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.
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.