Paul Schwartz figured out a way to simulate bobsledding in a warm climate. In an effort to teach his son about the Winter Olympics, the stay-at-home dad perched the 4-year-old atop a light green cooler with wheels. He then dragged the cooler down a paved incline, covering about 100 feet in less than 10 seconds. For that, he won the gold medal.
Known as the "beer-cooler bobsled," the event was just one of several celebrated recently on a playground in Montclair, along with warm-climate versions of curling, slalom, and figure skating. The competitors were the East Bay Dads, a group of about a dozen stay-at-home fathers and their children who meet for weekly play dates.
Schwartz and the dads represent a growing contingent of men who are quitting their day jobs to change diapers while their wives work full time to support the family. Though the recession has played a part in the shifting demographic, for many families, the dad's transition to domesticity was a calculated choice. The trend is strongest among middle- to high-income families, and often helps boost the wife's career, affording her the freedom to work long, uninterrupted hours or arrange her schedule around her career — not family.
Last year, the number of working mothers who also were sole breadwinners reached an all-time high, according to a US Census report. Although women still make less than men overall, earning an average of 71 cents to the man's dollar, the percentage of women who out-earn their husbands has jumped from 4 to 22 since 1970, according to a study released this year by the Pew Research Center. Women also are more likely to hold higher degrees than their husbands. Men are more educated only about a fifth of the time.
Stay-at-home dads are still a minority, however. And how many they number is open to debate. The last Census counted only 159,000 stay-at-home dads. But according to Aaron Rochlen, an assistant professor and psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin who studies non-traditional male roles, the number of fathers who assume primary childcare responsibility is actually closer to 2 million and growing.
So what's changing the structure of the American family? There's no doubt that many dads have been forced to stay home because of the economy. Men account for 75 percent of those who recently lost jobs to the recession — making room for a 1 percent increase in working women. But Rochlen believes the growing stay-at-home dad phenomenon has more to do with the ever-expanding boundaries of familial norms.
In families where the wife has a stronger career, the husband is freed up to fill the traditional role of housewife — or in this case, househusband. And many dads are finding that they're comfortable being the primary caregiver. "In my research, we've been hearing that dad is the more patient one," Rochlen said. "Dad likes cooking and cleaning."
The shift makes sense to Paul Schwartz. He quit his job as an attorney several years ago, shortly before his son was born. He recalled a profound moment when a law professor declared equality in the workplace would come only in the wake of joint childcare responsibilities. "I heard that, and I was like, 'Wow,'" he said. "Some women are crashing through the glass ceiling, and some men are picking up the slack with the house."
Schwartz' wife Amy Wilson happens to be such a woman. After graduating from Cornell University, she worked her way up the corporate ladder, and now is a senior director for product strategy at Oracle. Since giving birth, she has been promoted twice, an accomplishment she attributes in part to her husband's position as a stay-at-home dad and de facto life coach.
Wilson said she's "amazed" by career moms who also juggle household duties. She said her husband's role allows her to focus fully while at work. And she said that when she leaves the office, it's nice not to have to run errands, plan dinner, and pick the kid up from school. Instead, she comes home to spend quality time with her son. "I don't have a lot of guilt," she said. "I can work really hard and put a lot of energy into my work, and I don't feel like that's hurting anything else."
But while having one parent at home may make life a little easier, the men who fill that role — just like the at-home moms who came before them — must face the hurdles of parenthood.
In the French documentary film, March of the Penguins, dad stays at the breeding grounds to incubate his mate's egg after she goes to the sea to fill her belly with fish. For two months, male Emperor penguins shield their eggs from excruciatingly cold temperatures and snowstorms. When the egg finally hatches, he regurgitates a milky, nutritious substance to sustain the young chick until the female returns. By the time she does, the male hasn't eaten anything — except snow — in about four months. In nature, the penguin male fills this role seamlessly. In the frigid Antarctic, it takes two dutiful parents to raise a chick.
So, too, the role of a stay-at-home dad makes perfect sense for some couples. And for Schwartz and Wilson, the decision for him to stay home was made before the egg was even fertilized. She recalled him being bored with his government job and telling her one night: "I just really want to be a dad."