo was working at a job he didn't care for and his wife, Susan, was a second-year law student with imposing demands on her time. So Ylitalo quit his job and embarked on what he expected to be a career as a house husband.
It was tougher than he thought. "I did take to the mechanics of it: the changing diapers, the clothes, the feeding," he says. "But psychologically, the 24-7 nature of it was more than I anticipated. There was never a break."
One thing Ylitalo treasured was the chance to be Explainer of All Things for his son.
"Before he could even speak, I'd pull him aside to show him a bird's nest or a spider web," he says. "I want him to know I have all the time in the world to answer his questions. To me, that's the best part of being a parent."
Ylitalo's stint as main caregiver ended with his own decision to go to law school, yet he insists there has been a carryover effect in his relationship with Sasha. "It's meant a great deal to me, on an ongoing basis," he says.
Another dad with stay-at-home credentials is Adam Gerstein of Milford.
Now a father of four, Gerstein had three little ones at home when he was in charge of the house from the summer of 2002 until the summer of 2003. Gerstein had been laid off from his job.
"At first it was very frustrating," he notes. "Part of it was due to being put into the role without any choice. Part of it was being used to doing my own thing during the day. Work is very different than raising kids. The regular day-to-day stuff was a big adjustment. Once I got all that down ... it started to become fun."
His two daughters are now 8 and 4, and his two sons are 5 and 11 months. He says he's proud of the year he spent at home with them — even if it was pretty hectic.
"I was used to having the whole weekend to do laundry and other around-the-house tasks, but suddenly I had to squeeze laundry folding into a 30-minute window between coming back from a drop-off and before the baby woke up," Gerstein recalls. "Or remembering to run the dishwasher on my way out the door so that when I got back with the kids, I had plates to serve lunch on. I'm still working on that whole cooking thing, though."