Russ Louch answered the phone a little breathlessly last week.
"I'm just putting brownies in the oven," he explained, and laughed just a little. Some banging and clanging started in the background. His children, Melanie, almost 4, and David, 21/2, were graciously lapping up the leftover brownie batter in the bowls.
This is a typical day in the life of Louch, who decided to become one of 105,000 stay-at-home dads with children under the age of 15, according to 2002 Census Bureau figures.
As women increasingly go back to work after a child is born and start to close the wage gap, alternative family arrangements of all sorts have been turning from alternative to the norm. The number of stay-at-home fathers is still nominal compared with the one in four mothers who drop out of the labor force, but Louch is one of a slightly growing number of men who stay at home while their wives head off to work each day.
"I think society and the workplace are changing to accommodate the economic realities of today's environment," said John A. Challenger, head of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago.
Although there is a long way to go in terms of gender-based pay equity, he said, "more women are breadwinners. . . . That creates more opportunity for couples to align their parental and work responsibilities and their personal and work lives in ways that work out best."
Louch gave up his life in the information technology industry, where he worked 65 to 70 hours each week, in February 2001, not long after Melanie was born. He and his wife, Maria Elena, an occupational therapist, had Melanie in day care at a neighbor's house for about six months. That neighbor had to leave the country for a month, so Louch took the month off under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
During that month, Louch and his wife saw a difference in their daughter's behavior. She was laughing and interacting more. After long discussions, the Louches, who live in Derwood, decided Russ should stay home. Maria Elena had a better salary and benefits and worked more normal hours than he did.
Louch, like the many other fathers dipping their toes into the waters typically inhabited by mothers, admitted his at-home life isn't all he had dreamed of. "I had grand visions. . . . When we decided I'd stay home, I immediately had a list of all these projects I'd get done," Louch said. "I was rather naive. It's a lot of work taking care of little kids."
Louch is just one kind of stay-at-home dad. The 105,000 stay-at-homes the census counted are those not in the labor force at all. Many other fathers have decided to put their job on the back burner, taking on short-term projects while spending most of the day watching their children. Others have started a business while staying home with the children -- at least when the kids are young enough to take several long naps during the day.
Checking back in with Michael Paranzino, a stay-at-home dad I wrote about a year ago, life at home with 3-year old Cameron is still going well. But the at-home dad, who works on his lobbying business during Cammie's naps, admitted it is still not an easy transition. He is getting used to it, however. He noted that while standing in line to view Reagan's casket, conversation often flowed among those nearby, who asked, "What do you do?" Where he used to tap-dance around it, now he easily says, "I am a stay-at-home dad." Since lobbying fits in around child-rearing (he has to bring his parents or a babysitter in when he goes to the Hill), the lobbying part of his "what do you do" comes second in his conversations.
He has learned to focus on just a few clients rather than try to get a bunch of new business. That way, he said, he can do a bang-up job for two companies, which will only want more once Paranzino is back on the scene full time.
After we spoke last week, however, he e-mailed back: "While you are catching me at a great time -- many months in a row of Cam being particularly fun and easy, great weather, and successes with my consulting work -- it is not all wine and roses, by any means. There are painfully boring days, there are incredibly frustrating days, and there are days when I can't stop thinking about what I could accomplish professionally if I worked 60 hours per week instead of 60 hours per month."
But with his wife, Heather, a neuroscientist, working hard at her lab at the National Institutes of Health, this will remain the plan for now.
It can be an isolating life, said P. Jay Massey, a stay-at-home dad to Tucker, now 9. When he and his psychologist wife decided he should stay at home after Tucker was born, Massey had a hard time finding other dads like him. He had one friend who did the same thing a couple of months before Massey did, but other than that, he was alone. So he searched out other dads online and decided with his other stay-at-home dad friend to start a business two months after Tucker was born.
That helped to end his isolation. And he learned things along the way, including the importance of an answering machine. "When you change a diaper, the phone will ring," he said.
Today, he runs Coco Design Associates Inc., a software company in Pensacola, Fla., at home. He also runs www.slowlane.com, a resource for stay-at-home fathers. His site is not the only one. There are hundreds of dad Web logs, or blogs, out there. Louch has one called the dailyyak.blogspot.com (which lists 13 other "Daddy Yaks"). Some sites feature articles on famous dads, like Roger Clemens, the former New York Yankee who retired to be with his family and coach his kids' baseball games, then was lured out of retirement by the Houston Astros. His return to the game was not unconditional: A clause in his contract stipulates that he does not have to travel out of town with the Astros unless he's pitching.
But not all dads are as lucky as multimillionaire Clemens.
In a study released last week by the Program on WorkLife Law at American University's Washington College of Law, working-class fathers risk pay loss, disciplinary action and even dismissal when they choose family responsibilities over work.
The study followed 31 labor arbitrations that involved family care. Of those cases, only 10 percent of men won their cases, while 45 percent of women did.
"There's a norm that it's unacceptable for men to have these responsibilities," Mary C. Still, a program director and faculty fellow at American, said in a phone conference discussing results of the study.
Granted, the number of stay-at-home dads keeps growing and has likely doubled since, say, 10 years ago, said Joan C. Williams, law professor and director of the WorkLife Law program. Williams worked on the study with Still and is the author of "Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It."
"Part of that is because there were very few to begin with," she said. "On the other hand, it's amazing it's happening at all."
Have issues, questions, quandaries about your life at work? E-mail Amy Joyce at email@example.com. Join her at www.washingtonpost.com from 11 a.m. to noon every Tuesday to discuss your life at work.