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August 9, 2010

Real-Life Stay-at-Home Husbands

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stay at home husband with family

Photo Credit: Tim Klein

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It's a doubt that plagues many men in his situation, who usually find themselves there for pragmatic reasons. PJ grew to hate his job, while his wife not only loved hers, she was making enough money to support them both. Joe and Jodi Schatz were pulling down similar salaries before they had the first of their three children 10 years ago. "She had benefits. I didn't," explains Joe, a former supervisor for a construction company in Baltimore. It was simple as that.

If the decision was easy, adjusting to it wasn't. With thick, dark hair and a nice smile, Joe, now 35, isn't the type of man women usually ignore, but he found the very female world of playgrounds and playdates alienating. He faithfully attended playgroup sessions in their suburban neighborhood, the only adult male in the room, and as babies drooled on toys and ignored each other, their mothers dished. "It would be a gripe session about their husbands, then they'd take it to the next level and talk about the hot guys in the neighborhood," he says. "I'm like, What can I add?"

One day at his daughter's tumbling class, a woman sat down next to him and struck up a conversation, to his delight after months of being ignored. But their talk turned into an interview. "Are you a stay-at-home dad?" she asked. "How does that work? Do you do the laundry and the dishes?!" He sighs. "I was like a science experiment to her."

It could be worse, says Todd. Sometimes the moms are downright unfriendly, offering only judgmental looks from across the playground. "If your kid is crying and you can't console him, you think, Oh, my God, I haven't calmed my baby down in one minute. These moms think I'm a hack," he says.

And the second-guessing doesn't always stop at the park. Michelle Quiogue, a physician whose husband, Jason Sperber, stays home with the two kids, finds she has to curb her critical impulses when she walks in the door after a long day of seeing patients. "It's a challenge not to say anything when there are dishes in the sink," she admits. "But I have to check myself — he wasn't Martha Stewart when I married him, and he won't be Martha Stewart now." Still, there are some things a mother can't tolerate. Jason, a former teacher, is a wonderful, patient father, "but Lucy's hair is often not properly combed," says Michelle. "I know he tries, but I don't think he tightens the ponytail enough."

And what happens in the bedroom, when the Adonis you fell for has traded gym visits for mommy-and-me classes? Karen Gail Lewis, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist with practices in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., says sexual issues can easily arise from the radical role reversal. "A wife may be initially drawn to a man because he is nurturing and willing to do this," she says. "But he can later look weak and inadequate," particularly if she spends most of her day with men who are ambitious, like herself. Lewis says she has clients in this situation who wound up having affairs — a man with another stay-at-home mom, and a woman (not in the same family) with a colleague.

Experts agree that when switching roles, as with any relationship upheaval, communication is paramount. After PJ Mullen announced that he didn't know if he could continue, he and his wife talked. "She said, 'If you feel that way, we will change.' I said, 'No, I just need to decompress.'" A few days later, she brought it up again. "I said, 'No, I'm fine,'" PJ says, and he's still convinced that this is the right choice for his family. Joe Schatz is, too. "We consider ourselves blessed and lucky to have kids in the first place," he says. "We just evaluate things as we go. Jodi's been very supportive of the fact I've stayed home. I've been very supportive of her career."

Caryn Medved, an associate professor of communications at Baruch College in New York who's conducting a study of 45 families with female breadwinners, says that most couples adapt. While the guys listed a number of challenges, she said, they also talked about what a deeply rewarding experience it could be. "I've had men crying when I interviewed them," Medved says. "I remember a man in Utah who talked about the ability to be a father in a way his father couldn't, and the joy he felt in seeing his children grow."

Indeed, as the economy shows hints of recovery, not all househusbands are in a hurry to get back to the grind. Not long ago, PJ turned down a well-paid job offer. "You do wonder about your self-worth, because you're not earning a paycheck," he says. But "my wife is the only one who matters. As long as she can look at me and realize that I'm doing the best for our family, it doesn't matter that some random guy thinks I'm less of a man."

Hilary Stout is a New York City-based writer and frequent contributor to The New York Times.


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