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Stay-at-Home Dads Forge New Identities, Roles

Bridget Trebon, 3, and Martin Vossler, 6, watch a video at a play group for stay-at-home fathers.
Bridget Trebon, 3, and Martin Vossler, 6, watch a video at a play group for stay-at-home fathers. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

"Dads get so much credit for staying home with the kids," said Eric Hazell, 43, of Bowie, who returned to a professorship at the University of Maryland in 2004 after two years with his children. "If moms work, they have possible guilt for not being home with their kids. If they're home, there's a lot of tug that they're sacrificing their career. For dads, people think it's just great that you stay home. Then when we go back [to work], it's what people expect in the first place."

Other times, staying home can be tricky.

Men tell stories of being excluded from mothers' groups and hearing of police questioning fathers seen hanging around the playground. Some have found close friends among stay-at-home mothers, while others say they don't feel comfortable with such socialization or fear their wives would disapprove.

Some fathers, particularly black men, say they have gone years without meeting another stay-at-home dad.

"There could be hundreds of kids [at a playground], and I'm sitting on the bench with my Blackberry," said Phil Rawlings, 42, of Upper Marlboro, who quit an 18-year paralegal career last fall to stay home with his 4-year-old. "I look around to keep an eye on Tyler, and there's nothing but moms."

Many of his friends don't understand his decision, he said, even though he works from home 35 to 40 hours per week as a consultant.

"I quit a perfectly good six-figure job," Rawlings said. "My friends asked me if I got fired. It's unreal among black men. You don't stay home from a good job to be with your kids."

Most stay-at-home fathers say the decision boiled down to money: Their wives had fatter paychecks or more promising careers. Many say relying on one income has meant a more modest home, older cars and fewer vacations. Few opt out completely; many say they work part-time from home.

Jeff Miller and his wife, Shawn Brennan, both worked from their Silver Spring home after their first child was born. When they needed more money, Brennan took a full-time Montgomery County government job. Miller, 40, could continue as a lower-paid, part-time business professor at the University of Maryland, while his flexible home consulting business let him care for Bennett, now 7, and Megan, 5. Miller said he knows four other stay-at-home dads in his neighborhood.

"Today when I get back, I'll make a pot roast," he said Wednesday morning as he boiled pasta for Megan's picnic lunch with some preschool friends. After mixing Megan's "mystery cereal" -- his own concoction of three cereals and nuts for extra protein -- Miller pulled her hair into a ponytail, pointed her toward a flowered sundress to put on and loaded her into his Chrysler convertible.

At the park, one of the picnic mothers had brought sanitary wipes and a Dora the Explorer blanket, on which little girls ate sandwiches, corn on the cob and cut-up fruit. Megan sat on the grass eating her buttered pasta from a thermos. "I didn't really bring a bowl for you," Miller said apologetically. She didn't seem to care.

Miller said he has never defined himself by his job. Still, when someone asks what he does, he often finds himself first mentioning his teaching and consulting.

"It's not like I can't do laundry or make a pot roast," he said. "That's the easy stuff. It's more like do I want a job or deal with the societal stuff of people saying 'Dude, what do you do again? You stay home with your kids?' "

His wife said knowing he's there gives her peace of mind, even if her children sometimes end up calling her "Daddy" after a long day. "I like them having a good relationship with him," Brennan said.

Still, she said, when her father came home from work, he relaxed with the newspaper while her mother prepared dinner. She said she sometimes doesn't have time to change out of her office clothes before she's cooking and washing dishes that piled up in her absence. ("I'm terrible," Miller confessed of his housework.)

"There are times when I think if I sat here and added up all the hours I'm with the kids, I think I'm pretty much with them as much as he is," Brennan said. "When I'm home, I kind of take over."

Like their female counterparts, most stay-at-home fathers say they plan to return to work, many when their youngest child reaches kindergarten. But many said they will look for limited hours and flexible schedules.

They say they don't want to lose the intimacy, the way they have come to know their children's daily rhythms like no one else. Several pointed out that they are the first to wake up when their children cry out in the night. Some call it their mother's intuition.

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