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August 9, 2010

Real-Life Stay-at-Home Husbands

For the first time, women make up a majority of America's workforce. And at home, a few good men are taking up the slack.

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stay at home husband with family

Photo Credit: Tim Klein

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MOST WOMEN HAVE KNOWN — and probably dated — a guy like Todd Gottlieb. A self-described "hard-core bachelor," he was never going to get married, and he was certainly never going to have children. Life in Southern California was good: golfing, camping, trips to Vegas with the boys — not to mention dates with "fantastic ladies." His biggest emotional commitment was to the San Diego Chargers.

Today, Todd is a married father of two. Forget Vegas — the 38-year-old could recently be found driving through Chicago's O'Hare airport with a pair of shrieking toddlers in the backseat, attempting the near-impossible feat of picking up an arriving visitor (his mother) at the exact moment she stepped out of the terminal. Back home, there was a gas leak to deal with and then dinner to cook. Since his carefree single days, Todd had fallen hard for a woman on their first date and eventually married her, then quit his corporate PR job to open a ceramics studio with her. And then came the real stunner: When she had their first baby, they sold the ceramics business, and he gave up work entirely. Today the Gottlieb family — which includes Hogan, age 4, and Ivria, age 2 — lives in a tony Illinois suburb where a stay-at-home dad is so unusual that "people look at us like we have three heads," says Todd's wife, Ariella, who now runs her own promotions company.

But across the country, their situation is becoming more common: In the recent recession, three men lost their jobs for every one woman that did, and as a result, this year, for the first time ever, women make up the majority of the workforce. Four in 10 mothers are now their households' primary breadwinners, and an estimated 143,000 unemployed fathers of children under 15 are caring for the kids full time while their wives work. Athomedad.org lists 148 support groups around the country; MTV's atom.com lineup includes "Stay at Home Dad," a side-splitting Web show about an acerbic househusband; and confessional blogs abound, with names like Rebel Dad and Dudes on Diapers. Speaking of, Pampers — which in a recent survey found that 69 percent of fathers say they change diapers as much as their wives — has started targeting male consumers, hiring New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees as a spokesman.

And just as having a stay-at-home wife carries cachet in certain male corporate circles, having a househusband may, in a way, be the ultimate status symbol for the successful professional woman. When her husband, PJ, was working as a mortgage broker, Michelle Mullen, a clinical pharmacist in Charlotte, North Carolina, usually lunched on Lean Cuisines from the break-room freezer. But ever since PJ became a full-time father to their 2-year-old, he sends Michelle off to work every day with homemade curried beef stew, turkey mole soup, or tarragon chicken salad with raisins and walnuts. "I'm spoiled," she says, adding with a laugh, "A man who changes diapers is just sexy."

Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education and smartmarriages.com, a website that acts as a clearinghouse for information on strengthening relationships, says that as women work more, the qualities we value in a partner can shift greatly. "In a way, it's almost like bragging for a woman to say she has a stay-at-home husband," she observes. "Not only is she the breadwinner with a great job, but she's also got this highly evolved male person — a feminist, father, and husband who doesn't care what the gender roles are. It's really an elevated life-form." For the hard-driving careerist mother, a husband who's willing to take up the lion's share at home is a godsend.

Still, the transition from breadwinner to househusband can be rough on a guy's ego. Despite all the enlightened views about hands-on dads, all the reflexive "That's great!" comments from hip and politically correct peers, the professional dad lives a life filled with big existential questions (What is my true worth as a person if I don't get a paycheck?) and tiny daily indignities, like having to buy presents for his wife with her money, or shrugging off incredulous looks at dinner parties after revealing he's a stay-at-home dad. "At times it's been emasculating," admits PJ, who has been home full time since his son, CJ, was born two years ago. When people see him pushing a stroller at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, they jump to conclusions: Guys assume he's been laid off, and little old ladies figure he's dabbling in childcare. "Are you babysitting today? Giving Mommy a break?" they coo. "Babysitting?! I'm his father," seethes PJ.

He recalls one recent evening after the baby had been a pill the whole day — nothing seemed to make him happy. By the time PJ's wife, Michelle, came home from work, he was exhausted and miserable. "I need to leave," he told her and walked out the door. He didn't go far, just sat on the deck and listened to his iPod. After about an hour, he went back inside. "I don't know if I'm man enough to be a woman," he said to his wife.


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